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Bachar Bzeih 29 Dec 2022

Historical Snapshot: The 1956 Chheem Earthquake

After the major earthquakes of the years 551, 1202, and 1759, there was one last major earthquake in Lebanon, the 1956 Chheem earthquake.

Long after the age of empires, this time the Earth shattered under the rule of an independent Lebanese state that was still trying to get its feet on the ground. When the earthquake hit on March 16, the Lebanese Republic was celebrating 10 and a bit years of independence, Camile Chamoun was president, and the historic Suez Crisis would happen just a few months later.

The earthquake was a twin-shock event caused by Lebanon’s position on the Dead Sea Transform, with this time the Roum fault supposedly at the centre of the chaos. The first shock is said to have occurred at 7:32 and was recorded to have a 5.3 magnitude, and the second shock at 7:43 and was recorded to have a 5.5 magnitude.

It is estimated that around 136 died, and more than 500 were injured by the catastrophe. Close to 6,000 homes were destroyed by the quake and 15,000 people were displaced. Deaths were reported in over 28 municipalities in the country, with Chheem taking the brunt of the damage with 33 dead.

For an event that happened so recently, little local archival footage, pictures, or even written reporting exists around the event. One very 1950s British news report (with the voice and everything) briefly chronicles the impact of the earthquake in the country, mispronouncing Chheem as Chreem.

The Lebanese ambassador to the UL was published in the Times on March 26, approximating the damage at 50 million Lebanese Lira (6 million British pounds). He then echoed President Chamoun’s call for international donations to the victims of the quake. The Times’ reporting on March 18 had given a predictably Orientalist twist, stating that “this is an entirely Muslim village,” and that the residents have faced the disaster “with a fatalism that sometimes appears to a stranger to approach apathy.”

Contemporary reporting from the Washington Post stated that the United States donated $2 million after the shock. The New York Times published a special report detailing a Soviet offer to send a free envoy of engineers to rebuild the destroyed villages. Then Minister of Public Works, Emile Bustani, in a meeting with Soviet ambassador Sergei Kiktev remarked that the $2 million US grant was useful for the securement of reconstruction material, however the country was lacking skilled personnel to carry out the reconstruction. It is unclear if in the end Lebanon took on the Soviet offer.

Today, the same fault that lied at the heart of this earthquake threatened to also turn the proposed Bisri Dam into a ticking time bomb, so we are thankful that the project is canceled (for now). Hopefully, we can present more local reporting on the earthquake and its impact in a future article.