The earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria this week has killed over 20,000 people as of this writing. The devastation and loss of life is astounding and heartbreaking. Families and communities will be in mourning for a long time as the region struggles to rebuild.
The lone bright spot in the tragedy is the opportunity for neighbors to lend assistance. Israel, which has tense relations with Turkey and no official relations with Syria, has send aid which is desperately needed. But there is another connection in the earthquake that unites the countries – geology.
Scientists will need time to analyze the quake, but it appears to have occurred at the intersection of three tectonic plates. One of the fault lines in that location is the Dead Sea Transform, which extends down through Syria and Lebanon and forms the border between Israel and Jordan. This geographical feature created the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, and the Jordan Valley.
These iconic elements of Israel’s geography are the result of the meeting of the African and Arabian plates. The land of Israel has always been the crossroads of civilization, where empires like the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Roman met each other. It is also a tectonic crossroads where parts of the earth rub against one another.
Many earthquakes in history along the Dead Sea Transform have devastated the area. In 363 CE the Jewish community was attempting to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem under the patronage of the Roman Emperor Julian who had rejected the Christianity of his predecessors and embraced paganism. Some believe that a massive quake that year caused fires to erupt from the Temple foundation, which ultimately thwarted their efforts.
In 749 a large earthquake destroyed many cities in the land of Israel, including Beit Shean. Today you can visit the site and see the incredible ruins, including columns lined up the ground along the main street, still laying the way they fell the day of the destruction. Historians have used Jewish liturgical poetry that mentions a “seventh” earthquake to try and date the event. Some believe the phrase means a quake that occurred in the seventh (sabbatical) year of the agricultural cycle, while others speculate that it was the seventh event in a series of disasters.
While Israel has always been regarded as the holy land and God’s country, it is not a place of tranquility. Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, which were fed by their great rivers, Israel is dependent on rain, and so it has been subject to droughts from time immemorial. It has also seen the ruin of earthquakes, which is why in the Service of the High Priest recited on Yom Kippur we read: “And for the people of Sharon (the part of Israel subject to earthquakes), [the High Priest] would pray: May it be Your will, Adonoy, our God, and God of our fathers, that their homes shall not become their graves.” For too many this week, their homes indeed became their graves. May God bring the survivors relief and comfort to those who mourn.