“The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning. The voice of the Lord shakes the desert; the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. And in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’ ”
So runs Psalm 29, verses 5-1, and it may also be an apt description for events of the 16 March 1956 when two earthquakes struck in Lebanon. The USGS, less poetic than the Bible, and in this instance strictly factual, sums up thus: “Two earthquakes approximately 9 minutes apart. 136 killed, 6,000 houses destroyed and 17,000 damaged in 400 villages in the Chouf region.”
Earthquakes and the Dead Sea Fault
Although the Levant (broadly speaking, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan) isn’t known for its earthquakes as much as for its turbulent human history, it is a seismically active zone. Like the fault zones of California, it’s a transform boundary comprising a number of different, broadly parallel strike-slip faults and takes the name of the dominant – in this case the Dead Sea – fault.
The fault zone runs along a rift which links the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea in the south to the Anatolian block in the north. To its east lies the Arabian tectonic plate and to the west the complex jumble of faults and crustal blocks that mark the final stage in the the closure of the Tethys Ocean – what we know as the Mediterranean Sea – as Africa and Eurasia collide. The area includes extensional movement as well as lateral slip – as is evident from the existence of the Dead Sea and other basins.