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Did the Ancient Greeks Purposefully Build Along Earthquake Fault Lines?

Did the Ancient Greeks Purposefully Build Along Earthquake Fault Lines?

Picture of Ethel Dilouambaka
Updated: 23 September 2017

Greece is a country affected by earthquakes, and it is also home to a wealth of ancient temples. But are these two facts connected? A recent study from the University of Plymouth seems to think so.

Greece and its islands boast a high number of ancient temples and sanctuaries scattered throughout the territory, and many of the structures sit on a series of fault lines. A new study conducted by the University of Plymouth and published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association shows that ancient Greeks deliberately built their temples on fault lines because they believed it gave them a special cultural status.

For example, there is Delphi, a mountainous sacred complex home to a legendary oracle and once thought to be the centre of the world. In 373 BC, an earthquake destroyed this ancient sanctuary; however, it was reconstructed on the exact same spot because, like before, a spring, which was considered sacred, and intoxicating gases emanated from the fault line. While researchers previously established that these geothermal characteristics were linked to the site’s importance, Iain Stewart, professor of Geoscience Communication and director of the university’s Sustainable Earth Institute, is certain that Delphi is only one of many similar cases. Indeed, it seems that Mycenae, Ephesus, Cnidus, and Hierapolis were all intentionally built on fault lines.

The Lion Gate. The archaeological sites of Mycenae and Tiryns | © Oleg Znamenskiy / Shutterstock

In a statement released by the university, Stewart says “Earthquake faulting is endemic to the Aegean world, and for more than 30 years, I have been fascinated by the role earthquakes played in shaping its landscape. But I have always thought it more than a coincidence that many important sites are located directly on top of fault lines created by seismic activity. The ancient Greeks placed great value on hot springs unlocked by earthquakes, but perhaps the building of temples and cities close to these sites was more systematic than has previously been thought.”

Some researchers even believe that the many caves, grottoes and chasms created by seismic activity in the landscape might have served as inspiration for many stories in ancient Greek folklore, especially the ones that describe people becoming oracles after visiting the underworld.

While not every sacred site sits on a fault line, Stewart concludes that ancient Greeks most likely saw earthquakes as a blessing and recognised their importance.

Delphi with ruins of the Temple in Greece | © Samot / Shutterstock