ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ Once the seat of formidable empires, this ancient capital has seen its share of invasions and violence. But these days, the people of Istanbul are confronting a new fear: earthquakes.

Badly unnerved by images of devastation just 120 miles to the east in Duzce and rumors that a quake could strike here any day, some of Istanbul's 12 million residents are close to a state of panic.

On Monday evening, scores of people in the neighborhood of Avcilar gathered in a park to sleep outside after rumors spread that a quake would hit that evening. Hundreds were killed in Avcilar in August when a massive quake destroyed large parts of northwestern Turkey, killing 17,000.

Meltem Balkan, a travel agent, said her boss closed down their office this week to allow employees to leave town after hearing of a prediction that a quake would hit Istanbul on Thursday or Friday.

``It's really very scary. I want to leave. I don't want to die. I'm quite young,'' said Balkan, who is 22. ``Everybody is sad. Look at their faces! They're all talking earthquake, earthquake, earthquake.''

The fears may be exaggerated, but they are not are baseless.

Seismologists can't forecast exactly when and where earthquakes will hit, but they have been warning Istanbul residents that their city could be vulnerable some time in the future.

Activity on Turkey's North Anatolian fault has generally moved west this century toward Istanbul, leading many experts to believe that future quakes may hit closer to the city. Since the August quake, experts have been asking Istanbul residents to prepare emergency kits with flashlights and first-aid supplies.

But the buzz in the streets has worried seismologists. Hoping to keep people calm, Turkey's most prominent earthquake scientist appeared on television Monday evening.

``We must not believe in these rumors. Everything we know, we tell you,'' said Ahmet Mete Isikara, the chief seismologist at the Kandilli Observatory. ``It saddens me that our country believes in these rumors. I am living my normal life.''

Isikara, who is widely quoted in local media, has become a kind of oracular figure to help the Turkish people come to grips with the phenomenon of earthquakes, especially those who live in Istanbul.

While several other parts of Turkey have had experience this century with deadly earthquakes, until August, Istanbul had not felt a serious quake since 1894. For many here, the notion that the ground can suddenly start to shake is a disturbing new reality.

Friday's 7.2-magnitude quake centered in Duzce shook buildings here, but caused no major damage. Yet its psychological impact, combined with the larger quake just three months ago, is being felt deeply.

``Our psychology has completely changed since the earthquakes. The idea that Istanbul is a dangerous place is completely new to us,'' said Didem Dogan, a political science student at Marmara University. ``In primary school, we may have been told about earthquakes, but we didn't believe it until we saw it.''

Many here can't accept the idea that their city, which is rich with mosques, palaces and churches dating to the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, might be left devastated someday.

``We're all trying not to be paranoid, but when you're seeing dead bodies being carried out (of earthquake wreckage) on TV, it affects us,'' said Coskun Kacaoglu, who owns a CD shop. ``I think everybody in Istanbul is having nightmares about earthquakes.

``We are afraid for our lives, for our business _ everything. Some friends of mine slept in their cars over the weekend because they were afraid'' to stay home.

Earthquake considerations are also affecting decisions about what buildings to live in. Ali Aslanturk, a real estate agent, says the first question asked by many prospective home buyers is whether the building is earthquake-proof.

``How should we know? There has never been such a notion,'' he said.

For many Turks, the fear of earthquakes is exacerbated by a fatalistic sensibility _ that they have little control over their own lives.

``We believe in destiny. Tf you're going to die, you're going to die,'' said Dogan, the student. ``You can see an earthquake as a scientific fact or as something in our destiny.''