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Antakya (Ancient Antioch) and the Turkey-Syria Border's Long History of Catastrophic Earthquakes

February of 2023 become an unexpected catastrophic month for millions living along the Turkey-Syrian border when two 7.5+ magnitude earthquakes struck the region, destroying thousands of buildings and killing tens of thousands. Antakya, the largest city in the region and cite of the ancient city of Antioch, saw widespread destruction. The city is unfortunately situated near the triple junction of three tectonic plates—the African, Arabian, and Anatolia plates—and their active fault systems. Ancient Antioch is not unfamiliar with the reoccurrence of massive earthquakes from these faults. The city has been completely destroyed several times in human history.

Part of the modern city of Antakya before its destruction by the earthquake of Feb. 2023

Antioch was a large important city in the Roman Empire. It is well known in the New Testament as the site of the first important organized church where believers were first called “Christians”. Founded by the Greeks centuries earlier, its population growth had brought it to around 500,000 souls in the first century AD, similar in size to the other major Romans cities of Alexandria and Ephesus. It was the center for trade in the East, as it sat on the beginning of the silk road that led into Persia and beyond. It had a sister harbor city at the mouth of the Orontes river, which provided for the easy movement of goods twelve miles upstream to Antioch. But in December of the year 115 AD a massive earthquake struck. The account of this earthquake was written down by the Roman historian, Cassius Dio. He wrote that Antioch at the time was crowded with many soldiers and civilians from all around the world, partly because Emperor Trajan himself was wintering there. The ground shaking was so intense that witnesses saw people and trees thrown into the air. Many thousands were killed by falling debris or trapped under buildings.

In Antakya, the church of St. Peter was built over the cave in Antioch where the Christian Apostles were thought to have hidden out and conducted services as early as 40 AD.

Aftershocks lasted for days and killed many more. Emperor Trajan apparently escaped his house by crawling through a small window. He and others with him moved to the open Hippodrome for safety. The epicenter of this quake was likely offshore because it caused a tsunami which is known to have severely damaged the port that King Herod had built at Caesarea to the south on the coast of Judea. Such a tidal wave would also have likely destroyed the harbor at the Orontes that supplied Antioch with its goods and staples. Many survivors were reported to die from starvation, as it had been very difficult to get supplies in. Casualties in the region were estimated at 250,000, with 100,000 deaths in Antioch. Trajan started a restoration project for the city soon afterward.

Another earthquake hit Antioch in 526 AD that was even more devastating. The Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire was in charge at the time. In addition to the massive shaking and destruction by the quake, fires began to spread afterward. Winds spread the fires and the entire remaining city was burned to the ground. The harbor at the sea had its bottom raised by nearly a meter during the quake. This caused increased sediment infilling from the river until the harbor became useless compared to its previous condition. The Emperor Justin worked to rebuild the city, as it was a key defense point for the Byzantine Empire against Eastern invaders. Despite their efforts, the Persians captured and ransacked the city twelve years later. In 1170 another earthquake struck just south of Antioch that was estimated to be 7.8 in magnitude, leading to widespread destruction in the city. In 1872 a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Antioch and generated a tsunami felt along nearby coasts. With an average of about five centuries between these catastrophic quakes, it’s hard to imagine people not simply rebuilding and hoping the next big one does not come in their lifetimes.

As the writer Will Durant penned once: "Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice." And: "To the geologic eye all the surface of the earth is a fluid form, and man moves upon it as insecurely as St. Peter walking on the waves to Christ."

Cry For Jerusalem is a series of historical fiction books covering the seven years leading up to the burning of Herod’s Temple and the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Author Ward Sanford gives this period of history new depth in Cry For Jerusalem and showcasing the works of eyewitness historian Flavius Josephus in a new way with this fictional yet fact-based dramatization.

In the CFJ blog section Ward covers subjects to do with the vast amount of research that went into the CFJ novel series, including Ancient Jerusalem, the Roman Empire, and Biblical topics and the writings of Josephus.

To learn more about the series and purchase click here or more about the history behind the series click here.

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