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September 25, 2014

Earthquakes in the Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos
of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

In early September [1999] we experienced the consequences of the terrible earthquake in Athens, which was felt in other parts of Greece. Previously we were affected by the terrible effects of the earthquake in Turkey. The land shook for entire days while at the same time shaking the hearts of the people.

During these earthquakes we have been able to see human suffering from the loss of loved ones, and we empathized with them, seeing others lose all their property, the acquisition for which they labored tirelessly over a lifetime. Yet we were given the opportunity to also see the heroism of the men of EMAK who selflessly entered into the wreckage to retrieve lives, as well as the interest we saw in other people running out of sympathy to offer various aid. We are not indifferent also to the assistance of various rescue groups from other nations who came to help us and showed their solidarity. However, one cannot ignore the irresponsibility of the many who were responsible for the construction of the buildings that collapsed.


Earthquakes are associated with the life of people throughout all historical periods. History has preserved memories of such destructive earthquakes that had terrible consequences on human beings and other things. In the Synaxarion of the Church, which is read daily in the Service of Matins, there are preserved memories of such terrible earthquakes. That they are presented in the Synaxarion is an expression of the gratitude towards God for the salvation of people, and it also gives an opportunity to request of Him that such devastating effects not reoccur.

The late Protopresbyter Fr. John Ramphos in a study titled "Μνήμαι σεισμών" ("Memories of Earthquakes") refers to the earthquakes that have been passed on to us in the Synaxarion of the Church. At the conclusion he included a special service composed by the late hymnographer of the Great Church of Christ, Monk Gerasimos Mikragiannanitis. This service is titled: "Supplication and Thanksgiving in Commemoration of the Earthquake That Took Place in the Year 1953 in the Ionian Islands of Kefallonia, Zakynthos and Ithaca". This service is chanted on August 11th.

Next I would like to mention the earthquakes commemorated in the ecclesiastical Menologion:

1. Two earthquakes took place on September 25th ("In commemoration of the great earthquake, at which time there took place the abduction of a child into the air.") and January 26th ("In commemoration of the great earthquake."). Some argue that this was one earthquake which began on September 25th and ended on January 26th, but the late Fr. John Ramphos argues they were two earthquakes, from which the first (September 25th) continued for four months and the second (January 26th) continued for three months, thus there were two major earthquakes with their aftershocks. The first took place at the beginning of the reign of Theodosius II (408-450) and the second at the end of his reign.

The chronicler Theophanes preserves the information that the Byzantines were so afraid from the earthquake of September 25th, that they left the City "and night and day prayed to God with the bishop in litanies". Indeed, during the litany "as the earth was shaking all the people cried 'Lord have mercy'" and a child was abducted into the air where he heard a divine voice telling him to announce to the bishop and the people to chant the hymn "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us, without any additions", because certain Theopaschite heretics would add "crucified God". Patriarch Proclus and Empress Pulcheria ordered this hymn be chanted without the "crucified God" and introduced the chant throughout the Empire.

During the earthquake on January 26th the walls of Constantinople were demolished, as well as many parts of the City and many homes, as well as "the port of Troas and the Bronze Tetrapylon".

2. The earthquake of October 7th in the year 524 under Emperor Justinian I. The Synaxarion writes: "In commemoration of the sustained philanthropy towards us with the terrible threat of the great earthquake."

3. The earthquake of October 26th in the year 740. This earthquake lasted for eleven or twelve months. The chronicler Theophanes writes: "Churches and monasteries were demolished, and many people died." Many statues fell "together with the land walls of the City as well as many cities and villages in Thrace, Nicomedia in Bythinia, Prainetos and Nicaea, in which only one church was saved." Indeed, a change in the boundaries of the sea was observed in some places.

In memory of this great and terrible earthquake, Saint Joseph, the hymnographer of the Church, wrote a special canon that is chanted on October 26th, at which time we also chant the Service to Saint Demetrios, and this is preserved till this day.

4. The earthquake of December 14th in the year 557. It is written in the Synaxarion of the Church: "In commemoration of the sustained philanthropy towards us with the terrible threat of the earthquake, from which despite all hope the philanthropic Lord redeemed us."

This was a terrible earthquake that lasted ten days. The chronicler Theophanes says that both of the walls of Constantinople suffered major damage, many churches fell together with the altars and their canopies, and whole areas were razed, which is why he writes: "There was not a place or suburb that did not fall from the terrible threat of the earthquake." The earthquake was so great and terrible "that no man of that generation on earth would forget it." Emperor Justinian I "did not put on his crown for forty days, and for the holy Nativity of Christ he entered the church without it (the crown)." Kedrinos says that he also entered during the celebration of Theophany without a crown. It seems this was a major disaster and there were many casualties.

5. The earthquake of January 9th in the year 870 at the beginning of the reign of Basil I that lasted forty days. That is, the aftershocks lasted forty days.

The chronicler Niketas Paphlagon calls it "most awful" and says there were demolished many churches, houses and galleries "with mythic beasts and people that were thrashed", and the Church of Hagia Sophia was at risk of cracking if the rulers had not reinforced it.

6. The earthquake of March 17th in the year 790, during the reign of Emperor Constantine.

7. The earthquake of August 16th in the year 542. In fact the chroniclers Gedeon and Theophanes in their descriptions speak of a terrible earthquake during which churches, houses and the walls of Constantinople were demolished and "many people died and there was great fear." This earthquake lasted forty days. Theophanes writes: "And many people were in sorrow as they processed and sat down and lived in the churches, and though the philanthropy of God took place, things became worse."


The information gathered by the late Fr. John Ramphos is very important and gives us the opportunity to make the following observations, which of course is related to our contemporary earthquakes.

A. The Church reminds the faithful every year of the terrible days of the earthquakes, that we mentioned, so that the faithful can thank God for the salvation of the human survivors, and on the other hand to supplicate God on behalf of the souls killed, and that He would not allow again for such terrible earthquakes to activate again.

B. Earthquakes have always been associated with the life of people and of course they had negative and positive effects.

Professor Vasilios Papazachos, in an older article, analyzes current theories on earthquakes, according to which, depending on the movements, the distancing or the convergence of tectonic plates, the stones at the boundaries of these plates are stretched or compressed, resulting in their break and thus faults are created, which, depending on their length, cause the size of the earthquake. Then he says: "Earthquakes are part of the natural process of the creation and evolution of the earth. It is the process that created the mountains and forests, fertile plains, beautiful seas and mineral wealth. Consequently, earthquakes are the manifestations of the extreme, though rare in the universe, tectonic activity (vitality) of the earth, that makes it very hospitable to humans. This process cannot be changed nor is it in our interest for it to be changed. Therefore both the genesis of earthquakes and the appearance of man on earth, have the same cause. That is why we must learn to live with earthquakes and we are constantly looking for better ways to reduce negative consequences."

As Christians, without denying these opinions of scientists, we accept that all these geological phenomena (rain, wind, hail) and such, are made within the creative, governing and salvific energies of God, Who intervenes when necessary in order to maintain biological life and for the salvation of people.

C. Earthquakes, according to the Synaxarion of the Church, are associated with the philanthropy and compassion of God. This is why it is written: "In commemoration of the sustained philanthropy towards us with the terrible threat of the earthquake", and elsewhere, "In commemoration of the compassion shown to us in the days of the terrible threat of the earthquake." We cannot enter into the purpose of the Providence of God and investigate why God allows and grants the occurrence of earthquakes, as the Psalm says: "He oversees the earth and causes it to tremble." However, through earthquakes, other quakes are made, spiritual and salvific ones, in which people are saved in various ways by the philanthropy of God.

D. Christians of that era knew how to deal with every issue, even that of earthquakes, with the proper attention and an ecclesiastical mindset. From the first they began a procession with prayers. During the litanies, as we saw, they also had miraculous events, such as the abduction of the child and the adoption of the Orthodox Trisagion hymn. This is why there are troparia, canons, supplications and prayers for cases of earthquakes.

Except for a few cases, as we saw on television, when survivors thanked God, we did not see litanies and prayers, and those that were done were not considered good enough to be shown by the media. This shows the difference in the mindset of the people as they were back then from what they are today.

E. Earthquakes and the way they are dealt with shows another reality. The chroniclers tell us that during earthquakes people sorrowed, prayed and repented, but "though the philanthropy of God took place, things became worse", which means that God by His philanthropy caused the earthquakes to cease, then not only did the people return to their previous life of sin, but they did worse. This shows the fickleness of man and the feasibility they show in various circumstances of life.


Let us supplicate God to exempt us from earthquakes or to restrict them and that He will miraculously intervene, and that we will transcend the fear of death, since this fear creates panic, despair and their consequences. Let us pray to God to grant rest to the souls of those people who died in the rubble of demolished buildings, as well as for courage to be imparted to the people who are afflicted and for their wounds to be healed quickly. Let us also ask God to enlighten the engineers to do their job well, and that He will also give His spiritual good things to those whose lives were in danger when they helped and saved in various ways our suffering brethren.

"Let us pray for the preservation of this city, and every city and land, from pestilence, famine, earthquake, deluge, fire, sword, foreign raid, civil war and sudden death: and that through Your goodness and philanthropy, O merciful and gracious God, You will be pleased to turn away from us the wrath that has come out against us, and the just menaces that hang over us; and deliver us from what now lies upon us, and be merciful to us."

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "ΣΕΙΣΜΟΙ ΣΤΑ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΑ ΤΗΣ ΕΚΚΛΗΣΙΑΣ", September 1999. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.