The world's first empire, known as Akkad, was founded some 4,300 years ago, between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. The empire was ruled from a city—also known as Akkad—that is believed to have lain just south of modern-day Baghdad, and its influence extended north into what is now Syria, west into Anatolia, and east into Iran. The Akkadians were well organized and well armed and, as a result, also wealthy: Texts from the time testify to the riches, from rare woods to precious metals, that poured into the capital from faraway lands.
Then, about a century after it was founded, the Akkad empire suddenly collapsed. During one three-year period four men in succession briefly claimed to be emperor. "Who was king? Who was not king?" a register known as the Sumerian King List asks.
For many years, scholars blamed the empire's fall on politics. But about a decade ago, climate scientists examining records from lake bottoms and the ocean floor discovered that right around the time that the empire disintegrated, rainfall in the region dropped dramatically. It is now believed that Akkad's collapse was caused by a devastating drought. Other civilizations whose demise has recently been linked to shifts in rainfall include the Old Kingdom of Egypt, which fell right around the same time as Akkad; the Tiwanacu civilization, which thrived near Lake Titicaca, in the Andes, for more than a millennium before its fields were abandoned around A.D. 1100; and the Classic Maya civilization, which collapsed at the height of its development, around A.D. 800.