The tale in Genesis of how God punished the depravity of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and how Lot and his wife escaped, is one of the best-known biblical stories. After arriving in Canaan (Palestine), Lot and his uncle Abraham began to bicker over grazing grounds. They separated, and Lot pitched his tents at the southeastern corner of the Dead Sea near Sodom, one of the five “cities of the plain” (the others were Gomorrah, Zoar, Admah and Zeboyim). “But,” as Genesis warns, “the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly.” One evening, Lot was visited by two angels, come to warn him of the city’s impending divine destruction. Lot, his wife and two daughters fled and “the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire.” Every one of the five cities was destroyed, and every person killed. As they were fleeing, Lot’s wife disobeyed a divine order not to look back at the destruction, and was turned into a pillar of salt.

Seemingly the last people left alive in the world, Lot and his daughters sought refuge in a cave in the mountains. Calculating that, with all potential mates vaporized, they were likely to die childless, the daughters hatched a plan to get their father so drunk he wouldn’t be able to tell who they were, whereupon they would seduce him and thus preserve the family. Everything worked to plan and both daughters gave birth to sons; the elder named her child Moab, and the younger Ben-Ammi, or “father of Ammon”.

The last of these bizarre biblical episodes has been commemorated for centuries, and possibly millennia, at a cave-and-church complex in the hills above Safi. Ruins within Safi itself, as well as at four other scanty Early Bronze Age sites nearby (Bab adh-Dhraa, Numayra, Fifa and Khanazir), show evidence of destruction by fire. At Numayra, archeologists also found the skeletons of three men whose bones were crushed by falling masonry. These five could possibly be the “cities of the plain”. The only fly in the ointment is that they were razed around 2350 BC, several hundred years before the generally accepted era of Abraham and Lot, although archeologists are still debating the precise timescales involved.

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