Lying on the Orontes River some 20 km (13 mi) inland from the Mediterranean coast in what is now the southeastern corner of modern Turkey, the ancient city of Antioch was an important centre of early Christianity. Founded in the late 4th century BC in Syria, as it then was, by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Antioch prospered as the capital of his new dominion and grew rapidly. In its heyday during the early Roman Empire the city had an estimated population of half million; only Alexandria and Rome itself were more prestigious. Antioch was the destination for St Paul’s first missionary journey following his conversion on the Damascus road, and the New Testament tells us that its gentile converts to the new religion were also the first to call themselves Christians.
Important though the city was, Antioch had the misfortune to be situated in one of the most unstable parts of the planet. In geological terms the Eastern Mediterranean is an area where four great tectonic plates meet. Antioch itself lay on the Anatolian plate and had a history of recurring earthquakes which damaged the buildings and fabric of the metropolis, including one in AD 115 while the Emperor Trajan himself was staying in the city before his ill- fated Parthian campaign. These were as nothing, however, to the massive quake of late May AD 526 which completely destroyed the city, including the great church built 200 hundred years previously by Emperor Constantius II, son of Constantine the Great. Few contemporary accounts of the disaster survive, but any buildings left standing after the initial tremor probably collapsed in a series of aftershocks; a huge fire which broke out the following day consumed what was left of Antioch ‘the Golden’.
When did the Antioch earthquake happen: Late May AD 526
Where did the Antioch earthquake happen: Antakya, Turkey
What was the Antioch earthquake death toll: Although the population had declined since its heyday, it is estimated that the city’s entire population of some 250,000 perished in the earthquake.
You should know: Its location made Antioch a key strategic bulwark of the Eastern Roman Empire against the Persian threat from the east. When Justinian assumed the Byzantine throne the year after the earthquake he spent lavishly on rebuilding the city. It was to little avail, however, as just a dozen years later it was sacked by the Persians.