Earthquakes May Have Had Great Cultural Significance in Ancient Greek World

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The Ancient Greeks may have built their sacred sites deliberately on land previously affected by earthquake activity, according to University of Plymouth Professor Iain Stewart.

Image 5221 delphiGeneral view of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi; the implication is that the oracular chamber below the temple complex lies on a line of minor fault movement. Image credit: Iain S. Stewart, doi: 10.1016/j.pgeola.2017.07.009.
“Fault lines created by seismic activity in the Aegean region may have caused areas to be afforded special cultural status and, as such, led to them becoming sites of much celebrated temples and great cities,” Professor Stewart said.

Researchers have previously suggested Delphi, a mountainside complex once home to a legendary oracle, gained its position in Classical Greek society largely as a result of a sacred spring and intoxicating gases which emanated from a fault line caused by an earthquake.

But Professor Stewart believes Delphi may not be alone in this regard, and that other cities including Mycenae, Ephesus, Cnidus and Hierapolis may have been constructed specifically because of the presence of fault lines.

Earthquake faulting is endemic to the Aegean world, and for more than 30 years, I have been fascinated by the role earthquakes played in shaping its landscape,” Professor Stewart said.

But I have always thought it more than a coincidence that many important sites are located directly on top of fault lines created by seismic activity.”

The Ancient Greeks placed great value on hot springs unlocked by earthquakes, but perhaps the building of temples and cities close to these sites was more systematic than has previously been thought.”

A correspondence of active faults and ancient cities in parts of Greece and western Turkey might not seem unduly surprising given the Aegean region is riddled with seismic faults and littered with ruined settlements,” he added.

But many seismic fault traces in the region do not simply disrupt the fabric of buildings and streets, but run straight through the heart of the ancient settlements’ most sacred structures.”

There are prominent examples to support the theory, such as in Delphi itself where a sanctuary was destroyed by an earthquake in 373 BC only for its temple to be rebuilt directly on the same fault line.

There are also many tales of individuals who attained oracular status by descending into the underworld, with some commentators arguing that such cave systems or grottoes caused by seismic activity may have formed the backdrop for these stories.

I’m not saying that every sacred site in ancient Greece was built on a fault line,” Professor Stewart said.

But while our association with earthquakes nowadays is that they are all negative, we have always known that in the long run they give more than they take away.”

The ancient Greeks were incredibly intelligent people and I believe they would have recognized this significance and wanted their citizens to benefit from the properties they created.”

The research is published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

Iain S. Stewart. Seismic faults and sacred sanctuaries in Aegean antiquity. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, published online September 9, 2017; doi: 10.1016/j.pgeola.2017.07.009