Mirko Sardelic PhD: A Brief History of the Most Devastating Earthquakes

Total Croatia News

April 30, 2020 – Last month, Mirko Sardelic PhD gave an excellent interview for TCN – A History of Pandemics: Lessons to Apply to the Corona Crisis. Today, a brief history of the most devastating earthquakes.

Interviewer: Aco Momcilović, psychologist, EMBA, Owner of FutureHR

Interview with Mirko Sardelić, Ph.D., Research Associate at the Department of Historical Studies HAZU, Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1800) at The University of Western Australia; formerly a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Paris (Sorbonne), Columbia, and Harvard.

In the aftermath of the Zagreb 2020 earthquake, many questions have arisen, and to answer some of them I again turned to history experts. It seems that earthquakes claimed millions of lives only in the last 100 years, and surprisingly unlike in many other areas, improvements in technology “have only slightly reduced the death toll”. They are dispersed around the world in critical areas, and they did force us to build in a smarter way. In the past, we attributed their causes to many different things, and today we have much clearer scientific information about their origins, yet, it seems they still make us feel helpless. How did our ancestors deal with all those questions? Hopefully, we will get some answers in my interview with Mirko Sardelić.

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What were the strongest earthquakes in the Balkan region that history can remember?

When it comes to earthquakes, the most powerful ones, higher than 7 (even 8) of magnitude, were recorded in Greece, especially Crete. Greece also has the highest number of strong earthquakes in our region. It is enough to mention the Thera (the island of Santorini) earthquake of 1500 BC and eruption that changed the history of Minoan civilization. When compared to other world regions, it can be said that the Greek quakes are quite moderate in terms of human casualties, numbering hundreds, rarely thousands. In relatively recent history, when it comes to changing the way earthquakes were perceived in former Yugoslavia, the milestone was the Skopje earthquake (6.1 of magnitude, causing more than 1000 deaths) from the summer of 1963. It has lifted the construction standards in the region significantly. Quite destructive was the Montenegro earthquake of 1979 (over 7 in magnitude) which left its mark on the architecture of Montenegro, Albania, and South Croatia.

It needs to be mentioned here that in our vicinity Italy has the most horrifying history of earthquakes. The most devastating one was the 1908 Messina earthquake that killed almost 100.000 people, razing the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria. In the Richter scale, it was 7.1 in magnitude, however, on the Mercalli intensity scale, it was the level XI (Extreme) of destruction. Most of these earthquakes happen along the ‘spine’ of the Italian Boot, and especially in the Tyrrhenian sea between the tip and Sicily. Every several years Italy experiences quake higher than 6.0 in magnitude, the most recent ones being the Umbria one in October 2016 (6.6 in magnitude) and the Lazio/Umbria quake in August 2016 (6.2 in magnitude).


The Zagreb earthquake of 22 March 2020 was a 5.4 in magnitude on the Richter scale and VII (Very strong) on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale. Although the number alone (5.4) does not suggest terrible consequences, the hit wave had quite a strong impact on the historical city center. Late 19th century buildings didn’t handle the shock well and thousands of buildings in the heart of the city have been declared as inhabitable.

One of the two most terrible earthquakes in Croatian history was the Huge shake of 1667 that almost destroyed Dubrovnik. The city lies in the seismically most active part of Croatia and it is the most vulnerable in that aspect. The Quake was qualified as X (Very Strong) on the Mercalli scale. It killed more than 5.000 people and a big fire that raged for days followed. Also, the tsunami badly damaged the port and flooded parts of the city. The only two buildings that did not collapse were two palaces: The Sponza and the Rector Palace.


Several contemporary reports depict the horrifying situation just after the quake. One of these is the 20-canto epic Dubrovnik ponovljen (Dubrovnik rebuilt) by Jaketa Palmotić Dionorić, Dubrovnik envoy to Turkey, who lost his wife and four children to the earthquake. The letters of Frano Bobali offer a quite vivid and dramatic reconstruction of some events that followed. The Rector (mayor) of the city, alongside several governing officials, were killed, so the subsequent state of anarchy produced some nasty human-made trouble to town, such as shameless pillaging of both the rich and poor. This was, in fact, a whole package of sorrow, caused by both natural elements and humans. The fire and the dust from collapsing buildings made it a living hell for the inhabitants of the city who even thought of completely abandoning the place and establishing a brand-new town. Luckily, they had decided to stay and rebuild the city in a baroque fashion which has become world-famous for its beauty.

Do we have any data about the world’s most devastating earthquakes? How serious were their consequences, considering the number of people, and the differences in the complexity of architecture/engineering?

I am a big fan of desk globes. They are colorful, shiny, and give you an impression you understand the world. They mislead in another way: just by looking at them, one can not even imagine how fast the planet travels around the Sun (107.000 km/h) and rotates around its axis (1600 km/h). Beneath the surface there is no less action: tectonic plates collide, form trenches, layers break, magma fills the cracks; all those fuming and sizzling sounds, fortunately, remain unheard.

There are several scales that express the energy of the earthquake in numerical values – the most famous (albeit outdated) one being the Richter scale – developed upon the research made by Charles F. Richter and Beno Gutenberg. The numbers give quite precise ideas of how strong an earthquake is; nonetheless, the impact of each earthquake depends on several factors combined. The modern records show that the most powerful quake was a 9.5 magnitude earthquake in Chile (Valdivia) in 1960. The quake and the tsunami that followed killed some 6.000 people combined.


Some of the most horrible quakes – in terms of human victims – were recorded in Asia, which is the most vulnerable if we consider geology and population density factors combined. The Kanto earthquake in Japan (in 1923, magnitude 7.9) killed close to 150.000 people. A very powerful earthquake of Sumatra (in 2004, magnitude 9.1) killed 230.000 people and displaced close to 2 million people. The earthquake of Tangshan, China (in 1976, magnitude 7.5) killed more than 300.000 thousand people, making it one of the top three deadliest in human history. From the data, it is obvious that it is not all about the magnitude. Like the high body temperature, it indicates that there is a disturbance, but does not offer the full picture of the impact.

Since humans up until recently didn’t have the science to explain the causes of the earthquakes, to what forces were they attributed to? What are the most interesting fables created in connection with the earthquakes?

In Greek mythology, Zeus is arguably the omnipresent god, but when it comes to the earth and the sea most of the action was attributed to Poseidon, nicknamed the Earth-shaker. With his trident, he could provoke quakes that could destroy city walls, or just make the cliffs crack sufficiently enough to make a lovely spring appear in the landscape. Legend has it that when Nordic trickster god Loki starts trembling due to the snake venom that drops on his face, humans feel that as an earthquake. Traditional Japanese culture blamed the monster catfish named Namazu for causing their earthquakes by trembling. God named Kashima, therefore, holds the catfish down with a huge stone. (One of the possible explanations of the myth is that fish, like birds, can detect the tremor and subtle early signs of the incoming quake).


There are many animals involved in historical world depictions of different cultures. Animals’ movement, for one reason or another, is known to explain the origins of quakes. For example, in Hindu cosmology there are four elephants on the back of a turtle that stands on the snake and they all support the world. On the other hand, in East African legends, there is a giant fish that carries a cow on its back; the cow balances the Earth on its horns, and earthquakes happen when the cow occasionally moves the Earth from one horn to another, because of its aching neck. In the far Northeast, Siberian god Tuli carries the world on his dog-pulled sleds. When the dogs who have fleas stop to scratch, the Earth shakes.


In Maya mythology, gods destroyed the first two generations of people through a flood, and the third through the hurricane and the earthquake. On a related note, do you know that the Australian natives ‘sing the landscape’? – They connect their special places and journeys in song cycles. By singing and incorporating them into geocultural maps they can navigate their space like with the GPS: words of the song become locations of landmarks waterholes, changes in the landscape by elements and disasters. Aboriginal legends lead some Australian scholars to the locations where ancient earthquakes and meteor craters changed the landscape. Some African traditions connect earthquakes with the spirits of some famous leaders that have recently gone to the Underworld. The terrible sound of tremor is the iron gate closing or the spirit’s anger with some recent misbehavior of their people.

One of the most famous oracles in the ancient world, Pythia, resided at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi that was built directly on the fault line – a crack in the Earth’s crust. There were natural springs, and even more importantly, gas fumes from underground reservoirs. Some of these gases, such as methane and ethylene affected the priestesses putting them into a state of euphoria. This, alongside some other natural substances (such as laurel leaves), carried them into a state of trance that enabled communication with gods. In 373 BC the Temple was destroyed – by an earthquake, naturally – but it was rebuilt on the same spot. The ancient Greeks did not have anything against the tectonic activity, on the contrary. It provided them with several really important features: freshwater, hot water for baths, fertile pockets of land, terrain suitable for natural defense.

How did people deal with the damage they caused? Did any country/empire or ruler undertake some actions to help the victims?

The help for the victims of the Messina earthquake of 1908 was quite international. Russian, French, and English battleships and cruisers that joined the relief, as well as sailors of the US Great White Fleet, joined relief efforts. The high extent of the grave situation was evident in the measures imposed by Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti. The martial law dictated that all looters (even if it had been just for food, to survive) were to be shot.

There are differences in the response towards hardening structures after the quakes. Italy has been hit by dozens of quite strong earthquakes in the last fifty years. Still, the majority of the renovated buildings, unfortunately, does not comply with anti-earthquake standards. This can be analyzed from several angles, including the profile and age of Italian traditional architecture. Infrastructure approaches and the cultural heritage protection standards are somewhat different than, for example, in Japan, a country which is proverbially shaken quite often. Furthermore, the anti-seismic regulation in Italy dates from the 1970s, while the same regulation in Japan started in the 1920s.

The Great Hanshin earthquake, known also as the Kobe quake of 1995, saw some quite positive aspects of responding to the second-worst earthquake in Japan in the 20th century. Firstly, there were more than a million volunteers helping the relief efforts in the first 90 days following the disaster. There were more than 120,000 structures that fully or partially collapsed – it took three full years to completely remove the debris. Secondly, a relatively poor response to the catastrophe on the national level was significantly improved; for instance, the government can hold the emergency meeting of its crisis management team in 30 minutes nowadays. Some other urban, political, and social measures were taken, and one can expect a quite better response in the future. Nonetheless, the merciless chthonic strength that in 1995 ashamed Japanese engineers, arguably the world’s finest still poses questions that pend over the heads of the government.

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Did laws adapt to the possibility of earthquakes, and when did people start to think about the insurance?

Earthquake insurance is a quite complex issue, so governments and insurance companies deal with it in different ways. The complexity lies in the nature of this disaster – it strikes almost indiscriminately all structures in a particular area. On top of that – which is a problem for both homeowners and insurance companies – the quakes are very often accompanied by other elements, such as fires and floods, largely due to problems with gas or water pipes. Unfortunately for everyone, the earthquake rarely comes alone, but rather with some several nasty companions.

In Turkey, for example, earthquake insurance is compulsory. In Japan, there is an Earthquake Reinsurance scheme (started in 1966 and revised several times) through which the government helps the insurers with billions of US dollars (up to $ 40 billion in a single year). In the US not many people buy earthquake insurance, even fewer in Italy where less than 1% of homeowners are insured for earthquakes. Italy has quite an unpleasant tradition of being uninsured for natural disasters. Attempts to introduce it failed for two main reasons: the costs involved and the difficulties in assessing the risk.

Is there a difference in the cultures that differently approach the explanation of earthquakes?

As I mentioned in our previous interview, there are cultural variations in ways how people experience and express emotions. Nevertheless, some constants have been described across cultures. For example, when it comes to disgust, members of all cultures react to the following: bodily excretions (feces, vomit, blood); something rotten, diseased or dying; filthy places; sexual intercourse with the members of one’s family; heavy injuries. Disgust protects us from pathogens and other harmful influences.

Similarly, fear protects us from dangers. There are so many noted phobias, such as acrophobia (fear of heights) or pyrophobia (fear of fire), but they all could be categorized in just several groups, shared by all cultures. The ultimate fear that can provoke terrible anxieties is of existential nature or simplified: the fear of death, of no longer being. Secondly, there is a fear that something will happen to our body, that we’ll lose a limb, or it will be invaded by a foreign matter/agent; this provokes the fear of snakes, insects, bacteria. The third fear relates to the loss of autonomy: that we’ll get trapped, immobilized, confined (claustrophobia in all forms). The fourth is the fear of loss, abandonment, rejection; while the fifth is the fear of ego-death – i.e. the collapse of our constructed sense of all the elements (often not palpable) that make us the persons we are.

In this sense, it is obvious that there are elements of several fear categories connected to earthquakes (seismophobia). Humans fear for their life, there are serious threats that the falling debris will provoke injuries to their bodies, or trap them beneath the rubble. This might be an explanation of why we all feel a state of shock after a serious earthquake, and why people may display questionable behavior just after the disaster. A cocktail of very unpleasant emotions leaves traumas on everyone.

Do we have earthquakes mentioned in literature or other forms of art?

From the Greco-Roman traditions, I can remember only short but powerful references to all sorts of ‘shakings’ attributed to gods and their activity. The London earthquake of 1580 was so powerful that it found a reference in, among other literary works, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Nurse (Act 1, scene 3) takes it as a milestone, dividing the time before and after: “Tis since the earthquake now eleven years”. Gentleman Arthur Golding, who famously translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the work that inspired Shakespeare and so many others, wrote a Discourse upon the earthquake, just one of three of his original writings.

Approximately once every 200 years, a powerful earthquake wreaks havoc on Lisbon, Portugal. After terrible shakes of 1321 and 1531, the 1755 earthquake (one of the most destructive in history) was well documented in visual depictions and documents. This earthquake is also important because of the questionnaire created by the famous Portugal statesman Marquis of Pombal. This document was sent to all parishes of the country, asking information about the direction in which buildings collapsed, the change in the sea level, fires, and some quite intelligent details which were very useful for scholars to reconstruct the nature of the earthquake and the extent of the damage. This was indeed the first attempt to describe an earthquake with a scientific method and the Marquis was considered a proto-seismologist.


There is a quite impressive collection of 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints that allegorically depict earthquakes and the abovementioned giant fish Namazu who causes them. One can clearly contrast those with realistic images of late 18th-century paintings and engravings of the Portugal earthquake. In the collection related to the Great Nobi quake of 1891 one notices some elements of a cross-cultural ‘tension’. Namely, one of the favorite motifs of Japanese artists was the destruction of Western imports, such as railroads, telegraph wires, and brick buildings in earthquakes. Japan opened to the West in 1853 and many of these features of contemporary engineering and technologies were brought to Japan. They were regarded as supreme until nature challenged these achievements of civil engineering.

In more recent history, I read about Christina McPhee and Susan Norrie, artists who created a video and digital representations of quakes associated with memory and emotional response such as fear, traumas, and anxieties. They explored correlations between seismic activity and the human mind, the triggers, and reactivations of traumatic memories. Performance artists can quite interestingly represent and interpret the intertwining of all these phenomena such as the tremendous activity and the power of nature, the fragility of humans, and all the triggered psychological states – the immediate and those lingering for weeks, months, years.

When it starts shaking, there are a lot of these seismic waves that truly play with our bodies and minds, in various ways. The energy unleashed by the most powerful earthquakes is sometimes beyond imagination, it could power whole countries for months. An earthquake was recorded that slightly changed the rotation of our planet. More probable ones, those in the magnitude of 6.0, have the energy of a nuclear bomb. There are earthquake simulators – at the Natural history museum in London, for example – that can give some ideas of how terrifying they can be. Hopefully, that will be as close as you will ever get to experience one of these devastating quakes.


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