BOX 2.1 Ruins of the Ancient World

The collision of the African and Eurasian plates causes powerful earthquakes in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Some historical accounts document the damage from particular events. For example, a Crusader castle overlooking the Jordan River in present-day Syria was sheared by a fault that ruptured it at dawn on May 20, 1202.1 In most cases, however, such detailed records have been lost, so that the history of seismic destruction can be inferred only from archaeological evidence. Among the most convincing is the presence of crushed skeletons, which are not easily attributable to other natural disasters or war and have been found in the ruins of many Bronze Age cities, including Knossos, Troy, Mycenae, Thebes, Midea, Jericho, and Megiddo.

Recurring earthquakes may explain the repeated destruction of Troy, Jericho, and Megiddo, all built near major active faults. Excavation of the ancient city of Megiddo—Armageddon in the Biblical prophecy of the Apocalypse—reveals at least four episodes of massive destruction, as indicated by widespread debris, broken pottery, and crushed skeletons.2 Similarly, a series of devastating earthquakes could have destabilized highly centralized Bronze Age societies by damaging their centers of power and leaving them vulnerable to revolts and invasions.3 Historical accounts document such “conflicts of opportunity” in the aftermath of earthquakes in Jericho (~1300 B.C.), Sparta (464 B.C.), and Jerusalem (31 B.C.).


R. Ellenblum, S. Marco, A. Agnon, T. Rockwell, and A. Boas, Crusader castle torn apart by earthquake at dawn, 20 May 1202, Geology, 26, 303-306, 1998.


A. Nur and H. Ron, Armageddon’s earthquakes, Int. Geol. Rev., 39, 532-541, 1997.


A. Nur, The end of the Bronze Age by large earthquakes? in Natural Catastrophes During Bronze Age Civilisations, B.J. Peisner, T. Palmer, and M.E. Bailey, eds., British Archaeological Review International, Series 728, Oxford, pp. 140-147, 1998.

ity; for such affections of the elements are according to the course of nature, nor does it import anything further to men than what mischief it does immediately of itself.”

Several centuries before Herod’s speech, Greek philosophers had developed a variety of theories about natural origins of seismic tremors based on the motion of subterranean seas (Thales), the falling of huge blocks of rock in deep caverns (Anaximenes), and the action of internal fires (Anaxagoras). Aristotle in his Meteorologica (about 340 B.C.) linked earthquakes with atmospheric events, proposing that wind in underground caverns produced fires, much as thunderstorms produced lightning. The bursting of these fires through the surrounding rock, as well as the collapse of the caverns burned by the fires, generated the earthquakes. In support of this hypothesis, Aristotle cited his observation that earthquakes tended to occur in areas with caves. He also classified earthquakes according to whether the ground motions were primarily vertical or hori-

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