EARTHQUAKES. Persia and Afghanistan lie on the great alpine belt that extends from the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean through the Indonesian archipelago and forms the world’s longest collision boundary, between the Eurasian plate in the north and several former Gondwanan blocks in the south, including the so-called “Iranian plates” and “Afghan plates” (Schöler, pp. 29f.). Hence, it is not surprising that they are regions of high seismic activity.

i. In Afghanistan.

ii. In Central Asia.

iii. In Persia.

iv. The historical record of earthquakes in Persia.



Inside Afghan territory a major suture line is the Herat fault which runs from west to east throughout the country over 1,200 km and extends on a further 300 km inside Tajikistan, where it is called the Central Pamir fault. It is actually a dextral (right-lateral) transform fault with a W-E direction west of Čārīkār and a SW-NE direction east of that point. Russian geologists distinguish these two segments by calling them respectively Main Hari Rôd fault (glavnyi gerirudskiiĭ razlom) and Central Badaḵšān fault (Dronov, pp. 465f.). South of it, a network of transform faults delimits several intra-Gondwanan blocks of various sizes. The most important is the S-N Čaman sinistral fault (800 km, out of which 650 km inside Afghanistan), between the Afghan and Indian plates, which is the second major structure of Afghanistan (Wellman). It joins the Herat fault near Čārīkār; from it splay off two secon-dary sinistral faults, the Gardēz fault, which forms the eastern limit of the Kabul block, and the Moqor-Qandahār fault, which is the western limit of the Qalat-e Ḡilzay block (Carbonnel, pp. 145f.). On the other hand, two dextral faults, the NW-SE Sarobī (150 km) and SW-NE Konar faults delimit the Nūrestān and Jalālābād blocks (Prévot, pp. 6, 113).

Present-day Afghan territory is therefore criss-crossed by a network of transform faults of high tectonic activity; hence no surprise if it is a region of high seismic activity. The frequency of detectable earthquakes occurring within, or near, the borders of the country has been assumed to be in the order of 5,000 events per year. Of this large number at least 500 would be classified as significant earthquakes, i.e., earthquakes recorded by seismic stations located outside Afghanistan (Heuckroth and Karim, 1970, p. 4). High as they are, these figures are underestimates, however.

Contemporary data show sharp regional contrasts in the frequency of earthquakes (Table 41; also Schöler and Bauer). Out of 1,039 events with a reported magnitude of 4.5 or greater recorded for the period 1900-1983, 534, or 51.4 percent, occurred in the Hindu Kush region of NE Afghanistan, where a remarkably persistent source of earthquakes is located along the Central Badaḵšān fault in the Kūh-e Ḵᵛāja Moḥammad, between the Warsaj and upper Kōkča valleys, at about 36°30′ N and 70°30′ E—a very isolated and less accessible area; major events originating from that source may cause cracks in buildings in Kabul (250 km SW) and are felt up to distances of more than 1,000 km from the epicenter (e.g., in 1937, 1960, 1962, 1964-65). Another series of 473 major events, or 45.5 percent, were located along the nearby eastern part of the Afghan-Soviet border. But only thirty-two occurred in other parts of the country, including the area of the Čaman fault which thus appears to have been recently less active along its Afghan northern section (the sectio Ḡaznī-Čārīkār being actually inactive; Carbonnel, p. 147) than along its Pakistani southern extremity, where a major shock destroyed Quetta on 31 May 1935, causing a loss of about 30,000 lives (Jackson; Quittmeyer and Jacobs, pp. 793ff.; Yeats et al.; Prévot, pp. 61ff., similarly stresses the low level of microseismic activity south of Moqor. Only one earthquake out of these thirty-two events was recorded in west Afghanistan (the shocks of 19 Sonbola 1310 Š./10 September 1931 and 2 Mīzān 1329 Š./24 September 1950, famous for having reportedly caused the collapse of three minarets in Herat, are not recorded, probably on account of an intensity below 4.5; Figure 31; Ambraseys and Melvill, p. 197, n. 16). The level of modern seismic activity is therefore minimal in western and southern Afghanistan and maximal in NE Afghanistan, in rough accordance with the uneven distribution of transform faults in the country. In the broader Asian context, western and southern Afghanistan are clearly areas of “seismic quiescence” between the much more unstable Persian and Himalayan regions, with NE Afghanistan being definitely included into the latter (Schöler and Bauer; Ambraseys and Melvill, p. 140; Table 41, above).

Average surface-wave magnitudes(measured on the Richter scale) do not show any significant regional variation (Table 41, above). Between 1900 and 1983, however, extreme magnitudes have been recorded only in NE Afghanistan: out of nineteen earthquakes with a magnitude of 7.0 or greater, eighteen occurred in the Hindu Kush and one in the nearby Soviet-Afghan border region. The greatest magnitude recorded has been 8.1 for the 215 km-deep earthquake of 14 Rabīʿ I 1340/15 November 1921 in Kūh-e Ḵᵛāja Moḥammad (Riad and Meyers, p. 115). Somewhat lighter events occurring at smaller depths may be more destructive, however: the Sayḡān-Kahmard earthquake of 19 Jawzā 1335 Š./9 June 1956, located north of the Herat fault, with a magnitude of 7.3 (some reports say 7.6; Quittmeyer and Jacob, p. 796) and a focal depth of only 60 km, caused an estimated 300 to 400 deaths and extensive damage in northern Hazārajāt (Riad and Meyers, map); it was preceded by one foreshock (8 June) and followed by five aftershocks within two days which delineated a rupture zone of some 50 km in length and 25 km in width (Quittmeyer and Jacobs, p. 796).

Sources for Afghan historical seismicity in both archives and published literature still remain to be thoroughly studied. The only available survey lists no more than sixty-two earthquakes from the origin to 1900, and only two between 445/1053 and 1247/1831—an altogether insignificant number (Heuckroth and Karim, 1970, pp. C5ff.). Though preliminary, the present knowledge of historical seismicity in Afghanistan suggests that areas which have been recently free from earthquakes have been badly hit in the past. Such is, for instance, the case for western Afghanistan, where Herat was shocked in 234/849 and again, more severely, in 495/1102 and 765/1364 (Heuckroth and Karim, 1970, pp. 50, C5; Ambraseys and Melville, pp. 37, 41, 44; see idem, p. 140, for excessive downgrading of historical seismicity in western Afghanistan).

The oldest earthquake recorded so far damaged the Greco-Bactrian city of Āy Ḵānom in the period 50 B.C.E.-50 C.E. (Heuckroth and Karim, 1970, pp. 48ff.). In 203/819 a catastrophic earthquake destroyed a quarter of Balḵ and affected the whole area between Fāryāb to Toḵarestān (Ambraseys and Melville, p. 37). The same city was again hit in 813/1410 (idem, p. 44). In 444/1052-53 a destructive earthquake occurred along the Gardēz fault in the Urgūn area (Heuckroth and Karim, 1970, p. 50). Of all the major seismic events in the past, however, the most significant definitely was the Paḡmān earthquake of 3 Ṣafar 911/6 July 1505, located on the northern extremity of the Čaman fault, with an estimated magnitude of 8. Surface faulting was observed and extended for about 60 km along the base of the Paḡmān range where vertical displacements of several meters were recorded. Its effects were felt as far as Agra, a distance of more than 1,000 km, and several aftershocks were perceptible every day during the following month (Bābur-nāma, tr. Beveridge, p. 247; Heuckroth and Amin, 1970, pp. 50f.; Quittmeyer and Jacob, pp. 789f.).

Information is slightly less scanty for the earthquakes of the 19th century. The Badaḵšān seism of 19 Ramażān 1247/21 February 1832 appears to be the first documented earthquake known to have originated from the Hindu Kush; it severely hit the upper Kōkča valley (Heuckroth and Amin, 1970, pp. 51f.). On 8 Moḥarram 1258/19 February 1842 another major earthquake occurred along the Gardēz fault, with maximum intensity in the Alīngār valley and Jalālābād basin; several hundred individuals were killed; the radius of perceptibility of the event was 900 km, and numerous aftershocks were felt for many months (Quittmeyer and Jacob, p. 791). The Jabal Serāj earthquake of 7 Ramażān 1291/18 October 1874 was the third major seismic disturbance of the 19th century. It seems to have been connected with a rupture along the Herat fault, but evidence is not strong (Quittmeyer and Jacob, p. 803). According to some reports, as a result of this earthquake Jabal Serāj, Golbahār, and portions of Kūhestān were completely destroyed, and ground cracks were observed. On 30 Jumādā I 1310/20 December 1892 another severe earthquake was recorded in the Spīn Bōldak border area of southern Afghanistan, along the Čaman fault; left-lateral strike-slip movement of at least 75 cm was observed near the town of Sanzal; it damaged the railway line between Quetta and Čaman; the horizontal extent of the surface faulting was at least 30 km (Griesbach; McMahon, p. 402; Quittmeyer and Jacob, p. 791). According to information gathered by McMahon from local elders, other events had occurred previously—a total of three times during the elders’ life, and similar accounts of repeated movements along the Čaman fault in this vicinity were handed down in oral history.

As one enters the 20th century, information becomes more and more numerous and instrumentally documented (see above). A seismological observatory, equipped with a seismograph, the only one operating in the country, was established in the Faculty of Engineering of Kabul University in 1347 Š./1968 (Heuckroth and Amin 1970, p. 3). Among the significant contemporary events, one may cite the destructive earthquake which leveled most of Paštūn Kōt (Fāryāb province) on 14 Ḥamal 1313 Š./3 April 1934, but caused only little damage in Maymana, less than 10 km away (magnitude 5.4); the Hindu Kush earthquake of 13 Ḥūt 1327 Š./4 March 1949, one of the most severe in the present century (magnitude 7.5, depth 230 km), damaging extensively the entire northeastern part of the country but causing comparatively little loss of life; the Golrān series of light shocks in Asad-Sonbola 1334 Š./August 1955, which destroyed only some houses, stand distinctively among the very few events detected for western Afghanistan; the Saȳḡān-Kahmard earthquake of 1335 Š./1956, already referred to; the Tāšqorḡān (Ḵolm) earthquake of 28 Ḥūt 1355 Š./19 March 1976, located along an offshoot of the Herat fault (magnitude 5.5, depth 33 km), which took the lives of about fifty people and destroyed some 1,200 houses, including the whole village of Saȳḡānčī, which was quickly rebuilt through Australian assistance and according to antiseismic standards (independently supported roof) used for the first time in Afghanistan (Carbonnel and Denizot; Sibtain).



N. N. Ambraseys and C. P. Melville, A History of Persian Earthquakes, Cambridge, 1982.

The Bābur-nāma, tr. A. S. Beveridge, London, 1922, repr. London, 1969.

J.-P. Carbonnel, “La limite de la plaque indienne en Afghanistan. Nouvelles données géologiques et sismologiques,” in Recherches géologiques dans les chaînes alpines de l’Asie du sud-ouest. Livre à la mémoire de Albert F. de Lapparent, Paris, 1977, pp. 145-152.

Idem and F. Denizot, “Le tremblement de terre de Tachkourgan (N. Afghanistan) du 19-20 mars 1976,” Revue de Géormorphologie Dynamique 26/4, 1977, pp. 121-133.

J.-L. Chatelain, Étude fine de la sismicité en zone de collision continentale au moyen d’un réseau portable: Région Pamir-Hindu-Kush, Thèse troisième cycle, Grenoble Univ., 1978.

V. I. Dronov, “Krupneishie razlomy Afganistana,” in Sh. Abdulla and V. M. Chmyrov, eds., Geologiya i poleznye iskopaemye Afganistana, Moscow, 1980, I, pp. 464-73.

E. A. Flinn and E. R. Engdahl, “A Proposed Basis for Geographical and Seismic Regionalization,” Review of Geophysics 3/1, 1965, pp. 123-49.

C. L. Griesbach, “Notes on the Earthquake in Balûchistân on the 20th December 1892,” Records of the Geological Survey of India 26/2, 1893, pp. 57-61.

L. E. Heuckroth and R. A. Karim, Earthquake History. Seismicity and Tectonics of the Regions of Afghanistan, Kabul, 1970.

Idem, “Afghan Seismotectonics,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, A 274, 1973, pp. 389-95.

R. Jackson, Thirty Seconds at Quetta. The Story of an Earthquake, London, 1960.

R. D. Lawrence and R. S. Yeats, “Geological Reconnaissance of the Chaman Fault in Pakistan,” in A. Farah and K. A. De Jong, eds., Geodynamics of Pakistan, Quetta, 1979, pp. 351-57.

A. H. McMahon, “The Southern Borderlands of Afghanistan,” Geographical Journal 9/4, 1897, pp. 393-415.

R. D. Prévot, Sismicité superficielle du nord-est de l’Afghanistan, Thèse troisième cycle, Grenoble Univ., 1979.

R. C. Quittmeyer, A. Farah, and K. H. Jacob, “The Seismicity of Pakistan and its Relation to Surface Faults,” in A. Farah and K. A. De Jong, eds., Geodynamics of Pakistan, Quetta, 1979, pp. 271-84 (covers much of Afghanistan, too).

R. C. Quittmeyer and K. H. Jacob, “Historical and Modern Seismicity of Pakistan, Afghanistan, N.W. India and S.E. Iran,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 69/3, 1979, pp. 773-823.

S. Riad and H. Meyers, Earthquake Catalog for the Middle East Countries 1900-1983, World Data Center A for Solid Earth Geophysics, Report SE-40, Boulder (Col.), National Geophysical Data Center, 1985.

S. Schöler, Aktuelle und historische Seismizität im Vorderen und Mittleren Orient, Wiesbaden, 1992.

Idem and E. Bauer, Vorderer Orient—Seismotektonik, geschichtliche Beben, Wiesbaden, 1984, TAVO Sheet A II 3 (suggestive although coverage is poor for Afghanistan).

S. N. Sibtain, To Build a Village. Earthquake-Resistant Rural Architecture—A Technical Handbook, Sydney, 1982.

H. W. Wellman, “Active Wrench Faults of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan,” Geologische Rundschau 55, 1966, pp. 716-35.

R. Wolfart and H. Wittekindt, Geologie von Afghanistan, Berlin and Stuttgart, 1980.

R. S. Yeats et al., “Surface Effects of the 16 March 1978 Earthquake, Pakistan-Afghanistan Border,” in A. Farah and K. A. De Jong, eds., Geodynamics of Pakistan, Quetta, 1979, pp. 359-61.






Central Asia lies in the Mediterranean-Himalayan seismic belt and comprises two distinct regions of high seismic activity (Table 42, Table 43). The first, in southwest Turkmenistan, includes two seismic zones: i) the Krasnovodsk area, along the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea, which is associated with the larger zone of the conjunction of the uplifted Kuba Dagh-Greater Balkan tectonic structure with the Trans-caspian depression; ii) the Ashkhabad area, which borders on a highly active region in northern Persia. Most of the epicenters in the latter zone lie near the Kopet Dag fault, where the greatest tectonic activity is concentrated (Medvedev, pp. 300-13).

The second region includes the territories of Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, southeastern Uzbekistan, southeastern Kazakhstan, and eastern Sinkiang Province in China. A heterogeneous tectonic area, including territories of Caledonian, Variscan, and Alpine folding, this region is enlaced by a fairly complicated network of faults characterized by both horizontal and vertical displacements of recent development (Nalivkin, pp. 533f; Leith, pp. 1-22). Researchers have proposed that seismic activity in the region derives from continental collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates, beginning about 40 million years ago (Molnar and Tapponnier). The longest fault in the region, the Talas-Farḡāna fault, is oriented NW-SE and extends for over 1,500 km, cross-cutting the Tien Shan mountain range for over 600 km. For approximately 700 km along the southern boundary of the Tien Shan, another zone of seismicity several tens of kilometers wide follows the EW-oriented Gissar(Ḥeṣār)-Kokshal fault zone. The two other major faults are the Darvāz-Karakul and Central Pamir faults, both of which extend from the Tarim Basin to the Hindu Kush, skirting the northern Pamirs (Burtmen; Kristy; Molnar and Qidong).

Between these two active regions, there is another of lesser activity, with only isolated known foci, along the lower course of the Oxus river, encompassing the regions of Marv, Čārjū (Āmol), Bukhara, and Ḵᵛārazm—the sites of the oldest extant cultural monuments in Central Asia. However, several earthquakes have been reported in this area in the last millennium. Even the northward shift of the course of the Oxus has reputedly been ascribed, in the Khivan tradition, to a strong earthquake (Ambraseys, p. 149).

The earthquakes listed in Table 42 have been identified principally from historical sources but also, in a few cases, from archaeological or geological evidence. The earliest traces of macroseismic activity in Central Asia may be in Ak-Tepe, in the vicinity of Ashkhabad, where archaeological evidence suggests that an earthquake during the second millennium B.C.E. damaged a building structure (Kondorskaya, pp. 519f.). Evidence for the strong earthquake that destroyed old Nisa (Nesā) west of Ashkhabad for the first time is also archaeological, so that the date remains only approximate (idem). Literary sources, however, describe a second earthquake that destroyed the city in Ḏu’l Hejja 331/August 943), taking more than 5,000 lives (Gardīzī, ed. Ḥabībī, p. 155; Ebn al-Aṯīr, VIII, p. 404). Abū Dolaf also describes the destruction of dozens of villages in the Salmaqān valley by the same earthquake (Ambraseys, p. 39). The Kerki earthquake of 1175 presents a case where historical sources corroborate the geomorphological evidence (Kondorskaya, p. 525).

Owing to lack of historical evidence, incidents in the more earthquake-prone regions of Central Asia are less represented in Table 42 than in Table 43. Tajikistan is among these regions: on the average, it suffers a destructive earthquake every ten to fifteen years, with an annual incidence of thousands of recordable seismic events (Kukhtikova; Roecker). Most of these smaller events lie below the threshold of human perception, but a traditional Now-rūz custom reveals that they may be strong enough to displace an egg on a flat mirror, a sign of the beginning of the new year.

The fact that Central Asia possesses the highest level of seismicity in the continental territory of the former Soviet Union has made it the subject of a strikingly large number of seismological and seismotectonic studies. As part of a countrywide network—first Russian and then Soviet—the following seismic stations were installed prior to the Second World War: Tashkent (1902), Alma Ata [formerly Vernyi] (1907), Frunze [formerly Bishkek] (1927), Andejān (1929), Samarkand (1929), and Čimkent (1934) (Ambraseys, pp. 134-37). It was not until one year after the highly destructive Fayżābād earthquake sequence of 1943 that a seismic station was set up in Dushanbe, followed by one in Ashkhabad in 1947 (idem). In the 1950s, further development of seismic studies of Central Asian territories resulted from two catastrophic earthquakes: that of 1948 in Ashkhabad, whose toll of 19,800 lives was kept secret by the Soviet Union until the late 1980s, and that of 1949 in Ḥāʾeṭ, during which an enormous landslide buried the center of that Tajik district, and 150 other settlements suffered heavy damage (Kukhtikova).

Active work on earthquake prediction began after the Tashkent earthquake of 1966, the focus of which appeared beneath the center of the city, causing significant destruction despite its relatively low magnitude. Seismic outposts called “polygons,” containing extensive instrumentation for earthquake prediction, were installed in the regions of Ashkhabad, Tashkent, Frunze-Alma Ata, Osh, and Dushanbe-Ḡarm, all being regions calculated to be particularly vulnerable to earthquakes (Nersesov). An improved version of the seismic zoning map of the Soviet Union, originally published with a scale of 1:5,000,000 during the mid-1950s (Medvedev, p. 65), was republished with a scale of 1:1,500,000 in the 1970s. Subsequently, more detailed maps were prepared for individual regions of Central Asia (Sodovsky; Asimov et al.).

During the détente years of the early 1970s, scientific agreements for environmental protection between the United States and the Soviet Union led to several joint studies aimed at earthquake prediction. Under this agreement a number of Western researchers visited Central Asia and, in conjunction with the republics’ Academies of Sciences, conducted field studies on the seismicity and seismotectonics in the region. In recent years, continued seismological studies in Central Asia have been conducted under the “Joint Seismic Program” (IRIS Consortium). A prominent institution for the study of earthquakes in Central Asia is currently the Institute of Seismic Resistant Construction and Seismology of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, founded in 1951. This organization has conducted both experimental and theoretical research and has participated in major construction and engineering projects in Tajikistan (Asimov and Negmatov). In the 1980s, the institute issued the annual publication Zemletryaseniy v sredney Azii i Kazakhstana (Earthquakes in Central Asia and Kazakhstan) and Prognoz zemletryasenii (Earthquake Prediction).



N. N. Ambraseys and C. P. Melville, A History of Persian Earthquakes, Cambridge, 1982.

M. S. Asimov and N. N. Negmatov, “Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic: Science and Scientific Institutions,” Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (tr. from 1976 Russian ed.), XXV, A. M. Prokharov, ed., New York, 1980, pp. 300-03.

M. S. Asimov et al., “On the State of Research Concerning Earthquake Prediction in the Soviet Republics of Central Asia,” Earthquake Prediction: Proceedings of International Symposium on Earthquake Prediction, Tokyo, 1984, pp. 585-95.

V. S. Burtman, “Faults of Middle Asia,” American Journal of Science 280, 1980, pp. 725-44.

P. K. Dunbar, P. A. Lockridge, and L. S. Whiteside, eds., Catalogue of Significant Earthquakes 2150 B. C.-1991 A. D., World Data Center A, Boulder (Col.), 1992. IRIS Consortium, “Installation of Seismic Stations,” 1993 Annual Report, Arlington (Va.), 1994, pp. 22-26.

N. V. Kondorskaya, and N. V. Shebalin, eds., NewCatalog of Strong Earthquakes in the USSR from Ancient Times through 1977, World Data Center A for Solid Earth Geophysics, Boulder (Col.), 1982.

M. J. Kristy and D. W. Simpson, “Seismicity Changes Preceding Two Recent Central Asian Earthquakes,” Journal of Geophysical Research 85/B9, 1980, pp. 4829-37.

T. I. Kukhtikova et al., “Zilzila,” Entsiklopediyai sovetii tojik, 2 vols., M. S. Osimi (ʿĀṣemī), ed., Dushanbe, 1980, II, pp. 490-92.

W. Leith, The Tajik Depression, USSR: Geology, Seismicity and Tectonics, unpubl. Ph.D. dissert., Columbia University, 1984.

S. V. Medvedev, ed., Seismic Zoning of the USSR (tr. from 1968 Russian edition), Jerusalem, 1976.

P. Molnar and D. Qidong, “Faulting Associated with Large Earthquakes and the Average Rate of Deformation in Central and Eastern Asia,” Journal of Geophysical Research 89, 1984, pp. 6203-27.

P. Molnar and P. Tapponnier, “Cenozoic Tectonics of Asia: Effects of a Continental Collision,” Science 189/4201, 1975, pp. 419-26.

D.V. Nalivkin, Geology of the USSR (tr. from Russian, Moscow-Leningrad, 1962), Edin-burgh, 1973.

S. W. Roecker, “Velocity Structure of the Pamir-Hindu Kush Region: Possible Evidence of Subducted Crust,” Journal of Geographical Research 87/B2, 1982, pp. 945-59.

M. A. Sadovsky and I. L. Nersesov, “Earthquake Prediction Problems in the USSR,” Proceedings of the Seminar on Earthquake Prediction Case Histories, Geneva, 1983, pp. 35-49.




Sources and state of current knowledge. Based on numerous but fragmentary observations of earthquakes over a long period of time, it is only since the middle of the 20th century that there has been an attempt at systematic study of seismic activity in Persia and that macroseismic data collected at international stations have been refined in relation to the Persian situation, through the establishment of a network of local seismological stations, in Tehran (1337 Š./1958); Shiraz (1338 Š./1959); Safīdrūd (1341 Š./1962); Tabrīz, Mašhad, and Kermānšāh (1343-44 Š./1964-65); Būšehr (1354 Š./1975); Isfahan (1355 Š./1976); and Sāva (1356 Š./1977), each the center of a constellation of substations. After early, incomplete, and imperfect attempts at cataloguing earthquakes in Persia (A. T. Wilson), the first comprehensive seismotectonic map of the country was published; it was limited to north central Persia and was drawn to a scale of 1:1 million (Tchalenko et al.). It was soon followed by a map of the entire country, drawn to a scale of 1:2.5 million, with supplementary maps of the epicenters of destructive earthquakes in the period 1318-96=1279-1355 Š./1900-76, of the principal faults in the country, and of earthquakes recorded since the 4th century B.C.E., all drawn to a scale of 1:5 million (Berberian). The historical study was taken up again in a fundamental work by N. N. Ambraseys and Charles Melville (1982), who drew upon a much broader range of documentary sources; their work is a model of its kind, encompassing not only a general study, but also reconstructed maps of the areas of destruction connected with a number of major historical earthquakes. More recently these data have been integrated into a much less detailed synthesis and then into a general seismic map of the entire Near and Middle East (Schöler and Bauer; Schöler). Nevertheless, it must be admitted that our knowledge of past earthquakes is still insufficient, owing particularly to the extreme unevenness of the documentation for different regions; indeed, for many sparsely populated desert areas it is almost entirely absent, both from textual sources and from the archeological record. The broad outlines of seismotectonics have thus been established, but they cannot yet be filled in without some hesitation and approximation.

General features of the seismological geology of Persia. The main relevant feature is the great Zagros fault line, where the Arabian and central Iranian plates overlap. In this zone, 1,600 km long and on average 250 km wide, seismic activity is extreme. Historical data suggest that there has been continuous seismic activity, with occasional local tremors, but chiefly a large number of mild earthquakes bearing little relation to tectonic fractures in the region or to visible traces of recurrence; nor can they be linked with major faults. In certain parts of the Zagros nomadic tribes report that the earth trembles more or less regularly every year, setting off notable rock slides. At Bandar-e ʿAbbās in 1031/1622, besides a major earthquake on 28 Ḏu’l-qaʿda/4 October, there were six or seven minor tremors, but the residents reported to a European traveler that there was usually an average of only one earthquake a year (Della Valle, III, p. 590). Altogether, however, this zone seems to have been relatively free from major earthquakes, and, despite continual deformation of the earth’s crust, most episodes have had no serious seismic consequences. Throughout its history Shiraz has experienced numerous tremors in which varying numbers of buildings have collapsed, but only one truly cataclysmic earthquake, that of 26 Rajab 1269/5 May 1853, in which about 9,000 people died.

Northeast of the Zagros central Persia corresponds broadly to a mosaic of Gondwanian plates, the details of which have not yet been sufficiently defined; altogether, they constitute a stable zone. Major earthquakes are rare there, and it is the region in which the largest number of early minarets are preserved (at Isfahan, Yazd, and Kermān; for Isfahan, see Ambraseys, 1979). Earthquakes there seem to be essentially local reverberations from major events in other regions. Movements resulting from the subsidence of the Zagros are, however, transmitted through the central Iranian plates toward the northern and eastern zones, tracing a gigantic triangle.

These northern and eastern zones thus experience the most intense seismic responses to the general drift of Arabia toward Eurasia. It is there that most serious earthquakes occur, throughout the length of the so-called Iranian Crescent, which extends from Azerbaijan through the Alborz, Khorasan and the Kopet Dag, Kūhestān, and Sīstān east of the Dašt-e Lūt as far as Makrān, for which sources are rare. Important earthquakes can also occur in the regions of central Persia along the edges of the Iranian Crescent, thus in the Ṭabas (earthquake of 27 Šahrīvar 1357 Š./16 September 1978, which left 6,300 dead, 3,600 in the town itself) or in the fault area around Kāšān (15 Ḏu’l-qaʿda 1192/15 December 1778, in which more than 8,000 died). This seismic activity between tectonic plates does not appear to depend on the apparent surface tectonics or on the major Quaternary faults; rather it is correlated with minor faults, tilted and sometimes very recent, that have cut across earlier instances. Relatively long periods of quiescence separate major paroxysms, which thus seem totally unpredictable. For example, Nīšāpūr was affected by serious cataclysms in 605/1209, 669/1270, 808/1405 (leaving 30,000 dead), and 1084/1673 but has remained almost free of earthquakes since (Melville, 1980). Only Azerbaijan, particularly in the region of Tabrīz, is distinguished by apparently continuous seismic activity. More or less severe shocks were experienced in the city in 244/858, 434/1042, 672/1273, 704/1304, 746/1345, 864/1459, 957/1550, 1060/1650, 1068/1657, 1075/1664, 1130/1717, 1134/1721, 1195/1780, 1235/1819, 1253/1837, 1259/1843, 1273/1856, 1314/1896, and 1349=1309 Š./1930; those of 434/1042, 1134/1721, and 1195/1780 were particularly destructive, each doubtless causing 20,000-50,000 deaths. It has been suggested that seismic activity alternates somewhat between the northern and eastern parts of Persia, the former seeming to be enjoying a period of relative calm at present (with the exception of the Rūdbār earthquake in 1990), while the latter is undergoing a peak of activity (Ambraseys and Melville, p. 153).

Earthquakes in the beliefs and daily life of the Persians. In Persian popular belief the origins of earthquakes are attributed to the position of the globe on the horns of a bull, itself resting on a fish. When the bull is tired or, according to others, when there is too much injustice in the world, he becomes impatient and shifts the globe from one horn to the other, with resulting earthquakes. Some people claim that earthquakes occur where the earth falls directly onto the bull’s horn (Massé, Croyances et Coutumes I, p. 181). This notion is actually quite widespread all across the Islamic civilization of the Middle East, but Persian versions can be adduced, interpolation showing the influence of Shiʿism. The earthquake that destroyed Qūčān in Khorasan in 1313/1895 was explained by the fact that a son of the Imam ʿAlī al-Reża, whose tomb is located there, had gone to visit his father, who is buried at Mašhad, thus leaving the city defenseless against the elements (Donaldson, p. 264).

Recourse to astrologers was common during cataclysmic occurrences, and there were also individuals who predicted earthquakes. The astrologer Abū Ṭāher Šīrāzī was reported to have predicted the exact date of the earthquake that destroyed Tabrīz during the night of 14 Ṣafar 434/3 October 1042 and killed more than 40,000 people. He was consequently chosen to direct the reconstruction of the city and announced that in the future Tabrīz would no longer be in danger. Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfī, writing in 741/1340, noted that the prediction had proved correct (Nozhat al-qolūb, ed. Le Strange, pp. 75-76; tr., pp. 78-79; Ebn al-Aṯīr, IX, p. 513). After an earthquake at Urmia in 1300/1883 an astrologer from Tehran sent a telegram informing the population that the earth would continue to tremble for forty days. Armenian priests consulted their books and announced a new shock for the next morning at 11 o’clock. A mulla from Tabrīz predicted an aftershock for the following Sunday at 2:00 p.m., which set off a panic among the population. As his prediction did not come true, the mulla was arrested (S. G. Wilson, pp. 224-25). On 21 Jomādā I 1261/28 May 1845, at about four hours before nightfall, a tremor was felt 2 parasangs (ca. 14 km) from Mašhad just at the place where the European traveler J. P. Ferrier was preparing to camp for the night; his guide concluded that the tremor was a bad omen and moved the camp (Ferrier, I, p. 260).

In such a situation of permanent danger it is paradoxical that no systematic adaptation of traditional Persian construction techniques to the frequency of earth tremors has been attempted, at least until very recently (Ambraseys and Melville, p. 25). After the great earthquake of 1194/1780 at Tabrīz the inhabitants began to build their walls as low as possible, using wood instead of brick and stucco, and to roof the bāzārs with planks, rather than with domes (Morier, pp. 278-79). Nevertheless, in 1232/1817 they again rebuilt the city walls to a considerable height (Johnson, p. 212). In the same city it was apparently Westerners in the service of the crown prince ʿAbbās Mīrzā who first introduced construction methods that provided a certain security, particularly wood-frame structures with flexible joints (known as taḵta-pūš); while such methods seem to have been reserved for temporary shelters in gardens (Ker Porter, II, p. 502), the old houses were rebuilt in the traditional fashion. After the earthquake of 1288/1871 at Qūčān a new type of emergency shelter appeared: beams removed from the ruins were assembled in “A” frames or used as ridge poles, the walls being plastered with earth (MacGregor, II, pp. 85-86). When such a house had to be enlarged, an identical building was constructed parallel to the first and the space between enclosed with walls and covered with a flat roof. Houses of this type, consisting of one to three rooms, withstood the earthquakes of 1311/1893 and 1313/1895 and were still in place in 1322/1904 (Huntington, p. 236, pl. 27). But these ephemeral improvements do not seem to have had any long-term impact. In the 1960s there were private attempts in the comfortable neighborhoods of northern Tehran to bring spherical houses, already ill-adapted to the sloping terrain, up to antiseismic standards (Ambraseys and Melville, pp. 25-26, pl. 26), but no official regulations were ever adopted. In fact, Persia, which includes some of the most seismically active regions in the world, seems never to have been seriously concerned about the danger and the need for preventive measures. Daily life is marked by indifference and appears not to have been noticeably affected by major episodes. The historical repercussions have been none the less significant, particularly for the fates of certain cities. The decline of Qūmes in the 9th century, of Sīrāf in the 11th, and of Nīšāpūr after the 12th-14th centuries seems to have been largely owing to destructive earthquakes (Ambraseys and Melville, p. 109).


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Introduction. The Iranian plateau, characterized by active faulting, active folding, recent volcanic activities, and considerable elevation contrasts along the Alpine-Himalayan mountain belt, has been frequently struck by catastrophic earthquakes during recorded history. These earthquakes have resulted in great loss of life and, by rendering large numbers of people homeless and disrupting the agricultural and industrial bases of their lives, have wasted natural resources.

Archaeoseismicity. Large, destructive earthquakes are very infrequent. The dormant period between large-magnitude earthquakes on a particular fault or fault segment in Persia ranges from many centuries to millennia (Berberian, 1981, pp. 44-45; Ambraseys and Melville, 1982, pp. 158-62; Berberian et al., 1992, pp. 1728-31). The great length of the earthquake cycle for most active faults in Persia results in a paucity of historical (pre-1900) and instrumental (20th century) data from which to assess earthquake hazards or derive an understanding of the mechanism of faulting. Unlike instrumental and historical seismic records, the archaeological and geological records of earthquake activity extend many earthquake cycles into the past. Archaeological sites and historical monuments may yield direct or indirect evidence of earthquake activity. They may contain episodes of rebuilding or repairs following earthquakes.

Several archaeological sites and monuments have provided earthquake information on Persia: Sagzābād about the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. (Negahbān, 1973, pp. 11-13; Berberian et al., 1993, pp. 100-102), Ak-Tapa of 4,000 B.C.E. (Golinsky, 1982, p. 519), Gowdīn-Tapa of 4,000-3,350 B.C.E. (Young, 1968, p. 160), Mārlīk of 3,000-2,000 B.C.E. (Negahbān, 1990, p. 146; Berberian et al., 1992, pp. 1728-31), Parthian Nesā of 10 B.C.E.-10 C.E. (Golinsky, 1982, p. 519), Kangāvar Anāhītā Temple of the 17th century B.C.E. and 224-642 C.E. (Kāmbaḵš-Fard, 1974, p. 47), Bīšāpūr city of 293-302 and 531-79 C.E., late 10th century (Sarfarāz, 1987, pp. 45, 56, 71, and personal communication, January 1994; Berberian, 1994, p. 221), Nīšāpūr of 1145 and 1270 (Wilkinson, 1975, pp. xxxv, xxxvi), and Masjed-e-Jāmeʿ of Qāen of 1066 (Nāderī, 1980, pp. 103-07 ). The decline of civilization in the following cities seems to have been partly, if not largely, due to large-magnitude earthquakes, some of which were associated with long surface faulting: Sagzābād, Mārlīk, Kūmeš (after the 856 earthquake), Zarang/Sīstān (around 734, 805, and 815 C.E.), Sīrāf (978 and 1008 C.E.; Ṭāherī), Nīšāpūr (1145, 1209, 1251, 1270, 1389, and 1405), and Jīzd (1336). (For more information, see Berberian, 1994, pp. 53-161.)

Historical (pre-1900) earthquakes. Historical records of catastrophic earthquakes have survived for centuries. At least nine destructive earthquakes in Nīšāpūr/Šādyāḵ have reduced the size and changed the location of the city several times (Melville, 1980, pp. 116-17). Ray has been devastated at least six times in its recorded history (Ambraseys, 1974, pp. 50-68; Berberian et al., 1985, pp. 221-30, 287). Almost all monuments in Tabrīz were destroyed or severely damaged by at least eight large-magnitude earthquakes, especially by the one on 29 Ḏu’l-Hejja 1193/7 January 1780, which reduced all buildings to rubble. Unfortunately, except for the Blue Mosque (Masjed-e-Moẓaffarīya) built in 870/1465, the city now has very few historical monuments (Ṭabāṭabāʾī-Tabrīzī, 1294/1877, p. 121; Berberian and Aršadī, 1976, pp. 397-418; Melville, 1981, p. 167; Golombeck and Wilber,1988, pp. 31, 407-409). Table 44 (Table 44aTable 44b) lists the most important historical earthquakes in the Iranian plateau. (For more precise information, see Ambraseys and Melville, 1982, pp. 158-62; Berberian, 1994, pp. 11-413; Figure 32.)

20th-century earthquakes. Since the beginning of this century at least 126,000 people have lost their lives in destructive earthquakes in Persia. These losses cannot be justified in light of existing scientific knowledge and expertise in disaster management. Table 45 lists the most important earthquakes in Persia since 1900.

The Ṭabas-e-Golšan earthquake of 25 Šahrīvar 1357/16 September 1978 (Ms=7.4; Berberian, 1979, pp. 1861-87; 1982, pp.449-530) and the Rūdbār-Ṭārom earthquake of 31 Ḵordād 1369/20 June 1990 (Ms=7.4; Berberian et al., 1992, pp. 1726-55) were the most catastrophic earthquakes to have occurred in Persia to date in the 20th century. The Ṭabas-e-Golšan earthquake destroyed or severely damaged about ninety villages, slightly damaged another fifty villages in the region, and completely demolished the oasis town of Ṭabas-e-Golšan, where 85 percent of the inhabitants (11,000 out of 13,000) perished. Total fatalities were more than 20,000 with thousands injured. This earthquake, strongly felt over an area of 1,130,000 square km, destroyed over 15,000 housing units and thirty qanāts in the epicentral region (Berberian, 1989, pp. 1861-87). The Rūdbār-Ṭārom earthquake, the largest in this century to affect an urban area in Persia, killed over 40,000 people, injured 60,000, and left more than 500,000 homeless. The earthquake destroyed three towns (Rūdbār, Manjīl, and Lowšān) and 700 villages and damaged another 300 villages in Gīlān and Zanjān provinces of northwest Persia, southwest of the Caspian Sea. Nearly 100,000 buildings were destroyed or badly damaged. Water supplies in 283 villages were destroyed or reduced by 70 percent, several thousand livestock were buried under debris, and farms and irrigation canals were seriously damaged. In addition, 1,200 km of rural roads now require repair or reconstruction (Berberian et al., 1992, pp. 1726-55). Economic losses caused by this earthquake have been estimated at $7.2 billion, constituting 7.2 percent of the GNP (UNESCO, DHA News, Department of Humanitarian Affairs, 1992, p. 30). The long-term effects of this catastrophic event, such as the disruption of major economic links between three large provinces, the resettlement of populations from at least three large towns and 700 villages, and the reconstruction of buildings according to modern standards will take decades to accomplish and will absorb a considerable part of the country’s resources.



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(Daniel Balland, Habib Borjian, Xavier de Planhol, Manuel Berberian)

Originally Published: December 15, 1996

Last Updated: December 2, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VII, Fasc. 6, pp. 626-640