On November 25, 1759, the second of two major earthquakes in less than a month struck along the Levant fault zone, causing significant death and damage in the Galilee city of Safed.
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The first was on October 30, with a strength of 6.6 on the surface wave magnitude scale and an epicenter closer to Safed. The far-stronger November 25 temblor, which reached a magnitude of 7.5, was centered a little north of there in the Baalbek valley.
Although Safed is mentioned in the Bible and the Talmud, it began to play a significant role in Jewish life in the Land of Israel only in the 13th century, after it came under Mamluk protection. The 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain brought the city an influx of Sephardic Jews, and by the 18th century, Safed was numbered among the Four Holy Cities, together with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias.
With Jewish communities of Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Italian origin, Safed became a a base for the development of Jewish mystical thought and for rabbinical study. It also emerged as a significant manufacturing and trading center, and the first printing press in the Middle East was established in the city in 1563.
By 1759, however, the city’s status had been greatly diminished. It fell victim to warfare between Druze and Ottoman forces in 1660, and that was followed by outbreaks of plague in the 1740s.
The first quake of 1759 took place at 4 A.M. on October 30, and was felt as far north as Damascus and along the Mediterranean coast; in the area around Safed, it is estimated to have killed some 2,000 people, some 200 of them in the city itself.
The event of November 25 was far worse. It destroyed a third of Damascus and killed thousands there, damaging Tripoli, and toppling many of the surviving columns of the Roman-era temple in Baalbek. Safed was left in ruins.
Most of the Jews who survived fled the city, but were quickly replaced by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. These included some 300 followers of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who arrived in 1778, and some 450 disciples of the Vilna Gaon, the rabbinic opponent of Hasidism, who settled there in the early 19th century.
They, too, became the victims of warfare, epidemic and, on January 1, 1837, another huge earthquake (this one along the Dead Sea Transform fault). The Jewish quarter of the city, built on a hill, was basically destroyed, as houses at higher altitude collapsed onto the roofs of those below them. Relief teams did not begin to arrive until January 19, and about half of the city’s Jewish population of 4,000 is estimated to have died. After that, even the printing press was transferred out of Safed.