Ancient sources record an earthquake which caused significant damage in
Acre (aka Akko aka Ptolemais),
Tyre. Minor damage was also reported in
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.
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
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.
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.
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
inclination of wall blocks
collapse of wall fragments
displacements and shifts of individual stones in walls, arches and columns
rotation of single stones and larger fragments of arches and walls
fractures passing through several adjacent stones
identified a number of seismic features at Avdat and was able to produce an estimate of local Intensity and other information as follows :
compressional seismic wave
epicenter 15 km. S of Avdat
local intensity of IX-X (MSK-64)
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:
An earthquake(s) unreported in the historical record
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Later on he noted that
A date of approximately 460-470 for the building activity
therefore seems reasonable, although the calculation
After initial construction, additional architectural elements were added; foremost among them a
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
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).
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
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).
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.
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
Ambraseys (2009) does not have an entry for a 500 CE earthquake - only a 502 CE earthquake which struck Acre, Sidon, Tyre, and Beirut. No mention is made of Antioch.
Guidoboni et al (1994) does not have an entry for a 500 CE earthquake - only a 502 CE earthquake which struck Acre, Sidon, Tyre, and Beirut. No mention is made of Antioch.
Amiran et. al. (1994) have an entry for 502 CE in their main catalog and an entry for 500 CE in Appendix 1 (distant earthquakes felt in Israel). The 502 CE main catalog entry
lists destruction in Antioch and Latrun (Nicopolis) in addition to Acre, Sidon, Tyre, and Beirut. Destruction in Antioch and Latrun is based on Ben-Menahem (1979).
Amiran et al (1994)'s 502 CE entry is listed below
502, Aug. 19
Beirut: some houses collapsed; Tyre,
Sidon: severe; `Akko: destructive;
(22 Av) Latrun (Nicopolis): destroyed (BM: 286);
possibly damage to a church at Shivta in the
In Appendix 1, Amiran et al (1994) list an earthquake in 500 CE as a distant earthquake felt in Israel. This entry reads as follows:
Safed: peripheral effect of a severe earthquake in Syria.
The sources for this entry are Plassard and Kojoj (1962 and 1968), Willis (1928 and 1933), and
Sbeinati et al (2005) - Sbeinati et al (2005) does not have an entry for an earthquake in 500 CE but does
have an entry (on page 355) for an earthquake in 502 CE. All references in the entry suggest an earthquake which struck Acre, Sidon, Tyre, and Beirut
but not Antioch except for a tiny reference to Ben-Menahem (1979).
In Table 3, Ben-Menahem (1991)
lists an earthquake with a epicenter (36.2 N, 36.1 E) in Antioch which struck in 500 CE. Sources listed at the bottom of the tables
are Brittanica (1910), Ergin et al (1967), and Plassard and Kojoj (1976). In Table 5d, the following entry can be found :
August 21, 502 CE - off coast of Acre.
Acre destroyed. Destruction at Sur, Sidon, Beirut (synogogue damaged), and Byblos.
Sources - Alsinawi and Galib (1975), Amiran (1951), Ergin et al (1967), and Plassard and Kojoj (1968), Sieberg (1932 a & b), and Willis (1928)
502 Aug. 21 off coast of Acre
Acre destroyed; Destruction at Sur, Sidon, Beirut (synagogue damaged), and Byblos. Latrun (Nicopolis) destroyed.
Sources - Plassard and Kojoj (1962), Amiran (1950/51)
Plassard and Kojoj (1981) have an entry for an earthquake in 502 CE based on
Chronicon by Joshua the Stylite. It is compatible with the report of Joshua the Stylite listing destruction and/or damage in Acre, Sidon, Tyre and Beirut. There is no mention of an earthquake in 500 CE.
Willis (1928,1933) does not list the 502 CE earthquake and has the following for an earthquake
in 500 CE
Macedonia, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Edessa, Seleuke, Antioch, Sarde, etc.: big shock.
source - Arvanitakis (1903)
Arvanitakis (1903) does not list the 502 CE earthquake and has the following for an earthquake
in 500 CE
Macedonia, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Edessa, Seleuke, Antioch, Sarde, etc.: big shock.
source - not listed
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.
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.
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.
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).