At an ancient site close to the shores of the Dead Sea, a team of archaeologists is hard at work uncovering relics from another age. Thousands of years ago, the inhabitants of this city disappeared – for reasons that experts have never fully understood. But now, evidence is mounting that this was once the site of a biblical disaster.
The city of Tall el-Hammam once stood in Middle Ghor, a plain stretching for more than 15 miles across the region now known as Jordan. And once, as many as 65,000 people called this kingdom home. But when the city and its neighbors mysteriously collapsed, this ancient civilization disappeared into the mists of time.
Now, thousands of years later, archaeologists are finally discovering what caused the fall of Tall el-Hammam. And as the evidence points to a fiery destruction from above, another theory begins to emerge. Could this be the biblical city of Sodom, said to have been obliterated with brimstone by a vengeful god? According to some experts, it could.
Regardless of anyone’s individual religious beliefs, there’s no doubt that the Bible has fascinated mankind for hundreds of years. And while many of its characters and stories may be pure fiction, there’s little doubt that at least some of its content is based on real occurrences. Moreover, even tales such as the parting of the Red Sea and the plagues that terrorized Egypt can potentially be connected to genuine natural disasters that happened long ago.
However, there are many mysteries contained within the pages of the Bible that remain stubbornly unsolved. And perhaps chief among them are the lost lands – places that are described in detail yet remain elusive to modern researchers. From the kingdom of David to the fabulously wealthy region of Ophir, these unidentified realms remain a source of both inspiration and frustration for archaeologists even today.
But has one of these mysterious lands finally been found? Indeed, at a site some eight miles from the Dead Sea in the West Asian country of Jordan, a team of archaeologists has been excavating the remnants of an ancient city. And what they’ve unearthed may shed some light on one of the most enduring biblical enigmas of our time.
For some 14 years the site, which covers more than 88 acres, has been meticulously examined by a team of archeologists. These specialists come from three separate institutions: the Veritas International University’s College of Archaeology & Biblical History in California, Trinity Southwest University in New Mexico and the Department of Antiquities in Jordan. And these experts have found much evidence to suggest that a grand settlement once stood on the now-desolate plain.
Dubbed Tall el-Hammam, the city is thought to have been at the heart of a kingdom that once covered some 125 square miles. And during the Bronze Age, this civilization apparently dominated the entire southern section of the Jordan Valley. Founded around the 4th millennium B.C., it soon became a thriving farming society that flourished for many centuries.
However, in the 3rd millennium B.C., the security of Tall el-Hammam was threatened, and its communities constructed vast walls around the city. “It was a huge undertaking, requiring millions of bricks and, obviously, large numbers of laborers,” Steven Collins, an archaeologist from Trinity Southwest University, told The Independent in 2015.
According to researchers, the walls around Tall el-Hammam were once 50 feet tall. And within them, the remains of plazas, ramparts and a palace have also been discovered. Outside the defenses, meanwhile, Bronze Age settlements thrived across the Middle Ghor plain.
However, this period of prosperity was not to last. Indeed, in the Middle Bronze Age – some 3,700 years ago – Tall el-Hammam was mysteriously destroyed. And although other cities in the region such as Hebron and Jerusalem continued to thrive, those in Middle Ghor simply vanished. In fact, settlers would not return to the plain for between 600 and 700 years.
By then, Tall el-Hammam had been inhabited for some 2,500 years. But what could have caused such an established civilization to seemingly vanish overnight? Interestingly, the city wasn’t the only one to suffer such a mysterious fate. In fact, archaeologists have identified five other settlements across the Middle Ghor plain that disintegrated at around the same time.
In November 2018 Trinity Southwest University archaeologist Phillip Silvia gave a talk at the American Schools of Oriental Research’s meeting in Denver, Colorado. And in it, he detailed some incredible findings at the site of Tall el-Hammam. Apparently, there’s evidence to suggest that a meteor might have been responsible for destroying the city, as well as those in the surrounding area.
According to Silvia and his colleagues, the walls and ruined buildings at Tall el-Hammam show evidence of a directional impact, which is consistent with the idea of an overhead explosion. In fact, they believe that a meteorite could have sent a series of shocks across an area of almost 200 square miles.
Thought to have exploded at a height of around half a mile, the meteor would have created an impact similar to that of a modern nuclear warhead, wreaking death and destruction across the Middle Ghor plain. And in the aftermath, an almighty fire would have torn through the streets of Tall el-Hammam. Ultimately, the combination of the strike and the blaze would have left the city in ruins.
According to archaeologists, a heavy coating of ash was discovered at the site, supporting the theory that a fire had been the cause of its destruction. However, some experts initially believed that the blaze could have been chemical in nature, perhaps triggered by a natural disaster such as an earthquake. Now, though, evidence has emerged that disproves that theory.
At the site, archaeologists discovered a fragment of earthenware that had been fused against glass on one side. And on closer investigation, they noted that the artifact must have been subjected to extreme heat in excess of 14,000° F – hotter than the surface of the sun. Moreover, they observed that the substance had only settled in a thin layer less than 0.04 inches thick.
From these observations, researchers were able to conclude that the pottery had been subjected to searing temperatures for a tiny period of time – perhaps even just milliseconds. Moreover, this wasn’t the only evidence they found that supported the theory of a meteor explosion. They also discovered something known as a “melt rock”.
According to experts, this artifact was actually three different types of rock that had been fused together by an intense blast of heat. Weighing around 16 ounces, the object was coated in a layer of glass similar to that found on the fragment of earthenware. However, researchers believe that this piece was exposed to high temperatures for slightly longer than the pottery fragment.
Elsewhere, archaeologists discovered yet more evidence that a meteor could have been responsible for the destruction of Tall el-Hammam. By analyzing the land at the site, they were able to identify unusually high sodium chloride levels in its constituents. In fact, it was around four times the threshold for cultivating crops such as barley and wheat.
Interestingly, this observation reinforced the hypothesis that the area around Tall el-Hammam remained uninhabited for hundreds of years after its destruction. If the earth became contaminated by sodium chloride, archaeologists reasoned, then that could explain why the historically fertile region was suddenly abandoned. In fact, they theorized that a meteor explosion could have lifted the mineral from the Dead Sea and scattered it across the Middle Ghor plain.
But while archaeologists were busy gathering evidence to prove that a meteorite had been responsible for the fall of Tall el-Hammam, other researchers began putting together their own theories. And in 2013, Steven Collins published – a book that put forward a startling idea.
According to Collins, Tall el-Hammam wasn’t just the site of a fascinating Bronze Age disaster. Indeed, he believes that the ruins are those of the biblical Sodom – a city that, along with the neighboring Gomorrah, was allegedly destroyed. Indeed, it is told, the region descended into sin, which brought the wrath of god down onto those communities.
In the Jewish holy text the Torah, Sodom and Gomorrah were described as two of five cities located on the plain next to the River Jordan. Initially, the settlements are said to have thrived on the lush and fertile land, before their inhabitants ultimately turned away from god. And even though no details of their alleged sins are made clear, some believe that it was the practice of homosexuality that earned them this brutal judgment from the heavens.
In the Bible, it explains that Sodom and Gomorrah were obliterated by fire and brimstone as vengeance for their inhabitants’ alleged sins. However, Lot – nephew of the Christian and Jewish patriarch Abraham – was allowed to flee to safety. According to the story, his wife defied orders and glanced back to look upon the burning cities. As a result, she was apparently transformed forever into a pillar of salt.
Over the years, archaeologists have identified a number of possible sites for Sodom and Gomorrah. But even though most researchers seem to agree that the cities were located somewhere in the region of the Dead Sea, there’s still debate over the exact position. For Collins and his colleagues, however, that mystery has finally been solved.
In a 2013 article for Biblical Archaeology Review, Collins highlighted passages from the Bible that address the cataclysmic event. “Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah – from the Lord out of the heavens,” he quoted. “Thus He overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities – and also the vegetation in the land.”
So could a meteor explosion over Middle Ghor have inspired the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Some experts certainly think so. “The physical evidence from Tall el-Hammam and neighboring sites exhibit signs of a highly destructive concussive and thermal event that one might expect from what is described in Genesis 19,” Collins and Silvia wrote in a 2017 paper.
Moreover, from late 2018 onwards, Collins and Silvia’s ideas gained traction in the international media – and it’s easy to see why. Firstly, their meteor theory neatly explains how a city such as Tall el-Hammam could have disappeared overnight. And secondly, it also provides a logical explanation for the fire and brimstone described in the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The meteor theory championed by Collins and Silvia also explains how the entire Middle Ghor plain was rendered inhospitable for generations to come. And interestingly, this lends even more support to the idea that Tall el-Hammam was the site of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, in the Hebrew Bible Moses likens the land left behind after the disaster to a “burning waste of salt and sulfur.”
In fact, some commentators have gone so far as to draw a connection between the contaminated soils of Middle Ghor and the biblical transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt. Not everyone is convinced by Collins and Silvia’s theories, however. And in 2013 Todd Bolen, a professor of biblical studies at California’s The Master’s University, published an article refuting their claims.
According to Bolen, the biblical chronology doesn’t support the identification of Tall el-Hammam as Sodom. And as well as his own writings, he points to a couple of specialists in their fields who agree with his findings. One of these is Eugene Merrill, an expert in Old Testament studies from the Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.
According to Merrill, any identification of Tall el-Hammas as Sodom requires researchers to dismiss much previously established biblical chronology. “The date in the best manuscripts and the most sound hermeneutic demands the overthrow of Sodom at 2067 B.C., completely removing Tall Hammam from consideration as the location of Sodom.” he wrote in a 2012 article for Artifax magazine.
Meanwhile, Bolen also pointed to the work of The Master’s University professor Bill Schlegel as further evidence that Tall el-Hammam couldn’t be the site of Sodom. According to him, there are substantial geographical issues with Collins and Silvia’s claims that the city was located in the north of Jordan. In fact, Schlegel believes that it was actually situated in the south.
“In favor of a southern location, Scripture associates Sodom geographically with the ‘Valley of Siddim, which is the Salt Sea’ an area distinct from the Kikkar of the Jordan,” Schlegel wrote in a 2012 article for the blog BiblePlaces. “Also, locating Sodom and Gomorrah in the south fits better the post-destruction environment described by the prophets and a later battle between Judah and Edom at the site of Zair.”
Despite these issues, however, Collins has continued to argue that Tall el-Hammam is the site of the long-lost Sodom. And in a 2013 article for Biblical Research Bulletin, he wrote a comprehensive rebuttal of Merrill’s claims. In it, he claims that the latter’s grasp of biblical chronology is flawed, and that all of the evidence supports Collins’ own identification.
However, Bolen, Merrill and Schelgel aren’t the only people who suspect that Sodom was located somewhere other than Tall el-Hammam. Many researchers, in fact, believe that dubious honor goes to the site known as Bab edh-Dhra, an Early Bronze Age settlement also located in Jordan close to the Dead Sea.
According to archaeologists, Bab edh-Dara was abandoned around 2350 B.C. – although the cause of its destruction has yet to be determined. Indeed, explanations ranging from a petrochemical fire to an earthquake have been proposed over the years. Nonetheless, that still hasn’t stopped some Christian theologians from identifying the site as Sodom.
In 2014 Trinity Southwest University’s Craig Olson published a paper in which he compared Tall el-Hammam and Bab edh-Dara, seeking to determine which of them was the most likely site of Sodom. Eventually, he concluded that both arguments had their flaws. He admitted, however, that out of the two, the identification proposed by Collins and Silvia was the most likely to be true.
Today, research is continuing at Tall el-Hammam – and Olson is excited about what the future might hold. “If TeH is Sodom not only does it confirm another biblical event, but also it opens up new vistas for biblical research into the patriarchs,” he wrote. “We will be able to know more about how Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph lived, and we will be able to understand and teach the biblical text with greater accuracy and authority.”