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Capitolias Theater Quake

Mid 3rd Century CE

by Jefferson Williams

Introduction & Summary

Archeoseismic evidence uncovered at a theater in Capitolias - one of the cities of the Decapolis - suggests a strong earthquake struck the area in the decade(s) before 260/261 CE. As the historical record is fairly silent in this part of the world in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, no known currently extant textual accounts appear to refer to this earthquake. Although there are some earthquake catalog entries for 233, 242, and 245 CE, these appear to be false events that propagated from Willis' (1928) catalogue which failed to recognize that dates provided by the Arab chronicler As-Suyuti used the Islamic A.H. calendar instead of the Julian calendar introducing a dating error of ~622 years. Once these false events are removed from consideration, it becomes evident that the archeoseismic evidence uncovered by Al-Tawalbeh et. al. (2020) represents a new earthquake event discovered by archeoseismic means.

See the Notes section on how errant dates propagated through various earthquake catalogs.

Textual Evidence

There are no known extant textual accounts for this earthquake.

Archaeoseismic Evidence

Location (with hotlink) Status Intensity Notes
Beit-Ras/Capitolias definitive ≥ 8 mid 3rd century CE Earthquake - Al-Tawalbeh et. al. (2020) bracketed the date of the first earthquake between 97/98 CE and a dedicatory inscription dated to 260/261 CE. Although Al-Tawalbeh et. al. (2020:10) noted that a definitive judgment on the time separating the first earthquake occurrence from its subsequent reconstruction [] is difficult to support, restoration efforts memorialized by the inscription suggests that the earthquake likely occurred close to the 260/261 CE date - within a few decades. Numismatic and epigraphic evidence indicated that the city was fairly prosperous from the later half of the second century CE into the first half of the 3rd century CE and thus capable (and willing) to convert their theater to an amphitheater fairly quickly after the damaging earthquake.

Al-Tawalbeh et. al. (2020) discovered only a few recent earthquakes in the earthquake catalogues near to the 260/261 CE date - in 233, 242, and 245 CE. However, these all appear to be false events propagated from Willis' (1928) first uncorrected catalog which misdated these earthquakes reported by Arab Chronicler As-Soyuti by ~622 years due to a failure to recognize that As-Soyuti's dates were reported in the Islamic calendar (A.H.) rather than the Julian calendar. Ambraseys (2009) reports a possible earthquake in Palmyra, Syria in 233 CE based on an inscription however Palmyra is 310 km. away from the the theater at Capitolias so it is doubtful that an earthquake could have caused heavy damage in both places. Hence, this archeoseismic evidence points towards a previously unrecognized earthquake not reported in the earthquake catalogues and not reported in any extant historical source that I am currently aware of.

Al-Tawalbeh et. al. (2020) estimated Intensities of VIII-IX (8-9). Al-Tawalbeh (personal communication, 2021) estimated intensity of close to IX (9) for the mid 3rd century CE earthquake based on collapse of the ambulatorium. A significant site effect does not appear to be present at this location.
Jerash - Introduction n/a n/a n/a
Jerash - Hippodrome possible ≥ 8 Ostrasz and Kehrberg-Ostrasz (2020:36) noted that the presence of the stones belonging to the upper parts of the building used in the passageway of the gate in the period of the intrusive occupancy (supra: THE MAIN GATE) and the presence of the architrave pieces in chamber E2 used there in the same period concurs to strengthen the possibility that an earthquake partly destroyed the masonry at its upper level. However, the human factor (dismantling) could not be ruled out. The date of this potential earthquake is constrained between final use of the hippodrome for chariot racing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE and it's re-use as an industrial facility when Ostrasz and Kehrberg-Ostrasz (2020:315) reports that potters and other craftsmen took over the structure starting at the end of the 3rd century CE.
Khirbet Tannur 2 possibilities 6-7
End of Period II Earthquake (?) - 3rd century CE - The end of Period II would have occurred shortly before Period III construction which McKenzie et al (2013:62) suggests probably began in the 3rd century CE in association with other repairs after an earthquake. It appears that this date is extrapolated from the date for Period II construction which is chronologically anchored by pottery found in stratigraphic position. McKenzie et al (2002:73) noted similarities in the sculpture of Period III with late antique sculpture in Egypt which suggests the possibility of a date in the third century A.D.. Glueck (1965:106) was not entirely sure that Period II ended with an earthquake stating that earthquake tremors or age or both may have brought about the collapse of the Period II Altar-Base. Glueck (1965:106) characterized Altar-Base II as aesthetically attractive but architecturally weak noting shoddy internal construction particularly the bottom foundation stones (Glueck, 1965:107).
"Further" Earthquake of McKenzie et al (2013) - 3rd-4th century CE - McKenzie et al (2013:62) reports a further earthquake after Period II construction damaged the colonnades of the Court and that the steps of the Altar Platform were repaired using column drums.
Petra - Introduction n/a n/a n/a
Petra - Wadi Sabra Theater possible ≥ 8 Phase 3 earthquake - 2nd-3rd century CE - Tholbecq et al (2019) report that various clues suggest that the theater underwent violent destruction during this phase. This happened no later than the 3rd century CE.
Location (with hotlink) Status Intensity Notes

Khirbet Tannur

Petra - Introduction

Petra - Wadi Sabra Theater

Paleoseismic Evidence

Location (with hotlink) Status Intensity Notes
Bet Zayda probable ≥ 7 The Capitolias Theater Quake is a good fit for Event Event CH4-E4 (modeled age 165-236 CE) particularly as it relates to other events observed.(Wechsler at al., 2014)
Location (with hotlink) Status Intensity Notes
Bet Zayda (aka Beteiha)

The Capitolias Theater Quake is a good fit for Event Event CH4-E4 (modeled age 165-236 CE) particularly as it relates to other events observed.(Wechsler at al., 2014)


Earthquake Catalog Error Propagation

Earthquake Catalogs that reference earthquakes in 233 CE and 245 CE go back to Willis (1928) whose source was As-Soyuti. Although he later issued a correction, Willis' (1928) initial paper did not recognize that As-Soyuti provided Islamic AH (After Hejira) dates instead of Julian dates hence Willis' (1928) earthquake dates from As-Soyuti are off by ~622 years (too early). Later catalogers copied these erroneous dates. Catalog entries going backwards illustrate this below :

Sbeinati et al (2005)

Ben-Menahem (1979) Sieberg (1932a) Willis (1928) As-Soyuti from Sprenger (1843) - A.H. dates QED

Note: Fourmilabs webpage converts between Islamic dates and Julian dates.

Paleoclimate - Droughts