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 travellers tell of the horrors and maledictions which still seem to hang over it, have invested it with an interest altogether peculiar to itself " ("De Saulcy's Dead Sea" 139).
The popularity of de Saulcy's account was not only helped by the translation of his weighty Narrative into English and the learned papers he gave on his expedition in London following his return. Mudie's Select Library began to sell the book, though not before retitling it De Saulcy's Discovery of the Sites of Sodom and Gomorrah to reflect popular interest in the lost cities. Travellers' handbooks emerged directing intrepid tourists to the Dead Sea sites, and an English naval [End Page 28] captain produced a scheme that would carve a ship canal to India from Acre, by way of the Jordan valley and the Dead Sea (Allen; Porter 59). Moreover, the Frenchman's work found a ready audience among evangelical writers and commentators on Biblical prophecy, most of whom were keen to stress not only the moral lessons to be learned from the Sodom story but also its relevance to the present state of Britain and Europe. These staunchly Protestant supporters of the Catholic Frenchman included writers such as William Elfe Tayler, who in 1854 produced a condensed account of de Saulcy's Narrative, entitled Vestiges of Divine Vengeance; or, the Dead Sea, and The Cities of the Plain, and who judged that there was "nothing in the whole range of learned discovery which can at all compare with the actual finding of the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah" (Tayler 145). The sensation that followed de Saulcy's discoveries not only reflected a widespread interest in Biblical and Eastern antiquities but also fed an appetite for scriptural meditation in an age of creeping unbelief. The interest in lost cities and ancient remains had already been fuelled by Austen Henry Layard's excavation of Nineveh in 1848, and principally by the sensational display, at the British Museum in 1851, of the massive Babylonian statuary he found there. The warm reception given to de Saulcy, and the judgement of some that his work had surpassed even that of Layard, was also the result of a fascination, built up by successive generations of Holy Land travellers, for anything that might confirm the consistency of scripture ("Bible Lands" 4). The market for travellers' accounts of the East, and especially for descriptions of Biblical remains, had exploded in the two decades before 1851, ensuring not only that there was a ready readership for the work of explorers like de Saulcy but that the shelves of many a religious reader were already crammed with competing accounts of varying authenticity. A supplement to this fascination was the existence, in almost every major town during the 1840s and 1850s, of panoramas and dioramas of the Holy Land, in which audiences could, by virtue of moving screens of paintings and drawings and assisted by sacred music, "travel" through the East in the footsteps of Biblical figures and modern explorers like de Saulcy. In this market, de Saulcy's bold claims were a welcome addition to the enormous amount of material piled up in support of spiritual reflection.
At first glance, it would appear that de Saulcy's work and its reception could be classified as a naïve collective delusion on the part of willing Christian believers. Historians have often seen the efforts of Holy Land travellers to identify Biblical sites in nineteenth-century Palestine as a series of crude attempts to justify the truth of the Old Testament in a period when its authority was increasingly under attack (Shepherd; Tuchman; Davis). It is certainly true that the expansion of the market for Holy Land travel writing in the 1840s coincided with the first signs of religious doubt among writers and intellectuals. Moreover, the historicizing influence of German higher criticism, with its assertion that the Pentateuch was written by several authors at various times and not dictated to Moses by God, began to gain a foothold in Britain in the 1840s. At the same time, influential writers from different perspectives, such [End Page 29] as Coleridge, Carlyle, Wordsworth, and Newman, were seeking to rescue the spiritual core of Christianity from what they saw as dogmatic attempts to prove the existence of a creator through the rationalist tactics of English natural theology. However, the reception of de Saulcy's revelations shows that there were many different ways of responding to the apparent unearthing of Biblical antiquities and that "discoveries" of ancient sites resulted in more ambiguity than literal readers of the Old Testament would have liked.
For de Saulcy's evangelical supporters, the existence of Sodom's ruins showed that the Bible could and should be defended against rationalistic attacks. Similarly, those following the tradition of natural theology, in which naturalistic explanations of Biblical events could be admitted as legitimate evidence of God's judgement, found nothing to object to in de Saulcy's meditations on the geological origins of the Dead Sea. In that respect, the discovery of Biblical sites functioned as a series of fragments shored against encroaching doubt. On the other hand, though, and as Newman and other critics of natural theology were aware, the compilation of naturalistic explanations and physical remains undercut the miraculous, leading ultimately to the dominance of scientific explanations that were not far removed from a more secular, not to say godless, geology. This latter view allowed Rowland Williams to conclude in Essays and Reviews, in which he reviewed the previous twenty years' work of Holy Land travellers, that in all the efforts of Biblical geography, "no single point has been discovered to tell in favour of an irrational supernaturalism; whereas numerous discoveries have confirmed the more liberal (not to say, rationalizing) criticism which traces Revelation historically within the sphere of nature and humanity" (Williams 170, n. 12). The overall result of these minute investigations of Palestinian landscape, flora, and fauna was in the short term a radical uncertainty that could be appropriated by either side in the religious debates of the mid-century. For all de Saulcy's apparent certitude, the Dead Sea retained its mystery.
H.G. Cocks is a lecturer in history at Nottingham University. He is author of Nameless Offences (2003), Classified (2009), and numerous articles on modern British history as well as co-editor of The Modern History of Sexuality (with Matt Houlbrook).