The Bells That Tolled – The 1802 Vrancea Earthquake: Bucharest Buckles Under (Part Two)

Bells rang out across a wide swath of Eastern Europe. This was no cause for celebration, instead it signified the beginning of a tragedy. Across the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia bells tolled. Further to the north, in the Austrian imperial city of Lemberg church bells began to ring for no apparent reason. The same was true in Kiev. The effect of what was happening could be felt as far away as Warsaw, Moscow and St. Petersburg. A movement was afoot, not one caused by the might of armies, the will of kings or great masses of the peasantry. Instead, this movement came from something much deeper. At its core, the movement caused churches to buckle, palaces to collapse and the uprooting of statues. It made both rich and poor homeless in a matter of minutes. The movement would be one of the most powerful to ever jolt Europe. It emanated outward from deep within the obscure Vrancea Mountains what was known at the time as Moldavia and today is part of Romania.

This movement was a massive earthquake, the likes of which had never been felt before in an area that had long been known as one of the shakiest in Europe. Estimates would later be made that this earthquake measured a 7.9 on the Richter Scale, making it one of the most powerful in European history. Though the earthquake inflicted tremendous physical destruction, it killed only a handful of people. Perhaps that is why today, hardly anyone remembers what happened in Bucharest on Tuesday, October 26, 1802. The event is little more than a footnote in a handful of history books. Yet for the city of Bucharest, the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia as well as those who lived through it, the day was unforgettable.

Ready To Be Toppled - The Coltea Tower prior to the Vrancea Earthquake of 1802

Ready To Be Toppled – The Coltea Tower prior to the Vrancea Earthquake of 1802

A City In Ruin  – Damaged Goods
In 1802 Bucharest bore little resemblance to the city that would eventually come to dominate Romania’s political, economic and cultural life. It had a population of approximately 35,000. The city was part of Wallachia, which was administered under the Phanariote system. Though part of the Ottoman Empire, it was given a wide degree of autonomy under Phanariote rulers. This ruling class came from Greeks who were from Constantinople. The empire appointed them to rule over their Orthodox subjects. In 1802, a new Phanariote ruler, Constantine Ypsilanti, had just taken the helm as Hospodar (Lord) of Wallachia. His rule was about to take a turn for the worst due to a natural event beyond his or anyone else’s control. Major events such as earthquakes were viewed by many as ominous portents of worse things to come. Historical sources state that the earthquake struck at midday.  At 12:55 local time the ground began to shake violently. One of the worst earthquakes in history was underway.

The earthquake lasted for ten minutes, an incredible amount of time by the standards of such tremors. This was no ordinary earthquake. Such massive force coupled with how long it occurred led to widespread destruction throughout the city. Even the sturdiest structures were no match for nature’s fury. At that time, the tallest structure in Bucharest was the Coltea Tower. This was Bucharest’s most notable landmark, used both as a bell tower and fire watch. The earthquake proved much too strong for the upper part of the tower which soon collapsed. Its 1,700 kilogram bell tumbled into the rubble. Only the tower’s lower half managed to withstand the initial force. Meanwhile, other structures in the city suffered grave damage. A skyline that had been filled with steeples was suddenly marked by plumes of dust. Churches, monasteries, stately dwellings and humble abodes were all left in ruins. The same was true in the countryside. Damage was widespread throughout Moldavia and even reached into eastern Transylvania.

The Mighty Have Fallen - The Coltea Tower after the 1802 earthquake

The Mighty Have Fallen – The Coltea Tower after the 1802 earthquake (Credit: Charles Doussault)

Fate & Destiny – From Rubble To Reconstruction
One of the more astonishing aspects of the 1802 earthquake is the low number of deaths that were reported. The official toll given is only four, which seems scarcely believable. Obviously, records from that time are sketchy, which likely led to a lower total of deaths than the actual number. On the other hand, Bucharest, where the majority of reports concerning destruction originated from would have had plenty of literate eyewitnesses attesting to fatalities. Historians and scientists have theorized on why so few lives were lost. The answer comes down to population density, specifically the lack thereof. The buildings of early 19th century Bucharest were not densely packed together the way they are today. When one building collapsed it did not produce a domino effect that might damage or cause other structures to in turn collapse. In addition, most buildings were made of timber, which was much less dangerous to health and safety.

Bucharest’s inhabitants may have survived relatively unscathed, but the same could not be said for the city’s physical infrastructure. The earthquake left it a vast ruin. This did not bode well for the newly installed Hospodar of Wallachia, Ypsilantis. Fate could hardly have conjured a more inauspicious beginning to his rule. Amid this crisis, Ypsilantis took it upon himself to energize the rebuilding of Bucharest. He first combatted looting by enhancing security in what was left of the city. Rules were then put into place whereby contractors could not overcharge for their services. Wage limits were set and work was regulated. These measures allowed the city to be largely rebuilt in just a few years.

The Reconstructor - Constantine Ypsilantis

The Reconstructer – Constantine Ypsilantis (Credit: Marinos Bretos)

A State Of Instability – Shattering Truths
Ypsilantis’ rule only lasted until 1806 when he was deposed. His visionary leadership led to the successful rebuilding of what would become Romania’s greatest city, but he would not be there to see its growth. In exile, he lived under the protection of Russia’s tsar while supervising a military barracks in Kiev. In 1819 he died far away from the city he helped recreate. By that time, the 1802 earthquake had already begun to fade from memory. It would not be long though, before nature reinserted itself into the fears of another generation. Bucharest was to be constantly reminded of just how unstable a place it held in the natural world.

Click here for: Shaken To its Core – 1940 Vrancea Earthquake: Bessarabia, Bucharest & The Mightiest Of Blows (Part Three)

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