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The Ancient Greeks May Have Deliberately Built Temples on Fault Lines

Then again, they may just have an awful lot of both.

The Delphi complex is one of the most famous landmarks of the ancient world.
The Delphi complex is one of the most famous landmarks of the ancient world. Public Doman

Greece has a lot of ancient temples. Greece also has a lot of earthquakes. And sometimes they happen in the same places. On one hand, this shouldn’t be surprising. Greece and its neighboring islands are contained in a “box” of seismic fault lines that run in all different directions. The region also has millennia of history and is bursting with ancient ruins. But new research from the University of Plymouth suggests the overlap of earthquakes and temples may be no accident. A study published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association suggests that the ancient Greeks deliberately built their sacred or treasured sites on land that had previously been shaken by a quake.

Delphi, the famous ancient sanctuary and temple complex, was once thought of as the navel of the world. It was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 373 B.C., and then rebuilt in precisely the same place, atop a fault line, which gave rise to the intoxicating gases and sacred spring there. Scientists have previously connected these geothermal features with the site’s spiritual importance, but Ian Stewart, director of the university’s Sustainable Earth Institute, believes the site is emblematic of a larger trend. Other examples of sacred sites intentionally built on fault lines, he suggests, may include Mycenae, Ephesus, Cnidus, and Hierapolis.

“I have always thought it more than a coincidence that many important sites are located directly on top of fault lines created by seismic activity,” Stewart said in a statement released by the University. “The Ancient Greeks placed great value on hot springs unlocked by earthquakes, but perhaps the building of temples and cities close to these sites was more systematic than has previously been thought.” That said, there are many ancient sacred sites on stabler ground, and many faults that don’t host temples.

Stewart believes that the ancient Greeks saw earthquakes as a mixed blessing. “[They] were incredibly intelligent people,” he said. “I believe they would have recognized the significance [of these fault lines] and wanted their citizens to benefit from the properties they created.” Modern Greece is a little more wary of the properties created by seismic activity—every new home or building is built with stringent anti-earthquake measures.