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William Daou 05 Dec 2022

Historical Snapshot: The Great Lebanon Earthquake of 1202

If you thought Beirut’s 551 AD earthquake-turned-tsunami was bad, you might want to buckle up your seatbelt for this bad boy. The great earthquake of 1202, also known as the 1202 Syria earthquake, occurred 820 years ago during the month of May. The wake of its destruction was unprecedented, with some experts estimating that its wrath generated a death toll as high as 1 million.

The earthquake was part of a series of quakes that hit Syria-Lebanon that century, the first in 1138 and the last in 1202. The earthquake was a consequence of the region’s position on the Dead Sea Transform between the African and Arabian plates.

The effects of the earthquake were recorded as XI (meaning Extreme) on the Mercalli intensity scale. This time, mch 551 AD, it is believed that there was a tsunami that hit both the Lebanese and Cypriot coast after the earthquake. Some scholars dispute whether that tsunami is directly linked to the earthquake, while some even go far as to dispute the existence of one major earthquake, arguing that at least two may have occurred during the time period.

Whether it was one, two, or a dozen earthquakes, what is certain is that it left behind massive destruction. The earthquake was felt as far as Sicily in the west and Iran in the east. It caused considerable damage to all of Lebanon, northern and central Palestine, and western Syria.

The cities of Tyre, Acre, and Nablus were almost wiped out by the event, bearing the brunt of the damage. There were an estimated 30,000 deaths linked with the immediate aftermath of the quake, with 1 million cumulative deaths recorded for the year. Historians are uncertain whether or not that entire figure can be attributed to the flood, as they could also be linked to events such as the Nile failing to flood and epidemics.

At the time, the areas were ruled by the Ayyubid Sultanate and the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Damage that resulted from the earthquake can be seen in how the walls of the Vadum Iacob crusader castle were affected by the shock.

The earthquake was the last to hit the region in the Middle Ages, shaping a region that was already suffering under imperial and crusader strife. By some it is considered the record holder for most destructive earthquake to this day.