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The great Middle Eastern civilizations of the Bronze Age may have been toppled not by invading armies, but by a string of powerful earthquakes.

Cities like Troy, Knossos and Mycenae have been repeatedly shaken by quakes, geophysicist Amos Nur of Stanford University reported at a San Francisco meeting. Archaeologists may therefore have mistaken seismic turbulence for invasion and war.

Nur has been studying the role of earthquakes in the history of the Eastern Mediterranean for more than 20 years. Seismic records show that the places where important trade and cultural centers were built actually lie on very unstable ground. Earthquakes in these areas come in episodes, he said, with a series of large earthquakes releasing the strain over a period of 50 to 100 years -- only to build up again over longer periods of time.

At least 50 great cities collapsed in this region at the end of the Bronze Age, between about 1225 B.C. and 1175 B.C., Nur said. Archaeological evidence, such as skeletons crushed beneath overturned columns, support the idea that earthquakes, not war, were the cause.

Earthquakes may even have inspired the biblical reference to Armageddon, the place of final conflict between good and evil, Nur said. The ancient city of Megiddo sits near a complex fault system that experiences large earthquakes, so the city itself must have been shaken in the past. The term Armageddon comes from the Hebrew "Har Megiddo," or "Mount of Megiddo."

The city may have been so closely linked with earthquake destruction that it became the Book of Revelations setting for the final apocalypse, Nur said.

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