Larry G. Herr received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in June in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures.


ONE OF the advantages of being on the "dig" at Heshbon was the weekend trips that one could take throughout Jordan. Almost every weekend there were several groups scattering through the country to visit other locales, such as Petra, the desert castles, or various Biblical sites.

One weekend in 1976 five of us arranged a visit to a series of five ancient sites far below sea level near the south eastern shores of the Dead Sea. The Jordanian Department of Antiquities kindly arranged permits for us to enter the military zone (the sites are near the border with Israel), as well as loaned us one of their four-wheel-drive vehicles for the rugged tracks we would encounter.

In 1924 a large cemetery site was dis covered in this region by W. F. Albright, an archeologist with whom readers of this column are well acquainted. It contained hundreds of graves with pottery from the third millennium B.C. Albright proposed that this site, called Bab edhDhra', might have been the cemetery for the cities of the plain mentioned in Genesis 14, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Shemeber, and Bela (Zoar), which were, according to the popular traditions of his day, buried beneath the waters of the southern part of the Dead Sea.

In the 1960's Archeologist Paul Lapp returned to the site and discovered a Jarge town nearby, which he partially excavated. A large city wall, built in such a way as to withstand the frequent earthquakes that occurred in the Jordan Valley, was found surrounding the city itself. Inside, many objects were discovered attesting to the vitality of the people living there before the town was destroyed, probably by a large fire, as there are layers of ash scattered over much of the site.

In this decade two of Lapp's staff members, Walter Rast and Thomas Schaub, have returned to conduct a series of long-range excavations at Bab edh-Dhra'. Modern archeological digs, with their desire to know about the region surrounding the city they are investigating, conduct surveys of other ancient sites in the vicinity of their town in order to place their site into its context, geographically and historioculturally. Heshbon has done this, and so has Bab edh-Dhra'. The suggestions and implications of their finds are stupendous for conservative Biblical scholars.

Anyone who has visited the Dead Sea knows that the area is almost completely desert, interrupted by greenery only where a spring exists or where a river originating in the mountains round about finally reaches the Dead Sea. Even Bedouin are rare in this area today, and hardly any archeological sites are to be found, indicating its extreme desert condition in antiquity, as well.

It was thus with some surprise that the archeological surveyors, hiking through the region, constantly on the lookout for signs of occupation, found several other sites with similarities to Bab edh-Dhra All five sites found were built on the same type of sedimentary geological formation, usually eroded to a high promontory that could be easily fortified, overlooking the Dead Sea valley. The same type of pottery and objects, masonry, and tomb types were found at or near each site, indicating a close relationship between all five at a single period in time, earlier than, but not far removed from, the period usually ascribed to the patriarchs. When these facts first became known in 1974 the whole archeological community began whispering about possible identifications with the five cities of the plain.

To satisfy my own curiosity and to make my own judgments about the sites, I eagerly joined the group, organized by Michael Blaine (a California pastor and fellow supervisor at Heshbon), and headed for the heat and dust of the Dead Sea valley. After sleeping overnight in the awesome ruins of the crusader castle at Kerak, high in the Moabite mountains directly overlooking the Dead Sea to the west and almost 5,000 feet below, we arose to begin our descent at 5:00 A.M. so that we could finish our trip before the heat became too intense.

Our first stop was at Bab edh-Dhra' itself, where we confirmed what had been reported from the excavations. We noted the pottery sherds still scattered about on top of the ruins and spotted the spring far below in the canyon now wastefully running off into the Dead Sea. According to geologists, this canyon was much higher at the time the city existed just over four thousand years ago; this would have enabled the stream to flow through a broad plain easily irrigated for teeming croplands and orchards. Some dwellings were discovered outside the walls of the town, which reminded us of Lot's pitching "his tent toward Sodom." At least people habitually lived outside the city. We noted the evidence of the destruction of the town by fire, as well as the fact that no other town had been built on top of it during the succeeding 4,000 years; it had been completely forgotten. We also checked the size of the town, which was relatively good-sized for antiquity but minute by modern standards: slightly larger than a city block.

After a quick look at some of the tombs on the other side of the road we headed south about five miles to another site, as yet unexcavated, called Numeirah by the Arabs. This also was high above a meager stream that flowed in the valley below. As we walked over the site we noticed the masonry similar to Bab edh-Dhra' in the exposed portions of the town wall. Just outside the town were graves and grave markings identical to those at the first site. But the most interesting feature was the ash that completely covered the area (probably to a depth of five feet or more), reminding us of the fiery destruction of the cities of the plain as recorded in Genesis. But the size of the site was disappointing as it was only about 300 feet long by perhaps 100 feet wide, about as large as a foot ball field.

A few miles farther south was the site of Safi, very well watered by a perennial stream descending from the mountains. No town buildings have been found here from the early period, the end of the Early Bronze Age, but surface potsherds indicate they probably lie beneath one of the later towns built by the Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs. On the hillsides surrounding the area, graves typical of the period have been discovered.

Here the good road ended and only a dusty track led through the desert, coated here and there with the black smudge of bitumin, just as is described in the Bible. There were several Bedouin families tenting in the area, but we were interested in the site of Feifeh situated beside a strong flowing stream. Here were hundreds of tombs, as many as at Bab ehd-Dhra'. But the town was considerably smaller, only the size of a fortress or a very large American house. Perhaps the original inhabitants camped round about the fortress in tents, as Lot did near Sodom and as the modern Bedouins still do. Otherwise, we are at a loss to explain the large cemetery. Large deposits of ash again overlay the ruins.

The heat was growing intense, and the road was so difficult to traverse to the last site that we decided to make a hasty return to Kerak. From others, however, we know that the fifth site, Khanazir, is the smallest of the five, though the most prominent, high on a rock outcrop overlooking the valley. Only a few tombs and a small fortress have been found there, but pottery indicates that the site dates to the same period as the other four.

All the way back to the Heshbon excavation camp at Madaba we discussed the pros and cons of an identification of these five sites with the Genesis cities of the plain. There were a few problems, but they were soon worked out. We were puzzled over the small size of the sites; there were much larger cities from the same time period both west and east of the Jordan River, but, of course, the Bible makes no claims as to the size of the cities of the plain, only their wickedness.

The testimony of the thick layers of ash on top of the sites was striking: whereas many ancient sites were destroyed by fire, very few destructions have been of such a great incendiary nature that so much ash remained. Truly a great conflagration must have destroyed these towns, and significantly, not one of them was rebuilt. If a substantial number of people had escaped they probably would have re built the towns.

Another reason some of us did not like to identify these sites with the cities of the plain was that they were destroyed at least two hundred years prior to the dates generally ascribed to Abraham. The archeological dates could be altered slightly but not to that extent with any ease. On the other hand the 430 years of Exodus 12:40 is often divided in half by many chronologists, to make 215 years sojourn in Palestine by the patriarchs and 215 in Egypt by the children of Israel. But Exodus 12:40 explicitly states that the 430 years were spent in Egypt, which, if taken into consideration, would place the patriarchs roughly 200 years earlier, very near the archeologically dated demise of the five sites we visited.

Could it be that Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as the rest of the cities of the plain, have been discovered? Their existence can no longer be questioned even by the most skeptical scholar since one of the tablets from the recently unearthed sensational archives at Tell Mardikh (ancient Ebla) in Syria, contains in a list of tributary cities the names of Sodom and Gomorrah. These texts date to the same period as the ruins of the five sites, furnishing a further indirect argument for their identification with the cities of the plain. The proof is not certain, but proposals for the specific sites of the cities of the plain are receiving more and more favorable consideration.

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Larry G. Herr received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in June in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures.

September 1977

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