Terrible Volcanic Disasters Of The Past
( Originally Published 1906 )
Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Other Cities of the Plain—The Bible Account a Graphic Description of the Event-Ancient Writers Tell of Earthquakes and Volcanoes of Antiquity —Discovery of Buried Cities of which no Records Remain—Formation of the Dead Sea—The Valley of the Jordan and Its Physical Characteristics.
IN the history of earthquakes, nothing is more remarkable than the extreme fewness of those recorded before the beginning of the Christian era, in comparison with those that have been registered since that time. This may be partly accounted for by the fact that before the birth of Christ, there was but a small portion of the habitable surface of the globe known to those who were capable of handing down a record of natural events. The vast increase in the number of earth quakes in recent times is, therefore, undoubtedly due to the enlargement of our knowledge of the earth's surface, and to the greater freedom of communication now subsisting among mankind.
Earthquakes might have been as frequent throughout the entire globe in ancient times as now; but the writers of the Bible, and the historians of Greece and Rome might have known nothing of their occurrence. Even at the present time, an earthquake might happen in Central Africa, or in Central Asia, of which we would never hear, and the recollection of which might die out among the natives in a few generations. In countries, too, which are thinly inhabited, and where there are no large cities to be overthrown, even great earthquakes might happen almost unheeded. The few inhabitants might be awe-struck at the time; but should they sustain no personal harm, the violence of the commotion and the intensity of their terror would soon fade from their memories.
Dr. Daubeny, in his work on volcanoes, cites an example of this complete oblivion, even when the event must have occurred not far from the ancient center of civilization. The town of Lessa, between Rome and Naples, and not far from Gaeta, stands on an eminence composed of volcanic rocks. In digging the foundations for a house at this place some years ago, there were discovered, many feet beneath the present surface, a chamber with antique frescoes and the remains of an amphitheater. Yet there is not only no existing account of the destruction of a town on this site, but not even a tradition of any volcanic eruption in the neighborhood.
The earthquake which destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah is not only the oldest on record, but one of the most remarkable. It was accompanied by a volcanic eruption, it upheaved a district of several hundred square leagues, and caused the subsidence of a tract of land not less extensive, altering the whole water system and the levels of the soil. The south of Pales-tine contained a splendid valley dotted with forests and flourishing cities. This was the valley of Siddim, in which reigned the confederate sovereigns of Sodom, Gomorrah, Adniah, Zeboiim and Zoar. They had joined forces to resist the king of the Elamites, and they had just lost the decisive battle of the campaign when the catastrophe which destroyed the five cities and spread desolation in the flourishing valley took place. As the sun arose, the ground trembled and opened, red-hot stones and burning cinders, which fell like a storm of fire upon the surrounding country, being emitted from the yawning chasm.
In a few words, the Bible relates the dread event:
"And when the morning arose, the angels hastened Lot, saying, Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters, which are here, lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city.
"And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters, the Lord being merciful unto him, and they brought him forth and set him without the city.
"And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain lest thou be consumed.
"And Lot said unto them, Oh, not so, my Lord, behold now, thy servant hath found grace in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy, which thou hast shewed unto me in saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil take me, and I die. Behold now, this city is near to flee unto, and it is a little one: Oh, let me escape thither, (is it not a little one?) and my soul shall live.
"And he said unto him, See, I have accepted thee concerning this thing also, that I will not overthrow this city, for which thou hast spoken. Haste thee, escape thither; for I cannot do anything until thou be come thither.
"Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar. The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar.
"Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
"But his wife looked back from. behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.
"And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he stood before the Lord, and he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and lo, the smoke of the city went up as the smoke of a furnace."
Nothing could be more succinct or terse than this description of the catastrophe. This was a sudden volcanic eruption like that which destroyed in one night the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. At the time of the convulsion in Palestine while clouds of ashes were emitted from the yawning abyss and fell in fiery showers upon the ground, a vast tract of country, comprising the five cities and some land to the south of them; was violently shaken and overturned.
Of the valleys watered by the Jordan, that of Siddim was the largest and the most populous. All the southern part of this valley, with its woods, its cultivated fields, and its broad river, was upheaved. While upon the other side the plain sub-sided, and for a distance of a hundred leagues was transformed into a vast cavern of unknown depth. Upon that day the waters of the Jordan, suddenly arrested by the upheaval of the soil lower down the stream, must have flowed rapidly back toward their source, again to flow not less impetuously along their accustomed incline, and to fall into the abyss created by the subsidence of the valley and the break-up of the bed of the stream.
When, after the disaster, the inhabitants of neighboring regions came to visit the scene of it, they found the whole aspect of the district altered. The valley of Siddim had ceased to exist, and an immense sheet of water covered the space which it once occupied. Beyond this vast reservoir, to the south, the Jordan, which formerly fertilized the country as far as the Red Sea, had also disappeared. The whole country was covered with lava, ashes and salt; all the cultivated fields, the hamlets and villages, had been involved in the cataclysm.
The record of this great catastrophe is preserved not only by Scripture, but by the living and spoken traditions of the East, all the legends of Syria, as well as ancient historians like Tacitus and Strabo, relating how Lake Asphaltite was formed during the terrible shock and how opulent cities were swallowed up in the abyss or destroyed by fire from out of the earth.
But even if popular traditions had been forgotten, and if the writings of ancient authors had been lost, the very aspect of the country would suffice to show that it had suffered from some terrible subterranean convulsion. As it was upon the morrow of the catastrophe itself, so it has remained with its calcined rocks, its blocks of salt, its masses of black lava, its rough ravines, its sulphurous springs, its boiling waters, its bituminous marshes, its riven mountains, and its vast Lake Asphaltite, which is the Dead Sea.
This sea, the depth of which has never been sounded, evokes by its origin and its mysterious aspect, the dolorous image of death. Situated about 690 feet below the level of the ocean, in the depression of the soil caused by the earth-quake, its waters extend over an area of a hundred square leagues to the foot of the salt mountains and basaltic rocks which encircle it. One can detect no trace of vegetation or animal life; not a sound is heard upon its shores, impregnated with salt and bitumen; the birds avoid flying over its dreary surface from which emanate deadly effluvia, and nothing can exist in its bitter, salt, oily, and heavy waters. Not a breeze ever stirs the surface of this silent sea, nothing moves therein save the thick load of asphalt which now and again rises from the bottom to the surface and floats lazily on to the desolate strand.
The Jordan has remained what it was in ancient times, the blessed stream, the vivifying artery of Palestine. Taking their source in the spotless snows and pure springs of Mount Hermon, its waters have retained the azure hues of the sky and the clearness of crystal. Before the catastrophe, the Jordan, after having traversed and fertilized Palestine, found its way into the Gulf of Arabia, but now, as upon the morrow of the shock which broke up its bed, its waters are lost in the somber abyss of the Dead Sea.
The Bible mentions an earthquake in Palestine in the reign of Ahab, and one in the reign of Uzziah, which rent the temple. The latter was an event so great that the chroniclers of the time used it in dating occurrences, and Amos speaks of what happened "two years before the earthquake."
The same convulsions of nature are mentioned many other times in the Bible, in connection with prophecy, revelation and the crucifixion.
Nearly all writings about earthquakes prior to the last century tended to cultivate superstitious notions respecting them. Even Pliny, Herodotus, Livy, and the other classic writers, were quite ignorant of the true causes, and mythology entered into their speculations. In later times the investigation has become a science. The Chinese were pioneers in this direction, having appointed an Imperial Commission in A.D. 136 to inquire into the subject. It is to be doubted, however, if what they reported would be considered as of much scientific value to-day.
By this time it is estimated that in the libraries of the world are more than 2,000 works treating of earth-motions. The phenomena are taken quite out of the realm of superstition. By means of delicate instruments of various kinds, called seismometers, the direction of earth-movements can be traced, and their force gauged, while by means of a simple magnet with a metal piece attached to it, an earthquake can be fore-told. These instruments tell us that scarcely a day passes without an earthquake in some portion of the globe. The internal causes of these manifestations are ever active, what-ever the causes may be.