The Great Quake - A National Tragedy

The Republic of Armenia has had many great tragedies in its long and storied history. The massive Armenian earthquake of 1988 was another one of these great tragedies.
It occurred on December 7, 1988, in the dead of winter.
Thousands died as a result, and hundreds of thousands were left stranded, homeless, and hopeless.

This tragic event seriously hurt the Soviet Republic of Armenia. However, on September 21, 1991, Armenia declared its independency.
This showed the resiliency of the Armenian people

    Chronology of events stemming from the great quake

      Dec 7: The earthquake struck with immense force, registering a magnitude between 7.5 - 8.5. The epicenter was 25 km southeast of Leninakan. Medical teams soon arrived.
      Dec 8: Soldiers begin to arrive in Spitak. 1,500 wounded are evacuated by air. Prime Minister Ryzhkov arrives in Erivan from Moscow. Gorbachev announces that he will cut short his trip to America.
      Dec 9: It is estimated that 700,000 people are affected by the earthquake. Leninakan is 4/5ths destroyed. All 11,000 blocks of flats are damaged or destroyed.
      Dec 10: A national day of mourning is announced throughout the Soviet Union. 40 countries set up disaster funds. It is estimated that the earthquake damage has caused 5 billion dollars worth of destruction.
      Dec 11: Gorbachev goes back to Moscow. Armand Hammer arrives in Yerevan and donates $1 million and a plane full of medical equipment.
      Dec 12: Many planes arrive with supplies. Many people are brought out of the newly created ruins and evacuated.
      Dec 13: 22 surgeons arrive with approximately 10 tons of medical supplies.
      Dec 14: The death toll has risen to 21,775. Many people are beginning to leave Armenia.
      Dec 15: The Central Committee of the Communist Party obtain 50 million rubles to send to Armenia. Demolition has begun.
      Dec 16: The death toll has become 23,286. Airplanes are still arriving from Sweden, Syria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France and the U.S.A.
      Dec 17: Survivors dragged from the villages total 15,300. The death toll is now at 23,390. 58 villages are known to have been destroyed. A curfew has been created in Erivan.
      Dec 18: A total of 70,000 people have been evacuated from the earthquake area.
      Dec 19: 514,000 people are officially pronounced homeless. 300 tons of food are arriving in Armenia every day. Mother Theresa of Calcutta sends nurses to help in the earthquake disaster area.
      Dec 20: Prime Minister Ryzhkov flies back to Moscow from Erivan.
      Dec 21: Ration ticket system is implemented in Leninakan. British funds have totaled to 7.9 million francs.
      Dec 22: 77,767 Soviet firms have amassed 141 million rubles by donating proceeds of one voluntary working day to the earthquake victims.
      Dec 23: 1,500 tremors have been reported at the earthquake epicenter since the earthquake struck on December 7.
      Dec 24: Soviets announce what they are planning to rebuild in the damaged nation.
      Dec 25: The son and grandson of President George Bush visit Spitak and Erevan, bringing 40 tons of aid with them.
      Dec 26: Disaster funds now total 780 million rubles from all sources.
      Dec 27: The final death toll is 24,817 people.




Aznavour pour l’Armenie (APA) was created by Charles Aznavour eight days after the 1988 Earthquake in Armenia. Aznavour was able to collect $6 million in response to the Earthquake with about 85% of these funds coming from non-Armenian French nationals. Aznavour made his own contribution of close to 2 million from the sales proceeds of his record "For you, Armenia". Since then Aznavour has appealed to governmental and international sources for assistance to Armenia.

APA is the largest European-Armenian operation in Armenia. Its activities have included distribution of prefabricated homes, food parcels, infant formula, clothes and medicine. Technical and medical assistance was offered as well as support to schools and orphanages. Rehabilitation of small hydro-electric power plants, supervision of the production of kerosene heaters. Manufacturing of prosthetics for children, electrification of villages and free distribution of electricity to the entire population of Yerevan during 5 winter months, 9n 1995-1996. Construction and operation of a baby food factory, and so on. This is just a sampling of APA activities. Between 1994 and 1996 APA has implemented close to $12 million of ECHO projects.

During 1997, APA has continued its programs of assistance to the elderly in the Vanadzor region, provision of textbooks for school children, rehabilitation of schools and hospitals, electrification of villages, special foods for premature infants, the latter a Dutch government funded program.

Implementation of projects is done in cooperation with relevant ministries as well as local and international NGOs. Projects have been developed and co-sponsored with the Armenian Social Investment Fund.

Gyumri Kumayri Leninakan Aleksandropol

Gyumri is the second city of Armenia and the centre of Shirak region. It is situated on the bank of River Akhurian, 1556m above the sea level. The climate is dry, the air is clean and healthy, drinking water is sweet and soft.
Shirak is a region of Armenia where people lived from the stone century and there are many rich archaeological materials such as bronze, ceramic icon, things, weapons and precious things from the foundation of Gyumri, Artik, Harich, Vahramabert, Kety, Horom, Getap, Pemzashen, which are kept in the regional museum of Gyumri.


Gyumri is one of the oldest cities in the world. With its population, territory, economical and cultural significance it is the second city of Armenia. Gyumri is situated in the north-west of Armenia at the distance of 126 km from Yerevan. The average height above sea-level is 1500 meters. The length of Shirak valley where Leninakan is situated is about 35 km and the breadth is about 25 km. This valley borders upon Turkey and Iran. The relief of the valley is that of plain. The air here is clear and healthy. Gyumri enjoys almost 2500 hours of sunshine a year. The average flow of water brought to town from abundant springs represents about 1200 litres per second. The climate is continental, the minimum temperature recorded here in winter - 35'C, the maximum temperature recorded +34'C; the annual rainfall represents 500 mm. Leninakan is situated in a seismic active zone, the last destructive earthquake was in 1926.
In 1987 Gyumri counted 230,000 inhabitants, 96,8 % of which were Armenians, the others - Russians, Greeks, Curds. The Shirak valley is one of the plateaus of the Armenian upland situated in the slopes of Aragats Mountain which is the highest mountain in the territory of Soviet Armenia (4090 m).
People lived here from time immemorial. Gyumri emerged during the Argishty dynasty in VIII century B.C. A cuneiform inscription found in the village of Vahramaberd {Akhurian region) tells about the settlement called Kumairie. The Greek historian and military leader Xenophon also mentioned about this settlement in his Anaebasis. Leninakan has been the official name of the city since 1924, before it had other names: Gimira, Kumairie, Gyumrie. In 1837 the Russian Emperor Nikolai the First visited Gyumri and named it Alexandropol after the name of his wife - Empress Alexandra. The Emperor built Russian church, founded military castles and frontier fortifications and the town became an important outpost of the Russian Empire. In 1924, after Lenin's death the town was called Leninakan in memory of the leader of the Russian Revolution.
Leninakan exists more than 2,500 years and this fertile land gave birth to worldly known scientists and writers, poets and musicians. Among them Anania Shirakatsi - brilliant mathematician and astronomer (VII cent. A.D.), famous architect Trdat (X cent. A.D.), prominent poets Avetik Issahakian and Hovhannes Shiraz, talented composers Tigran Chukhadjian and Armen Tigranian, minstrels - Djivani, Sheram.
Romans, Arabs, Tatars, Turks and Persians tried to conquer Armenia. They destroyed towns and villages, made terrible carnage, captured children. But in spite of these deplorable strikes of destiny Armenians never lost hope, they rebuilt their towns and villages, built new palaces and churches, castles and stone houses.
The rapid development of the city began in 1804 when it integrated with Russia. At that time hundreds of Armenian families came to settle here from the towns of Western Armenia. At the end of XIX century the population of Leninakan counted 32,000 inhabitants. After Tbilisi and Baku it was the third economical and cultural center in Transcaucasus. Leninakan has been known as the town of musicians and craftsmen and since 1899 when the steam-railway line from Tbilisi to Leninakan - Yerevan was opened, as the town of railway men. Leninakan became big railway junction and recorded rapid industrial, cultural and international trade development. Here acted theatrical and musical groups, in schools Armenian Russian, Latin, Greek and other languages were taught. Leninakan is also known as the center of traditional Armenian architecture, science, public health service, tourism. The inhabitants of Leninakan have gained the reputation of hospitable hosts with rich sense of humor.
Rapid development of housing construction concentrated in the new dwelling estates, became evident in the growth of the population. To old streets were added new ones - with beautiful houses in them. The creative activity of inhabitants of Leninakan gave birth to new bridges and architectural ensembles which testify to constructive talent of Armenian people.
Alas! All these now is in the past. This book was in the process of being published when the terrible earthquake overthrew by its infernal waves the city into ruins. Kirovakan, Spitak, Aragats, Stepanavan, Amasia were also destroyed. The total death toll from the earthquake which devastated northern Armenia on December 7, is thousands of men, women and children.
Time will pass! Our destroyed towns and villages will arise from the ashes young again to live forever, because all the people of this country and many foreign countries are with us. The people of our planet have never shown such solidarity. Thousands of men and women from about 150 countries had come here to help Armenians and the grateful Armenians will never forget them.

Credit: S.Shahparonyan, Gitak center


Credit: U.S. Geological Survey (C.J. Langer)


On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m. local time a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook northwestern Armenia and was followed four minutes later by a magnitude 5.8 aftershock. Swarms of aftershocks, some as large as magnitude 5.0, continued for months in the area around Spitak. The earthquakes hit an area 80 km in diameter comprising the towns of Leninakan, Spitak, Stepanavan, and Kirovakan in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The region is part of a broad seismic zone stretching from Turkey to the Arabian Sea near India. Here, the Arabian land mass is slowly colliding with the Eurasian plate and thrusting up the Caucasus Mountains in the north. The earthquake occurred along a fairly small thrust fault running northwest-southeast, apparently right under Spitak. During the earthquake, the Spitak section to the northeast of the fault rode up over the southwest side.

Geologists have located a 1.6 meter-high, 8-km long scarp just southeast of Spitak where fault movement broke the surface.

The earthquake epicenter was located in the Lesser Caucasus highlands, 80 km south of the main range of the Caucasus Mountains. Historically, this area has experienced damaging earthquakes. In 1899 and 1940 damaging earthquakes occurred within 100 km of the 1988 epicenter. These events had magnitudes of 5.3 and 6.0 respectively. In 1920 a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that killed forty people occurred north of Spitak. In 1926 an earthquake of about magnitude 5.6 occurred 20 km southwest of Leninakan and reportedly caused more than 300 deaths and extensive damage.

Despite its moderate size, the deaths and damage that the December 1988 earthquake caused made it the largest earthquake disaster since the 1976 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Tangshan, China that killed more than 240,000 people. The Town of Spitak (population 25,000) was nearly leveled and more than half of the structures in the City of Leninakan (population 250,000) were damaged or destroyed. Damage also occurred in Stepanavan and Kirovakan and other smaller cities. Direct economic losses were put at $14.2 billion (U.S.) at the United Nations official exchange rate.

Twenty-five thousand were killed and 15,000 were injured by the earthquake. In addition 517,000 people were made homeless. However, 15,000 people were rescued. Most of these rescues were made within the first few hours following the disaster.

Many factors contributed to the magnitude of the disaster, including freezing temperatures, time of day, soil conditions, and inadequate building construction. A large number of medical facilities were destroyed, killing eighty percent of the medical professionals. In this earthquake both design deficiencies and flawed construction practices were blamed for the large number of building collapses and resulting deaths. Many of the modern multi-storied buildings did not survive.

Soil conditions also contributed to building failures. The high death rate may in part be attributed to the way the buildings fell apart. When concrete floor panels about three feet wide collapsed into compact rubble piles, little open space was left where trapped people might survive. The proportion of survivors among people trapped in the rubble of multi-storied buildings was approximately 3.5 times higher for the ground floor than for higher floors. The collapse of a large number of apartments which had many occupants on upper floors added to the number of fatalities.

While the earthquake exposed the flaws in the construction, it also exposed the good in people around the world. The cooperation of international teams in rescue efforts, the willingness of groups everywhere to contribute financial aid, and especially the undaunted determination of the Armenians themselves to rebuild their cities and their lives are worthy of commendation.


Russian Academy of Sciences Department of Commerce
National Geophysical Committee NOAA
Geophysical Center National Geophysical Data Center

in collaboration with

Joint Institute of the Physics of the Earth.
Institute of Geophysics & Center of Geophysical
Computer Data Study.

For more information please contact:
Ted Habermann, Global Science Group Leader
NOAA'S National Geophysical Data Center
325 Broadway, E/GC4
Boulder, Colorado 80303-3328 U.S.A.
Phone: 303-497-6472: FAX: 303-4997-6513


The hearts of all people still feel the impact from one of the
latest seismic catastrophes, the Spitak earthquake of December
7, 1988, which killed tens of thousands of people. It is our
foremost task to draw experience from this tragic event.

The major problem facing the seismologists is to learn to
predict future catastrophes. The seismologists gain
information about future events from the past earthquakes, and
the vast worldwide experience of earthquake observations can
be now concentrated in the evaluation of seismic risk for
every individual territory. Moreover, the Spitak earthquake
was the incentive that urged the international seismological
community to join efforts in solution of problems of global
control over current geotectonic processes. For this purpose,
a standardized network of seismic stations is being
established, and a set of techniques is elaborated to achieve
earthquake prediction. The scientists from the former Soviet
Union were among those who essentially contributed to the
solution of this problem. Their methods of long-term forecasts
permit the determination of the place of the future strong
earthquake, thus allowing preparatory measures to be taken in
the region and organization of detailed prognostic research.
These potentialities, however, are seldom applied in actual

The situation is further aggravated by the fact that all
earthquakes have common features and yet every one is
different owing to its own peculiar tectonic environment.
Though scores of effects are known to precede earthquakes yet
each of them has its own set of forerunners most of which are
very weakly manifested. Therefore, the basic strategy of
prediction is to derive a reliable conclusion from a
multitude of indications every one of which individually is
insufficiently reliable. Concurrently, however, we should
strive towards the most detailed study of structure of
seismically active regions to understand the specific features
of formation of sources in each region and, consequently, to
select an optimal system of prognostic observations.

The program worked out by the former Soviet Union after
the Spitak earthquake was made to provide for control of
geophysical, geochemical, deformational and hydrogeological
processes and for development of a special network of
observations in all seismic regions. It is planned to
establish such a network in the next few years by
incorporating the most efficient scientific experience
in the world and in this country and by using the most
advanced technologies.

The Spitak earthquake has yet again emphasized that one of the
most important problems is the state of antiseismic
construction. Strong earthquakes occur in places where they
happened in the historical past, and so the approximate force
of the future seismic shock can be expected. Seismic loads can
be calculated and the buildings erected to withstand the
earthquake. Still the risk of damage remains, because it is
not only necessary to build strictly following the projects
but it is also essential to use the buildings keeping to the
rules of exploitation and under current geophysical control.
Solution of these problems depends on the progress in science
and on the general state of culture and welfare in the wide
meaning of these terms, which ranges from the quality of
research, of drawing projects and buildings, of the usage of
dwellings and industrial constructions to the capacity of the
whole society and of an individual to bear responsibility for
adopted decisions.

The catastrophic earthquake in Armenia has raised a heated
agitation of thought. Scientists and journalists, specialists
of various professions debate whether the earthquake could
have been predicted beforehand, and not only its locality but
the time of occurrence as well, to warn the population.

What requirements should be fulfilled by antiseismic
construction in seismically prone zones? How to organize
rationally the medical and psychological help to the victims
of an earthquake?

What should be the system of reaction to natural disasters,
such as the earthquake in Armenia?

It is our task to collect in this database the information
about the Spitak earthquake and to make it useful for
researchers working to find solutions to these problems.

N. Laverov
Russian Academy of Sciences

Credit: U.S. Geological Survey (C.J. Langer).


This devastating earthquake killed more than 25 thousand people and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. It was one of the greatest tragedies that befell the Armenian people at the end of the century. In just a few seconds, about 40 percent of the territory of Armenia was destroyed and there was a damage worth some 10 billion dollars. After the terrible disaster Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev promised to repay at least the economic damage within two years at the most. But even now, 12 years later, the cities of Spitak, Gyumri and Vanadzor still look like an unhealed wound. The Armenian people are grateful for all the foreign assistance, most of which came in the few years after the earthquake. The consequences of the natural disaster were intensified by the transition period. The most important part of the assistance – the unique building equipment – was wasted. The phrase “earthquake zone” became quite usual. It was only three years ago that the government started taking steps to eliminate that phrase. In 2000, 16,250,000 dollars were allocated from the state budget for the reconstruction of the earthquake zone. Next year, 6,620,000 dollars will be allocated for that purpose. This year the National Assembly passed a law on the Earthquake Zone. According to the law, the government is supposed to come up with a comprehensive reconstruction program within a three-month period. This will allow to set a timeframe and a plan for the reconstruction work. This morning, at 11:41, the exact time of the 1988 earthquake, President Kocharian visited the “Shirak” cemetery in Gyumri and put a flower wreath to the monument to the victims of the earthquake. The President noted that we should double our efforts to eliminate the phrase “earthquake zone” completely.from our vocabulary During the visit, the President participated in the opening of an apartment building which consists of 90 apartments .President Kocharian also took part in the opening of a school for 364 pupils. The school has been built with the financial means allocated from the state budget. The construction of the apartment building has been financed by the state budget and the Hayastan All Armenian Fund. According to the Head of the Shirak Marz Construction Department, some 9000 families in the marz still need a permanent residence. To solve that problem 25,270,000 dollars will be required. The marz leadership hopes that the construction of all the apartments needed will be completed in 2001. President Kocharian assured that the earthquake zone will be fully reconstructed in 2002. The President also noted that in addition to the apartment building, great attention is paid to the revival of economy and job creation, as well. According to President Kocharian, it would have been impossible to do all the reconstruction with the state budget means alone. That is why private investments are of great importance to the completion of the reconstruction program. He said that the volume of residential construction will be doubled in 2001. The limited resources of the state budget are being supplemented with the means of the Hayastan All Armenian Fund, the Lincy foundation, the Government Social Investments Fund and other programs developed for that purpose. It is really important that these means are used effectively. Next year, a 9 million dollar program of the Lincy foundation will be implemented in Gyumri. Under this program, 16 apartment buildings will be strengthened. A memorial service was held today at the St. Etchmiadzin Cathedral to honor the innocent victims of the 1988 earthquake. High ranking clergy and believers participated in the service. Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan delivered a special address today to mark the anniversary of the earthquake. He said that the reconstruction of the earthquake zone has become a national task. In Stepanakert, Presiden of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic Arkadi Ghukasian, the Speaker of the Parliament, the Prime Minister and other officials placed flowers to the monument to the victims of the earthquake The anniversary of the earthquake was marked today in the Russian capital as well. A special ceremony was held at the St. Harutyun Church in Moscow. A memorial service was conducted by the leader of the Russian and Nakhijevan Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Speaker of the National Assembly Armen Khachatrian, the Armenian Ambassador to Russia, and representatives of the Armenian community in Russia took part in the ceremony. <December,7th.>