Fire in the Sky Quake

22 August 502 CE

by Jefferson Williams

Introduction     Textual Evidence     Archeoseismic Evidence     Tsunamogenic Evidence     Paleoseismic Evidence     Notes     Paleoclimate - Droughts     Footnotes     References


Ancient sources record an earthquake which caused significant damage in Acre (aka Akko aka Ptolemais), Sidon, and Tyre. Minor damage was also reported in Beirut. Based on areas reporting damage, Ambraseys (2009) suspects that the epicenter was offshore Lebanon. Russell (1985) noted the possibility of archeoseismic damage from this earthquake in Gush Halav although chronology of the excavations at Gush Halav is debated. The ancient reports also describe a "great fire in the sky" on the same night as the earthquake which Russell (1985) interpreted as aurora borealis. We, however, agree with Guidoboni et al (1994), that this phenomena could more likely be an example of gas ionization or Earthquake lights which may occasionally precede earthquakes.

Textual Evidence

Chronicle of Pseudo Joshua the Stylite

The Chronicle of Pseudo Joshua the Stylite is an anonymous Syriac history of the period from 494 to 506 CE. In an English Translation by William Wright, one can read:
XLVII. Now then listen to the calamities that happened in this year, and to the sign that appeared on the day when they happened, for this too you have required at my hands. On the 22d of Ab (August) in this year, on the night preceding |37 Friday 23, a great fire appeared to us blazing in the northern quarter the whole night, and we thought that the whole earth was going to be destroyed that night by a deluge of fire; but the mercy of our Lord preserved us without harm. We received, however, a letter from some acquaintances of ours, who were travelling to Jerusalem, in which it was stated that, on the same night in which that great blazing fire appeared, the city of Ptolemais or 'Akko was overturned, and nothing in it left standing. Again, a few days after, there came unto us some Tyrians and Sidonians, and told us that, on the very same day on which the fire appeared and Ptolemais was overturned, the half of their cities fell, namely of Tyre and Sidon. In Berytus (Beirut) only the synagogue of the Jews fell down on the day when 'Akko was overturned.
This contemporaneous account from Edessa indicates that all of Acco (aka Ptolemais aka Acre) and half of Sidon, and Tyre sufferred seismic destruction while Beirut sufferred limited damage. We agree with Guidoboni et al (1994) that the "fire in the sky" preceding the earthquake was quite possibly a manifestation of an air ionization effect that may occassionally precede some earthquakes. See Tributsch (2013), Tributsch (1982), or other references for more details on this phenomena.

Chronicle of Edessa

The Chronicle of Edessa was written anonymously in Syraic in the middle of the 6th century CE. In an English translation, one can read
79. An. 813, a great fire appeared on the side of the north, which blazed all night on the twenty-second of Ab (August).
While an earthquake is not mentioned, the "fire" is.

Archeoseismic Evidence

Archeoseimic damage is summarized below

Location Status
Gush Halav debated
Avdat possible
Shivta possible
Haluza possible
Rehovot ba Negev possible

Archeoseismic Evidence is examined on a case by case basis below

Gush Halav aka Giscala

Meyers, Strange, Meyers, and Hanson (1979: 37) reported on excavations at Gush Halav (referred to as Giscala by Josephus). Stratum VII contains the relevant archeoseismic evidence and was subdivided in Phase a and Phase b. A summary from their paper is presented below:

Stratum VI Late Roman (A.D. 250-362)
Phase a A.D. 250-306
Phase b A.D. 306-62/5

Stratum VII Byzantine (A.D. 362/5-551)
Phase a A.D. 362/5-447
Phase b A.D. 447-551

Meyers, Strange, Meyers, and Hanson (1979) dated the construction of a synagogue at Gush Halav (in Stratum VI) to around 250 A.D. and report the village was abandoned beforehand; possibly after the Bar Kochba Revolt. The date for building the synagogue is primarily based on ceramics but is supplemented by 6 coins. The biggest potential problem with their chronology is it is debated. Magness (2001a)
performed a detailed examination of the stratigraphy presented in the final report of (Meyers, Meyers, and Strange (1990)) and concluded, based on numismatic and ceramic evidence, that a synagogue was not built on the site until no earlier than the second half of the fifth century. While she agreed that earthquake destruction evidence was present in the excavation, she dated the destruction evidence to some time after abandonment of the site in the 7th or 8th centuries AD. Strange (2001) and Meyers (2001) went on to rebut Magness (2001a) to which Magness (2001b) responded again. One point of agreement however is that earthquake destruction evidence does appear to be present however this evidence is dated to either 363 AD or sometime after the 7th or 8th centuries AD. With the chronology in question, it might be possible that the Fire in the Sky Quake struck the synagogue at Gush Halav rather than the 551 CE earthquake. In any case, it is fair to say that archeoseismic evidence at Gush Halav is debated.


Avdat Acropolis
Aerial View of Avdat Acropolis - from Wikipedia

Negev (1961) identified several phases of occupation at Avdat one of which, dated by inscriptions, began in the third century CE. Negev (1961: 126) noted that during this Late Roman/Byzantine occupation phase, the retaining walls were "probably shattered by a strong earthquake" and were repaired by "adding a second, rounded wall, screening the original one". A precise date for the archeoseismic damage was not supplied.

Negev (1989) wrote about an earthquake which affected Avdat/Oboda between the end of the 3rd century CE and 541 CE.
A decisive factor in determining this phase is the dating of a series of earthquakes, one or more of which shattered numerous buildings in some of the towns of the central Negev. Although literary evidence is scarce, there is ample archaeological evidence that testifies to these disasters. At Oboda the entire length of the old southern Nabatean retaining wall was thrust outwards, and for this reason it had to be supported by a heavy, slanting supporting wall. Similarly much damage was caused to a massive tower of the Nabatean period, identified in July 1989 as the temple of Obodas (?), which in the Late Roman - early Byzantine period was incorporated in the citadel occupying the eastern half of the acropolis hill. Most of the damage was caused to the western and southern walls of the temple, and for this reason these too had to be supported by still heavier stone taluses, blocking the original entrance to the temple on the southern wall. It is against this talus that the South Church was built. Similar damage was also caused to some of the nearby buildings in the so-called Roman Quarter south of the temple. We may thus place the date of the earthquake between the end of the third century A.D., when the latest building in this quarter was constructed, and A.D. 541, when the Martyrium of St. Theodore was already being used as a burial ground.
In surveys conducted in 1994 and 1996, Korjenkov (1999) identified and examined seismic features such as
Korjenkov (1999) identified a number of seismic features at Avdat and was able to produce an estimate of local Intensity and other information as follows : Unfortunately, this estimate is derived from multiple earthquakes. Korjenkov estimated that three seismic events created the features and that the first seismic event was the southern Cyril Quake of 363 CE and and the last event was the Sword in the Sky Quake of 634 CE. The middle event could be any of the following: Thus, although there is abundant archeoseismic evidence at Avdat and indications of more than one seismic event, it is unclear if any of this damage occurred in 502 CE. So, this archeoseismic evidence is classified as possible.


Karcz and Kafri (1978) list archeoseismic damage in the northern area of Shivta (collapse and damage and subsequent repairs) in the 5th-6th century AD. Amiran et. al. (1994) reports archeoseismic damage at Shivta due to the Fire in the Sky Quake of 502 CE on the authority of Yellin (1927).

Negev (1989) wrote about an earthquuake which affected Sobota (aka Shivta) between the end of the 3rd century CE and the middle of the 6th century CE. The end of the 3rd century CE date was apparently based on Negev's observations of archeoseismic damage at Avdat/Oboda.
A severe earthquake afflicted Sobata [aka Shivta] still more. At the same time both mono-apsidal churches of Sobata suffered a great deal of damage. The South Church (Fig. 5) was surrounded on all four sides by a high talus. It is highly likely that the transformation of this building from a mono-apsidal basilica into a tri-apsidal one took place at the time when the whole building underwent a complete remodeling. Yet, it is not certain whether this transformation is a direct outcome of the earthquake. The constructional history of the North Church (Fig. 4) is much the same, but outer buildings which were added after the earthquake indeed help in determining the various phases. Originally the mono-apsidal basilica had no additional chapels on the south. When the building suffered severe damage by the earthquake, it was completely surrounded by very high stone taluses on all sides, except on the eastern half of the southern wall of the basilica, where two strongly built chapels with apses and domes were constructed, taking the place of the talus as a support for the shattered southern wall. The repair of the first phase of the church, which was made after the earthquake marked the beginning of the second phase. This too has now been firmly dated by a coin of Justinian (527-538 A.D.) which was found in the intentionally made fill in the room behind the southern apse. The change from the mono-apsidal to tri-apsidal plan must have taken place at this time.

The epigraphic evidence of Sobata may help in attaining a close as possible date both for the earthquake and for the subsequent reconstruction of the North Church. One of these inscriptions, that of 506 A.D., is clearly a dedicatory inscription of a very important building, which justified the participation of a Vicarius, a man of the highest rank, in the dedication of this building. This inscription was not found in situ. However, there is no question about the inscription of A.D. 512, in which year the mosaic floor of one of the added chapels was dedicated by a bishop and the local clergy. It is thus safe to assume that the whole remodeling of the North Church began in the first decade of the sixth century. The second half of the fifth century A.D. was one of tectonic unrest.14 Severe earthquakes were recorded in the years 447, 498, and 502 A.D. The two latter dates would be highly probable dates for the destruction of the South and North Churches of Sobata, their total remodeling, and their rebuilding as tri-apsidal basilicae, and thus the beginning of Phase II.
Earthquakes referred to by Negev (1989) appear to come from Kallner-Amiran's (1952) catalog. The 447 CE earthquake was reported in Constantinople and would not have caused damage in the Negev (see Ambraseys (2009) for details). The 498 CE earthquake is dated to 499 CE by Ambraseys (2009) and struck Eastern Anatolia. It also would not have damaged structures in the Negev. The 502 CE earthquake is the Fire in the Sky Earthquake which could have damaged structures in the Negev.

Archeoseismic evidence for the Fire in the Sky Quake at Shivta is labeled as possible.


Cracked Column Pedestal at Haluza
Fig. 6 Haluza. A sub-vertical crack, with a left-lateral slip of 1 cm,
crosses the marble pedestal of a column at the Cathedral
from Korzhenkov and Mazor (2005)

Korzhenkov and Mazor (2005) noted that at least two strong earthquakes are evidenced from the excavations at Haluza. The earlier of these two quakes was revealed in "Roman – Early Byzantine buildings, including the Cathedral, that were severely damaged and to a large extent repaired." They further noted that
Negev (1989) pointed out that one earthquake, or more, shattered the towns of central Negev between the end of the 3rd and mid-6th centuries A.D.. Literary evidence is scarce, but there is ample archaeological evidence of these disasters. According to Negev, a "decisive factor" is that the churches throughout the whole Negev were extensively restored later on. Negev found at the Haluza Cathedral indications of two constructional phases. One room of the Cathedral was even not cleaned after an event during which it was filled with fallen stones and debris from the collapsed upper portion of a wall. In the other room "the original limestone slabs of the floor had been removed but the clear impression of slabs and ridges in the hard packed earth beneath suggests that they remained in place until the building went out of use".

The dating of the discussed ancient strong earthquake may be 363 A.D., as has been concluded for other ancient cities around Haluza, e.g. Avdat, Shivta, and Mamshit. However, Negev noticed inscriptions on walls and artifacts that suggest two earthquakes – at 498 and 502 A.D. ... it is concluded that the date of "the first" – Early Byzantine earthquake at Haluza was most probably at 502 A.D.
Potential archeoseismic evidence uncovered at Haluza included "through-going joints, joints in a staircase, cracks crossing large building blocks, cracked window beams, tilted walls, collapsed arches, collapse of columns, shift of building elements, and earthquake damage restoration." Archeoseismic evidence for the Fire in the Sky Quake at Haluza is labeled as possible.

Rehovot ba Negev

Arch Collpase at Rehobot ba Negev
Fig. 14 Deformation of two perpendicular walls at the Caravansary, the "feeding" wall pushed
the perpendicular one. The later wall is significantly tilted.The "Feeding" wall is also deformed:
there are some openings in its upper part and joints (shown by arrows) crossing two stones are in the wall's lower part
Khorzhenkov and Mazor (2014)

Tsafrir (1988: 26) excavated the Northern Church (aka the Pilgrim Church) of Rehovot ba Negev and came to the following conclusions regarding its initial construction :
A clear terminus ante quem for the building of the church is given by a burial inscription (Ins. 2) dated to the month Apellaios 383, which falls, according to the era of the Provincia Arabia, in November- December 488 C.E. The church probably was erected in the second half of the fifth century. (See below the subsequent general discussion of the triapsidal basilicas beginning on p. 47.). Although it is clear that several parts of the complex were built later than the main hall, such as the northern chapel (see 111. 1 15), there is no doubt that the entire complex was constructed within the same few year.
Later on he noted that
A date of approximately 460-470 for the building activity therefore seems reasonable, although the calculation remains hypothetical.
After initial construction, additional architectural elements were added; foremost among them a a revetment or support wall which is described and discussed below by Tsafrir (1988: 27).
The most important architectural addition was the talus, or sloping revetment, that was built around the walls of the church from the outside to prevent their collapse. Such revetments were common in the Negev. They supported the walls of churches as well as of private houses. They are found, for example, around the walls of St. Catherine's monastery in Sinai. At Rehovot such walls may have been erected following an earthquake, but more probably it was necessary to reinforce them just because of poor quality masonry. To explain these retaining walls as having created a military defense post (as has been done in the case of the northern church at Shivta) is awkward.
Khorzhenkov and Mazor (2014: 84) identified what they believed were three (or more) earthquakes which had expressions in the walls of the northern church. The first two earthquakes struck after construction of the church around 465 CE and before the site was abandoned by its Christian inhabitants around 640 CE (when the Byzantine Empire permanently lost power in the area and could no longer support these peripheral outposts). A later earthquake struck during the Early Arab period - after ~640 CE.
The existence of revetment walls, supporting the southern wall of the Church from the south, indicates that the southern wall’s tilt occurred during the first of the Late Roman earthquakes. It seems that the southern wall began to tilt northward inside the building during the Early Arab earthquakes; additional evidence for this is the shift northwards of the upper part of the revetment wall. Stones of the perpendicular eastern wall are cracked in the small room marked on the plan. Nevertheless, this wall is better preserved (it is much higher) than the main southern wall of the North Church. This indicates that the seismic shocks during both earthquakes acted perpendicular to the main Church wall: it had freedom of oscillation and was significantly destroyed. The small eastern wall, oriented parallel to the effect of the seismic movements, withstood the seismic oscillations better, although many of its stones were significantly damaged. The whole northern wall of the Church (field station 12 in fig. 3) has a significant tilt to the south (figs. 8 a. b).
Khorzhenkov and Mazor (2014:84) discussed the two late Byzantine quakes (between 465 CE and 640 CE) further
The destruction event (an earthquake), which deformed the original wall, occurred before the decline of the Byzantine Empire. There was then another seismic event which led to the destruction of the revetment wall itself. The last event was probably an end of ›civilized‹ life here.
This suggests that the Late Byzantine earthquakes could have struck Rehovot ba Negev could include the following

Thus archeoseismic evidence for the Fire in the Sky earthquake at Rehovot ba Negev is labeled as possible.

Tsunamogenic Evidence

Paleoseismic Evidence

Paleoseismic Evidence for the Fire in the Sky Quake is summarized below:

Location Status
al Harif Aqueduct Syria possible - wide spread in ages - 4.2 m of slip
Bet Zayda possible
En Feshka possible
En Gedi possible - 0.7 cm. thick mixed layer

Each site will now be discussed separately.

Displaced Aqueduct at al Harif, Syria

Sbeinati et. al. (2010) report a seismic event X which they dated to 335 AD +/- 175 years at a displaced aqueduct at al-Harif, Syria (close to Masyaf, Syria).

Al Harif Aqueduct Seismic Events
Figure 13. Correlation of results among paleoseismic trenching, archaeoseismic excavations, and tufa analysis. In paleoseismic trenching, the youngest age for event X is not constrained, but it is, however, limited by event Y. In archaeoseismic excavations, the period of first damage overlaps with that of the second damage due to poor age control. In tufa analysis, the onset and restart of Br-3 and Br-4 mark the damage episodes to the aqueduct; the growth of Br-5 and Br-6 shows interruptions (I) indicating the occurrence of major events. Except for the 29 June 1170 event, previous events have been unknown in the historical seismicity catalogue. The synthesis of large earthquake events results from the timing correlation among the faulting events, building repair, and tufa interruptions (also summarized in Fig. 12 and text). Although visible in trenches (faulting event X), archaeoseismic excavations (first damage), and first interruption of tufa growth (in Br-5 and Br-6 cores), the A.D. 160–510 age of event X has a large bracket. In contrast, event Y is relatively well bracketed between A.D. 625 and 690, with the overlapped dating from trench results, the second damage of the aqueduct, and the interruption and restart of Br-3 and onset of Br-4. The occurrence of the A.D. 1170 earthquake correlates well with event Z from the trenches, the age of third damage to the aqueduct, and the age of interruption of Br-4, Br-5, and Br-6. Sbeinati et. al. (2010)

Al Harif Aqueduct Radiocarbon
Figure 12. (A) Calibrated dating of samples (with calibration curve INTCAL04 from Reimer et al. [2004] with 2σ age range and 95.4% probability) and sequential distribution from Oxcal pro-gram (see also Table 1; Bronk Ramsey, 2001). The Bayesian distribution computes the time range of large earth-quakes (events W, X, Y, and Z) at the Al Harif aqueduct according to faulting events, construction and repair of walls, and starts and interruptions of the tufa deposits (see text for explanation). Number in brackets (in %) indicates how much the sample is in sequence; the number in % indicates an agreement index of overlap with prior distribution. Sbeinati et. al. (2010)

Bet Zayda

Wechsler at al. (2014) may have seen evidence for this earthquake in Event CH3-E2 paleoseismic trenches just north of the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Kinneret).

Bet Zeyda Earthquakes
Figure 9. Probability density functions for all paleoseismic events, based on the OxCal modeling. Historically known earthquakes are marked by gray lines. The age extent of each channel is marked by rectangles. There is an age uncertainty as to the age of the oldest units in channel 4 (units 490-499) marked by a dashed rectangle. Channel 1 refers to the channel complex studied by Marco et al. (2005).

En Feshka

Kagan et. al. (2011) several seismites at En Feshka which could have been caused by the Fire in the Sky Quake - e.g. a 2 cm. thick intraclast breccia at a depth of 210.0 cm. Although Kagan et. al. (2011) listed 500/502 CE dates the 500 CE date appaears to be spurious. See the discussion titled "Conflation with 500 CE Earthquake" in the Notes section of this report for reasons why.

En Gedi (DSEn)

Migowski et. al. (2004) assigned a 502 CE date to a 0.7 cm. thick Type III mixed layer seismite at a depth of 229.91 cm. (2.2991 m) in the 1997 GSI/GFZ core in En Gedi.


Other Sources

John of Ephesus
Ambraseys (2009) reports that John of Ephesus (NA 463) recounted this earthquake and implied that Sidon and Tyre were completely destroyed rather than half destroyed as reported by Pseudo Joshua the Stylite.
Annals by or Chronicle of Pseudo-Dionysus of Tel Mahre
Dionysus of Tel Mahre wrote Annals (aka the Chronicle) in Syraic during the first half of the 9th century CE. Ambraseys (2009) reports that Pseudo-Dionysius of Tell-Mahre (CH 2020; Vict. Tunn. PL 949) "simply noted the event".

Conflation with 500 CE Earthquake

The earthquake catalog (Table A1) presented in Kagan et. al. (2011) appears to erroneously conflate an unknown and potentially spurious earthquake with an epicenter in or around Antioch in 500 CE with the Fire in the Sky Earthquake of 502 CE. Kagan et al (2011) lists 5 sources for an earthquake which struck Antioch, Acre, Sidon, Tyre, and Beirut in 500 or 502 CE. Those sources are

Further exploration of catalog sources follows:

Conclusion - It is difficult to determine the source for the 500 CE catalog entry but it appears to be based on Willis (1928) and Arvanitakis (1903) who did not provide a source. The 500 CE earthquake description, which describes damage to what seems to be an excessively large area, seeped into Ben-Menahem's and Amiran's catalogs and led to some of the additions to the 502 CE Fire in the Sky Quake. Such additions include claims that Byblos, Safed, Latrun (Nicopolis), and/or Antioch were damaged or rattled. It should be noted that Migowski et al (2004) also list two earthquakes - one in 500 CE and one in 502 CE. They based this on two sources - Amiran et al (1994) and Ben-Menahem (1991). These are the same sources that seem to be the source of conflation in Kagan et al (2011). Wechsler et al (2014) listed a 500 CE date instead of 502 CE.

Paleoclimate - Droughts



Ambraseys, N. (2009). Earthquakes in the Mediterranean and Middle East: a multidisciplinary study of seismicity up to 1900. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Ben-Menahem, A. (1991). "Four Thousand Years of Seismicity along the Dead Sea rift." Journal of Geophysical Research 96((no. B12), 20): 195-120, 216.

Gatier P.L. 1984, Tremblements du sol et frissons des hommes. Trois seismes en Orient sous Anastase, in Tremblements de terre..., pp.87-94. Grumel V. 1958, Traite d'etudes byzantines. 1. La chronologie, Paris. Grumel V. 1958, Traite d'etudes byzantines. 1. La chronologie, Paris.

Guidoboni, E., et al. (1994). Catalogue of ancient earthquakes in the Mediterranean area up to the 10th century. Rome, Istituto nazionale di geofisica.

Karcz, I., et al. (1977). "Archaeological evidence for Subrecent seismic activity along the Dead Sea-Jordan Rift." Nature 269(5625): 234-235.

Meyers, E. M., et al. (1990). Excavations at the Ancient Synagogue of Gush Ḥalav, American Schools of Oriental Research.

Migowski, C., et al. (2004). "Recurrence pattern of Holocene earthquakes along the Dead Sea transform revealed by varve-counting and radiocarbon dating of lacustrine sediments." Earth and Planetary Science Letters 222(1): 301-314.

Russell, K. W. (1985). "The Earthquake Chronology of Palestine and Northwest Arabia from the 2nd through the Mid-8th Century A.D." Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research 260: 37-59.

Tributsch, H. (1982). "When the snakes awake: animals and earthquake prediction."

Tributsch, H. (2013). "Bio-Mimetics of Disaster Anticipation Learning Experience and Key-Challenges." Animals 3(1): 274-299.

Tributsch, Helmut, 2013, The escaping "pneuma" - gas of ancient earthquake concepts in relation to animal, atmospheric and thermal precursors EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts. 15: 1269.

Turcotte, T. a. A., E. (1993). Catalog of Earthquakes in and around Israel. Preliminary Safety Analysis Report: Appendix 2.5A Revision 1. Tel Aviv, Israel Electric Corporation Ltd.: 1-18.

A. Yellin: The Earthquake in Palestine in the Beginning of the Sixth Century, Zion 2 (1927), pp. 125-127

Wechsler, N., et al. (2014). "A Paleoseismic Record of Earthquakes for the Dead Sea Transform Fault between the First and Seventh Centuries C.E.: Nonperiodic Behavior of a Plate Boundary Fault." Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.

Ancient Texts

Anonymous "The Chronicle of Edessa."

The Chronicle of Edessa is one of the most important and authoritative early Chronicles. It was probably written in the mid 6th century using the city archives. It is extant in a single manuscript, now in the Vatican (Syr. 163).
Chronicle of Edessa (English Translation)

Margoliouth, J. P. (2009). Eclesiastical History of John Bishop of Ephesus, BiblioBazaar.

Joshua, et al. (2000). The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite, Liverpool University Press.