Found: the world's wickedest city

If geologists are right we may soon be digging up dead Sodomites, writes Steve Crawshaw

"PERHAPS we will discover objects from the city itself. Maybe the 'No Chariots' sign, from outside Sodom town hall."

The geologist Graham Harris is almost serious. He and his colleague Anthony Beardow are convinced that, 4000 years after its destruction, they have located the original Sodom, on the edge of the Dead Sea.

Quite simply, "the jigsaw puzzle now fits," according to Mr Harris. The biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he says, is based on geological reality, not myth. "The biblical story can be rationalised. Instead of something like Atlantis, or the old Norse legends, we can show that rational geological thinking corroborates the story."

In short, Sodom could be the next Pompeii - a catastrophe unearthed. (Together with Gomorrah, which is rarely allowed a separate existence, and is remembered only as an ampersand in sin. Nobody, after all, has ever been accused of practising gomorrahy.)

Mr Harris believes that the ruins of Sodom could be lying buried under the mud and debris ("like London, after the Blitz"). He even suggests that there might be some dead Sodomites still lying there, encased in mud.

Until now, the location of Sodom was vague. There is a Mount Sedom, located at the south-western tip of the Dead Sea, which has salt pillars - at least one of which has traditionally been named after Lot's wife, who as The Bible memorably relates, was turned into salt for taking one last, forbidden, look back as they fled the burning city.

Archaeologists assumed that Sodom was somewhere in the shallow southern part of the Dead Sea, an area that was previously a saltpan. But the British geologists are scornful of this version. Mr Harris says: "No planner worth his 'salt' would have built a town in the middle of a saltpan, away from fresh water. Secondly, what did the town live from?"

In the Journal of Engineering Geology, published by the Geological Society of London, the authors come up with their own answer, based on their studies of the geology of the region. An area of the Dead Sea further north produced bitumen, a valuable commodity at that time. According to Genesis, the Vale of Siddim, where Sodom and Gomorrah lay, was "full of slimepits" - in other words, bitumen pits. Mr Harris suggests that the bitumen meant that Sodom probably "stank like a present-day oil refinery. But the Sodomites made a good living out of it: where there's muck..."

The geologists suggest that Sodom was on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, just north of the Lisan Peninsula, in an area now under water, which they believe has been inundated since biblical times. Detailed measurement of the underwater contours of the Dead Sea could, they suggest, pinpoint the town's location.

The Book of Genesis vividly describes the destruction of the cities. "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground..."

The geologists say that the literal reality may not have been so different from the Old Testament version (though the flames might have licked up into the sky, instead of raining down from the Lord). There are many documented cases of ground collapsing, in a kind of internal landslide. The creation of the Cheddar Gorge is one example of what Mr Harris describes as "the roof falling in", geologically speaking.

In Greece in the 4th century BC, a town was destroyed, when it was swallowed up because of "liquefaction", or collapse of soil, in an earthquake. In Kansu, in China, a huge area was lost because of liquefaction, in 1920. Crucially, the eastern shore of the Dead Sea lies along a geological fault, where earthquakes have been frequent.

A large earthquake, say the geologists, could have caused liquefaction on a scale large enough to swallow the city of Sodom, with room for Gomorrah to spare. In addition, the highly flammable bitumen would have created a blazing inferno worthy of a Hollywood movie, as Sodom vanished into the ground. In the words of Genesis, surveying the scene on the morning after: "Abraham looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace."

Now, the geologists are confident that they have pointed the archaeologists in the right direction, in searching for the rubble of the burnt-out furnace. And the archaeologists, it seems, are eager to try their luck. Already, some have contacted the authors of the academic paper, to learn more about the missing city, the world capital of bad behaviour and a byword for wickedness for thousands of years. Soon, the message from the Dead Sea may be: Welcome to Sodom. Please Dive Slowly.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Supporting role: at the Supreme Court, Rhodes was accompanied by a famous friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch
booksPianist James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to stop the injunction of his memoirs
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
filmDheepan, film review
Sport
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool
sport
Arts and Entertainment
Bob Dylan
art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?