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  • Writer's pictureJason Borges

Earthquakes in Antioch/Antakya

Updated: Feb 20

Five days ago a 7.8 earthquake leveled cities in Turkey’s southeast region. The city of Antakya (ancient Syrian Antioch) lies is ruins. New York Times has a sobering article about daily life in Antakya. The reporter interviewed survivors about their upended life four days after the earthquake. Sadly, the amazing city, one of my favorites in Turkey, seems uninhabitable. The infrastructure and community that made Antakya so vibrant have been decimated.

Undulating ancient mosaics below Museum Hotel in Antakya

The city of Antakya experienced terrible destruction, even though it was relatively far from the epicenter. The reason is because Antioch sits at the junction of three fault lines. So earthquakes have been an ongoing part of Antioch’s long history. Last year I visited the illustrious Museum Hotel, which is built over Roman-era mosaics and streets. The ruins are now undulated as a result of city’s earthquakes.

We have detailed accounts of two ancient earthquakes in the city. The historians paint a gruesome scene of the tragedies, which mirrors many of the same horrors people in Antakya are now facing now.

The Antioch Earthquake in 115

An estimated 7.5 earthquake in 115 AD destroyed ancient Antioch. The Roman historian Dio Cassius recounts the catastrophe with apocalyptic detail. Below is the full account.

(24 )While the emperor was tarrying in Antioch a terrible earthquake occurred; many cities suffered injury, but Antioch was the most unfortunate of all. Since Trajan was passing the winter there and many soldiers and many civilians had flocked thither from all sides in connection with law-suits, embassies, business or sightseeing, 2 there was no nation of people that went unscathed; and thus in Antioch the whole world under Roman sway suffered disaster. There had been many thunderstorms and portentous winds, but no one would ever have expected so many evils to result from them. First there came, on a sudden, a great bellowing roar, and this was followed by a tremendous quaking. The whole earth was upheaved, and buildings leaped into the air; some were carried aloft only to collapse and be broken in pieces, while others were tossed this way and that as if by the surge of the sea, and overturned, and the wreckage spread out over a great extent even of the open country. The crash of grinding and breaking timbers together with tiles and stones was most frightful; and an inconceivable amount of dust arose, so that it was impossible for one to see anything or to speak or hear a word. As for the people, many even who were outside the houses were hurt, being snatched up and tossed violently about and then dashed to the earth as if falling from a cliff; some were maimed and others were killed. Even trees in some cases leaped into the air, roots and all. The number of those who were trapped in the houses and perished was past finding out; for multitudes were killed by the very force of the falling débris, and great numbers were suffocated in the ruins. Those who lay with a part of their body buried under the stones or timbers suffered terribly, being able neither to live any longer nor to find an immediate death. (25) Nevertheless, many even of these were saved, as was to be expected in such a countless multitude; yet not all such escaped unscathed. Many lost legs or arms, some had their heads broken, and still others vomited blood; Pedo the consul was one of these, and he died at once. In a word, there was no kind of violent experience that those people did not undergo at that time. And as Heaven continued the earthquake for several days and nights, the people were in dire straits and helpless, some of them crushed and perishing under the weight of the buildings pressing upon them, and others dying of hunger, whenever it so chanced that they were left alive either in a clear space, the timbers being so inclined as to leave such a space, or in a vaulted colonnade. When at last the evil had subsided, someone who ventured to mount the ruins caught sight of a woman still alive. She was not alone, but had also an infant; and she had survived by feeding both herself and her child with her milk. They dug her out and resuscitated her together with her babe, p409 and after that they searched the other heaps, but were not able to find in them anyone still living save a child sucking at the breast of its mother, who was dead. As they drew forth the corpses they could no longer feel any pleasure even at their own escape. So great were the calamities that had overwhelmed Antioch at this time. Trajan made his way out through a window of the room in which he was staying. Some being, of greater than human stature, had come to him and led him forth, so that he escaped with only a few slight injuries; and as the shocks extended over several days, he lived out of doors in the hippodrome. Even Mt. Casius itself was so shaken that its peaks seemed to lean over and break off and to be falling upon the very city. Other hills also settled, and much water not previously in existence came to light, while many streams disappeared. (Roman History 68.24–25, trans. LCL)

This earthquake maybe related to an important event in early Christianity. The emperor Trajan was regularly based in Antioch of Syria after 111 to lead an eastern campaign against the Parthians. Such an unpropitious calamity while he was there would have destabilized his political authority and perhaps required some sacrifice for appeasement. As people who did not sacrifice to the Roman gods or venerate the emperors, Christians were often the scapegoats for major disasters (Pliny, Ep. 10.96–97; Tert., Apol. 40.2; Cyprian, Ep. 75; Jews faced similar recriminations in Jos., JW 7.37–62). Also, rather than punishing the entire group, Romans generally targeted community leaders. Around this time, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was arrested, condemned, and transported to Rome to die as a martyr. We cannot isolate the specific political situation behind his persecution in Antioch, but the earthquake and its political aftershocks is one plausible scenario.

The Antioch Earthquake in 526

Another famous earthquake disseminated the city in 526. As the Byzantine historian John Malalas recounts, the scene was eerily similar.

In the seventh year of [Justin I’s] reign, in the month of May [of 526 AD], Antioch the Great suffered its fifth calamity from the wrath of God, during the consulship of Olybrius. Great was the fear of God that occurred then, in that those caught in the earth beneath the buildings were incinerated and sparks of fire appeared out of the air and burned anyone they struck like lightning. The surface of the earth boiled and foundations of buildings were struck by thunderbolts thrown up by the earthquakes and were burned to ashes by fire, so that even those who fled were met by flames. It was a tremendous and incredible marvel with fire belching out rain, rain falling from tremendous furnaces, flame dissolving into showers, and showers kindling like flames consumed even those in the earth who were crying out. As a result Antioch became desolate, for nothing remained apart from some buildings beside the mountain. No holy chapel nor monastery nor any other holy place remained which had not been torn apart. Everything had been utterly destroyed. The great church of Antioch, which had been built by the emperor Constantine the Great, stood for seven days after this tremendous threat from God, when everything else had collapsed to the ground during the wrath of God. Then it too was overcome by fire and razed to the ground. Likewise other houses which had not collapsed through the divine calamity were destroyed to their foundations by fire. In this terror up to 250,000 people perished. (The Chronical of John Malalas, Book 17.16, trans. Jefferys/Scott)


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