"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.
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