THE EARTHQUAKE OF 1802 11/05/2009
Last updated: 2009-05-11 14:37 EET
Earthquakes have a huge emotional impact on Romanians and that might be explained by the fact that the disastrous earthquake of 1977 is still fresh in their memory. On March 4th 1977, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale hit the Vrancea area and claimed the lives of 1,500 Romanians. People continue to be terrified by the prospect of such natural disasters happening again, especially those who live in the capital city Bucharest, located on an earthquake fault line. However, as experts put it, it’s not the earthquake that kills people but its effects, such as panic and collapsing buildings. The 1802 earthquake was the first one mentioned in official historical records, and, although more powerful than the one in 1977, it made fewer victims. But the impact such a disaster has on people speaks volumes about a certain society. Looking back at the earthquake that rocked Bucharest on October 14th 1802 at noon, will help us discover a facet of the Romanian society at the start of the 19th century. We talked about the impact of the 1802 earthquake with historian Marian Stroia of the Nicolae Iorga History Institute in Bucharest.

"The earthquake occurred on October 14th 1802, soon after ruler Constantin Ipsilanti had come to the throne. Following research studies into the earthquakes that hit the area before the 20th century, seismologist Gheorghe Marmureanu reached the conclusion that the 1802 earthquake was the most powerful such event that ever occurred on Romania’s territory, with a magnitude of about 7.9 on the Richter scale. Looking through the documents of the time, I have found that another quake had occurred several years before, in 1790. Proof thereof is a letter dated March 28th 1791, written by a man called Toader Mihail, who says quote, “on the third day of Easter, at about 7:15 in the evening, the earth was shaken so hard that I was afraid the houses would collapse over me; it lasted 15 minutes.’’ Unquote. The earthquake did not cause material damage.’’

There are two important sources that describe the 1802 earthquake. Marian Stroia again at the microphone:

“The first source is a chronicle by Dionisie Eclesiarhul, who witnessed the events first hand; he describes them as follows: on October 14th 1802, the earth trembled really hard and made all church steeples in Bucharest collapse; the Coltea bell tower, a city landmark that also served as a watchtower, collapsed as well; the locals were terrified. A second source is the Austrian consul in Bucharest, Markelius. He had been living in Bucharest between 1788 and 1808 so he witnessed both earthquakes. From Merkelius we find out that “The Coltea Tower, that had survived all previous tremors, tumbled down this time. This source confirms what Dionisie Eclesiarhul said. The Coltea Tower’s collapse had a great impact on the people. There were also some 200-year old churches and a 3-century old chapel that fell down.’’

Surprisingly, the quake made only three victims. An explanation for that might be the fact that houses were built at distance from one another and were surrounded by large yards and gardens, so the buildings’ vibrations did not propagate. Also, the building materials – mostly shingle and timber – were light ones. Marian Stroia tells us more about the measures taken by authorities:

“On the one hand, there is the emotional impact an earthquake has on people. Also, given that the quake occurred only a few days after Constantin Ipsilanti had come to the throne, his contemporaries saw the disaster as a bad omen for his reign. And it was really a bad omen as the ruler did not end his 7-year mandate set by the Sultan, but was replaced after only four years. However, Ipsilanti’s managing skills cannot be denied. He was one of the most enterprising Phanariote rulers. The first measures he took after the earthquake were aimed at maintaining order, as natural disasters were usually followed by anarchy. Secondly, he took measures for the reconstruction of the affected buildings. As the demand for building contractors was high, they tried to take advantage of the situation and charge more for the construction materials and manual labor. In trying to avoid speculation, Ipsilanti set maximum fees for materials and labor force and anyone who charged more risked harsh penalties. The city was rebuilt relatively fast in about 3 or 4 years.’’

The 1802 earthquake was followed by another two: in 1838 and 1844. Far from becoming a common thing, earthquakes continue to cause fear and panic.
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