Friday 22 January 2010

Haiti in historical perspective

If the estimates we are now hearing of 200,000 people killed in the Haiti earthquake are accurate, that would make it probably the eighth deadliest in history. The worst may have been one that hit the eastern Mediterranean region in 1201 or 1202, devastating countries like Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Some say this disaster claimed more than a million lives, though many of these may actually have perished in the famine that was raging through Egypt about the same time.

Better documented is the quake that devastated Shaanxi province in China in 1556, killing up to 830,000 people, many of whom had been living in man-made caves they had dug into the soft soil. Perhaps third worst was the quake of 526 that destroyed Antioch in modern-day Turkey. Known as "the Fair Crown of the Orient", it had been the third biggest city in the Roman Empire, and was the place where the word "Christian" was first used to describe the followers of Jesus. The death toll was said to be 300,000.

In more modern times, the Chinese earthquake in Tangshan in 1976 was officially said to have killed 242,000, though the Chinese government did not admit to this figure until three years afterwards. Unofficial estimates put the death toll as high as 655,000. More recently, the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 claimed 230,000 victims.

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