Discovering the City of Sodom

Start with the text. He opened his Bible to Genesis 10–19 as if it were a letter describing an event he’d missed and would want to know about.

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Along the approach to the site from the east, in the foothills of tortured sandstone, sits a knee-high, room-sized pile of pottery sherds from seven years of archaeological excavation. But these are the discards, the pieces of pottery that weren’t important as “diagnostics.”

Around the other side of the great mound you can bend downward and make out human bone fragments, protruding like compound fractures through the skin of a balk, one of the vertically cut sections of the excavation.

These aren’t tombs. They were dwellings for the living. And the people whose remains lay blasted and scattered here were not gathered to their fathers with respect and ceremony. They died suddenly in their own private places and kitchens, as they ate and drank from the pottery vessels whose sherds now surround them.

Jordan, the Home of the Biblical Site of Sodom

A map of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the home of Sodom, reveals it to be a bedfellow to Israel, backing the spine of its entire western border up to the Jordan River, which gives it its name. On a map, its roads are knotted veins and arteries around its central city, Amman. Eventually the clot loosens and sparse highways meander west, or drip down to the tourist spots on the shore of the Dead Sea where dates grow with water ten times saltier than other plants can stand, and every other living thing drinks purified water or lives in soil repeatedly washed to leach out the minerals.

Then, on either side of those massive, life-numbing waters, are the places and sights that contrast with Sodom, that by the descriptive friction between them define Sodom. What the Dead Sea is, Sodom is not. What the desert is, Sodom is not. And yet they were part of both the backstory and the aftermath of what happened to Sodom, in the record of a kingdom left behind in the buildings and artifacts they used.

Every visitor should come to the Dead Sea at night the first time. Going down into the valley of deadness, every driver tap, tap, taps his brakes. A persimmon-colored moon looks like a hand cupped to the sky, asking for rain. Across the water, the lights of Israel flicker.

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Water bottles cringe and collapse. Everything inclines toward and yields to the loss of altitude. In the distance, the hotels are outposts of green and fluorescence along the shore of the great silver lake.

In daylight there is more to see, but away from the water, everything is dusted in sand. The most famous ancient site in southern Jordan, indeed in all of Jordan, is Petra. Unfortunately the Bible omits notice of it and the name of its builders, the Nabateans. That rosy-pink city lay long hidden in a cleft of rock and forgotten for millennia, but now attracts everyone from movie producers to hundreds of thousands of tourists a year whose breath is taken away by its unexpected beauty. For many, Petra defines the ancient world of Jordan.

Other than those rose-colored facades and the few modern cities, everything in Jordan comes off three color palettes. There’s the green-green of banana fields and dusky-green of the country’s twelve million olive trees; there’s earth in all its variations of one sand-shade to another; and there’s the wild micropalette of human occupation, with houses painted colors from glaring white to Pepto-Bismol pink, with trucks sporting psychedelic murals on their cargo panels, with intricately patterned rugs slung over roofs and porch walls and secured against the searing wind’s power by plastic lawn chairs whose legs span exactly the distance to act as giant clothespins.

Though many of the homes are luxurious inside, what a Westerner would regard as their yards are concessions of defeat to the enemies of grit and wind. Black plastic garbage bags and little white shopping bags balloon in the breezes and hang in thorny tree branches. And almost every home in the countryside looks like an insect bristling with multiple antennae of rebar from its roof.

Jordanians call the rebar a sign of hope: everyone builds a bottom story and then says, “I hope I get an inheritance, I hope my daughter marries a rich man, I hope my business deal goes through so I can build a second story on this house.”

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