Wednesday, January 13, 2010

All Shook Up: Aegean Earthquakes


If you live in Turkey and if you wait long enough, you will experience an earthquake. When a quake occurs there really isn't a lot to do but hold on to something and hope it stops immediately. Altogether, it is an unpleasant sensation and the word "unnerving" seems perfectly suitable. I think what bothers me most is the twisting of the building and the cracking, squeaking sounds of stress emerging from the walls.

A few years ago, in one week three quakes -all around 5.9 (and that is not a mere quiver) rattled the city of Izmir. The first one was pretty exciting. I don't think I even got up out of my chair. The second one, however, following so close to the first, made everybody concerned. What was going on here?

By the time the third one happened, people began spending the night in the park and sleeping in their cars. Nobody knew for sure whether this was only a prelude to something major. Scientists would come on the news and attempt to reassure the panicky residents. I remember having a small army nap sack by the door, with a few essential items, just in case.

And major earthquakes have happened here before. In fact, if history books are anything to go on, the Aegean sea is like one  huge sheet of broken glass. Here's an example.

 432px-Aegean_with_legends.svg On Sunday, April 3, 1881, at precisely 1:04 in the afternoon, the Eastern Aegean region (namely the Karaburun peninsula of the Western Turkish coast and the island of Chios) was rocked by a severe earthquake. The epicenter was located on the southwestern side of the Greek island, close to the Turkish coast. Over 4000 people died and more than half of the villages in the area were destroyed. In some places the ground rose up to two meters while undersea, the sea floor rose some 44 meters. More than 75% of the buildings on the island were reduced to rubble.

Goat herds were buried under landslides and rock-falls. For days after the main earthquake, aftershocks occurred on average every 15 minutes, causing more damage from structures weakened by the repeated tremors. Four days later, another intense earthquake occurred, demolishing parts of the city walls in Chios. At that time, the sea suddenly became rough and clouds of smoke were seen rising from the surface of the sea.

(In another major quake in 1949, gray water shot out of the sea to a height of 15 meters around the seaside village of Cesme. The sea between the island and the Turkish mainland turned red and became rough for a few hours. Natural hot springs disappeared and sprung up in different location later. Fisherman reported flames spurting out of the sea.)

During the 1881 quake, the number of deaths in the port town of  Chios was high due to the narrow streets. Bodies remained piled in the streets with residents too traumatized to bury them.

Some 40,000 extra Turkish troops are dispatched to Chios  (then under Ottoman rule)  to assess the situation and to preserve what remains of the island's previous wealth (now mostly lost in rubble and fires). But they had difficulty entering the harbor due to the number of corpses floating in the water. Turkish records show that every church apart from St Antoine is destroyed.

On the Turkish coasts, however, the causalities were lower because most of the residents of Cesme and other nearby villages had gone to seashore that Sunday to watch the passage of a great passenger ship, Aya Evanelistra.

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  1. I want to add that this story was written two days before the Haitian earthquake. My deepest condolences to the victims there.

  2. very informative. Thanks


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