megiddoScience is full of cases where researchers looking for one thing end up finding something entirely different, often of great importance. That is what happened to us. For more than 20 years, we have been trying to obtain evidence to help predict earthquakes by studying the longest and most continuous historical record of earthquakes on the face of the earth—in the earthquake-prone Holy Land. Whether we will ever succeed remains uncertain. But in the meantime, we have made several startling archaeological discoveries that have helped us to understand the rise and the repeated fall of one of the most exciting sites in the country- Megiddo, the site of Armageddon. Here, according to the Revelation to John (also known as the Apocalypse), the final conflict between good and evil before the millennial age will occur amidst “a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth” (Revelation 16-18).

Archaeologists frequently attribute debris uncovered in excavations to invading armies. Historians, on the other hand, criticize archaeologists for invoking wars and battles that are not described in historical documents.

Often, the truth may lie with earthquakes.

Almost 200 of the approximately 400 archaeological sites excavated in Israel show possible evidence of earthquake destruction- fallen columns lying like parallel toothpicks, collapsed walls, crushed skeletons and slipped keystones as well as a regional pattern of destruction (see “How to Recognize an Earthquake”).

Granted, important battles did occur at Megiddo; the city’s strategic importance all but guaranteed this. Pharaoh Thutmose III defeated a Syrian army at Megiddo in 1468 B.C.E. The prophetess Deborah and her general Barak defeated Sisera at Megiddo in the 13th century B.C.E. (Judges 5), and when Pharaoh Sheshonq I (called Shishak in the Bible) invaded Israel in the tenth century B.C.E., another battle was fought here.a But at Megiddo and other ancient sites, repeated destruction, especially of fortifications, was often followed by rapid rebuilding. Why would an invader destroy the walls of a strategic city that would be needed for the new ruler’s defense? More puzzling, why would an invader rebuild a city’s defenses immediately after destroying them?
Recent advances in our understanding of plate tectonics reveal unexpected insights not only about the destruction of ancient cities but also about their strategic locations. In no case is this clearer than Megiddo.

The mound of Megiddo stands at one of the most important topographic gaps in the ancient Near East, a gap that became a traffic bottleneck on the main route between Syria and Egypt. Until the advent of more elaborate road building by Rome, the gap at Megiddo, called the Nahal Iron Pass, was the only route that allowed chariots traveling on the route from Damascus to Egypt to pass through the Carmel-Gilboa mountain range. By controlling this route, Megiddo directed not only the course of trade in the Fertile Crescent but also the march of armies. As the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III (1504–1450 B.C.E.) put it, “The capture of Megiddo is the capture of a thousand towns.”1

The strategic topography around Megiddo is created by active faults that cross northern Israel. Earthquakes cause much of the motion on these faults. Recent seismicity records show numerous small tremors that have occurred precisely on these active faults. These records imply that larger earthquakes must also occur from time to time. In 1984 one such event—a widely felt earthquake with a magnitude of 5.2 on the Richter scale—occurred on the Carmel fault, only 10 miles northwest of Megiddo.b These faults lifted the prominent Carmel-Gilboa mountain range that cuts obliquely across Israel.

The Carmel-Gilboa faults are only a branch of a longer and, with respect to fault motion, more significant Dead Sea fault system. This system, like the San Andreas in California, accommodates the motion between two plates—the Arabian plate to the east and the Mediterranean plate to the west. The slight separation of the plates here created the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea depression (which also blocked ancient traffic, thus further enhancing the strategic importance of the Megiddo gap). This contrasts with the Carmel-Gilboa faults, which created a mountain range where the plates are pushed together.

Because the Dead Sea fault accommodates larger slippage (that is, the rate at which plates are moving past each other) than the Carmel-Gilboa system, it generates earthquakes more frequently. And because it is longer, these earthquakes reach larger magnitudes—up to 7.5 on the Richter scale.

Earthquake faults are thus responsible for Megiddo’s strategic importance- Traders and armies had no alternative to passing through the gap created at Megiddo.

Earthquakes, it turns out, appear to be responsible for several destructions of the site as well. Thus the active faults around Megiddo are paradoxically responsible both for this city’s repeated rise to power and glory and its decline and fall.

Because of poor construction practices in ancient times, even modest earthquakes could cause serious destruction. The historical records indicate that there have been no fewer than 11 devastating earthquakes in the Holy Land since 1400 B.C.E.2 At Megiddo, at least four major destruction levels remain unaccounted for in the prevailing historical record. We believe that three of these layers were caused by earthquakes.

These three destruction layers date to between the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.) and Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.E.), precisely when Israel began to emerge in Canaan as a people.

The first layer, separating Megiddo Stratum IX from the later Stratum VIII, has been tentatively dated to about 1400 B.C.E.c Was this destruction caused by Israelite invaders, as some have suggested? The Bible gives no indication that the Israelites conquered Megiddo. The British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated at Jericho and in Jerusalem, attributed this thick destruction layer to the armies of Thutmose III.3 But we believe an earthquake caused the damage.

A later destruction level (between Stratum VIIA and Stratum VIB) dates to about 1250 B.C.E. This sudden and total destruction left behind a layer of debris 4 feet deep. Although this destruction has been attributed, alternatively, to both the Israelites and the Philistines, strong evidence suggests that an earthquake caused the devastation—as Graham Davies of Cambridge University has suggested on the basis of fallen walls at Megiddo and the contemporaneous destruction of many other nearby sites.4 On top of this debris was built an unwalled, poorly constructed settlement. This pattern of sudden destruction followed by hasty rebuilding is also characteristic of earthquakes.

A third, very violent destruction, found in Stratum VIA, dates to between 1130 and 1000 B.C.E.
Some archaeologists have attributed this destruction to a conquest of Megiddo by King David’s army. But neither the Bible nor any other text refers to such a battle. It seems far more likely that an earthquake was responsible, as the late archaeologist Aharon Kempinski suggested.5 Indeed, both the enormity of the damage in this destruction level and contemporaneous damage at sites as far south as Tel Masos (near Beer-Sheva) and as far north as the Sea of Galilee suggest that a massive earthquake was responsible. Perhaps this was the earthquake that occurred during the battle at Michmash between Saul and the Philistines (1 Samuel 14-15).

The anthropological evidence also suggests that this third, massive destruction level may have been caused by an earthquake.

The most compelling archaeological evidence of destruction by earthquakes is crushed skeletons under collapsed structures. Because the dead are not normally buried under rubble, this evidence is accepted even by those archaeologists who otherwise dismiss earthquakes as important causes of destruction.

Skeletons crushed under fallen walls have been found in many archaeological sites—at Jericho (about 1400 B.C.E.), Beth She‘arim (363 C.E.), Petra (363 C.E.) and Beth-Shean (749 C.E.), to name only a few.

In 1992 the smashed skeleton of a woman (named Doreen by the excavators) was unearthed at the coastal town of Dor, 20 miles west of Megiddo. According to excavator Ephraim Stern, who lives in earthquake-sparse Jerusalem, “[The] woman whose head had been crushed by a stone [was] apparently a casualty of battle.”d But Andrew Stewart, a Dor archaeologist who lives in earthquake-prone California, suggests that Doreen was a victim of an earthquake, not a battle.e His hypothesis is supported by bone-fracture analysis performed by physical anthropologist Patricia Smith, at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, which indicated that Doreen’s entire body had been crushed suddenly.

Doreen died in about 1020 B.C.E. Contemporaneous devastation has been uncovered at numerous sites in Israel (see map in “How to Recognize an Earthquake”). We believe that they were all destroyed by a single earthquake—either on the nearby Carmel fault (with a magnitude of 5.5 to 6.5) or on the more distant Dead Sea fault (with a magnitude of 6.5 to 7.5).

Among the sites destroyed at this time is Megiddo. The discovery of Doreen at Dor supports our contention that an earthquake caused the violent destruction in Megiddo Stratum VIA. Even stronger support comes from the excavation records of the American excavation of Megiddo in the 1930s- Amidst the smashed jars and collapsed walls of this destruction, the excavators found not one but several crushed human skeletons.

A fourth unexplained destruction of Megiddo occurred sometime after the site’s conquest by Sheshonq in 925 B.C.E. As of yet, no definite archaeological evidence has been uncovered that indicates this layer resulted from an earthquake. Perhaps we will discover that it was caused in about 760 B.C.E., during the reign of King Uzziah, by an earthquake referred to in Amos 1-1 and Zechariah 14-4–5.

Appropriately enough, in the New Testament Megiddo symbolizes the Apocalypse to come—as if the author of Revelation knew of the city’s frequent devastation by earthquakes. In Revelation the place is called Armageddon, which the text tells us is a Hebrew name (Revelation 16-16). Actually, this name is a Greek transcription of the Hebrew Har Megiddo, which means the Mount of Megiddo-

And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon … and there came … a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake- And the great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell … And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found.

Revelation 16-16, 18–20

We may characterize this description as a dramatized historical earthquake account or as a retrospective prophecy—often found in ancient literature—a post factum warning. Perhaps the supposed author of the Apocalypse, John of Patmos, experienced an earthquake on the Greek island (Patmos) in the Aegean Sea where he lived. His account is remarkably similar to an eyewitness account (given here in an abridged form) by a certain Ammianus Marcellinus of an earthquake felt on the island of Cyprus in 370 C.E.-

A little after daybreak the whole of the firm earth trembled, the sea was driven back from the land, so that in the abyss thus revealed, men saw sea creatures stuck in the slime; and vast mountains and deep valleys, which nature, the creator, had hidden in the unplumbed depth, then, as one might believe, first saw the beams of the sun. The great mass of waters, returning when it was least expected, killed many thousands of men by drowning. By swift recoil of the eddying tides, a number of ships have been destroyed, and the lifeless bodies of the shipwrecked persons lay floating on their backs or on their faces. Other great ships landed on the tops of buildings, and some were driven miles inland.6

Megiddo, alias Armageddon, is not the only site associated in the Bible with memories of earthquakes. The destruction of Jericho should also be understood in this context.f The flattened walls of this site, attested by several excavators, including Kathleen Kenyon, almost surely resulted from an earthquake, somehow recalled by the Biblical historian.

The drying up of the nearby river Jordan, as described in Joshua 3-16–17, further supports this interpretation- “The waters [of the Jordan] flowing from above stood still upon a heap … and those flowing down toward … the Salt Sea [the Dead Sea] were wholly cut off.”

Similar occurrences in which the Jordan’s banks collapsed and blocked the river’s flow for a day or two have been reported during half a dozen more recent Jericho earthquakes, the latest in 1927.
Excavations at Hazor, a major strategic fort in northern Israel, have revealed massive earthquake damage—broken jars, fallen walls and collapsed roofs—probably caused by the eighth-century B.C.E. earthquake of Amos 1-1.

An earthquake in 31 B.C.E. likely destroyed the site of Qumran, adjacent to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus described this earthquake-

The battle of Actium took place between Caesar and Antony, in the seventh year of Herod’s reign [31 B.C.E.], and there was an earthquake in Judea, such as had not been seen before, which caused great destruction of the cattle throughout the country. And about thirty thousand persons also perished in the ruins of their houses, but the army, which lived in the open, was not at all harmed by this calamity.7

Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the caves near Qumran may have been buried not by the people who wrote them but by collapsed cave roofs shaken by the earthquake.g

Earthquake destruction continues in modern times. On July 11, 1927, an earthquake hit many towns and villages, including Jerusalem, Nablus and, as mentioned previously, Jericho. According to the New York Times, hundreds of people were killed and a thousand houses destroyed. Centered near Jericho, with a magnitude of 6.3, the earthquake caused damage to structures in the Negev, in the south, and along the coastal plain and the Sea of Galilee, 100 miles to the north.

Perhaps because no major earthquake has occurred in the Israel area since 1927, earthquake risk has been widely ignored. Although seismologists and engineers acknowledge the likelihood of devastating earthquakes, many planners and builders and the general public remain unconvinced. Perhaps the compelling archaeological evidence of repeated destructive earthquakes in the past will be vivid enough to prompt them to prepare for the inevitable future earthquakes.

a. See Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin, “Back to Megiddo,” BAR 20-01.

b. Based on the length of an active fault, we can estimate the largest potential magnitude (M) of its earthquakes. For the Carmel-Gilboa system, this is M6 to M6.5 on the Richter scale, comparable to the M7.6 earthquake in Northridge, California, in 1994.

c. Strata (singular i) are the layers of occupation excavated at an archaeological tell. The most recent layer, near the top of the tell, is numbered one. The numbers progress as archaeologists dig deeper into the ground, revealing earlier and earlier occupation layers. The numbers of the Megiddo strata used in this article are those assigned by the Oriental Institute excavators.

d. See Ephraim Stern, “The Many Masters of Dor—Part II- How Bad Was Ahab?” BAR 19-02.

e. See Andrew Stewart, “A Death at Dor,” BAR 19-02.

1. The Annals of Thutmose III’s military campaign are carved on the walls of the Temple of Karnak. See James B. Pritchard, ed., i, 3rd ed. (Princeton- Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), p. 237.

2. These earthquakes occurred in c. 1400 B.C.E., c. 1250 B.C.E., c. 1020 B.C.E., c. 760 B.C.E., 31 B.C.E., 363 C.E., 749 C.E., 1202 C.E., 1546 C.E., 1859 C.E. and 1927 C.E.

3. Kathleen M. Kenyon, Archaeology in the Holy Land (London- Benn; New York- Norton, 1979), 4th ed., p. 188.

4. Graham I. Davies, Megiddo (Grand Rapids, MI- Eerdmans, 1986), p. 64.

5. “It appears that the first impression of the (early) Megiddo excavators was correct and that the cause of the massive destruction was a high intensity earthquake,” Aharon Kempinski, Megiddo (in Hebrew) (Tel Aviv- Hakibutz Hameuchad, 1993), p. 208; see also p. 94.

6. David Soren, “An Earthquake on Cyprus,” Archaeology 38-2 (1985), pp. 52–59.

7. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.121–122.