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Volume 22, Number 3May/June 1971

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Written by Elias Antar

It was a brilliant summer day in August 1968. The sun blazed down from a cloudless azure sky onto the Iranian farming town of Kakhk, some 500 miles east of Teheran. A cooling breeze rustled the corn stalks in the fields around the town and, farther out, whipped up little dust clouds from the biscuit-colored desert. Wisps of grey smoke rose from practically every mud-brick house as women prepared the midday meal for their husbands and children. The dome of the mosque dominating the town, decorated with blue, green and gold mosaic designs and inscriptions, glittered like a jewel. The townspeople were proud of their mosque, for the dome could be clearly seen from miles away, when the town itself was but a brown blur in the heat haze.

Shortly before noon, most of the men working the fields began to head toward the mosque, anticipating the muezzin's call to prayer. Some, behind in their work, spread out their coats on the brown earth as prayer mats and recited their prayers alone. After prayers, those who went to the mosque hurried home for a quick meal and a brief rest before returning to the fields.

Hussein Hedayat, a farmer, tarried more than usual over lunch. A few minutes after 2 p.m. he left his house and walked down the dusty street to the fields.

At 2:17 p.m., his world collapsed around him.

"The buildings around me began falling," Hedayat later recalled. "I grabbed a tree and hung on. When the dust settled and I could see again, my house was gone. My wife and daughters were dead."

So were 5,000 townspeople out of a population of 7,000. In four awful minutes on Saturday, August 31, a massive earthquake literally wiped Kakhk off the map.

The people of Kakhk were not the only victims. Together with equally violent aftershocks over the next day, the quake killed a total of 11,600 people in Iran's remote Khorasan province, devastated 14 villages, partly demolished 16 more and left 100,000 homeless over an area of 750 square miles.

But Kakhk, the epicenter, was the worst hit. Out of 1,300 buildings only three were left standing. One was the mosque, its shimmering dome, beckoning from afar, now a great tombstone for the bereaved community.

In retrospect, as one rescue worker put it, Kakhk "didn't have a chance." The mud-brick houses and their sand foundations formed the worst possible structural combination to resist earthquakes. Most of the victims died in the ruins of their homes, smothered within minutes under collapsed ceilings and walls, or crushed in seconds under tons of brick. Three hundred who were injured in the first shock were taken to a hospital in another town—only to die in an aftershock the next day.

More than three days after that black Saturday, many survivors were still sitting in the streets or under trees, staring uncomprehendingly at the wreckage of their homes. One elderly farmer, his forehead swathed in bandages and his grizzled beard matted with dust, kept calling to his three-year-old son, who died in the first shock wave. "Jaafar, Jaafar, where are you? I used to play with you every day. Why has this happened?" Ibrahim, the town barber, sat on the heap of rubble that had been his home, demented with grief but crying without tears. His wife and four of his five children were entombed somewhere below. A young girl in a red dress, its white polka dots streaked with blood, pulled clear a golden samovar from her home—the only thing that remained intact. A weeping mother, whose own children had all died, clutched a tiny girl to her breast and tried to comfort her two sisters. Their parents and the rest of their family had died.

There were a couple of near-miracles in Kakhk. A three-year-old boy and his grandmother were pulled unharmed from under the shelter of a fallen archway. She had kept him busy for almost two days by reading passages from the Koran. Nine days after the quake, a six-year-old boy was rescued from the ruins unconscious but alive. They were the exceptions, however. By the fourth day after the quake struck, only about 1,000 bodies had been recovered. The thousands of dead remaining under the ruins had begun to decompose in the heat; rescuers trying to pull them out were dismembering the corpses. To avoid the outbreak of disease, authorities reluctantly decided to bulldoze the town flat, victims, houses and all. Kakhk was no more.

For the Middle East the tragedy of Kakhk was by no means unique. Earthquakes in this region have been a curse for centuries. The ancients thought they were the wrath of the gods and some cultures worshipped earthquake deities that had to be appeased to avoid destruction. The Roman emperor Justinian prohibited under penalty of death certain kinds of sexual offences, blasphemy and the practice of swearing by the hair of one's head, on the grounds that such practices notoriously provoked thunderbolts and earthquakes.

Scientific knowledge nowadays has generally swept aside the cobwebs of superstition as far as earthquakes are concerned. But scientists still cannot predict when, where and with what force an earthquake will strike, nor do they know what causes one. Based on historical data and the readings of modern instruments, it has been established that there are regions in the world where earthquakes have occurred with the most frequency in the past and where they are likely to occur again. These areas, known as "earthquake belts," run under the land and the oceans. A belt known as the "mid-ocean ridge" meanders from northern Russia over the Pole, down the center of the Atlantic, around Africa, across the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, and along the western coast of North America. On land, the areas on the rim of the Pacific Ocean are very seismic, and another belt, called the "Trans-Alpine" stretches from the Azores, across northern Algeria, through southern Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece, across most of Turkey and Iran, and on beyond the Himalayas down into Burma. About 17 per cent of all the world's quakes occur in the Trans-Alpine belt; Kakhk was right in the middle of it.

There are several theories about how an earthquake happens, as distinct from what makes it happen. The most generally accepted one was formulated by scientist Harry Reid after the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Briefly, the theory says that earthquakes usually occur where there are cracks or faults in the earth's crust. Two vast land masses meet at these faults. For reasons unknown, stresses develop in these masses, but they are held immobile in relation to each other by the friction along the face of the crack. The stresses become progressively stronger with time, and tend to move the separate masses in opposite directions against the force of friction holding them immobile. At a certain moment, the stresses overcome the restraining forces of friction, and the two blocks suddenly shift, sending immense vibrations through the earth and up to the surface. It is these vibrations that move the ground in what we call an "earthquake."

What has eluded science, however, is the ability to forecast even approximately when and where the phenomenon will manifest itself within the earthquake belts. G.A. Eiby, geophysicist at the Seismological Observatory in Wellington, New Zealand, describes the present state of earthquake prediction thus: "Where there have been earthquakes in the past, there will almost certainly be earthquakes again. All that one can do in the way of prediction is forecast a pattern over a period of about 100 years or so." If ever earthquake prediction became scientifically possible, he adds, "It would be necessary to have a very accurate idea of the position, the time and the intensity of a coming shock before evacuation or some similar precaution would be feasible. But so far, there is little hope of prediction and none of running away."

Although the science of seismology is young—the first satisfactory recordings of ground movement were made only some 75 years ago—instruments called seismographs have been developed from which scientists have deduced, along with the position, time and magnitude of an earthquake, that earthquakes generally are divided into shallow and deep, the deepest ever recorded being about 450 miles below the surface; that the point within the bowels of the earth where the shock originates is known as "the focus" or "hypocenter;" that the corresponding spot on the earth's surface is known as the "epicenter."

Scientists have also devised two scales for measuring quakes. One, commonly known as the Mercalli scale, describes 12 categories of effects a person may feel during an earthquake, ranging from a slight thump, to the ringing of church bells in vibrating belfrys, to massive upheavals of the ground and widespread destruction of buildings. Since it is based on the observations of persons who may be near or far from the center of an earthquake, the scale is not scientifically reliable. A better scale, from this point of view, is called the Richter scale, which measures the magnitude of a quake as opposed to the felt intensity. The difference is that a shock can have as many intensities as there are observers, but it can have only one magnitude. The strongest shock recorded since the introduction of seismic instruments had a magnitude on the Richter scale of 8¾—producing more energy than the Hiroshima bomb (magnitude 6), but less than a 300 megaton bomb (magnitude 9).

Earthquakes are really quite common. The earth's crust is shivering all the time in a series of minute motions called "microseisms" and every year there are about 500,000 quakes over the globe. About 100,000 can be felt under certain conditions and half that number can be distinctly observed without instruments. About 100 quakes are really strong and there are an average of two gargantuan quakes every year.

The casualties caused by earthquakes, however, are often disproportionate to their magnitude, as can be seen from the example of the 1964 earthquake in Alaska. Although it registered a whopping 8.4 magnitude, only about 100 were killed because Alaska is so sparsely populated. Topography is also a factor in the casualty rate. A weak shock hitting a mountainous area may of itself cause little damage, but can trigger landslides that sweep down on towns and villages, killing thousands, as in the Peruvian quake of May 1970 in which 50,000 died. A quake on the ocean floor can cause a "tsunami," or giant sea wave that sweeps in from hundreds of miles away and causes massive death and destruction on coastal areas. The Alaskan shock produced a wave that raced at 500 miles an hour towards California, Oregon and Japan.

In terms of lives lost, one of the most destructive earthquakes since the beginning of recorded history was a killer that hit China in the 16th century, causing an estimated 830,000 deaths. India suffered a bad one in 1737 in which about 300,000 people were killed. Improvements in construction methods have steadily cut down the toll over the centuries; the San Francisco quake caused 700 deaths but started a fire which did about 400 million dollars worth of damage. N.N. Ambraseys, of the Imperial College of Science, London, estimates that about 800,000 people have been killed by earthquakes all over the world in the period 1900-1968, with the average number killed every year now reaching some 14,000 people. Property loss over this period has been estimated at about 10 billion dollars. Underdeveloped areas with poor housing tend to suffer the most in lives lost but the least in property loss. In this period, Iran suffered 34,000 dead and about 72 million dollars in property loss; the figures for Turkey are 40,000 and 192 million dollars. By comparison, only 1,000 people died in the U.S., but the property loss was almost one billion dollars.

In the Middle East, Turkey and Iran are the most quake-prone countries, but over the centuries, most of the famous cities of the Middle East have been badly damaged by earthquakes. Antioch, for example, is probably the most quake-cursed city there ever was.

In the year A.D. 115 Antioch, now a sleepy market town in southern Turkey, was playing host to the Emperor Trajan when, on the morning of December 13 a quake struck. The shocks continued for several days and nights. In the words of one chronicler, "Trees leaped into the air with their roots, and people were tossed violently about and then dashed to the ground. Buildings were thrown up and destroyed." The Christians in the city were accused by the pagans of having caused the quake, and the bishop, Ignatius, was arrested and sent to Rome, where he was fed to the wild beasts.

Nature struck again in 458, when a disastrous quake leveled the city wrecked half the imperial palace and ignited a disastrous fire. This time the Christians were respected and the bishop, Acacius, one historian recounts, "rendered noble service in rescuing and caring for survivors." The wretched survivors, fearing aftershocks, made a 51-day pilgrimage to the local saint, the famous Simeon Stylites. The imperial government, in the manner of governments today, granted relief from taxation and undertook to rebuild all public edifices. But more was in store for Antioch.

In 526, the city was demolished for the third time in a quake which killed 250,000 people. The devastation was so great that in Constantinople the Emperor Justin I went into mourning and sent his top trouble-shooter, an army general, to help rebuild Antioch. About 2,000 pounds of gold were spent on reconstruction in the first few months after the quake.

Two years later, Antioch was flattened for the fourth time. About 5,000 people died, and the frenzied survivors tried to change their luck by renaming the city "Theoupolis—the city of God." It didn't work. In 588, a mammoth series of shocks killed 60,000, and in 1183 a tremor in Antioch and northern Syria killed 20,000. In 1872, 1,800 inhabitants of the city died in a quake which was felt as far away as Beirut and Damascus.

Jerusalem, too, has had its share of natural disaster. According to available records, it was hit by at least 84 earthquakes of damaging intensity between 64 BC and 1951. At one time or another, the Jewish temple walls, the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the city walls themselves suffered extensive damage. Elsewhere in Palestine, the town of Jerash was ruined in AD 746, Nablus suffered 30,000 dead in 1201, with only the Samaritan quarter escaping damage, and 5,000 people died at Safad in 1837 in a very strong quake.

Lebanon has been repeatedly lashed by earthquakes. Father Jacques Plassard, director of the Ksara Observatory in Lebanon, has catalogued what he calls a period of "veritable seismic crisis" between the years 306 and 551. Earthquakes and giant waves wrecked Tyre, Tripoli and Sidon in this period, and severely damaged Beirut several times. One quake which shook Beirut caught a group of thieves robbing a church known as "The Second Martyrium." Petrified with fear that the roof would collapse on top of them, the robbers ran out, waking the poor who habitually slept inside. They were chased and reviled throughout the city, and when it was later disclosed that the plunderers were students from the famous Beirut Law School, the gods apparently were listening: on July 9, 551, an extremely strong quake, with its epicenter offshore from Byblos, hit Beirut, flattening the law school and killing some 30,000 people, including a large number of law students. Attempts to reconstitute the school failed.

During that quake, a great tsunami hit the coast; the sea receded for two miles, stranding ships in the shallows, and then came surging back, killing people who had taken refuge on the shore. After the tsunami there was a fire so terrible "it turned stones into chalk" and lasted on and off for six months. Justinian, that generous ruler, once again dipped into the state treasury to finance the rebuilding of Beirut, but according to the chroniclers, it never regained its former splendour and eminence.

Earthquakes also took their toll in Baalbek, damaging the town and the famous Roman ruins more than once. One shock in the year 749 dried up the cool spring east of the town for some time. In 1170, an earthquake hit the region and partly destroyed the citadel and the walls of Baalbek. According to archeologists, however, much of the damage to the Roman temples was caused by man, not nature. The Arab conquerors of the seventh and eighth centuries brought down many of the columns in order to get at the lead plugs which held the various segments together.

The towns of northern Syria have also suffered from earthquakes, Aleppo and Hama in particular. This last city was totally destroyed in 1157 in a quake which claimed 40,000 lives in the region. Destruction was so total in Hama that after the collapse of a school in which everyone died, not one parent came to ask for his child—much the same as happened in Kakhk in 1968. Aleppo was rocked by a devastating tremor which killed 22,000 people in 1822. An incident in an earlier quake, in the 12th century, serves to show very clearly just how narrow and precarious is the dividing line between life and death. Near the small town of Al Raqqa to the east of Aleppo, 40 workers were trudging home from the fields one evening. One of them went to the side of the road to answer a call of nature. Looking over his shoulder at his companions, he suddenly saw the ground open wide and swallow them all as the earth shook and rumbled. Then the chasm closed again, and the lone survivor was left gaping at an empty road where his friends had been walking only moments earlier.

Elias Antar, an Associated Press correspondent in the Middle East, contributes frequently to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 24-31 of the May/June 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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