Review of APOCALYPSE: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God

Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God
by Amos Nur wth Dawn Burgess
(Princeton University Press, $26.95, 304 pages, 98 halftones, May, 2008)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz
(Copyright Alfred B. Bortz, 2008)

Click to buy Apocalypse from

In the middle of the fourth century AD, a series of earthquakes struck the port of Kourion on the southern coast of Cyprus. Originally built by the Greeks a millennium and a half earlier during the Late Bronze Age, the town had no doubt experienced its share of seismic events, but nothing prepared its inhabitants for the major earthquake and tsunami that struck just after dawn, most likely on July 21, AD 365.

Because of the early hour, farm animals were trapped in their stables, and most of the population was caught beneath the rubble of their collapsing homes. The few survivors, probably too overwhelmed to recover and bury the dead, abandoned Kourion forever. When archaeologists excavated the site in the 1980s, little had been disturbed.

Among the many discoveries was the heartbreaking tableau of a skeletal family. The man holds his wife protectively while she cradles their one-year-old child. The image, both poignant and instructive, graces the cover of Stanford University Earth Science and geophysics professor Amos Nur’s new book, Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God, written with the assistance of his graduate student Dawn Burgess.

The title might lead some readers–incorrectly–to expect a book full of graphic descriptions of biblical devastation. What they get instead is less spectacular but every bit as captivating. The professor delivers a fascinating mini-course full of detail, speculation, and a challenge to previous archaeological interpretations.

This is not a book for passive readers. Indeed, its best parts require readers to examine details for clues. Because the physical evidence is fragmentary and the written evidence, if it exists, is colored by religious and cultural bias, Nur and other scholars are often forced to speculate.

Both believers and atheists will enjoy pondering Nur’s discussions of material from the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, “the biblical story of Joshua’s conquest of Jericho contains many odd details that would make a great deal of sense if the destruction of Jericho’s walls were caused by an earthquake.”

That proposal “invariably annoys people at both ends of the religious spectrum. Religious fundamentalists–Christian, Jewish, or Islamic–see heresy in any attempt to assign natural causes to the miracles…. On the other hand, some archaeologists are nearly as uncomfortable as fundamentalists are but for the opposite reason.”

In one chapter, Nur examines the record of earthquakes in the seismically active “Holy Land” (to use his choice of geographical nomenclature). Most readers, regardless of religious persuasion, will appreciate the connections between geological and archaeological evidence and sections of the Bible.

Nur’s organization carefully leads readers to a controversy about a turning point in human history that he intentionally stirs up. Bronze Age civilization apparently ended suddenly and destructively, with a series of catastrophic collapses of major Aegean and Mediterranean sites between 1225 BC and 1175 BC. He blames much of the collapse on an “earthquake storm.”

Archaeologists, on the other hand, attribute the destruction to human causes, specifically the development of iron tools and weapons wielded by enemies often described as “Sea People.” Strangely, the prevailing archaeological view “somehow rules out an earthquake catastrophe in the same region at the same time.”

To some readers, this will seem like typical academic squabbling, but most will see in it the light in which Nur seems to be offering it. Scientific discovery often involves the clash of two or more hypotheses. As long as the partisans of various views manage to keep the discussion from turning personal, the jousting produces entertainment and insight for participants and audience alike.

Fred Bortz is the author of numerous books, including a twentieth-century history Physics: Decade by Decade.