Earthquake culture in the Middle East


 FEB 24, 2023 – DAILY SABAH

Syrian artists, who met in the town of quake-ravaged Jindires, painted the suffering of the people on the wall of a destroyed building, Afrin, Syria, Feb. 22. 2023. (AA Photo)

Syrian artists, who met in the town of quake-ravaged Jindires, painted the suffering of the people on the wall of a destroyed building, Afrin, Syria, Feb. 22. 2023. (AA Photo)

The Middle East has a long history of originating civilizations, cultures and religions, but it must be acknowledged that its geography has a heightened likelihood of natural calamities

The Middle East region has experienced terrible earthquakes throughout history. The deadly impact of this occurrence was once again demonstrated on Feb. 6 by two massive earthquakes that shook southeastern Türkiye and northern Syria. Although the tendency is to disregard it, the region has seen earthquakes since ancient times, which helps to explain why rich cultural values and historic civilizations vanished.

One of history’s most devastating earthquakes was recorded to have struck Antioch in A.D. 115. Antioch was constructed on the Orontes River by Seleucus I Nicator, a general of Alexander the Great. The earthquake, estimated to have had a magnitude of 7.5, and the subsequent natural disasters are thought to have killed nearly half of Antioch’s inhabitants. Coincidentally, Roman Emperor Trajan and his successor Hadrian, who were wintering in the area with his army at the time of the earthquake, survived it.

Although exaggeratedly, the Great Antioch Earthquake’s effects are described in the chronicle of Roman historian Cassius Dio. Dio records that the earthquake that occurred in A.D. 115 (on Dec. 13) in Antioch – one of the most populated Roman cities in the area, claimed the lives of 260,000 people. He writes: “And for a few days and nights, as the earthquake continued, people were distressed and helpless, some crushed under buildings pressing on them. Others starved to death and vanished.”

The convergence and divergence of tectonic plates bring on destructive earthquakes. Since the area is situated at the confluence of three tectonic plates (Anatolian, Arabian and African), the region continues to experience tremors. The convergence of the three plates caused the area to experience an earthquake of magnitude 7 (according to recent estimations) nearly 400 years after the Great Antioch Earthquake. Byzantine records state that this earthquake claimed the lives of almost 250,000 individuals. In addition, Antioch was almost destroyed in the fire that started following the quake.

Massive earthquakes struck the area again in the years 1114 and 1138. The two quakes that struck the Anatolian city of Maraş and Aleppo in today’s Syria are thought to have killed almost 300,000 people. According to Byzantine historian Mateos from the Anatolian city of Urfa, the first earthquake killed everyone living in Maraş, and the town was completely buried under the dirt. The majority of Aleppo’s structures were destroyed by the 1138 earthquake, which was more devastating than the previous one and claimed the lives of about 200,000 locals.

The numbers provided in the chronicles are crucial for demonstrating the scope of the catastrophe, even though they are likely overstated. Earthquakes persisted after Ottoman sovereignty over the area. The earthquakes in 1544 and 1795 brought calamity again to the site. Historically, cities like Antioch, Maraş, Adıyaman and Antep were repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt.

The only fact that the region’s history demonstrates with certainty is that earthquakes are unavoidable and that the harm they do lasts a very long time. The structural characteristics that result in natural disasters, especially earthquakes, directly impact the lives of the local population, making geography the most significant factor in determining the cultures on Earth. One issue brought on by the growing population is the relocation of city centers from mountainous and high locations to wetlands with agricultural regions. Nature painfully informs man of the current situation when he stops adhering to the rules necessary for his way of existence.

An ancient region

The Middle East is an ancient region where civilizations, cultures and religions first emerged. However, throughout history, the region’s topography has increased the risk of natural disasters, including earthquakes and volcanic activity. Unsurprisingly, many of the catastrophes mentioned in religious texts occurred in the Near East. The events that put the region’s natural disaster history somewhere between legend and history include the enormous flood disaster known as Noah’s Flood, volcanic eruptions that ended the era of the pharaohs, and the great earthquake that destroyed the People of Lut (known as Lot in the Old Testament), which is thought to have been in Dead Sea (or the Lake of Lut).

This suggests that some of the scientific facts discovered today were known in different forms in the past. For example, the Ancient Persian Empire paid close attention to constructing earthquake-resistant structures in regions with active fault lines that it controlled. The Great Cyrus Tomb is the earliest earthquake-resistant structure ever built. Jesus is quoted in Matthew 7:24-28 as saying, “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock,” implying that we should build our lives on a solid foundation to withstand any disasters.

Our ancient customs and cultures, of which we are a part, provided valuable lessons for the present. However, as practical considerations have replaced this reality, we still have to deal with the destructive side of nature. Our production and consumption habits have irrevocably altered our way of life, and nature’s response is frequently harsh.

The Near East struggles with natural disasters while facing political issues today. But, at the very least, a correct understanding of ourselves and the society that shapes us can decrease the effects of future catastrophes and ease our pain.

I want to send my condolences to the families of our citizens who lost their lives in the earthquakes that occurred on Feb. 6, 2023. May God have mercy on them.


Ph.D. holder, researcher at Atatürk University’s International Relations Department


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