SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) A string of killer earthquakes may have been responsible for the destruction of ancient cities including Troy, Mycenae and Knossos around 1200 B.C., ending the Bronze Age in one shattering blow, a scientist said Wednesday.
Amos Nur, chairman of the geophysics department at Stanford University, said the theory of an "earthquake storm" in the Eastern Mediterranean could throw light on why so many ancient cities collapsed during one single, 50-year period between 1225 and 1175 B.C.
"This was the greatest catastrophe in what would eventually become Western civilization," Nur said at a news briefing at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. "It resulted in a massive destruction of all large centers."
Nur's theory, which he said may account for the biblical prophecy of the Apocalypse, holds that the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East sit on tectonic plates that periodically experience so-called storms of earthquakes measuring 6.5 or greater on the open-ended Richter scale.
By examining more recent series of quakes in the region, including one that struck Turkey's North Anatolian fault between 1939 and 1967, Nur developed the idea that a domino effect could have set off one devastating earthquake after another in the region during the Bronze Age.
"They all sit in the high-intensity zone," Nur said. "If you wait long enough, and you live in one of these cities, you will experience a destructive earthquake."
Nur's theory contrasts with archaeological explanations for the end of the Bronze Age, which hold that many of the cities stretching in an arc from Greece through Eastern Turkey and down to Crete and Israel fell to plague or war.
While geologic testing is not precise enough to indicate that specific earthquakes occurred at each of these sites, Nur said the probability of severe quake storms was high.
"The end of the Bronze Age was triggered, or caused, by a storm like this," Nur said, adding that the physical destruction visited on the cities could well have been followed by complete societal collapse.
"These centers were where the elite defended themselves, mostly against their own indigenous population,'' Nur said. "The earthquakes make these centers vulnerable to attack."
To further expand his theory, Nur turned to the city Megiddo on the main route between Damascus and Egypt that was repeatedly destroyed during its 5,000 years of history.
Nur looked at ancient records in the region and deduced that three layers of destruction in Megiddo could not be explained by armed invasion — leaving major earthquakes on the nearby Carmel-Gilboa fault system as a possible culprit.
This theory was backed by the gruesome discoveries of crushed skeletons found in layers of collapsed rubble. The bodies lay in positions indicating they had been struck by a sudden and massive load, Nur said.
He has extrapolated that the repeated earthquakes that struck Megiddo may have helped to inspire the vision of the all-destroying Apocalypse found in the Bible's Book of Revelation.
"Har Megiddo" or Mount of Megiddo, is the original Hebrew name the Greeks transcribed as Armageddon — the final battlefield between good and evil.
Nur said more work is needed before his theory could be nailed down as fact, and that the evolving scientific understanding of earthquake storms would be a big part of assessing the seismic impact on human history.
"An earthquake; it's an arbitrary occurrence," Nur said. "That the path of history changes because of an earth quake. . . that's kind of unnerving."