TOMORROW is the 300th anniversary of one of the most destructive earthquakes in the history of the Americas, yet few people other than students of the area and period will know of it.

That’s because Guatemala was and is one of the most earthquake-ridden countries in the world, and the population are so inured to quakes that they reserve the name earthquake for only the biggest ones, and dismiss most quakes as tremors – “temblores” in Spanish.

The earthquake on September 29, 1717, levelled the city now known as Antigua Guatemala, then the country’s capital, and began the process of the capital being built anew – what we now know as Guatemala City.

Incredibly, in a dreadful coincidence, Guatemala City was itself hit by a horrendous earthquake almost 200 years to the day after the 1717 quake. The people of Guatemala are thus marking the two historical disasters.


GUATEMALA lies in Central America between Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. It sits on top of a major geological fault line with the tectonic plates beneath the land masses of north and south America and the Caribbean plate colliding directly under Guatemala.

Ancient home of the Maya civilization, the territory was conquered by Spain in the 16th century and became part of New Spain centred on Mexico.

The Spanish brought diseases with them that killed vast numbers of the indigenous peoples, and in order to confirm their control, the Spanish founded a capital city, Villa de Santiago de Guatemala, in July, 1524.

The local Kaqchikel Maya people rose up against the conquistadores, who were led by Pedro de Alvarado, and the Spanish had to move and found a new capital, Cuidad Vieja, in 1527.

That didn’t last long either, being flooded when a nearby volcanic lake collapsed and swept the town away. Thus the capital became Antigua Guatemala.


JUST about everything. Using measurements devised much later, scientists can say the earthquake had a magnitude of 7.4, or IX on the Mercalli intensity scale, which measures damage on the surface. No fewer than 3000 buildings were destroyed and though the number of fatalities can only be estimated, hundreds if not thousands must have died. Catholic churches and Maya temples alike were reduced to rubble.


NOT right away. The Spanish stubbornly clung to the illusion that earthquakes would not strike the same place twice, but there was no such thing as seismology in those days. Churches and administrative buildings, houses and stores were all constructed with thicker walls, and for a while Antigua Guatemala continued to be the capital, still known as Santiago de los Caballeros.

It was the most important city in Central America, but continued to be hit by “tremors”, most notably in 1751. Then in 1773, a much more powerful earthquake struck the city. The so-called Santa Marta quakes reduced all but the strongest buildings to rubble. This time the Spanish authorities had suffered enough and decided to create a new capital city in an area less prone to tremors. They called it Nueva Guatemala de la Asuncion, and renamed Santiago as Antigua Guatemala.

It might seem incredible to modern feelings, but the population of Antigua were rather attached to the old place and many refused to move to the new capital, and a law had to be passed to make it illegal to stay in Antigua.

That may have helped Antigua in the long run, because there was no local population to rob the remaining buildings, and slowly but surely a long process of reconstruction began so that Antigua Guatemala is now one of the most extraordinary cities in the Americas, a Unesco World Heritage Site in which the much-rebuilt church of San Francisco – first begun in 1524 – is a major tourist attraction.

Antigua has been further damaged by earthquakes, most notably those of 1874 and 1976, but the people just keep rebuilding and refurbishing.


THE new capital, now known as Guatemala City, was not on a safe location after all. The earthquakes that struck in November 1917 and continued into 1918 devastated the city, even shaking 8000 corpses from their graves in the local cemetery. By then an independent republic, the government’s failure to deal with the aftermath led to its downfall.

In recent decades, an earthquake in 1976 killed 25,000 Guatemalans and the country has not had its sorrows to seek due to many years of political unrest and civil war. Yet the way they have rebuilt Antigua Guatemala shows how resilient the people are.