The ancient Greeks may have worshiped earthquakes, purposely building temples and other important structures directly above fault lines. But the same natural phenomenon they exalted could have also destroyed them.

According to the University of Plymouth, it’s not an entirely new idea that earthquakes played a role in the lives of ancient Greeks: “Scientists have previously suggested Delphi, a mountainside complex once home to a legendary oracle, gained its position in Classical Greek society largely as a result of a sacred spring and intoxicating gases which emanated from a fault line caused by an earthquake.”

Researcher Iain Stewart says, however, that other cities and structures around the Aegean region followed similar patterns.

In his paper in the journal Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, he suggests a “nuanced and intimate relationship between seismic faults and past human settlements.” The people may have assigned cultural significance to ground shaken by quakes — like seeing fault lines created by earthquakes as connections to the underworld — and chose those locations for their important buildings.

The evidence of this connection would be in the architecture. According to the paper, the ancient people used earthquake-related landscape features to construct their cities and sacred places. For example, limestone fortifications were built up on higher ground that originally had been elevated when seismic activity thrust some sections above others, known as fault scarps. Fault lines could also release natural springs of water, and that pure water was included in certain ancient rituals — implying that the fault line sources “may have helped position the nascent hubs of Greek cities.”

theatre-delphi The ancient theater at Delphi is near the Temple of Apollo, which was built right over a fault line in ancient Greece. Photo: Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his analysis that includes parts of Greece as well as nearby western Turkey, Stewart points specifically to cities like Mycenae, Ephesus, Cnidus and Hierapolis. Of those four ancient cities, which today are important historical and archaeological sites, the former is in mainland Greece and the other three are in Turkey.

Different structures aren’t just built near fault lines; they are built right on top of them.

With the example of Delphi, it feeds into this pattern because a temple there was built over a fault line — and later rebuilt after an earthquake destroyed the first one in 373 BCE.

“Earthquake faulting is endemic to the Aegean world and for more than 30 years, I have been fascinated by the role earthquakes played in shaping its landscape,” Stewart said in the university statement. “But 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. 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.”

Just as earthquakes gave, they would have also taken away. The paper notes settlements built around fault lines would have been destroyed by seismic activity, and that quakes could have disrupted water sources the settlements relied on.

“The Aegean region is riddled with seismic faults and littered with ruined settlements,” the university explained.

It may not have been a coincidence that the settlements were built in exactly the right position to be destroyed.

“I am not saying that every sacred site in ancient Greece was built on a fault line,” Stewart said. “The ancient Greeks were incredibly intelligent people and I believe they would have recognised this significance [of earthquakes] and wanted their citizens to benefit from the properties they created.”