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The Sunday Times - London

THE SUNDAY TIMES: FOREIGN NEWS

October 18 1998 MIDDLE EAST

Satellite sleuth finds Sodom and Gomorrah

by Christopher Goodwin     Los Angeles

IT is one of the most terrifying passages in the Old Testament: God's destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the sexual immorality of their inhabitants. Now a British-born biblical scholar believes he may have found the lost cities that have become bywords for human wickedness.

To most people, including archeologists, the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah remains metaphorical, a warning to sinful humans from the authors of Genesis. No satisfactory archeological evidence of the five lost Cities of the Plain, of which Sodom and Gomorrah were two, has ever been unearthed.

However, Michael Sanders, a Leeds-born biblical scholar living in Irvine, California, believes that new satellite photographs from Nasa, the American space agency, may show that Sodom and Gomorrah not only existed, but also that they were probably destroyed in a catastrophe about 5,000 years ago, and that their ruins were engulfed beneath the salty waters of the Dead Sea.

Sanders, 58, hopes to lead an expedition to Israel early next year to test his theories. He intends to explore the 1,200ft depths of the Dead Sea in the two-man Delta mini-submarine that discovered the sunken liner Lusitania, closely examining strange shapes that appear on the satellite photographs like ruined buildings.

"The idea that Lot's wife could be turned into a pillar of salt, or that God could destroy evil cities, well, even religious people draw a line at stories like these, saying they're fable and myth," said Sanders.

"So, if we can come up with proof that one of the most unlikely stories in the Old Testament was actually true, that will have a very profound impact on how people view the truth of Bible."

Sanders's theory, which he believes is validated by the photographs, draws on archeological research that began more than 30 years ago. In the late 1960s P W Lapp, the archeologist, excavated the site of Bab Edh-Dhra on the edge of the Lisan peninsula, which juts into the Dead Sea, and estimated that the remains of more than 500,000 people were buried in a cemetery there.

Between 1973 and 1979 four more small sites, all with large numbers of buried bodies, were found in the same area by the archeologists Walter Rast and Thomas Schaub, who believed they might contain the dead from the remaining Cities of the Plain.

The odd thing about these discoveries, Sanders points out, is that the cemeteries already existed in 3200BC, much earlier than the small towns nearby. What is even stranger is that the enormous cemeteries or charnel houses were discovered in an area that is now one of the most arid and bleak on earth.

"It's land that cannot grow enough today to feed even a small village," says Sanders.

Why, then, should this part of the Jordan Valley have been described in Genesis 13:10 as lush and verdant and as capable of supporting life as the Nile delta?

"And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered in everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zo'ar; this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah," reads the Bible.

Sanders asks: "Whoever wrote this story, and where did they get that peculiar notion from? Because even in that time the area was nothing like that. It seems a preposterous story."

The climate and topography of the now arid area must have changed dramatically over the ages if it had been capable of supporting the numbers of people found buried there.

Sanders says that what was once a verdant idyll was probably ravaged about 5,000 years ago by an earthquake resulting in an explosive expulsion of pitch, which caught fire - this fits in neatly with the haunting passage in Genesis 19: "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire 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. But when his [Lot's] wife looked back from behind him, she became a pillar of salt."

It seems likely that after the natural disaster the area's green fields gradually disappeared and were replaced by infertile deserts.

The cities' remains appear also to have been subjected to another natural change - the rising waters of the sea. The satellite photographs show three clear and startling anomalies, which could be architectural ruins, deep beneath the surface of the northern end of the Dead Sea. Drawing on other Nasa images clearly indicating that the waters lay further south at one time, Sanders believes these unexplained forms could be the Cities of the Plain.

Rich Slater, the geologist who will lead the dive on the Delta mini-submarine, is optimistic about the expedition's chances of uncovering Sodom and Gomorrah.

"I think the satellite photos clearly show the Dead Sea covers more area in the north now than in the past," he says. "So if there were cities there they would definitely be underwater. And salt preserves things well. We might find that Sodom and Gomorrah are in pretty good condition."

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Copyright 1998 Times Newspapers Ltd. This service is provided on Times Newspapers' standard terms and conditions. To inquire about a license to reproduce material from The Sunday Times, visit the Syndication website.

 



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