Corinth Earthquake – Greece – 856 AD

Corinth, a city well acquainted with earthquakes because of its many underground geological fault lines, experienced an earthquake of magnitude 8 or more that almost totally destroyed the city in 856

Corinth, a busy and successful seaport in Greece and once part of the Byzantine Roman Empire, was no stranger to earthquakes. It stood amid a series of fault lines and the conjunctions of several tectonic plates or platelets so, like Iran and several other eastern Mediterranean places, Corinth frequently experienced earthquakes. The speed with which these tectonic plates moved far beneath its surface was greater that almost anywhere else. One subducting plate moved at three quarters of an inch per year. In geological terms that is very fast. Today that movement still continues at the same rate and we have the advantage of GPS technology to confirm the rate. In 856, Corinth experienced its worst of many earthquakes, one that is now recognized as having a strength greater than 8 on the Richter Scale. The city was almost totally destroyed and 45,000 people lost their lives.

Ancient Corinth, the original Corinth, founded more than three thousand years ago, was the richest port and the largest city in ancient Greece. Strategically located guarding the narrow isthmus that connects the Peloponnesus (as southern Greece is called) to the mainland, it was a powerful commercial center. The four-mile-wide Isthmus of Corinth was always a problem because Corinth was on the west side of it. Thus ships arriving through the Gulf of Corinth from Italy and other places west had to turn back through the Gulf and take the long journey around Peloponnesus in order to reach Athens. Yet Athens was less than fifty miles from Corinth. If only they had a canal across the isthmus the journey would be so much easier. Ships could continue their voyage past Corinth for the short journey to Athens. Some sailors were so anxious to overcome the hazard of the isthmus that they would drag their ships across it rather than contend with the long sea voyage. Ships were very much smaller in these times so they could do this. In addition, there were the dangers of encountering pirates at sea and every sailor wanted to avoid that type of encounter.

As early as 67, Emperor Nero saw the advantages of having a canal dug across the isthmus. He lifted the first sod with a golden trowel, then instructed six thousand Jewish slaves he had brought from Palestine to get on with the work. There is no record of anything significant having been done by Nero’s slaves. It was not until 1893 that the canal was finally dug and the ship voyage from Corinth to Athens was shortened by two hundred miles. The present site of Corinth (Korinthos on maps) with a population of 50,000 is quite close to the site of the ancient one. It is a port and a major transportation center on the Gulf of Corinth trading in olives, tobacco, raisins, and wine. Founded in 1858 after the destruction of Old Corinth by an earthquake, it was rebuilt after another earthquake in 1928 and was formerly known as New Corinth. Old Corinth, just southwest of modern Corinth, is now a village. It is strategically situated on the Isthmus of Corinth and protected by the fortifications on a two-thousand-foot high limestone mountain above the city. Almost all of the pillars that held up the temples of ancient Corinth have collapsed under successive earthquakes over the past two thousand years.

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