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Jerusalem's Old City at risk in earthquake

Jerusalem's walled Old City may be the worst hit in an earthquake because it rests on layers of debris, not solid rock, a geological survey said.
About half a dozen major earthquakes have hit Jerusalem over the last thousand years. Some Israeli scientists have warned that another major earthquake appears likely to hit in the next 50 years.Oded Balilty / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bible tells of earthquakes splitting open the hills of this holy city with apocalyptic fury, adding to the mayhem of battles and punctuating Jesus' crucifixion.

Now, a geological survey says the heart of biblical narrative, Jerusalem's walled Old City, would be among the worst hit parts of the city in the event of another earthquake because it rests on layers of debris, not solid rock.

A natural disaster in the Old City could also bring devastating political aftershocks because it is the fiery heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The three-year study, conducted by the Geological Survey of Israel and released this week, found that the Old City is more at risk than modern neighborhoods because of its ancient construction and the underground layers of shifting debris left behind by ransacking armies, said Amos Bein, the center's director.

"The layer below is not made of solid rock, but rather a kind of rubble," Bein said. Those weak foundations could magnify an earthquake's seismic wave, he said.

Researchers used computers to map Jerusalem's topography, geology, soil and the Old City's subterranean labyrinth of cisterns and tunnels.

Most at risk, the report says, is the Old City and the 11-acre elevated plaza housing two major mosques, including the gold-capped Dome of the Rock.

The site is known to Muslims as the Al Aqsa Mosque compound and to Jews as the Temple Mount — once home to the biblical Temples. Jews pray at one of the compound's outer walls, a remnant of the Temple complex — the Western Wall.

The report urges Jerusalem's municipal planners to identify and reinforce weak structures.

About half a dozen major earthquakes have hit the city over the last thousand years, Bein said, and archaeologists have found evidence of the damage. The last big earthquake in the area was in 1927, when a magnitude 6.3 quake centered near Jericho, about 15 miles to the east of Jerusalem, killed more than 200 people.

It rumbled through Jerusalem's holy places and may have been to blame for cracks in the southwestern corner of the mosque compound's outer wall, which some researchers have warned is in danger of collapse.

That earthquake also damaged Christianity's holiest place, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built around a boulder believed to be the skull-shaped mount on which Christ was crucified and buried.

Some Israeli scientists have warned that another major earthquake appears likely to strike the Holy Land in the next 50 years.

The Great Rift Valley runs for 3,000 miles between Syria and Mozambique and passes through the Dead Sea, below Jerusalem's eastern hills. The fault line was caused by the separation of African and Eurasian tectonic plates 35 million years ago, a split that weakened the Earth's crust.

About 35 miles to the north, another fault line cuts the land east to west from the Mediterranean port of Haifa with the West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus before reaching the Jordan River.

"This is a very active area which may produce a large earthquake once in a while," Bein said.

Two weeks ago, a small 3.7 magnitude earthquake was measured in the Dead Sea region but caused no damage.

The Bible recounts a number of earthquakes here. Some scholars reckon a quake may have been behind the shower of brimstone and fire that engulfed Sodom and Gomorrah.

Just after Jesus succumbed on a wooden cross, "the earth shook and the rocks were split," inspiring awe and faith in the Roman centurion and other onlookers who "saw the earthquake" (Matthew 27:51-54).

"With God's will, anything could happen," Bein said.