Early last month, a team of Greek experts began a $3.4 million restoration project on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem—a site widely revered by Christians as the burial place of Jesus Christ. This long overdue rehabilitation effort is a welcome development given the dilapidated state of the tomb following decades of neglect, intra-religious tensions, fire, and earthquakes. But the Holy Sepulcher, or Jerusalem for that matter, is not the only site in Palestine that has suffered destruction. The country’s myriad historical and religious sites have witnessed repeated catastrophes of a natural and anthropogenic character over the course of the region’s history. Today (July 11 at 15:08 local time) marks the anniversary of just such a destructive event—the 1927 Jericho Earthquake.
Eighty-nine years ago, a tremendous quake struck near the Dead Sea town of Jericho, causing widespread damage in Jerusalem, Ramleh, Tiberias, and Transjordan with Nablus being hit hardest. Geological studies estimate that the earthquake reached a magnitude of 6.3(Mw). For comparison’s sake, the infamously destructive 1994 Northridge Earthquake in California registered a magnitude 6.7(Mw) killing 60 people, leveling entire sections of elevated freeway, apartment blocks, and commercial buildings despite the city’s extensive safety regulations and modern construction methods.
As a result of the quake, not only did the Holy Sepulcher crack in multiple locations, but the Dome of the Rock also suffered a partial collapse and severely cracked walls. Further afield, the Winter Palace Hotel in Jericho and the Mosque of Victory in Nablus (Mesjid al-Nasr) fell to pieces while the Allenby Bridge broke apart and fell into the Jordan River.
In his memoirs, Nabulsi educator Akram Zu‘aytir wrote, “At 3 o’clock on July 11, while the students were taking final examinations, the great earthquake arrived. I recall that I was, prior to the afternoon, grading a number of notebooks when I felt the cracking of the room’s ceiling and the creaking of the walls. . . . We had barely exited the school when we saw its entryway collapse.”
Inspector Douglas Valder Duff, stationed at the British Mandatory Police headquarters on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, remarked on the initial moments of the quake: “I was sitting with a friend, discussing an iced bottle of Lager in my quarters. Suddenly there was a roaring, rumbling sound. Every door and window in the building shook and rattled . . . we made a combined dive for the door and the Great Outdoors. As I got into the Barrack square . . . I met men running in every direction. Luckily a native officer had kept his head and was yelling for the men to ‘fall in.’ Discipline told and the men were soon standing in two orderly ranks, whilst weapons were being served out from the Armoury.” Inspector Duff observed, as homes collapsed and towering walls shed their stones, “Everywhere a great wailing and shouting rose from the City. I have never heard anything like it and hope I never shall again. The wailing of eighty thousand people in sore terror for their lives.”
Indeed, Palestine was a frightful scene of death and wreckage in the aftermath of the quake. The fear of looters and a desperate need for manpower to aid in rescue efforts led to a torrent of calls that overwhelmed the Jerusalem telephone exchange. Inspector Duff initially denied all requests for assistance, his rationale being that a general assessment of the situation was needed before men were dispatched across the city. Without immediate assistance from the Mandate government, the people were forced to organize ad-hoc groups for the search and rescue efforts. The educator Zu‘aytir and the Nabulsi Boy Scout troop began searching for survivors trapped in the rubble as some distributed supplies to those in need. In the days following, Zu‘aytir, along with the students and his fellow teachers, woke in the early morning to continue removing the debris, transporting the wounded to the hospital and the dead to the cemetery only to return late in the evening with expectations of repeating this routine once again in a few hours.
On July 12, the Jewish Telegraph Agency declared, “This morning the Old City [of Jerusalem] looked as if after a military siege. The streets were crowded the people hesitating to enter the houses in fear of a recurrence of the quake and possible collapse caused by a weakening of the foundations of the houses.” Such fears were not limited to Jerusalem, however. Accounts from Nablus reveal that many families left the old city to live in tents in the surrounding countryside and among the caves on Mounts Ebel and Gerizim. Many of those who chose to live in the caves purportedly refused to move back into the city for lengthy periods of time, preferring the safety of their mountainous dwellings to the precarious streets of Nablus.
While initial reports on the earthquake were vague, with each passing day local newspapers gathered more information on loss of life, injuries, and extent of infrastructural damage via reports compiled by municipal and central mandatory officials surveying the situation. After only 48 hours, the Palestine Bulletin reported that casualty estimates in Palestine and Transjordan had reached 485, with hundreds more injured. The earthquake had torn roads asunder, collapsed whole sections of markets, and rendered thousands of homes uninhabitable, leaving countless families in desperate need of basic supplies. Thus, the recovery efforts quickly evolved into humanitarian relief operations to serve the victims.
In what was likely Palestine’s first internationally organized disaster relief campaign, a flood of telegraphs were received from the Arab world and elsewhere declaring support, condolences, and monetary pledges—particularly to those afflicted in Nablus. Groups across Syria and Egypt formed in order to collect aid monies and an Earthquake Relief Fund was established in Nablus. Jewish Philanthropist Nathan Straus (of R. H. Macy & Co. fame) donated $25,000 to be administered by a Jerusalem committee of the Zionist Organization of America which had begun a campaign to aid earthquake victims irrespective of their religious affiliation. On the swift response of the Jewish community, Nabulsi leaders were quoted in the Jewish Telegraph Agency declaring, “We have cabled for help to Rockefeller and to Henry Ford, but we have so far received no reply, while Nathan Straus sent his donation without having been asked.”
The English language Jewish press quickly found the earthquake relief efforts to be something of a propaganda coup as they boasted of their efforts to aid the non-Jews in Palestine. Statements like, “The surviving Arabs of Nablus gathered at the market place yesterday [July 14] and expressed their gratitude to the Jewish relief workers” were quite common in the daily coverage as a significant portion of the incoming aid was organized and donated by Jews of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv who suffered little in comparison. A group of Jewish volunteers to be sent to Nablus was assembled in Tel Aviv from among the Maccabee Organization, Hapoel (Labor Sport Organization), the Fire Brigade, as well as the Organization of Architects and Engineers and was eagerly accepted by the Mayor of Nablus. The arrangement of Jewish volunteers to Nablus was all the more significant given the city’s strong reputation for anti-Zionist sentiment.
With aid workers, monetary payments, and supply shipments arriving daily—some even on the backs of donkeys from smaller villages—those affected by the disaster found temporary relief. Yet, telegraphic records reveal that Nabulsi figures requested a halt to some shipments of food as they quickly exceeded immediate needs and adequate storage was unavailable. Instead, requests for money were reiterated such that supplies could be purchased as needed.
Even though temporary shelters were rapidly constructed and hungry mouths were fed, the long-term consequences of the earthquake were soon to weigh heavy on the minds of victims, municipal leaders, and Mandate officials alike.
See forthcoming Part Two for a continued exploration of the 1927 Jericho Earthquake and its effects on Palestine.
Marshall Watson holds an M.A. from the University of Chicago Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His current research focuses on Ottoman and early Mandate Palestine. He has previously lived in Palestine and Jordan.