The stories of the Bible are some of the most incredible tales in human history. Through the rise and fall of empires, the emergence of new belief systems, the Bible has been one of the few surviving records of human history that is a window into a 4000-year-old past. Tales of good and evil, right and wrong, paradise and purgatory have shaped and influenced the lives of millions over thousands of years. Yet, legends of imaginable cataclysms, resurrection, and miracles - defying science as we know it - have often been under scrutiny, some dubbing them to be nostalgic fables and others dismissing them as ludicrous fiction. But could there be any truth to these epic legends? Any scientific evidence proving their occurrence? Or are they just bedtime stories meant to teach us morality? Using 21st century technology, scientists can now explore the ancient world by stripping away the Earth as never before and exposing secrets buried for centuries, revealing lost cities and ancient cataclysms such as the Old Testament’s most formidable disaster movies: a story of two cities obliterated in a hail of fire by the Wrath of God.
Two cities just wiped off the face of the Earth. The story begins with a man named Abraham who with his nephew Lot goes looking for what they believed God had promised them as a home. They eventually split up and Lot chose unwisely when he decided to settle near a city called Sodom, which was at war with its neighbours and was thus condemned from above. Lot was warned that God was going to destroy the town and that he must flee without looking back. And he did, in the nick of time with his family, as fire and brimstone began raining down destroying everything. But his wife couldn’t help but look back one last time because of which, she instantaneously turned into a pillar of salt. Frequently mentioned in the Book of Genesis as symbols of human wickedness and divine retribution, Sodom and Gomorrah were these legendary biblical cities that were completely destroyed.
At first thought, it seems impossible to find evidence of a disaster that took place nearly 4000 years ago. But a clue hidden in the word “sodom” that originates from the word “siddim” which in Hebrew, means a salt lake, leads archaeologists to believe that the two cities must have been somewhere near the Dead Sea. However, the vast, arid desert around the Dead Sea seems nothing like the fertile oasis described in the story. Archaeologists believe that on top of being experts at capturing and preserving water for survival, which would have made the region habitable, the people there had a stranglehold on priceless goods across the region - Asphalt. The black tar that we find on roads was once a hot commodity, used in medicine and sold to Egyptians and the Dead Sea was a bottomless supply of this lucrative good. The biblical story mentions several kingdoms fighting for this Asphalt, which could have been the Kings of Sodom Gomorrah. The area around the Dead Sea is speckled with clusters of ancient ruins, one of which called Numeira, seems to fit the criteria of being a Bronze Age settlement at least 4000 years old. Excavations of a collapsed tower, and three skeletons, cloaked in ash and charcoal, leads archaeologists to believe Numeira was destroyed by an earthquake and fires.
It’s a tantalising idea but not impossible. A 300-mile tear in the Earth’s crust called the Jordan Rift Valley places two fault lines running along the Dead Sea, which would make the areas around ticking time bombs. Earthquakes discharge electricity that ignites hydrocarbons stored beneath in the ground that seep up during earthquakes. Essentially, geological dynamite. The ‘brimstone’ referred to in the story is inflammable sulphur found in the region which would explain the ‘blazes of fire falling from the sky’. Assuming Numeira really is the city of Sodom, could the story have played out something like this? A city trading inflammable asphalt was struck by an earthquake. Everything collapsed, even the tower, and those that survived had to face something even worse. A raging fire exploded as hidden gas reserves erupted from underground. Whilst the inhabitants fled, explosions hurled down burning sulphur. It would have been hell on Earth. But is an earthquake the only possible explanation?
An entirely new theory places Sodom and Gomorrah, North of the Dead Sea in an area called Tall El Hammam. The largest continuously occupied Bronze Age city in the Southern Levant, the area is surrounded by fertile plains, channels of water, and is located at a pivotal position of an ancient trade route, just as Sodom was described in the Bible. Excavations revealed pottery shards melted into glass, melted clay and mud-brick ( all ‘bubbled’ like they were ‘boiled’ ) and diamond-like carbon formations. Scientists estimate that they were flash-burned at a temperature nearly 4 times hotter than the sun, the destruction so massive that the city was uninhabited for almost 700 years. The only two sources of this magnitude of heat known to humankind are an atomic bomb and a meteoritic impact event/ airburst. Assuming Tall El Hammam was Sodom, the theory seems to explain every element of the Biblical text, offering a plausible yet terrifying explanation of the story. So could it have played out like this? A meteor blasted in from space at hypersonic speed exploding over the Dead Sea. The impact blasted salt across the landscape, rendering it infertile and uninhabitable for generations. A fragment landed right by the city, vaporising it to oblivion.
Recent studies have confirmed that the Tall El Hammam was indeed destroyed by a meteor. But whether Tall El Hammam or Numeira were the legendary cities remains to be seen.
The fear of apocalypse exists in all of us but very few stories deliver it on this scale. A story passed down for generations by survivors and seared into collective memory, this tale of projected morality reminds us of powers of destruction so terrible that they might have gone down as being the wrath of God.