January 10, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

Earthquake damage, Israel 1927 (Source Library of Congress). By identifying the location of the next quake, Dr. Shmuel Marco hopes to prevent damage like this from reoccurring.

It sounds like an alternate version of The Da Vinci Code: Geologist Dr. Shmuel Marco is combing through ancient manuscripts – some of the originals of which he believes reside in Vatican vaults – for clues to the next big earthquake in the Middle East.

A major quake of a magnitude of seven on the Richter scale in the politically fragile Middle East could have dire consequences for ancient holy sites and even peace in the region, says Marco.


In light of this imminent danger, Marco, who is on the faculty of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences, is taking an historical approach to earthquake forecasting, searching for clues that will indicate where the next big one will strike.

Marco has delved into hundreds of ancient manuscripts, many of which were written by monks and clergy – both Christian and Muslim – and with their help has determined that a series of major earthquakes hit the Jordan Valley in the past 2,000 years, specifically in the years 31 B.C.E., 363 C.E., 749 C.E., and 1033 C.E.

He points out that an interval of about 400 years separated each significant earthquake until the last one, which was almost a thousand years ago. This unusually long interval means that a great deal of tension has been building along the fault line, and may be released at any time.

Marco believes the past holds the key to the future. He hopes that his research will indicate the approximate location of the next big quake, in order that buildings in the danger zones can be prepared in advance. It would be impossible to gather enough money to renovate all the buildings in the country, Marco explains, and therefore it’s essential to pinpoint a more specific location. “We need research to tell engineers where to start,” Marco told ISRAEL21c.

While an historical approach to the study of earthquakes may seem unconventional, the logic behind it is simple. Seismographs, which are modern technology’s answer to the problem of earthquakes, have existed for less than a century, while geological processes take thousands, if not millions, of years to develop.

The consequence is that by itself, seismographic data is insufficient if one is to conduct a complete study of geological processes.
Marco himself describes his research as “detective work”, as there are many complications involved. “In different times people used different calendars, different terminologies, and names of places have changed,” says Marco.

An international team of historians aided Marco by deciphering the Latin, Greek and Arabic of the original texts. Marco believes that an analysis of these documents, which span two millennia, can provide valuable information on the location and impact of the next earthquake.

“We use the records, written in churches and monasteries or by hermits in the desert, to find patterns,” Marco explained. “Even if these papers were not ‘officially’ recording history, they hold a lot of information… Some are letters to Europe asking for funding of church repairs. And while many of these accounts are told in an archaic religious manner, they help us confirm the dates and location of major calamities. Following these patterns in the past can be a good predictor of the future.”

One example is the Byzantine aristocratic monk named Theophanes, venerated today by Catholics. In one manuscript, Theophanes noted, ‘A great earthquake in Palestine, by the Jordan and in all of Syria on 18 January in the 4th hour. Numberless multitudes perished, churches and monasteries collapsed especially in the desert of the Holy City.’

Even the Bible contains clues: A verse in the book of Zachariah describes two instances of earthquakes, one of which split apart the Mount of Olives. Marco adds that earthquakes are sometimes mentioned in the Bible as markers in time, which also aids in his construction of a timeline of earthquakes in the region.

The fault lines that Marco is studying are the Dead Sea Fault and the Carmel Fault, the former of which poses a threat to the Middle East in the vicinity of the Jordan Valley and beyond. Geologists in the region, including Dr. Amos Salamon of the Israel Geological Survey, agree that a major earthquake is imminent, and that its damage will be widespread.

“When it strikes – and it will – this quake will affect Amman, Jordan as well as Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem,” said Marco. “Earthquakes don’t care about religion or political boundaries.”

In addition to historical research, Marco also conducts research in the fields of archaeology and geology. In geology, Marco focuses on lake sediments, which he explains are the mud that settles at the bottom of bodies of water. “During earthquakes the bottom of these lakes is shaken and the mud is disturbed,” says Marco. “I look at old lakes and recover the earthquake history that is indicated by the layering of the mud.” Such study, he explains, is “a geological source of information that goes back to 70,000 years, much older than history or archaeology.”

In his archaeological research, Marco investigates sites that hold clues to past earthquakes. One such site is Tel Megiddo, the ruins of a 5,000 year-old city that rests on the Carmel Fault. While it’s difficult to distinguish earthquake damage from the wear and tear of centuries, in at least one instance there is definite evidence in Megiddo of an earthquake, in the ruins of a monumental temple.

“We see several types of damage in the Megiddo temple, in particular fractures in building stones. Usually when buildings deteriorate slowly, stones remain whole. Here they’re broken,” Marco explains. “We see inclined floors overlaid by new horizontal floors, which means there was some damage: the building was tilted by earthquake, after which people rebuilt it with perfectly horizontal floors.”

With the help of archaeologists who provide the dates for various parts of the site, Marco is able to construct a timeline of the major earthquakes that struck the site in the past, and consequently to analyze the activity of the fault on which it rests.

While Marco studies earthquakes out of a profound desire to promote heightened safety measures in the region, he also expresses a personal fascination with the subject as a scientist. “I’m interested in earthquakes because they are a surface expression of very deep processes in the earth. We cannot dive inside, so we have to look at the surface expression,” says Marco. “It’s like looking into someone’s eyes to decipher what he thinks or feels. In a way, earthquakes are among the eyes of the earth.”

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