Ammianus Marcellinus on the tsunami of 365 CE

This is the famous section from the 28. book of the “Res Gestae”, the history written by Roman historian Ammianus who lived from around 330 – 400 CE. It describes the earthquake and tsunami of July 21. 365 CE which shook the whole Mediterranean. The scene described by Ammianus is most likely set at the coast of Sicily. As the author mentions, areas as far as the Egyptian shore were affected by tsunamis resulting from the earthquake which had its epicenter near Crete. The city of Alexandria was heavily destroyed and the event was publicly remembered in the city for at least a hundred years as the “Day of Fear”. As Egyptian researcher Yasmine Hussein explained to me, it takes less than 40 minutes for a tsunami from Crete to arrive in Alexandria.

“For a little after daybreak, preceded by heavy and repeated thunder and lightning, the whole of the firm and solid earth was shaken and trembled, the sea with its rolling waves was driven back and withdrew from the land, so that in the abyss of the deep thus revealed men saw many kinds of sea-creatures stuck fast in the slime; and vast mountains and deep valleys, which Nature, the creator, had hidden in the unplumbed depths, then, as one might well believe, first saw the beams of the sun.

Hence, many ships were stranded as if on dry land, and since many men roamed about without fear in the little that remained of the waters, to gather fish and similar things, with their hands, the roaring sea, resenting, as it were, this forced retreat, rose in its turn; and over the boiling shoals it dashed mightily upon islands and broad stretches of the mainland, and levelled innumerable buildings in the cities and where else they were found; so that amid the mad discord of the elements the altered face of the earth revealed marvellous sights.

For the great mass of waters, returning when it was least expected, killed many thousands of men by drowning; and by the swift recoil of the eddying tides a number of ships, after the swelling of the wet element subsided, were seen to have foundered, and lifeless bodies of shipwrecked persons lay floating on their backs or on their faces. Other great ships, driven by the mad blasts, landed on the tops of buildings (as happened at Alexandria), and some were driven almost two miles inland, like a Laconian ship which I myself in passing that way saw near the town of Mothone, yawning, apart through long decay.”

Original online source.

Thanks to Holger Sonnabend for the lead!

Heracles, the first hydraulic engineer

According to historian Terje Tvedt the Greek god and hero Heracles derived from a much older Egyptian hero of similar name. The now submerged city Heracleion off the coast of the Nile delta was named after the god and Heracles plays a central role in the ancient literature of the region. The historian Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in the 1st. Century BCE, recounts Heracles’ story in detail. Among the many feats he describes, several are connected to hydrology. The most famous one is of course from the Twelve Labors of Heracles. Here is the original passage from Diodorus’ History:

“He received a Command from Eurystheus to cleanse the stables of Augeas, and to do this without the assistance of any other man. These stables contained an enormous mass of dung which had accumulated over a great period, and it was a spirit of insult which induced Eurystheus to lay upon him the command to clean out this dung. Heracles declined as unworthy of him to carry this out upon his shoulders, in order to avoid the disgrace which would follow upon the insulting command; and so, turning the course of the Alpheius river, as it is called, into the stables and cleansing them by means of the stream, he accomplished Labour in a single day, and without suffering any insult.”

Hercules the engineer as seen by Francisco de Zuraban

The story is reminiscent of the way ancient Egyptian society used the annual floods of the river Nile to fertilize but also clean the farm land along the river banks.

Here are two other hydraulic engineering feats:

“When Heracles arrived at the farthest points of the continents of Libya and Europe which lie upon the ocean, he decided to set up these pillars to commemorate his campaign. And since he wished to leave upon the ocean a monument which would be had in everlasting remembrance, he built out both the promontories, they say, to a great distance; consequently, whereas before that time a great space had stood between them, he now narrowed the passage, in order that by making it shallow and narrow​ he might prevent the great sea-monsters from passing out of the ocean into the inner sea, and that at the same time the fame of their builder might be held in everlasting remembrance by reason of the magnitude of the structures. Some authorities, however, say just the opposite, namely, that the two continents were originally joined and that he cut a passage between them, and that by opening the passage he brought it about that the ocean was mingled with our sea. On this question, however, it will be possible for every man to think as he may please.”

“A thing very much like this he had already done in Greece. For instance, in the region which is called Tempê, where the country is like a plain and was largely covered with marshes, he cut a channel through the territory which bordered on it, and carrying off through this ditch all the water of the marsh he caused the plains to appear which are now in Thessaly along the Peneius river. But in Boeotia he did just the opposite and damming the stream which flowed near the Minyan city of Orchomenus he turned the country into a lake and caused the ruin of that whole region. But what he did in Thessaly was to confer a benefit upon the Greeks, whereas in Boeotia he was exacting punishment from those who dwelt in Minyan territory, because they had enslaved the Thebans.”

Full text in english translation

Alexandria III

The God Abandons Antony

by C.P. Cafavy

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Reprinted from C. P. CAVAFY: Collected Poems Revised Edition, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savvidis. Translation copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Princeton University Press. For reuse of these translations, please contact Princeton University Press.

Alexandria II

This is the introduction to “Pharos and Pharillon” a book by British writer and literary critic E.M. Forster about Alexandria. The book was published in 1923. Forster was stationed in Alexandria during his service in the British military and wrote two books about the port city.

“Before there was civilization in Egypt, or the delta of the Nile had been formed, the whole country as far south as modern Cairo lay under the sea. The shores of this sea were a limestone desert. The coast line was smooth usually, but at the north-west corner a remarkable spur jutted out from the main mass. It was less than a mile wide, but thirty miles long. Its base is not far from Bahig, Alexandria is built half-way down it, its tip is the headland of Aboukir. On either side of it there was once deep salt water.

Centuries passed, and the Nile, issuing out of its crack above Cairo, kept carrying down the muds of Upper Egypt and dropping them as soon as its current slackened. In the north-west corner they were arrested by this spur and began to silt up against it. It was a shelter not only from the outer sea, but from the prevalent wind. Alluvial land appeared; the large shallow lake of Mariout was formed; and the current of the
Nile, unable to escape through the limestone barrier, rounded the headland of Aboukir and entered the outer sea by what was known in historical times as the “Canopic” mouth.

To the north of the spur and more or less parallel to it runs a second range of limestone. It is much shorter, also much lower, lying mainly below the surface of the sea in the form of reefs, but without it there would have been no harbours (and consequently no Alexandria), because it breaks the force of the waves. Starting at Agame, it continues as a series of rocks across the entrance of the modern harbour. Then it
re-emerges to form the promontory of Ras el Tin, disappears into a second series of rocks that close the entrance of the Eastern Harbour, and makes its final appearance as the promontory of Silsileh, after which it rejoins the big spur.

Such is the scene where the following actions and editations take place; that limestone ridge, with alluvial country on one side of it and harbours on the other, jutting from the desert, pointing towards the Nile; a scene unique in Egypt, nor have the Alexandrians ever been truly Egyptian. Here Africans, Greeks and Jews combined to make a city; here a thousand years later the Arabs set faintly but durably the impress of
the Orient; here after secular decay rose another city, still visible, where I worked or appeared to work during a recent war. Pharos, the vast and heroic lighthouse that dominated the first city—under Pharos I have grouped a few antique events; to modern events and to personal impressions I have given the name of Pharillon, the obscure successor of Pharos, which clung for a time to the low rock of Silsileh and then slid unobserved into the Mediterranean.”

full book here.

Bionic housing solutions in comics: Aquarica

In a comic book by French authors Benoit Sokal and Francois Schuiten from 2022, an ancient maritime myth is picked up in a comic format. The story is about a small community of refugees who once settled on the back of a giant whale floating in the ocean. The animal is so vast, that it’s back appears like an atoll or a small island. Vegetation grows and various animals have settled, attracted by the mild climate created by the warmth of the animal’s body. After seventy years however there are conspicuous signs that the whale is starting on her journey towards the North Pole, endangering the survival of the small society that has made her back it’s home.

Essentially, the environment for this community is similar to many coastal and island communities: The living conditions are rather comfortable but there is a constant danger of drowning. Whenever the whale moves or sinks, the sea becomes agitated and rises threatening the human settlements.

The authors have come up with a clever piece of bionics as adaptation measure for this condition. The community lives in giant crab-like houses (or rather house-like crabs). These housings have long legs to elevate and hatch like roofs that can close and seal the interior against water in case of inundation. Some of these giant crabs apparently can also swim and cover large distances individually. Here are some sketches from my edition of the book:

This design is not so unlike the houses on stilts that were once common in Bangkok and can now be found again in places like Makoko in Lagos or Apung Teko in Jakarta. Of course these moving and amphibious crabs are much more sophisticated. To inhabit and navigate the crabs, humans had to develop into a symbiotic existence with them. The whole lifestyle of this small community is highly symbiotic and so far adapted to it’s host/surrounding, eventually making it impossible for them to leave. That certainly is the tragedy of this little floating eco-topia.

The two volume book is a wild mixture of maritime folklore, pop-culture references (Moby Dick, obviously), romantic fairy tale and eco-fantasy. Too crude and stagy for my personal taste, but nevertheless interesting as a twist on an old maritime myth – for reference see my post on whales as islands here – seen under today’s light of climate adaptation imperative.

Man appears in the Holocene

In my search for books that could be considered “climate literature” or “climate change narratives” I recently came across a volume by Swiss writer Max Frisch, entitled “Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän” (english edition titled “Man in the Holocene“). Frisch wrote the short novel in the 1970s and it saw several editions and reworkings until it was eventually published in it’s final version in 1978.

So this is way before the general climate change discourse got under way. For comparison: In 1971 Germany passed the first environmental protection law in the history of the country and in 1974 established a National Environmental Protection Agency, the first of it’s kind in Europe. People in the 1970s spoke about nature and weather, but not about climate. Even more interestingly, Max Frisch in 1974 intended to name the short novel “Climate”.

The final title which translates literally as “man appears in the Holocene” I find even more astonishing, as it seems to anticipate the now popular concept of a man-made geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Geologically speaking, man did not arrive in the Holocene but in the Pleistocene. By referring to the Holocene instead, the era of the present, Frisch cleverly plays with temporality: What appears like one of many quotes the protagonist of the story clips from his science books, can also be read as a description of an occurrence in the present: The protagonist appearing in his environment, in his epoch.

Here’s a short passage from the original German text:

— die Alpen sind durch Faltung entstanden.

— die Ameisen leben in einem Staat.

— das Gewölbe haben die Römer erfunden.

— wenn das Eis der Arktis schmilzt, so ist New York unter Wasser, desgleichen Europa, ausgenommen die Alpen.

— viele Kastanien haben den Krebs.

— Katastrophen kennt allein der Mensch, sofern er sie überlebt; die Natur kennt keine Katastrophen.

— der Mensch erscheint im Holozän.

What makes this short novel remarkable is not only Frisch’s political foresight, but rather how the author reflects on man’s place in the environment and how he connects scientific knowledge and the lived experience of the individual in a moment of – assumed or real – natural catastrophe. As the protagonist remarks above: “Man alone knows disasters – if he survives them. Nature knows no disasters.”

All of today’s skepticism towards the language and role of science is here, the profound uncertainty and ambivalence about the relationship between oneself and nature, the sense of existential loss, what we now call eco-anxiety, or “solastalgia” (Glenn Albrecht), and the all too real threat of extreme weather events. And yet it is all within a very simple story about an aged and lonely human being, a very humane and humble story.

I think it is not coincidence that this early environmentalist literature is from Switzerland and is set in the Swiss Alps. For centuries, Switzerland was among the poorest countries with the most hostile living conditions in all of Europe. Life in the valleys of Ticino was hard and there was constant threat of natural disasters and extreme weather events like rockslides, extreme cold or droughts. (for example see my post here) People in this region had to live – and still often do – in close connection with nature and develop intimate understanding of the forces around them. Frisch’s text can also be read as an account of this intimate and fragile relationship between the collective, the individual and the environment in the moment of it’s disintegration and collapse.

To me this is a beautiful example of how literature attempts to address issues of global and existential political magnitude in a human-sized and emotionally accessible and moving format. One of the most beautiful “climate narratives” I came across and I highly recommend reading it.

Note: Amitav Ghosh of course knew Max Frisch’s short novel when he wrote his famous non-fiction book “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable”. He does reference Frisch, but does not quote his text. For obvious reason: In the following passage towards the beginning of the book Max Frisch pretty much formulated Goshs whole thesis 50 years prior:

“Romane eignen sich in diesen Tagen überhaupt nicht, da geht es um Menschen in ihrem Verhältnis zu sich und zu andern, um Väter und Mütter und Töchter beziehungsweise Söhne und Geliebte usw., um Seelen, hauptsächlich unglückliche, und um Gesellschaft usw., als sei das Gelände dafür gesichert, die Erde ein für allemal Erde, die Höhe des Meeresspiegels geregelt ein für allemal.”

My translation: Novels are not suitable at all these days; they are about people in their relationship to themselves and others, about fathers and mothers and daughters or sons and lovers, etc., about souls, mainly unhappy ones, and about society, etc., as if it were the terrain secured for it, the earth once and for all, the height of the sea level regulated once and for all.

Rear View

An image from the movie “The Wave” from 2015.

In “Being EcologicalTim Morton wonders about the prevalent mode of climate writing, which he calls “information dump”, “dumping massive platefuls of facts on to us” over and over again. Morton wonders, why we do that and finds the following analogy:

“Imagine that we are dreaming. What kind of dream would it be where the characters and plot vary, sometimes significantly, but the overall impact—where the dream leaves us, its basic color or tone or point of view (or what have you) —remains the same? There is definitely an analogy from the world of dreaming: these are the trauma dreams of sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” According to Sigmund Freud, Morton writes, “the PTSD sufferer is simply trying to install herself, through her dreams, at a point in time before the trauma happened. Why? Because there is some safety or security in being able to anticipate. Anticipatory fear is far less intense than the fear you experience when finding yourself, all of a sudden, in the middle of a trauma. If you think about it, traumas by definition are things that you find yourself in the middle of—you can’t sneak up on them from the side or from behind, and that’s why they’re traumatic. You just suddenly find yourself in a car crash, for instance. If you had been able to anticipate, you might have been able to swerve out of the way.”
“By analogy, then,” Morton concludes, “information dump mode is a way for us to try to install ourselves at a fictional point in time before global warming happened. We are trying to anticipate something inside which we already find ourselves.”

“Let Venice sink.”

In a 1971 special edition of Architectural Review devoted to the lagoon city author Jan Morris proposes to simply let the city sink. It’s a polemical claim, but one that takes the ambivalences and dilemmata of historic heritage seriously. A different, longer version of the text was printed in the New York Times on July 20, 1975. It is a wonderful piece of polemic and speculative journalism on the city that, according to the words of Jan Morris, “for a thousand years has occupied a unique position in the imagination, the affection and the distaste of all the nations.”
Both version of the text are online here (1971) and here (1975). And in 2023 Catherine Bennett wrote a nice piece for Wired magazine to review Jan Morris original position, which is also online.

Cover from the 1971 special edition of Architectural Review.

The Year without a Summer

The 19. Century was not only the century of industrialization, the spark that “set human civilization aflame” (Andri Snaer Magnason). Between 1800 and 1815 half a dozen large volcanic eruptions all across the globe significantly changed the climate in China as well as all across Europe and practically all continents. What followed was “the year without a summer” 1816 which did not only bring massive crop failures as well as floods and resulting famines and other hardships to societies worldwide, it also influenced European culture so profoundly that a whole new era of the arts and philosophy developed that had a lasting impact on all of modern society: Romanticism. 1816 is not such a distant past and the paintings, poems, novels and scientific treaties of that era by Caspar David Friedrich, Lord Byron or Mary Shelley remain central to our cultural canon and identity today. In fact, all these climate change stories and images have been right in front of our eyes, in museums, libraries, on t-shirts and advertisements all along. To understand better what’s ahead of us now, we should seek advise from ourselves just seven generations back.

This is an image of the first page of Lod Byron’s famous poem “Darkness” from summer 1816. The full text of the poem and more information about the impacts of “The Year without a Summer” can be found online.

The amphibious communities of Bangkok

Three texts, three authors, three different contexts – all describing the amphibious but perilous life style of the inhabitants of Bangkok, the capital of Thailand:

In her essay from 2018 on contemporary flood protection in several metropolises across Asia, researcher Lizzie Yarina writes:

In decades past (and still today in some rural parts of the country) Thai people lived in “amphibious communities”; for example, in “raft houses” which float upwards on stilts during floods, or in villages built on two levels where upper walkways and living quarters can be used during the rainy season. But those adaptive patterns are disappearing, even as climate risk grows.

In a more visual, literary tone is the following passage. In the 2023 novel “Bangkok wakes to rain” by Thai author Pitchaya Sudbanthad, a British missionary in 19. Century Bangkok writes in a letter home:

The Siamese as a race thrive in the aquatic realm. They live as if they have been born sea nymphs that only recently joined the race of man. He goes on to describe the capital Bangkok: An hour beyond lies the capital, its riverside lined with rickety stilt houses that look incapable of withstanding even the most delicate wake of a modern steamer yet somehow maintain a mysterious integrity. Their occupants drink, , swim, wash away their filth, and fill pots to make soupy meals of their catches, everyone joined in the confluence of fluids.

And in the debut novel by US-American sci-fi author Paolo Bacigalupi “The Windup Girl” from 2009, the scene is set in a future Bangkok:

Just beyond, the dike and lock system of the King Rama XII’s seawall looms, holding back the weight of the blue ocean.
It’s difficult not to always be aware of those high walls and the pressure of the water beyond. Difficult to think of the City of Divine Beings as anything other than a disaster waiting to happen. But the Thais are stubborn and have fought to keep their revered city of Krung Thep from drowning. With coal-burning pumps and leveed labor and a deep faith in the visionary leadership of their Chakri Dynasty, they have so far kept at bay that thing which has swallowed New York and Rangoon, Mumbai and New Orleans.

For further reading on Thailand and living with water see the interview with architect Sumet Jumsai.