Thursday 14 January 2016

Believe It Or Not : Sodom Revealed?

The theme for the UK’s LGBT History Month in February is “Religion, Belief and Philosophy”. The subject may not appeal to many people but throughout this year, as in previous years, I’ll base a lot of articles on it. I hope to show that the subject is as interesting, diverse and important as any other I’ve covered, and I’ll do that is a new series called “Believe It Or Not”.

Popular perceptions of religion in particular are often negative. One of the biggest negative influences religion has had on the lgbt community is its attitude towards gay sex (not to be confused with gay love, a concept accepted as honourable by many religions for centuries).

Nothing sums up this attitude to gay sex more than the name given to it by the early Christian church – sodomy. This word comes from the well-known Biblical story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Surely there could be no better place to start this series than Sodom.

Just like Indiana Jones going in search of sacred artefacts historians and archaeologists have been hunting around for the actual site of Sodom. That’s not as pointless as it might seem at first. After all, Troy was regarded as a fictional city until it was uncovered, as was the palace of King Minos of Crete.

Sodom’s location has aroused interest for almost 150 years and still does. Several archaeologists have claimed to have found the ancient city. None of these claims have received as universal acceptance as the location of Troy has done, but they all reveal more about the ancient Middle East. Last November a new book was published looking at the geological evidence to locate Sodom.

I’m going to choose three sites which have been claimed as being the remains of Sodom. The first location is the traditional one, known to ancient writers such as Strabo, who lived at the same time of Christ, which probably means that Christ himself knew of it as well. A large hill composed almost entirely of salt at the southern end of the Dead Sea in what is now part of the Judean Desert Nature Reserve has had the Hebrew name Har Sedom since before Strabo’s time. He recorded that the hill was the location of Sodom. There’s even a pillar of salt called “Lot’s Wife” after the unfortunate woman who ignored the advice not to turn back and look at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as told in the Bible. There’s no archaeological evidence to show that Har Sedom, or Jabel Usdu in Arabic and Mount Sodom in English, is the site of the destroyed city.

The Dead Sea is renowned for its buoyancy properties. Its high salt content led the ancients to call it the Sea of Salt. To digress briefly, the Dead Sea features in an amusing story from the time of the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The bisexual future Emperor Titus, serving as an army captain, condemned a group of slaves to death. The slaves were taken in chains and thrown into the Sea of Salt. Titus probably didn’t know of the sea’s buoyancy properties and was startled when the slaves came bobbing back onto the shoreline like corks. Titus threw them back in several times and each time they came bobbing back. In the end he pardoned them all and set them free.

In the 1970s another candidate for Sodom was identified using archaeological means. Using location details In the Bible which places Sodom as one of the Cities of the Plain in the Valley of Siddim south of the Dead Sea archaeologists discovered several ancient destroyed settlements which hit the bill.

One of these sites, Bab edh-Dhra, was claimed as the site of Sodom, and another site, Numeira, as Gomorrah. Several pieces of evidence were brought forward in support of the claim. First is their location on the edge of the “the Plain” which geologists day was present in Biblical times. Secondly, botanical specimens indicate cultivation on irrigated land, as described in the Bible. The remains of fortifications indicate both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira were important cities, as were Sodom and Gomorrah. Finally, both sites showed signs of being destroyed or abandoned in ancient times.

Not all historians agree that the evidence proves the sites are actually Sodom and Gomorrah. Specifically, they say that the archaeological evidence doesn’t indicate that the cities were destroyed at the same time as the Bible states.

Having searched south of the Dead Sea it came as a surprise last year when it was suggested Tall el-Hammam, north of the Dead Sea, was Sodom. There is a layer of ash containing fragments of human bones, and the area produces large amounts of desert glass, sand fused together by temperatures so high that they couldn’t have been made by any man-made process. The archaeologists go further as to suggest Tall el-Hammam was destroyed by a meteor airburst.

A meteor airburst isn’t as far-fetched as is sounds. You may remember that spectacular meteor crash in the Russian countryside a couple of years ago. That was a mere damp squib compared to what the archaeologists say caused the destruction of Tall el-Hammam, indicating it could have been the historical Sodom. An ancient clay tablet records such an event occurring in around the year 3123 BC. However, a meteor burst of that power would have destroyed many other cities as well as Sodom, and the Bible indicates that they weren’t.

Perhaps we’ll never know where the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah really are. Undoubtedly other theories will emerge in the coming years. For the time being, we must decide for ourselves whether to Believe It Or Not.
Just as modern film-makers delight in showing off their computer skills by filling their films with spectacular cgi effects, traditional artist and painters delighted in showing their own interpretation of death and destruction. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was a particularly suitable topic for them to display their skills with a paint brush. This painting, by John Martin (1789-1854), is one of hundreds depicting the famous disaster.

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