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.

Towering above the fields, Sodom looks as natural—and upon observation, as designed and processed—as a huge anthill that has erupted from the earth, once of the earth and now in it. As with an anthill, too, almost nothing grows on its higher slopes, perhaps in tribute to the fact that its desolation speaks of upheaval and transport and other times, of a hidden history revealed, of secrets and threats and dread.

Once you are within its mighty walls, both hot and cool springs are now in the open, anchoring a spot of luxurious foliage, home to Sodom’s abundant little green frogs.

Every rock on this mud mountain was hauled up there, from the small ones to the great boulders that formed foundations for immense walls. Some haven’t seen light for four, five, six thousand years. Even the mud itself, decomposed bricks, came from somewhere else.

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.

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.”

Traveling on one of the oldest highways in the world still in use, the King’s Highway that runs from Aqaba to Damascus via Amman, is an adventure even on the paved main roads that follow its route in the twentyfirst century. Somewhere between Petra and the Dead Sea is where Moses asked the Edomites if he could pass through with his horde of exiles, and the Edomites’ refusal ostensibly cost the Israelites a great deal of distance and trouble (Numbers 20:14–21).

Or maybe not. Shortcuts in Jordan take exactly the same amount of time as the long way. Jordanian guides often concur when they can’t get their tour bus microphone switches to work, and then remember to speak with the “on” button in the “down” position: “Everything is backwards in Jordan.”

The small towns all look alike, with the ubiquitous Muslim versions of the neighborhood bar that serves thick black coffee. On nearly every corner are the aluminum cases outside shop doors that contain rotisseries of what Tall el-Hammam excavation crews call GSC—“greasy spinning chickens.”

Anywhere near the highway is a dangerous place for pedestrians, who are fair game for any motorized vehicle, and people hurry across with wide eyes and robes streaming out behind them. A Mercedes-Benz bus just barely misses a truck with a hand-painted tailgate that reads “NI55AN” and careens from side to side in what is nervously referred to as “surfing Jordan.”

The Muslim call to prayer wafts out over the sound of honking horns, shouting vendors, and the near-shouts of “normal” Jordanian discourse. Here the mosques and minarets range from the colorless and austere to some that have strings of blinking neon lights not unlike those on the coffee shops.

Yet there are areas with high percentages of Christian believers, too, such as Madaba, where one in five of its residents is a Christian. It even has a mosque named “Jesus the Son of Mary.”

In Madaba is a rare, nonancient attraction: the St. George Greek Orthodox church, whose fifteen-hundred-year-old mosaic floor was discovered during a restoration in 1884. There in the tiles is the oldest map of the Holy Land in existence, even showing still-identifiable features of Jerusalem and other sites.

Most exciting of all for those who seek Sodom and Gomorrah in the details of that tiled depiction are two mosaic “cities” right where the Bible says they should be—in the Kikkar of the Jordan, though, unfortunately, the writing on the Madaba Map identifying them has been lost.

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