restricted access Sodom and Gomorrah, 1851
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Sodom and Gomorrah, 1851

14 January 1851: On this day, the French orientalist and savant Louis Félicien de Saulcy convinced himself that he had discovered the ruins of the Biblical city of Sodom, which the Old Testament records as having been destroyed, along with Gomorrah, by fire from heaven: "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord 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" (Genesis 19:24). De Saulcy's revelation was the culmination of a four-month expedition to the Holy Land, an expedition that included a circumnavigation and mapping of the Dead Sea and a visit to Jerusalem, where he also claimed to have identified the tombs of Israel's Biblical kings. De Saulcy's apparent discovery of Sodom and Gomorrah captivated the European public, especially in Britain, where there was a seemingly limitless enthusiasm for the consumption of scriptural wonders. Although de Saulcy's identification of Sodom was contested almost immediately by other Holy Land travellers and scriptural experts, there was nevertheless a popular market for his revelations and a concerted desire from those outside the academy and other learned circles to believe that he had made a genuine discovery of immense religious and world-historical significance. [End Page 27]

In a crowded market for Biblical antiquities and discoveries, de Saulcy's initial success owed something to the novelty of his claims. All other travellers, he declared, had been wrong about the location of Sodom. It had not been in Moab, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, as the Biblical account suggested, but at the south-western corner of the cursed lake, as revealed by the Arabic place names in that area. At that location, de Saulcy noted, there was not only a mass of stone blocks which seemed to have been cut by human hand from the surrounding rock salt but the rocks also bore what looked like scorch marks redolent of the wrath of God. Coming before the age of excavation, which only arrived in the Holy Land in concerted form after about 1880, de Saulcy's discoveries relied mainly on the interpretation of ancient texts, such as Strabo's geographies and Josephus's early histories of the Jews, together with an attempt to reconcile these with Biblical accounts and local place names. At the south-western corner of the sea, there existed not only a large rock salt plateau named by the locals Djebel Esdoum but also—nearby, he was assured by his Arab guides—a place called Kharbet-Esdoum (the ruins of Sodom). This correspondence was enough to convince de Saulcy and many others that he was correct (de Saulcy 2:65-66).

Despite the lack of artifactual evidence and the difficulty for anyone in Europe wanting to check the facts in situ, the British and Irish press warmly welcomed the Frenchman's efforts. On the publication of de Saulcy's Narrative of a Journey Around the Dead Sea in English in 1853, the Morning Chronicle spoke of his high reputation, the "brilliant success" that had attended his expedition, and the "clear light he has been enabled to throw on many disputed points of no small consequence to the thorough comprehension of the sacred text" ("De Saulcy's Researches" 6). For this alone, the article asserted, the European public owed "no light debt of gratitude to M de Saulcy" ("De Saulcy's Researches"). Although de Saulcy's methods may not have met the standards of later archaeologists, the Morning Post nevertheless judged that he would "ever be gratefully remembered for this valuable contribution to archaeological science" (Morning Post 8). The fascination of Sodom and Gomorrah even had an appeal across religious boundaries. In its account of de Saulcy's Narrative, the Catholic Dublin Review judged that not only Bible students but also geologists, naturalists, and antiquarians would take a keen interest in the Dead Sea, and that even for "the more commonplace enquirer ... the mysterious judgements of which it has been the theatre, and the strange and startling stories which...


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