Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City

Howard Books / Simon & Schuster

From Backstory Dr. C’s Dilemma

Start with the text, he told his students. Always start with the text. In this case, he held in his hands the only ancient text in existence that described Sodom, the single source that claimed to be witness of its events.

He wanted to look at everything with new eyes. He thought about the Hoffmans and Robert and Eugene and Beth, and even his bus driver, Abu. Each one believed something different about cities whose locations no one could prove.

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.

The first time he read it, he shook his head.

The second time he read it, he closed his Bible and sat for a long while thinking.

The third time he read it, he studied the key words in it, again looking at the familiar passage as if for the first time.

He read in Hebrew of a great city of Sodom located on a “breaddisk” in the well-watered Jordan Valley. The original language spoke of a fertile breadbasket, a circular setting.

A place that was as lush as Egypt’s ever-green Nile Valley, and as prolific and luxuriant as the very Garden of Eden.

He found himself pacing with anxiety. He prided himself on the accuracy of his tours and his research. For six seasons he had been a field supervisor at the Khirbet el-Maqatir excavation, the biblical site of Ai, and had made reasonably sure that before he put his reputation and endorsement behind that discovery, it had to match up with where the Bible said it was.

But what he was reading now in Genesis, alone in his hotel room, was shocking to him. He felt dread, the dread of learning you’ve been wrong about something.

The Bible described a Sodom located in a place completely unlike the two windswept ruins near the southern shore of a salt-laden and sterile body of water that some archaeologists had been calling Sodom and its satellite-town, Gomorrah.

That Dr. C had been calling Sodom and Gomorrah.

Coming to Tall el-Hammam

The wonder of Tall el-Hammam, the site of the mighty ancient city of Sodom, isn’t that it exists, for it has stood for thousands of years, hulking and dominant just eight miles from the Dead Sea in what is now known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

The wonder is that it has escaped the notice of most Bible-focused archaeologists, all but virginally untouched for most of the one-hundred plus years that modern archaeology has existed.

It is certainly not invisible, no Shangri-la perceived only by enlightened eyes. A traveler would observe that from its foothills it is actually one of many; yet first among peers, a giant among the mounds or “talls” along the western edge of the foothills of the Transjordan Highlands.

It has been hiding in plain sight of those who, for no good scientific reason, didn’t just summarily cross it off a list of candidates for Sodom.

In fact, in the last century, practically no one had put it on the list in the first place.

As one travels up through the mountains and crags that huddle around Tall el-Hammam, it’s at first indistinguishable, at least in hue, from the dun-colored Kafrayn Dam across the road and the sagging slopes of runoff-sliced hills all around. From that vantage point, everything from here to the east is beige and taupe and light brown and tan and off-white.

In contrast, the blocky fields of squat little banana trees blare green. They are watched over by their owners on nearby hills; and in the case of Sodom, six brothers’ houses overlook the brilliant emerald of their cutleaf trees, each one bearing the only crop of its lifetime: not-yet-yellowed fingers all pointing up like hands grasping for the sun.