March 24, 2011

On the earthquake that struck Syria on the ides
of Sha'bān 744/January 2, 1344

In God we seek refuge from the harm of what runs deep inside the earth and what comes out from it, and we beg Him for success in describing it and escaping from it. We beg for God's help and seek His protection from what has poisoned the current year, it being the 44th [of the eighth century of Islam], in which an earthquake struck Syria, scattering its men and horses and erecting the earth's agency over all that drag a tail across it. May there be no return of earthquakes! They hamper the intellect and halt it, and drive people out to the deserts and the wastes, where they exhaust themselves with constant prayer.

         Time is a deceiver of man.
                  It enfeebles and abases him and does him harm.
         When the Earthquake strikes, how much is left
                  of Ornament that captivated formerly?

Sixty days have passed, and one family is warned by another's example. When I was asked how the wall [of a certain house] could remain standing for two consecutive months, I said: "It is seeking atonement." For on a day of Ramadan it collapsed onto its people.

         In the Merciful we seek refuge from its like:
                  the earthquake which routs all hope of sleep.
         It sprang violently upon the unresistant
                  and condemned the chaste to death by stoning.
         It was the sentence of the Almighty, Powerful and Triumphant,
                  Whose kindliness is unconditional and eternal.

In fear we eyed the shaking stones as they separated from each other. "Some there are that split apart... and some fall down in fear of God" and fly to pieces. How many houses did the carpenter and plasterer enter whose hard stones were freshly spattered, "wherein they found a wall about to collapse"! How many high places brought low, never to be raised! and how many buildings reduced in height, to await the Day of Judgment! How many nights we stayed awake - as on nights of travel - and called on God, praised be He, that there be "peace, until the rising of the dawn"! We ask God for recompense without affliction, and we seek refuge in God from affliction without recompense.
         The refugees avoid the valleys and remain out of doors in January, hobbled by the cold:

         Fear of the heaving earthquake
                  hurled us "onto the open shore"
         of the empty desert, where nothing can land on us
                  but rain from the sky.

The natural philosopher said: "This was caused by vapors of the pent-up wind." The astrologer said: "It was in emulation of the movement of a star." Whereupon the legal scholar declaimed:

         In the agency of God I am the first believer,
                  and the first to disbelieve that this was star-ordained.
         The philosopher is without grace or warrant,
                  as are the star-struck, who have nothing to back them up.

The scholars have a clearer perspective, for God's law is more on point.
         Aleppo prevailed over the disaster. Cracks appeared in its mosque, and its minaret waved and fell to leaning. and had the call been stronger it would have been apocopated. Thanks to God, however, the mosque remained intact and its minaret was spared emasculation, in order that God's word might still resound. But tears for [the neighborhood of] al-'Aqaba flow like water from the sky. "What will make you know what is al-'Aqaba?" Men's and women's quarters were thrown together inside the moving buildings, whose walls came together in a farewell embrace, and many necks were broken and rib cages intermixed, inspiring this couplet:

         The earthquake took a special delight
         in the flesh of the neckbone of the 'Aqabite.

Downcast by the whole catastrophe, Aleppo's provincial deputy left the city. His grief and remorse were evident, as he walked with a copy of the Qur'ān shielding his head.

         I guarantee that if you saw him
                  promenading beneath that Qur'ān
         you would have thought him the very picture of Joseph
                  bearing with him Sūrat Yūsuf.

And if you had seen the citadels and fortresses, when all their guardhouses were brought down:

         The earthquake flew at the Citadel of citadels
                  fearing neither bowman nor hunter.
         When the fortress learned who was the Aimer of the blow
                  it left its foundation and went to its knees before Him.
         Those who escaped the ruin to live on in dread
                  of the joint extinction of novelty and antiquity know that
         the matter belongs to God. And many a speculator
                  does not err until he acts.

The people were reduced to camping next to the sites vacated by their houses when the earthen tide swept them away.
         But if you had seen Manbij, birthplace of streams and source of the early morning's blowing breeze, - Manbij, in the obliterating force's grip, "as if it had not flourished yesterday," and the gloom of the sun and full moon on its rubble!

         Their deaths in the rubble did not fall short
                  of His decree, and they entered the company of martyrs.
         The Creator's might is blameless
                  and there is no disgrace in His creation brought low.

Alas for Manbij, the splendid city! It became a ruin such as it wearies the tongue to describe, enveloped in dust and shadow and ridden by a dark black wind.

         They and their houses perished in an instant
                  as if on schedule.
         May there be a disinterment of their bright faces
                  like swords taken out from their sheaths.

It was told to me that the stones of its minaret flew into the sky like missiles:

         Drunk on the earthquake's wine, it danced
                  like a sportive camel under a hasty rider.
         Its libation set my tears to pouring out
                  for what befell its house and the people in it.

When they heard the horrible sound, "they left their homes by the thousands, fearing death." But their fear was no protection, nor were the tears they shed, nor the porticoes of their kings when their kings lay dead.

         With the walls around our young maids fallen,
                  what can I say to Him? "Be Thou our wall"?

The feebleness of my descriptive powers is too great, and my own greatness is too feeble, and with these verses I conclude:

         The people of Manbij were like silkworms,
                  whose homes turn into graves.
         Blessed were they, whose mulberry tree
                  was a garden paved with silk.

The Epistle of the Earthquake by Zayn al-Din 'Umar ibn al-Muzaffar ibn al-Wardi (d. 749/1349)