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The dating of the ‘Earthquake of the Sabbatical Year’ of 749 C.E. in Palestine1

  • Yoram Tsafrir (a1) and Gideon Foerster (a1)

In the mid eighth century, towards the end of the Umayyad regime, a major earthquake occurred in Palestine and the East, of which we know from Christian, Jewish and Muslim sources. Archaeologists relate to destruction by this earthquake layers in several sites, such as Jerusalem, Gerasa in Arabia, and sites mostly along the Jordan valley, among them Kh. Mefjer near Jericho, Pella, Capernaum, Sussita-Hippos, and recently, Bet Shean-Scythopolis (see below).

The exact date of this earthquake is controversial; some scholars date it to 746, others to 747 or 748, In 1960, M. Margaliot suggested that the earthquake took place in 749. In this article we present new archaeological and numismatic evidence in support of this later date (see below p. 234, and pl.II).

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2 On the earthquake in Jerusalem near the Temple Mount see Mazar, B., The excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem (Jerusalem, 1969), 20.

3 Ostratz, A. A., ‘odrome of Gerasa: a report on the excavations and research 1982–1987syria, 66, 1989, 74–7 (and further bibliography there). The author dates the earthquake to 747/8.

4 Hamilton, R. W., Khirbet Al Mafjar-an Arabian mansion in the Jordan Valley (Oxford, 1959), 8, and further bibliography there. The author dates the earthquake to 746 C.E.

5 McNicoll, A. et al., Pella in Jordan: an interim report on the joint University of Svdnev and the College of Wooster excavations at Pella 1979–1981 (Canberra, 1982), 123–41. The authors suggest a dating to 746/7.

6 Tzaferis, V., Excavations at Capernaum I, 1978-1982 (Winona Lake, 1988), 145–79, 219. A hoard of 282 gold Umayyad dinars was discovered here, the latest of which was minted in 744. The destruction of stratum 4 is related to the earthquake of 746/7.

7 See photographs (figs. 8–10) in Karcz, I. and Kafri, U., ‘Evalution of supposed archeoseismic damage in Israel’, Journall of Archaeological Science, 5, 1978, 237–53.

8 See for example, Willis, B., ‘Earthquakes in the Holy Land’, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 18, 1928, 73103, esp. p. 80; Kallner-Amiran, D. H., ‘A revised earthquake catalogue of Palestine’, Israel Exploration Journal, 1, 1950–51, 223–46, esp. p. 226, and further bibliography there.

9 Margaliot, M., ‘The date of an earthquake at Tiberias’, Bulletin of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society, 8, 1941, 97104 (in Hebrew); Russell, K. W., ‘The earthquake chronology of Palestine and Northwest Arabia from the 2nd through the mid 8th century A.D.’. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 260, 1985, 37–59, esp. 47–9.

10 Margaliot, M., ‘A new document for the Fast of the Earthquake’, Tarbiz, 29, 1960, 339–14 (in Hebrew).

11 Theophanes, , Chronographia (ed. De, Boor, Leipzig, 1883), 442.

12 Cedrenus, Georgius, II, (ed.) Bekker, I., Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1839), 7.

13 Grumel, V., La chronologie (Paris, 1958). See tables pp. 357, 380, 431, 435, 447.

14 See Russell, art. cit. n. 9 above.

15 On the reconstruction of the text in al-Muqaddas‛: Le Strange, G., Palestine under the Moslems (London 1890), 92; on the other traditions, from al-Wāsit‛ onwards, see Bakr, AbūAhmad al-Wāsitī, Muḥammad b., Faḍā'il al-Bayt al Muqaddas, (ed.) Hasson, I. (Jerusalem, 1979), 84.

16 Taghrībirdī, Abū'l-Maḥāsin b., Al-Nujūm al-zāhirafi-mulūk Miṣr wa-'l Qāhira, I (Cairo, 1929), 311, quoting Sībṣ b. al-Jawzī, Mir'āt al-Zamān, MS British Museum, Add. 23, 277, fol. 135b, 11. 11–17 (Year A.H. 130). On the existence of the earlier source of al-Jawzī we have learnt from an unpublished study by A. El‘ad, who collected the various Arabic sources and traditions concerning the earthquake (see above note 1).

17 al-Muqaffa, Severus b.‘, History of the Patriarchs of the Church of Alexandria, III, (ed. and tr.) Evetts, B., Patrologia Orientalis, 5, 1, 1947, 139–40.

18 Chronique de Denys de Tell-Maḥre, (ed.) Chabot, J. B. (Paris, 1895), 47 (text), 82 (transl.).

19 Chronique de Michelle le Syrien, Patriarch Jacobite D'Antioch II, (ed. et tr.) Chabot, J. B. (Paris, 1901), 509–10. For the eastern origins of the source see introduction, I, pp. xiii-xxxvii.

20 Eliae Metropolitae Nisibeni, Opus Chronologicum, (ed.) E. W. Brooks (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 62. Scriptores Syri, 21), 171–2; ibid., 63/23, 82.

21 Zulai, M., ‘Liturgical poems on various historical events’, Studies of the Research Institute for Hebrew Poetry in Jerusalem, vol. 3 (Berlin, 1937), 151–62 (in Hebrew).

22 Margaliot, art. cit. n. 9 above.

23 Shalem, N. mentions briefly the existence of Christian sources for the earthquake dating it to 18 January 746, but with no further discussion: ‘On the date of the Tiberias earthquake’, Bulletin of the Jewish Palestine Society, 8,1941, 117 (in Hebrew). Shalem also mentions that Michael the Syrian describes an earthquake in the year 947 (misprinted for 749), but hedoes not explain this calculation.

24 Margaliot, art. cit. n. 9. See an additional list of fasts mentioning the 23rd of Shevat in: Fleischer, E., ‘Hadutha–Hadutahu–Chedweta–solving an old riddle, Tarbiz, 53, 1984, p. 95, n. 8 (in Hebrew).

25 Mahler, E., Handbuch der jüdischen Chronologie (Frankfurt, 1916; repr. Hildesheim, 1967), 546. According to Mahler, 18 January falls exactly on the 23rd of Shevat. According to another calculation it falls on the 24th of Shevat, Fried, N., Calendar for six thousands years, founded by A. A. Akavia (Jerusalem, 1976), 384 (in Hebrew).

26 Foerster, G. and Tsafrir, Y., ‘Bet Shean Archaeological Project: B. Center of Ancient Bet Shean—North’, Excavations and Surveys in Israel, 6, 1987–88, 32–5; 78, 1988–89, 22. In these earlier publications we used the dating of 747 or 748. Forthe new discoveries and the hoard, see ibid., 9,1990, 126–8.

27 Unpublished. Objects from the hoard have been exhibited in the Israel Museum. The coins were examined by Amitai-Preiss, N. and Meshorer, Y.. Photographs by Laron, Gaby.

28 One hypothesis for Theophanes's, inaccuracy in dating the year may be that he derived his information from a list of memorial days commemorated in churches during his period. This church calendar had to contain the exact day of the commemoration, but did not necessarily mention the precise year of the catastrophe, a task left to Theophanes. A similar phenomenon is found in the Jewish lists of fasts; they all mention the 23rd day of Shevat, but in only one case is the year of the earthquake mentioned (see above, p. 233–4). Compare the commemoration of an earthquake on 13 February in the church of St. Demetrius in Thessalonica, Garitte, G., Le calendrier palestinogèorgien du Sinaiticus 34 (X‘ siècle) (Brussels, 1958), 50, and discussion on p. 158. No such commemoration has hitherto been found in church calendars for 18 January; thus our suggestion must remain hypothetical.

29 See above, note 16.

30 Bickerman, E. J., Chronology of the ancient world (London, 1968), 73. See also Bornstein, H. I., ‘Calenders of Israel’, Halkufa, 8,1920, 281–328; 9, 1921, 202–64 (esp. 8, pp. 287321); (in Hebrew).

31 Margaliot, (see above, n. 9). See also the ample discussion by Haparhi, Eshtory, Estori ha- Parchi. Caftor Va-Pherach, (ed.) Luncz, A. M. (Jerusalem, 1897), 681702.

32 Wacholder, B. Z., ‘The calendar of sabbatical cycles during the Second Temple and Early Rabbinic Period’, Hebrew UnionCollege Annual, 44, 1973, 153–96.

33 One wonders whether this catastrophic event did not contribute to the fall of the Umayyad dynasty some time later; thisquestion, however, is beyond the scope of the present paper.

1 This is a revised version of an article published in Hebrew in Tarbiz, 58, 1989, 357–62. We owe thanks to M. Beit-Arieh, I. Hasson, J. Yahalom and I. Ta-Shema for their useful comments on that version. In particular, we owe thanks to A. El‘add and I.Karcz, who, after the publication of the Hebrew article, supplied us with many useful comments and further analyses of the various sources and traditions. These scholars also gave us access to typescripts of their own (as yet unpublished)papers, in which they consider the possibility that reports of more than one earthquake were conflated in the ancient sources.

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Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies
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