In stark contrast, a quake of similar strength that hit the U.S. state of California four days earlier killed only two people. And in 1994, only 57 people were killed when a powerful earthquake struck the densely populated San Fernando Valley area of California.
Why such a huge disparity?
Ali Reza Khaloo is professor of structural engineering at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. He puts the answer very simply: "In the United States and Japan, the construction is well done. That's the big difference."
In Iran, mud bricks are commonly used to build homes and other dwellings. They are cheap and popular because they keep houses cool in summer and warm in winter. But they crumble easily, suffocating those who are trapped beneath them in an earthquake.
However, Khaloo says that is only part of the problem. "In Iran, we have very good designers who can design buildings to resist earthquakes [of] great intensity," he said. "However, when it comes to construction, people are not trained well. So the construction procedure is poor, even though the design may be perfect. The buildings [are] weak in major areas -- let's say connections, joints, [and] columns. And the concrete quality may be poor. So when there is an earthquake, the load will concentrate on the weak parts of the structure and the structure will fail."
California is one of the most well-prepared regions of the world in terms of earthquakes. Over the past 30 years, many structures have been built specifically to withstand earthquakes, which are quite common in that part of the United States. U.S. engineers closely follow strict building codes.
"[In California,] you may feel some shaking and vibration of the structure, but the roof will not fall and the walls will [remain] in position," Khaloo said. "That's because everything has been designed according to building codes, and it is also constructed based on the building codes."
Iran's building codes have been tightened, at least on paper, following recent earthquakes -- 25,000 people died in the 1978 Tabas quake and 40,000 perished in 1990 in Gilan.
Taraneh Yalda, an urban architect based in Tehran, says Iran's regulations obligate engineers to take precautions to make buildings that are resistant to strong earthquakes. But while Iranian officials keep a close eye on many aspects of daily life in the country, there is little actual policing of construction. A new hospital in Bam, for example, was unsafe to use after the earthquake because of shoddy construction methods.
Yalda points out that no authorities control whether new construction in Iran respects the norms. She notes that contractors often ignore regulations with impunity. "Unfortunately in Iran, people speculate because of our sick economy. They build houses the cheapest way possible and sell them at the most expensive price possible," she said. "They do not pay attention to the norms and forget to implement them. So, if an earthquake happens in Tehran, millions of people will die."
The loss of one-third of Bam's population has darkened the mood also in Tehran, a city of some 12 million that sits on a major fault line. Yalda says the capital would be devastated if it was struck by an earthquake as powerful as the one that leveled Bam.
"The Japanese [researchers] who came to Iran under Japanese-Iranian cooperation conducted a study about earthquakes. I met with them, and they said that the buildings in Tehran are like timebombs. According to them, 80 percent of the population will die if a strong earthquake happens in Tehran," architect Yalda said.
Khaloo, the engineering professor, notes that Iran is in the process of reviewing existing buildings for possible future upgrades. But he says success will depend on the amount of money allocated to increase the strength of the structures and on people's readiness to give up traditional building materials and construction methods.
Khaloo points out that only the significant involvement of the government can improve the situation. "Some people believe in the old ways of constructing their houses, and it is difficult to change their attitudes and make them interested in using new building materials," he said. "In major cities, of course, we can upgrade, but in the villages we need to have a national will to get involved in building cheap and strong houses. People will not be able to do it themselves. They need strong guidance and strong financial support."
President Mohammad Khatami has said there will be an inquiry into construction practices and that anyone who has violated state codes will be seriously punished.
Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has told survivors that Bam will be rebuilt "stronger than before."
And Iran's top national security body will this week examine proposals to shift the Islamic Republic's political capital out of quake-prone Tehran.
(Jean Khakzad from Radio Farda contributed to this report.)