Panoramic view of Tall el-Hammam on the eastern edge of the Jordan Disk (Heb. kikkar), showing the well-watered plain of the Jordan and the Jordan River. The mountains beyond are the present-day ‘Promised Land”—Israel
Visiting Biblical sites is exciting! I love taking people to the places where famous characters like Abraham. Moses and Jesus walked. And I really like going to sites that are the real deal. Some “Bible places” are questionable, while others are identified based on a reasonable level of evidence. As an archaeologist and Biblical scholar. I’m well aware of the diffference. That’s what this story is all about—discovering the actual location of a famous city, long lost to history.
Before 1996 I never really paid much attention to the fact that Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim almost never appear on Bible maps. These arc the infamous Cities of the Plain of Genesis, destroyed by God for their wickedness. Why don’t mapmakers include them? Simple: scholars can’t agree on their location. That fact would soon come to haunt me.
In the spring of 1996 1 was leading a study tour of Israel and Jordan, and was one day away from taking my group to Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira near the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea. Not a few scholars, including many of my friends, had identified these sites as Sodom and Gomorrah. And who was I to disagree with them! What I’d read about these sites seemed to fit pretty well with the Biblical text. At least, that’s what I thought up to that point.
That evening, before our trek to the “popular” Sodom and Gomorrah. I decided to read through Genesis 13–19 just to brush up on the Sodom story. After f read it, I was puzzled. “I don’t see anything in this that would locate Sodom near the southeast shore of the Dead Sea,” I thought to myself. I read it again. Then again. After scouring through it for the fourth time. I concluded. “Not only is there nothing here to support a southern location, but everything seems to point to a location north of the Dead
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Sea on the cast side of the Jordan River.” Now my curiosity was on red alert! My group enjoyed Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira, but now I had big question marks drawn all over “Sodom and Gomorrah” on my itinerary.
I just had to solve this puzzle. It was really bothering me! But we’d just kicked off a new excavation about ten miles north of Jerusalem at the site Bryant Wood had theorized was the town of Ai destroyed by Joshua (Jos 7–8), another lost city. As it turned out, that would be my archaeological home for the next five years. Sodom would have to wait. But during the excavation at Khirbet el-Maqatir, directed by Dr. Wood. I learned some powerful lessons on using the Biblical text to locale a lost city. Those same geographical methods used to solve the mystery of Ai’s location would eventually lead me to the Cities of the Plain, and Sodom itself.
When the political situation between Israel and Palestine heated up at the turn of the New Millennium, the dig at Ai came to a halt after the summer 2000 season. Still energized by the search for, and discovery of, Joshua’s Ai, my mind went back to 1996 and the mystery I’d then left for another day. Now that day had come. Sodom had eluded explorers, geographers, Bible scholars, and archaeologists for centuries. “The game is afoot!” I said to myself with a bit of a smile, remembering the famous sleuth known to utter those words on appropriate occasions. After all, this was an enigma of historic proportions, accompanied by a string of clues befitting a good mystery novel. And so, on a spring day in 2001, I began my quest to find the Bible’s most elusive city.
Following that day, several years of intensive research into the location of Biblical Sodom led me to Tall el-Hammam, north of the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan River, in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.1 Today, after two seasons of excavating this huge mound containing the ruins of a Bronze Age city. I’m more convinced than ever that this magnificent site is the only logical candidate for the infamous sin city.
Tracking through the Biblical clues to Sodom’s location was the most important part of the process. The key to the location of the Cities of the Plain, chief of which was Sodom, is a careful analysis of the Biblical text of Genesis 13. In a nutshell, the Biblical geography is this:
So Abram…and Lot…came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where lie had first built an altar…And quarreling arose between Abram’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot…Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain (kikkar = disk, circle) of the Jordan was well watered, tike the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar…So Lot chose for himself the whole plain (kikkar) of the Jordan and set out toward the east…Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain (kikkar) and pitched his tents near Sodom (Gn 13:1–12).
According to this passage, which is the only geographical description of Sodom’s location in an historical narrative, the area where Lot chose to live was entirely visible from the environs of Bethel/Ai, which is just above Jericho in Canaan’s central highlands, north of the Dead Sea. It also states that the kikkar was watered like Egypt. It’s no coincidence that the southern Jordan Valley was watered by means of annual inundations exactly like the Nile. It then clearly specifies that Lot traveled eastward from the area of Bethel/Ai in order to reach Sodom.
These comprise the Bible’s geographical2 criteria for Sodom’s location. In a nutshell, these clues indicate that all the Cities of
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the Plain thrived on the eastern edge of the Jordan Disk, the well-watered circular plain of the southern Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea. Additionally, a thorough study of “the Jordan” (Men. hayarden) in the Old Testament confirms its southern limit at the Dead Sea’s northern edge where the “mouth of the Jordan” is located (Jos 15:5). Thus, attempts lo extend hayarden south to include any part of the Dead Sea valley are beyond the scope of its usage throughout Scripture.
The second criterion for the identification Of Sodom and the other Cities of the Plain is chronology3 —Sodom and its sister cities must date from the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1600 BO, the only possible timeframe for Abraham and Lot, with underlying strata from a previous era such as the Early Bronze Age (because the cities are also mentioned in Genesis 10).
The third criterion is stratigraphy4 —their Middle Bronze Age destruction must be followed by at least a lew centuries of abandonment (centuries after Abraham, Moses found the area to be an uninhabited wasteland, as recorded in Numbers 21:20). A fourth criterion is architecture5 —the Bible stales clearly that Sodom was fortified, as indicated by the statement. “Lot sat in the gateway of Sodom” (Gn 19:1).
Tall el-Hammam meets all these criteria. Several of her smaller neighbors, stringing northward a few miles along the ancient north-south trade route, meet at least the first three (only Sodom need be fortified, according to the Biblical text).6
But finding the correct location of Biblical Sodom really wasn’t the toughest part of this quest. Both the Biblical text and the archaeology of the eastern Jordan Disk are pretty straightforward in this regard. What’s been difficult is dealing with quantum illogic in two areas: (1), the tenacity of what I call the Albrightian myth of a “southern” Sodom: and (2). the “minimalist” tendency to discredit and/or demean archaeological investigation based on the Bible.
Aerial view of Tall el-Hammam. Covering approximately 150 acres, The elongated area is the upper tall; the circular area is the lower tall; the overall footprint of the area goes “wadi to wadi,” making it about 0.4 mi2 (1 km2) in area.
Line of sight from the area of Bethel/Ai toward the well-watered plain of the Jordan.
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Tall el-Hammam, showing the upper tall. The excavated section at right-center of the photo exposes the Middle Bronze Age mud brick/earth rampart.
Locating Sodom in the southern Dead Sea area lias a long history in some sectors, but the modern idea was championed by WJF. Albright7 (and his protégé. G.E. Wright) in the early to mid-20th century. The power of Albright to influence evangelical Bible scholars and students was huge, if not overwhelming. And it was singularly his influence that “forced” modern scholars to look to the southern Dead Sea region for Sodom and Gomorrah.
But Albright never bothered to do a detailed geographical analysis of the Biblical text. However, he knew enough to conclude that there weren’t any Middle Bronze Age cities in the Dead Sea valley that could qualify. Thus he—with Wright following suit—theorized that the “sin cities” had somehow been buried under the sally waters of the Dead Sea’s shallow southern end. And. of course, if you publish something enough times in enough places—like a myriad of Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries, magazines and Sunday School lessons—it becomes “fact.” But, in fact, the southern Dead Sea theory for the location of Sodom has neither textual nor archaeological support.
And then there are the “minimalists” who dislike the thought of using the Biblical text as a basis for doing anything in the field of archaeology. For many, even the term “Biblical archaeology” has an illegitimate ring to it. Indeed, most scholars doubt the historical authenticity of the Genesis patriarchal narratives. The stories of Abraham, Lot, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are seen as legend, myth, or out-and-out fiction. The unknown location of these cities has reinforced this thinking. (As I’ve already mentioned, even conservative Bible maps don’t include them.) But the legitimate discovery of the Cities of the [Jordan] Disk would provide compelling evidence that at least
Major archaeological sites of the eastern Jordan Disk. Note the clustering of sites 1/2/3 and 6/7/8, all with Early Bronze/Middle Bronze Age occupation, reminiscent of the clusters Sodom/ Gomorrah and Admah/Zeboiim (the “-im” ending of the latter is plural, perhaps denoting at least two closely related villages). Tall el-Hammam is number 6.
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Square Supervisor Carl Morgan and volunteers excavate a Middle Bronze Age house below 10 feet (3 m) of Iron Age strata.
the historical/geographical fabric of Genesis is factual. Further, such a discovery would be one of the most important Biblically-related archaeological finds in history.
For my minimalist friends, here’s one way to put it: Okay, so I woke up one morning and bothered to take the Biblical text of Genesis 13 seriously just to see where it might lead. And it led me to the same geographical location where many others who have followed the detailed textual data also wound up: on the east side of the Jordan River, north of the Dead Sea. So, can I help it if there just happens to be a string of Middle Bronze Age cities in the exact area specified by the Bible—and, I think, not coincidentaly? All right, drive the point of my Marshalhown [trowel] underneath my fingernails and try to make me recant! But it won’t change the fact that, in this case, there is apparently a one-to-one correspondence between the Biblical text and 3-D space-time.8 The text and the dirt match! What’s an archaeologist to do?
I certainly agree that objective archaeology should take us where the evidence leads. But I also understand the importance of ancient texts like the Bible that often provide an historical framework for the identification of geographical locations. Interestingly, in a recent front page Wall Street Journal article9 about our dig at Tall el-Hammam, William Dover criticized me by saying. “No responsible scholar goes out with a trowel in one hand and a Bible in the other.” But such a statement is completely untrue, if not just plain silly.
The fact of the matter is that responsible archaeology uses every possible resource to gain a window into the past. Let’s not forget that Jordanian sites like Heshbon. Aroer. Dibon. Nebo, and Bethany beyond the Jordan—not to mention dozens of sites in Israel—are principally identified because clues to their locations are written into Biblical narratives. You can’t prove a theological point with archaeology, but you can certainly compare the archaeological record to the Bible in order to arrive at geographical, even historical conclusions. The case of Sodom is no exception.
Because there’s more geographical data for the location of Sodom embedded in the Biblical text than there is data for the location of almost any other Old Testament city, it seems surprising that there’s still controversy over its whereabouts. Certainly, there is no scholarly consensus.10 Several scholars link Sodom and Gomorrah with Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira. but they have to ignore the fact that they’re too early and in the wrong place. The famous Madaba Map (sixth century AD) makes an attempt to locate one of the associated sites. Zoar, toward the southern end of the Dead Sea, but that placement
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is Biblically unlikely.11 Egeria. the fourth century AD Spanish pilgrim to the Holy Land, says that she could see the “land of the Sodomites” and Zoar from the church at Mount Nebo, looking north of the Dead Sea.12 And as I’ve already mentioned. W.F. Albright—arguably the most influential Near Eastern scholar of the 20th century—suggested that the Cities of the Plain were perhaps underwater al the south end of the Dead Sea. But others, including W.M. Thomson in the late 19th century, make a textually-derived case for a location on the eastern kikkar, north of the Dead Sea.13
I think the controversy can be cleared up by the most recent archaeological discoveries at Tall el-Hammam. We now have growing archaeological confirmation that Tall el-Hammam was founded as a major urban center at least during the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3300 BC). An abundance of pottery from the Intermediate Bronze Age (2300–2000 BC) suggests a continuation during that period. Occupation at the site came to an abrupt halt—as it did just up the road al Tall Nimrin14 —during the Middle Bronze Age. and it remained unoccupied for several centuries after that. As I stated above, this is the occupational profile lor the Cities of the Plain predicted from the Biblical text.
During the 2006 season we discovered what I suspected was a Middle Bronze Age rampart system underneath the Iron Age II city wall (Field D). At over 10 ft (3 m) thick, the Iron Age city wall was impressive by itself. But it was dwarfed by a massive mudbrick and compacted-earth structure over which it was built. During the 2007 season we uncovered the earlier structure lo a depth of about 20 ft (6 m), exposing 30 ft (9–10 m) of its 30-degree outer slope. Without a doubt, it was the Middle Bronze Age fortification system, classic in all its details. In Field B. underneath four or five Iron Age II phases, were the remains Of a Middle Bronze Age house with a clay silo, two Middle Bronze Age storage jars, and a distinctive Middle Bronze Age piriform juglet, all buried under nearly 3 ft (1 m) of ash and destruction debris. In the light of the Biblical story of Sodom, this kind of evidence deserves more than a passing glance!
So what happened to the cities of the eastern Jordan Disk, like Tall el-Hammam and Tall Nimrin, during the Middle Bronze Age? Why are they all unoccupied during the Late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, when cities flourished during those periods further north in the Jordan Valley and on the highlands ringing the Jordan Disk? During the Late Bronze Age, why did Moses and the Israelites find no one home on the “Plains of Moab.” the very same piece of real estate called “the wasteland below Pisgah”? Why would the best-watered, most arable land in the region defy reoccupation for at least five centuries after its Middle Bronze Age destruction? Bible readers have the answers to these questions.
Perhaps it was fear and superstition that kept people away for so long. But eventually, the once verdant land of the eastern Jordan Disk recovered, and beckoned settlers once again. Maybe by the tenth century BC, ideas about Sodom’s location had shifted southward lo the salty and desolate area of the Dead Sea’s southern shores and the standing ruins of Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira. During the age of Solomon and the subsequent Divided Monarchy, the cities of the eastern Jordan Disk thrived on its well-watered agricultural lands and played an important role in the regional politics.
Middle Bronze Age piriform juglet body found at Tall el-Hammam.
Tall el-Hammanrs sheer size. abundant water resources, and commanding view of the southern Jordan Valley make her a strong candidate not only for Sodom, but also as an important site during other eras of history: Abel-shittim (Moses and Joshua): a Trans Jordan administrative center (Solomon): and Livias (as seen from Mount Nebo by Egeria.15 fourth century AD Spanish pilgrim, who claims also lo have seen “all the land of the Sodomites” from the same location!).
Because I believe the textual evidence strongly supports Sodom’s northern location16 on the eastern Jordan Disk, it would have been completely irresponsible to ignore the possibility that Tall el-Hammam (as well as Tall Nimrin. with its Middle Bronze Age destruction and ensuing 500-year occupational hiatus17 ) may be Sodom or Admah (with Tall Nimrin being the other). Once aware of these connections, we couldn’t deny the level of interest that would likely be generated in the light of these possibilities. (And. certainly, the implications for Jordanian tourism are potentially enormous.)
If rigorous scholarship and responsible archaeology confirm a link between Tall el-Hammam and Sodom (or between Tall Nimrin and Admah, or other possible Biblical associations), then so be it. If the same approach suggests that such connections aren’t warranted, when so be it. Bui we must not hide from the possibilities because of bias one way or the other.
As A.J. Ayer’s verification principle18 requires of any assertion, we must stale clearly the criteria whereby any hypothesis can be verified and/or falsified. This is the strict method of science. If it weren’t in the exact place specified in the Bible for the Cities of the Plain, then Tall el-Hammam couldn’t be Sodom. If there were no Early Bronze Age or Middle Bronze Age city at the site, it couldn’t be Sodom. If Tall el-Hammam weren’t a fortified city during the Middle Bronze Age, it couldn’t be Sodom. If there were no centuries-long occupational hiatus el-Hammam after its Middle Bronze Age destruction, it couldn’t be Sodom. If there weren’t other sites with similar occupational profiles in the immediate area of the eastern Jordan Disk, then Tall el-Hammam couldn’t be Sodom. But Tall el-Hammam does meet all these criteria—so what else could this massive city possibly
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Remains of a clay-lined storage bin at Tall el-Hammam.
be? (In my estimation the southern sites, like Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira, do not appear lo satisfy these criteria.)
As I understand the evidence, Sodom is the only major Bronze Age urban center on the eastern Jordan Disk mentioned in the Bible. Tall el-Hammam is, by far, the largest Bronze Age site on the eastern Jordan Disk. Coincidence? I’ll be glad to review the evidence for other candidate sites possessing these qualifications. Presently, Tall el-Hammam is the only site that satisfies them all. If anyone has a better Sodom, then let’s have a look at it.
During this past 2007 dig season, I got a chance to present my case “live and on-site” to quite a few visiting archaeological dignitaries. In those instances, Tall el-Hammam itself did most of the “talking.” almost defying anyone to deny her preeminence as the dominant Bronze Age city in the region. After an on-site tour of Tall el-Hammam, with Genesis 13:1–12 firmly in mind, the general response, minimally, was always something like. “Well, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?” To which I usually responded. “Welcome to Sodom!”
With the importance of empirical inquiry understood, we’d be irresponsible not to investigate all Biblical possibilities, especially since I believe the evidence continues to point in the direction that Tall el-Hammam is, far and away, the best candidate for Biblical Sodom. Her ugly sisters have all tried on the glass slipper, and without a fit. Tall el-Haminam, queen of the southern Jordan Valley, slides into it with custom-made precision—although her footprint is definitely not petite!19
If the shoe fits. Tall el-Hammam will wear it!
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Author and wife, Dannette, atop the Middle Bronze Age rampart at Tall el-Hammam. The author believes that this structure dates to the time of Abraham and Lot and the destruction of Sodom.