the city of Tabriz, saw rescuers working desperately in the rubble of shattered villages whose mud and concrete brick dwellings had collapsed in the strong temblors that struck on Saturday.
Iranian residents and rescue workers search for the survivors in the rubble of a house in a village, near the town of Varzaqan, after twin earthquakes hit northwestern Iran. AFP Photo
The bodies, many of women and children, were grouped together in the open. Men nearby took turns to dig graves for them.
Every now and then, the earth trembled again from one of more than 55 aftershocks that had continued through the night, jarring the nerves of survivors and exhausted emergency workers.
The quakes came within 11 minutes of each other, on Saturday afternoon as many in the region were at home observing Ramadan fasting.
Tehran University's Seismological Centre put the first at a magnitude of 6.2 and - 11 minutes later - the second, a strong aftershock, at 6.0.
The US Geological Survey, which monitors seismic activity worldwide, ranked them as more powerful, at 6.4 and 6.3 on the moment magnitude scale, respectively.
The epicentre was 10km (six miles) underground some 60km (40 miles) northeast of Tabriz, close to the towns of Ahar and Varzaqan.
While Tabriz, with its more solid buildings, escaped relatively unscathed, some 60 villages in the region were decimated, half a dozen of them completely flattened.
"The number of dead has reached 250 and the number of injured has topped 2,000 people," Khalil Saie, the head of the regional natural disasters centre, was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.
Earlier he had said that "all the deaths come from rural areas."
A worker for Iran's Red Crescent, a man in his late 20s who declined to be named, told AFP in one village that authorities were sending more emergency teams from different regions of Iran "because the magnitude of the disaster is so huge."
The Red Crescent took over a sports stadium to shelter the 16,000 people left homeless or too afraid to return indoors, the Fars news agency reported.
It also provided 3,000 tents, blankets and tonnes of food - all a sign of years of preparedness in a nation prone to sometimes catastrophic seismic activity.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's office posted a statement on its website expressing condolences to those in the disaster zone and calling on authorities to "mobilise all efforts to help the affected populations."
The disaster zone was located around 90 kilometres from the borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and around 190km from the border with Turkey.
Iran sits astride several major fault lines and is prone to frequent earthquakes, some of which have been devastating.
The deadliest was a 6.6-magnitude quake which struck the southern city of Bam in December 2003, killing 31,000 people - about a quarter of the population - and destroying the city's ancient mud-built citadel.