On May 15, as social media was weighing in on the first round of Eurovision finals and readying for the second round, a series of posts started to appear around 8:00pm. “Did anyone feel an earthquake?”; “Earthquake in Israel – who felt it?”; “Earthquake?”; “That jiggle was an earthquake”; and so on.

Measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale, the tremor’s epicenter was about 200 kilometers (125 miles) off the coast between Haifa and Hadera. No injuries or damage were reported, and all was forgotten by the following night.

However, Israelis know that a big one is long overdue.

The last major earthquake occurred on July 11, 1927, when a 7.5 earthquake hit the Land of Israel and the Transjordan.

The Jericho earthquake, as it came to be known, was significant not only because of its magnitude but also because it was the first earthquake in the region to be documented with scientific instruments.

American Colony photographers took this picture of a traditional reed house that, following the 1927 earthquake, was caught in a landslide and left hanging on the banks of the Jordan River. Photo from the Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection/US Library of Congress

The reason for all this seismic activity? The Syrian-African rift, also known as the Dead Sea Transform fault, an active fault line between the African and Arabian tectonic plates that runs from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, and up the Jordan River Valley to Syria and Turkey.

From biblical times onwards, even before the scientific recording of 1927, earthquakes in the region had been documented.

In 1834, an earthquake in Jerusalem destroyed part of the city wall near the Dome of the Rock and collapsed the dome over the Chapel of the Ascension and two minarets, and severely damaged the Latin and Armenian monasteries in Bethlehem.

The Safed or Galilee earthquake of 1837 was estimated at a magnitude of 6.25–6.5 and devastated the town of Safed (Tzfat), with over 6,000 killed. According to 19th century author William McClure Thomson.

“The earthquake of 1837 prostrated a large part of the walls, and they have not yet been repaired and perhaps never will be.”

Almost a century later, 285 died in the 1927 earthquake and there were approximately 940 injured in pre-state Israel and Transjordan. In addition, the cities of Nablus, Ramleh, Lod, Jerusalem, Jericho, Amman and a-Salt suffered significant property damage.

The newly constructed Hebrew University buildings on Mount Scopus were badly damaged, including Gray-Hill House, where the chemistry department and Jewish Studies Institute were housed.

Gray-Hill House, one of the Hebrew University buildings on Mount Scopus badly damaged in the 1927 earthquake. Photo from the National Library of Israel

Weeks later, the Jewish National and University Library (today the National Library of the State of Israel) announced an exhibition about the annals of earthquakes in the Land of Israel. That exhibition focused mainly on the 1837 quake but based on its success, the library decided to organize a second one, this time focused on the events at hand.

In 1929, the library put out an appeal in the newspaper Doar HaYom, asking the public to contribute any photographs they might have depicting damage caused by earthquake.

The most unusual donation was an extensive collection of 32 silver prints taken by a group who toured the region by car and recorded the earthquake damage. Written on the photos are the names of the group members — Mr. Reiser, Mr. Neumann and three members of the Badian family — but their professions and the reasons why they executed the project are unknown.

In the aftermath of the July 11, 1927 earthquake, this group traveled throughout the region to document the damage. Photo from the National Library of Israel

Another cache of evidence, with typewritten annotations in German and imprinted with the logo of German-based new agency Internationale Foto-Aagentur, numbered 18 silver prints, including photographs of the devastation in the cities of Jerusalem and Nablus. 

German news agency Internationale Foto-Aagentur documented the damage to Jerusalem of the 1927 earthquake. Photo from the National Library of Israel

Another collection of photographs was donated to the library by the American Colony photo service, whose photographers documented the earthquake aftermath in various parts of the country.

At the Dead Sea, a guard accompanying the American Colony photographers inserts his rifle into a fissure caused by the 1927 earthquake. Photo from the Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection/US Library of Congress

Three black-and-white photos of earthquake damage in Nablus came from Doar HaYom reader Yeshayahu Blachman, who worked for grocery importer and supplier Spinneys. The photos, he explained in his letter to the library, were taken by the store manager in Nablus.

The 1927 earthquake was especially severe in Nablus, left, where it killed 150 people destroyed around 300 buildings. In Lydda (Lod), right, 30 people died and 70 were injured. Photo from the National Library of Israel

 The photo of the truck with British soldiers was taken only days after the earthquake, when Spinneys sent bread from Tel Aviv to the afflicted areas. (Spinneys still exits as a Middle East supermarket chain but not in Israel).

 Days after the 1927 earthquake, the Nablus store manager for British grocery supplier Spinneys snapped a photo of this truck loaded with bread from Tel Aviv. Photo from National Library of Israel
Days after the 1927 earthquake, the Nablus store manager for British grocery supplier Spinneys snapped a photo of this truck loaded with bread from Tel Aviv. Photo from National Library of Israel

The full story about the National Library’s earthquake exhibition is available (in Hebrew) here.

Preparing for the big one

So, Israel lies in a region where it is widely known that a major earthquake occurs around every 90 years. Its also widely known that Israel is largely unprepared to manage the consequences of a major earthquake.

Many of the casualties incurred during those major earthquakes were due to building quality and construction style. Which is why, in 1975, the first standards of earthquake readiness were established for any construction projects commencing after 1980.

In 2005, the Israeli government instituted TAMA 38 (a Hebrew acronym for “National Outline Plan 38”) giving tax relief and substantial tax exemptions for construction projects to shore up older buildings that do not conform to current standards. Only last year, the Ministry of Construction and Housing estimated that 800,000 housing units and numerous public buildings are not earthquake resistant.

However, insurers now offer the option of earthquake coverage, and the Homefront Command has instructions on its website as to appropriate behavior in the event of an earthquake.

In 2017, tsunami warning signs were posted in Tel Aviv under a program implemented by the National Steering Committee for Earthquake Preparedness together with the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA).

Israel’s tech community is also developing and providing technologies that can serve both the experts and the public in case of a calamity.