A Brief History of the Most Devastating Earthquakes - Part 1

Interviewer: Aco Momcilović, psychologist, EMBA, Owner of FutureHR

Interview with Mirko Sardelić, PhD, Research Associate at the Department of Historical Studies HAZU, Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800) at The University of Western Australia; formerly a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Paris (Sorbonne), Columbia, and Harvard.

In the aftermath of the Zagreb 2020 earthquake, many questions have arisen, and to answer some of them I again turned to history experts. It seems that earthquakes claimed millions of lives only in the last 100 years, and surprisingly unlike in many other areas, improvements in technology “have only slightly reduced the death toll”. They are dispersed around the world in the critical areas, and they did force us to build in a smarter way. In the past we attributed their causes to many different things, and today we have much clearer scientific information about their origins, yet, it seems they still make us feel helpless. How did our ancestors deal with all those questions? Hopefully we will get some answers in my interview with Mirko Sardelić.

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1. What were the strongest earthquakes in the Balkan region that history can remember?

When it comes to earthquakes, the most powerful ones, higher than 7 (even 8) of magnitude, were recorded in Greece, especially Crete. Greece also has the highest number of strong earthquakes in our region. It is enough to mention the Thera (the island of Santorini) earthquake of 1500 BC and eruption that changed the history of Minoan civilisation. When compared to other world regions, it can be said that the Greek quakes are quite moderate in terms of human casualties, numbering hundreds, rarely thousands. In relatively recent history, when it comes to changing the way earthquakes were perceived in former Yugoslavia, the milestone was the Skopje earthquake (6.1 of magnitude, causing more than 1000 deaths) from the summer of 1963. It has lifted the construction standards in the region significantly. Quite destructive was the Montenegro earthquake of 1979 (over 7 in magnitude) which left its mark on the architecture of Montenegro, Albania and South Croatia.

It needs to be mentioned here that in our vicinity Italy has the most horrifying history of earthquakes. The most devastating one was the 1908 Messina earthquake that killed almost 100.000 people, razing the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria. In the Richter scale it was 7.1 in magnitude, however, on the Mercalli intensity scale, it was the level XI (Extreme) of destruction. Most of these earthquakes happen along the ‘spine’ of the Italian Boot, and especially in the Tyrrhenian sea between the tip and Sicily. Every several years Italy experiences quakes higher than 6.0 in magnitude, the most recent ones being the Umbria one in October 2016 (6.6 in magnitude) and the Lazio/Umbria quake in August 2016 (6.2 in magnitude).

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The Zagreb earthquake of 22 March 2020 was a 5.4 in magnitude on the Richter scale and VII (Very strong) on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale. Although the number alone (5.4) does not suggest terrible consequences, the hit wave had quite a strong impact on the historical city centre. Late 19th century buildings didn’t handle the shock well and thousands of buildings in the heart of the city have been declared as inhabitable.

One of the two most terrible earthquakes in Croatian history was the Huge shake of 1667 that almost destroyed Dubrovnik. The city lies in the seismically most active part of Croatia and it is the most vulnerable in that aspect. The Quake was qualified as X (Very Strong) on the Mercalli scale. It killed more than 5.000 people and a big fire that raged for days followed. Also, the tsunami badly damaged the port and flooded parts of the city. The only two buildings that did not collapse were two palaces: The Sponza and the Rector Palace.

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Several contemporary reports depict the horrifying situation just after the quake. One of these is the 20-canto epic Dubrovnik ponovljen (Dubrovnik rebuilt) by Jaketa Palmotić Dionorić, Dubrovnik envoy to Turkey, who lost his wife and four children to the earthquake. The letters of Frano Bobali offer quite vivid and dramatic reconstruction of some events that followed. The Rector (mayor) of the city, alongside several governing officials were killed, so the subsequent state of anarchy produced some nasty human-made trouble to town, such as shameless pillaging of both the rich and poor. This was in fact a whole package of sorrow, caused by both natural elements and humans. The fire and the dust from collapsing buildings made it a living hell for the inhabitants of the city who even thought of completely abandoning the place and establishing a brand-new town. Luckily, they had decided to stay and rebuild the city in a baroque fashion which has become world famous for its beauty.

2. Do we have any data about world’s most devastating earthquakes? How serious were their consequences, considering the number of people, and the differences in the complexity of architecture/engineering?

I am a big fan of desk globes. They are colourful, shiny, and give you an impression you understand the world. They mislead in another way: just by looking at them, one can not even imagine how fast the planet travels around the Sun (107.000 km/h) and rotates around its axis (1600 km/h). Beneath the surface there is no less action: tectonic plates collide, form trenches, layers break, magma fills the cracks; all those fuming and sizzling sounds fortunately remain unheard.

There are several scales that express the energy of the earthquake in numerical values — the most famous (albeit outdated) one being the Richter scale — developed upon the research made by Charles F. Richter and Beno Gutenberg. The numbers give quite precise ideas of how strong an earthquake is; nonetheless the impact of each earthquake depends on several factors combined. The modern records show that the most powerful quake was 9.5 magnitude earthquake in Chile (Valdivia) in 1960. The quake and the tsunami that followed killed some 6.000 people combined.

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Some of the most horrible quakes — in terms of human victims — were recorded in Asia, which is the most vulnerable if we consider geology and population density factors combined. The Kanto earthquake in Japan (in 1923, magnitude 7.9) killed close to 150.000 people. Very powerful earthquake of Sumatra (in 2004, magnitude 9.1) killed 230.000 people and displaced close to 2 million people. The earthquake of Tangshan, China (in 1976, magnitude 7.5) killed more than 300.000 thousand people, making it one of the top three deadliest in human history. From the data it is obvious that it is not all about the magnitude. Like the high body temperature, it indicates that there is disturbance, but does not offer the full picture of the impact.

3. Since humans up until recently didn’t have science to explain the causes of the earthquakes, to what forces were they attributed to? What are the most interesting fables created in connection with the earthquakes?

In Greek mythology, Zeus is arguably the omnipresent god, but when it comes to the earth and the sea most of the action was attributed to Poseidon, nicknamed the Earth-shaker. With his trident he could provoke quakes that could destroy city walls, or just make the cliffs crack sufficiently enough to make a lovely spring appear in the landscape. Legend has it that when Nordic trickster god Loki starts trembling due to the snake venom that drops on his face, humans feel that as an earthquake. Traditional Japanese culture blamed the monster catfish named Namazu for causing their earthquakes by trembling. God named Kashima therefore holds the catfish down with a huge stone. (One of the possible explanations of the myth is that fish, like birds, can detect the tremor and subtle early signs of the incoming quake).

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There are many animals involved in historical world depictions of different cultures. Animals’ movement, for one reason or another, is known to explain origins of quakes. For example, in Hindu cosmology there are four elephants on the back of a turtle that stands on the snake and they all support the world. On the other hand, in East African legends, there is a giant fish that carries a cow on its back; the cow balances the Earth on its horns and earthquakes happen when the cow occasionally moves the Earth from one horn to another, because of its aching neck. In the far Northeast, Siberian god Tuli carries the world on his dog-pulled sleds. When the dogs who have fleas stop to scratch, the Earth shakes.

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In Maya mythology, gods destroyed the first two generations of people through flood, and the third through the hurricane and the earthquake. On a related note, do you know that the Australian natives ‘sing the landscape’? — They connect their special places and journeys in song cycles. By singing and incorporating them into geocultural maps they can navigate their space like with the GPS: words of the song become locations of landmarks waterholes, changes in the landscape by elements and disasters. Aboriginal legends lead some Australian scholars to the locations where ancient earthquakes and meteor craters changed the landscape. Some African traditions connect earthquakes with the spirits of some famous leaders that have recently gone to the Underworld. The terrible sound of tremor is the iron gate closing, or the spirit’s anger with some recent misbehaviour of their people.

One of the most famous oracles in the ancient world, Pythia, resided at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi that was built directly on the fault line — a crack in the Earth’s crust. There were natural springs, and even more importantly, gas fumes from underground reservoirs. Some of these gases, such as methane and ethylene affected the priestesses putting them into a state of euphoria. This, alongside some other natural substances (such as laurel leaves), carried them into a state of trance that enabled communication with gods. In 373 BC the Temple was destroyed — by an earthquake, naturally — but it was rebuilt on the same spot. The ancient Greeks did not have anything against the tectonic activity, on the contrary. It provided them with several really important features: fresh water, hot water for baths, fertile pockets of land, terrain suitable for natural defence.

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