At an ancient site close to the shores of the Dead Sea, a team of archaeologists are hard at work uncovering relics from a bygone age. Thousands of years ago, the inhabitants of this city disappeared – and for reasons that experts have never fully understood. Now, though, evidence is mounting that suggests this was once the scene of a colossal biblical disaster.
The city of Tall el-Hammam once stood in Middle Ghor – a plain stretching for more than 15 miles across the region that’s now known as Jordan. And it’s thought that as many as 65,000 people used to call the kingdom home. But when the city and its neighbors mysteriously collapsed, this ancient civilization vanished into the mists of time.
Now, thousands of years later, archaeologists are finally discovering what caused the fall of Tall el-Hammam. And as evidence starts to point to a fiery destruction from above, a new theory begins to emerge. Could this have been the biblical city of Sodom, said to have once been wiped out with brimstone by a vengeful God? Well, according to some experts, that very well may be the case.
Regardless of individual religious beliefs, there’s no doubt that the Bible has fascinated mankind for millennia. And while many of the ancient book’s characters and stories may be pure fiction, at least some of its content is based on real occurrences. Even dramatic tales such as the parting of the Red Sea and the plagues that terrorized Egypt may potentially be connected to genuine natural disasters that happened long ago.
That said, 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 are still elusive to modern researchers. From the kingdom of David to the fabulously wealthy region of Ophir, these unidentified realms are sources of both inspiration and frustration for archaeologists today.
But has one of these mysterious lands finally been found? Well, 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 actually 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 the experts have found much evidence to suggest that a grand settlement once stood on this 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. Founded in around the fourth millennium B.C., it became a thriving farming society that flourished for many centuries. And during the Bronze Age, the civilization apparently dominated the entire southern section of the Jordan Valley.
However, in the third millennium B.C., the security of Tall el-Hammam was threatened, and so 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, who is an archaeologist from Trinity Southwest University, told The Independent in 2015.
According to researchers, the walls around Tall el-Hammam once stood at 50 feet tall. And within these confines, archaeologists have also discovered the remains of plazas, ramparts and a palace. Outside the defenses, meanwhile, Bronze Age settlements thrived across the Middle Ghor plain.
But 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 several centuries.
When this strange obliteration is said to have occurred, Tall el-Hammam had been inhabited for some 2,500 years. So, what could have caused such an established civilization to seemingly vanish overnight? Well, interestingly, the city may not have been the only one to suffer such a mysterious fate. Yes, archaeologists have in fact identified five other settlements across the Middle Ghor plain that they believe 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 while there, he detailed some incredible findings at the site of Tall el-Hammam. Apparently, there’s evidence to suggest that a meteor may have been responsible for destroying the city as well as those in the surrounding area.
According to Silvia and his colleagues, the remains of walls and ruined buildings at Tall el-Hammam show evidence of a directional impact 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 spanning 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 an atomic bomb, 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, then, the combination of the strike and the blaze would have left the city in ruins.
According to archaeologists, a heavy coating of ash has also been discovered at the site, supporting the theory that a fire had been the cause of its destruction. And 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 this theory.
At the site, you see, archaeologists unearthed a fragment of earthenware that had been fused against glass on one side. And upon closer investigation, it was noted that the artifact must have been subjected to extreme heat in excess of 14,000 °F – hotter than the surface of the sun. In addition, the section of glass itself was less than 0.04 inches thick.
From these observations, then, researchers were able to conclude that the pottery had been subjected to searing temperatures for a tiny period of time – perhaps even just milliseconds. And yet this wasn’t the only evidence that experts found in support of the meteor-explosion theory; they also discovered something that’s known as a “melt rock.”
According to specialists, this artifact is actually comprised of a trio of different rocks that have been fused together by an intense blast of heat. Weighing around 16 ounces, the object is coated in a layer of glass similar to that found on the piece of earthenware; researchers believe, however, 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 the soil. In fact, this salt level was around four times the threshold for cultivating crops such as barley and wheat.
And, interestingly, this observation reinforced the hypothesis that the area around Tall el-Hammam had remained uninhabited for hundreds of years after its destruction. If the earth had become contaminated by sodium chloride, archaeologists reason, that could explain why the historically fertile region had been suddenly abandoned. It’s thought, too, 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 hypothesis on the matter.
You see, according to Collins, Tall el-Hammam wasn’t just the site of a fascinating Bronze Age disaster. He believes that the ruins are in fact those of the biblical Sodom – a city that along with the neighboring Gomorrah was supposedly destroyed. The story goes that the region had descended into sin, and this had brought the wrath of God down onto these communities.
In the Jewish holy text, the Torah, Sodom and Gomorrah are described as two of five cities located on the plain next to the River Jordan. The settlements are said to have initially thrived on the lush and fertile land before their inhabitants ultimately turned away from God. And even though no details of the people’s 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, meanwhile, Sodom and Gomorrah are said to have been obliterated by fire and brimstone as vengeance for their inhabitants’ supposed sins. And while Lot – nephew of the Christian and Jewish patriarch Abraham – was allowed to flee to safety, his wife apparently defied orders and glanced back to look upon the burning cities. Legend has it that she was then transformed forever into a pillar of salt for her transgression.
Over the years, archaeologists have identified a number of possible sites for Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet 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, this 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 exhibits 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.
Then, from late 2018 onwards, Collins and Silvia’s ideas gained traction in the international media – and it’s easy to see why. Firstly, the experts’ meteor theory neatly accounts for how a city such as Tall el-Hammam could have disappeared overnight. In addition, the hypothesis provides a logical explanation for the fire and brimstone described in the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Plus, the meteor theory championed by Collins and Silvia also illustrates how the entire Middle Ghor plain could have been rendered inhospitable for generations to come. And, interestingly, the premise appears to lend even more support to the idea that Tall el-Hammam was once the site of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the Hebrew Bible, you see, 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, though. In 2013 Todd Bolen, who is a professor of biblical studies at California’s The Master’s University, published an article refuting their claims, for instance.
According to Bolen, the biblical chronology doesn’t support the identification of Tall el-Hammam as Sodom. And as well as referring to his own writings, he points to a couple of specialists who agree with his findings. One of these individuals is Eugene Merrill, who’s an expert in Old Testament studies from the Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas.
Merrill has said, for one, that 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 el-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 Schlegel, there are substantial geographical issues with Collins and Silvia’s claims that the city was located in the north of Jordan. Instead, he believes that Sodom was actually situated in the country’s 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. Here, Collins argues that Merrill’s grasp of biblical chronology is flawed and that all of the evidence supports his own identification instead.
It’s also worth noting that Bolen, Merrill and Schelgel aren’t the only people who suspect that Sodom was located somewhere other than Tall el-Hammam. In fact, many researchers believe that the dubious honor goes to a site known as Bab edh-Dhra – an Early Bronze Age settlement that is also located close to the Dead Sea in Jordan.
According to archaeologists, Bab edh-Dara was abandoned in around 2350 B.C. – although the cause of its destruction has yet to be determined. And as a result, explanations ranging from a petrochemical fire to an earthquake have been proposed over the years. Furthermore, the lack of a definitive answer 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. And, eventually, he concluded that the arguments for both had their own flaws. Olson did admit, 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 may hold. “If Tall el-Hammam 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.”