Perched precariously on a steep, barren slope overlooking the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea, I found the remains of what had once been elegant stone buildings—walls, pieces of metal and glass, tiny mosaic cubes and pottery sherds. It was 1986 and I was conducting a survey with Canadian excavator Burton MacDonald. The site is called Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata, the Monastery of the Abata Spring. It was clear that the site had once been an impressive Byzantine-era complex. But why would anyone build in such an inhospitable and desolate location?
How much longer these archaeological remains would continue to survive was a question. The site was threatened by erosion, by encroaching fields belonging to the villagers of nearby Safi and by looters searching for ancient treasure.
A grant from the British Museum made it possible for an international team of archaeologists from Britain, Greece, Canada, Australia and Jordan to conduct nine seasons at the site. The grant was supplemented by funds from other academic institutions and private donors.
The complex turned out to be a monastery with a triple-apsed basilica church that was built directly into the hillside that led into a natural cave; adjacent to it were living quarters for monks and a hostel for pilgrims.
Why had the cave been important to the church’s builders? We knew that Christian tradition associates the area southeast of the Dead Sea with Lot because the Bible says he fled with his family from Sodom, which is located in this area. Moreover, Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata had the same geographic location as the Sanctuary of Saint Lot shown on the Madaba map, a sixth-century mosaic map on the floor of a church in Madaba, Jordan, that provides invaluable information about ancient sites, 022including a surprisingly detailed plan of Byzantine-era Jerusalem (
Perhaps, we thought, the cave had been venerated by Christians as the cave where Lot and his daughters lived after the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our hunch was eventually supported by the discovery of three inscribed architectural stone blocks that called on Lot to bless various people mentioned in the inscriptions. All were in Greek. One, located just in front of the cave, asked Saint Lot to bless Sozomenou, Ulpious and a third person whose name we cannot decipher; we assume they were pilgrims or monks who lived in the monastery. The connection of the site with the Biblical story of Lot seemed confirmed.
Abraham’s nephew Lot, according to Genesis 19, is living in Sodom when two angels visit him; he offers them hospitality for the night, but the men of Sodom 023surround Lot’s house and demand that he produce the guests “that we may know them” (Genesis 19:5). Lot, feeling his honor as a host is at stake, offers the townsmen his daughters instead. The divine visitors blind the townsmen outside the door and urge Lot and his family to escape before God unleashes his wrath on Sodom and its sister city, Gomorrah.
In the morning God annihilates Sodom and Gomorrah with “brimstone and fire” (Genesis 19:24). Though warned by God’s two emissaries not to look back upon the devastated cities and to flee to the hills, Lot’s wife disobeys and “she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26). But Lot and his daughters flee to the little town of Zoar, and then “went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country…and he and his two daughters lived in a cave” (Genesis 19:30).
Believing that they were the last people alive on earth, the older daughter said to the younger, “‘Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father’” (Genesis 19:31–32). And this is precisely what they did, first the older and then, on the next night, the younger. “Thus, the two daughters of Lot came to be with child by their father” (Genesis 19:36). The result of this incestuous conspiracy was two sons: Moab from the elder daughter and Ben-ammi from the younger. Their descendants became the Biblical tribes east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea—the Moabites to the south and the Ammonites to the north. (For more on Christian traditions about Lot,
We were excavating the very place where tradition claimed Lot and his daughters fled after Sodom’s destruction. Our excavations began in the area of the highest preserved wall. It proved to be a 20-foot-deep water reservoir covered with arches and fed by an elaborate system of channels and tanks to catch and retain the scarce rainfall of the desert.
In the seasons that followed we exposed more and more elements of the monastic complex—a communal dining room, or refectory, complete with long benches and a stone oven 9 feet in diameter, a pilgrim’s hostel and a communal chamber burial in what had earlier been a cistern. These all dated from the Byzantine to the early Abbasid periods (fifth to eighth century A.D.; the Abbasids were the second major Islamic dynasty, ruling from 749 to 1258). The burial chamber included the remains of 28 adult males, an adult female and three infants or children. Examination of the 32 skeletons by 024anthropologists revealed that many of the deceased had suffered from serious diseases such as malaria and rickets, suggesting that the monastery also served as a hospice, probably for sick and crippled monks.
In addition to pottery, glass and metal objects, the site was also rich in animal and botanical remains, especially where kitchen refuse was thrown out. The people living at Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata ate domestic and wild species of plants, animals, fowl and fish (some from the Mediterranean and Red Seas). The animals consumed by the inhabitants included horse, donkey, cattle, pig, sheep, goat, roe and fallow deer, fox, hare, domestic fowl, partridge, quail, stone curlew, cursorious cursor, rockstock (these last three are wild birds), palm dove, lark vulture, parrot fish, groupers and some smaller freshwater fish—probably from the nearby spring. The inhabitants’ diet also included olives, dates, bitter vetch, grape, apricot, lentils, barley, bread wheat, cucumber and melon.
Some of the pottery remains were surprising. In addition to the familiar domestic repertoire of molded oil lamps, cooking pots with lids, drinking cups, inscribed store jars, bowls, pitchers, pilgrim flasks, lanterns and fine plates, we found several hundred green-and-brown glazed sherds. These represent a new type of pottery in 025the early Byzantine period (fifth to seventh century A.D.) in the Levant. The unusual soda wood-ash glaze on the sherds was the result of exceptionally high temperatures in the kilns, up to 1150 degrees centigrade (2100 degrees Fahrenheit), not from the application of a glazing material to the pots, as was done in later Islamic periods. Surprisingly, the strongest parallel to the Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata glazes comes from 11th-century Germany.
Other finds, typical of the early Byzantine period, included marble bowls, glass vessels, hanging glass oil lamps, metal implements, painted plaster and some 3,000 copper alloy numei coins, small denominations probably brought as contributions to the monastery.
Our most notable finds, however, were the remains of beautiful mosaic floors with several inscriptions. The most significant structure we uncovered, as already noted, was the basilica church built into the hillside and incorporating the cave as part of the church. An elegantly decorated stone built into the southern apse of the church calls on Saint Lot to bless the builder of the church.
The natural cave is located in the hillside at the far end of the northern aisle of the basilica (the left-hand aisle when facing forward in the church;
Two collapsed columns whose drums, from base to capital, lay neatly in a row, originally stood 14 feet high. While this collapse might suggest that an earthquake led to the abandonment of the church, we concluded that the church was peacefully abandoned; we came to that conclusion because there were virtually no objects on the church floor, as we would expect if the church had been suddenly destroyed by earthquake or by attackers.
The basilica was paved with five mosaics, four bearing Greek inscriptions. The best-preserved, in the north aisle leading to the cave, is decorated with a geometric design of stepped squares, diamonds and candles. In front of the cave entrance, a four-line inscription enclosed within a tabula insata (a rectangular frame flanked by inward-pointing triangles) names the Bishop Iakovos and the Abbot Sozomenos. It mentions the date April 605 A.D.
The second mosaic lies in the chancel, the area at the front of the church that contained the altar; it is decorated with typical early Byzantine-era motifs such as birds, a lamb and a peacock, all surrounded by vines. In the center of the mosaic, just where the altar once stood, appears a stylized depiction of a chalice; below the chalice is an encircled cross inscribed with the Greek words telos kalon (literally, “good end”), perhaps a wish for our last days on earth to be good ones.
The third, and most intriguing, mosaic pavement lies in the central nave of the church. It consists of a free-flowing floral design featuring long, sprawling 028branches tipped with large orange-colored leaves that surround an inscription. The floral motif resembles the painted decorations on Nabatean fineware pottery and may indicate a continuity of Nabatean art styles emanating from Petra—less than 50 miles away—that lasted well into the early Islamic period. (Other finds from Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata, such as a horned capital, zigzag designs on other stones and thin-bodied finewares, are also typical of Nabatean material culture.)
The inscription inside this mosaic contains six lines of Greek text that names the county bishop and presbyter as Christoforos, the presbyter and steward as Zenon, the governor as Ioannis son of Rabibos, and describes the church as a basilica and the site as an agios topos (“holy place” in Greek). The mosaic’s construction is dated to the Greek month of Xanthikos (roughly May) 691 A.D. The name of Georgios the sacristan was squeezed in, perhaps in a last-minute effort to satisfy this minor church official, who presumably was not originally intended to be included. The entire inscription is enclosed in a rectangle; there is also an additional diagonal inscription naming an Iannis son of Sabinaou, who presumably was the mosaicist. Considering that this name is not Greek and that it was incorrectly spelled, we may assume that the mosaicist spoke a local Semitic language such as Aramaic.
The inscription’s description of the church as a basilica means that the church was large enough to accommodate pilgrims. A small monastic community would normally only require a chapel, not a basilica church. Calling the site a holy place implies an association with a Biblical episode, thus reinforcing the connection with the Lot story. The Semitic names of Rabibos and Sabinaou on the mosaic are evidence of local Christian communities. The 691 A.D. date of the church’s renovation is well into the period of Umayyad Islamic rule in the Levant (636–750 A.D.; the Umayyads were the first Islamic dynasty). This period seems to have been one of religious tolerance; our excavations at Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata, like those at more than a dozen recently excavated monasteries and churches, show that numerous Christian communities in the region flourished during the first decades of Umayyad rule.3
Unfortunately, about a quarter of the length of the nave mosaic slipped down the mountain after the western front of the church collapsed. The remaining floor had dangerously subsided, and we began a major conservation effort in 1994 to preserve it. The first step was to remove the floor completely. When we did that, we discovered still another mosaic floor, belonging to the earlier, 605 A.D., phase of the church.
At the northeastern end of the nave, we found the remnants of the upper and lower levels of a seven-sided ambon, or pulpit (
A chancel screen of imported white marble separated the nave from the chancel. Although it was broken into many pieces, we managed to restore it sufficiently to reveal the crosses and vines that once were displayed on it.
At the back of the south aisle of the basilica was a small niche flanked by two limestone collonettes. This was the only area in the church that had been severely disrupted in antiquity. Many floor slabs were overturned, perhaps reflecting an illicit search for hidden treasure. The south aisle was probably the diaconicon, or vestry, where valuables were known to be stored. Unfortunately, we found none during our excavation.
Although the narthex, or porch, on the west end of the basilica (about one quarter of the building) had completely collapsed and fallen down slope, enough of its foundations survived to mark the western end of 030the church. While we were removing the collapsed lintel and door jamb, more than a dozen carved wooden plank fragments of the door emerged. Only in the desert would wood survive like this. Rosette decorations on the door mirrored those on the architectural stones and ceramic vessels at the site.
To our surprise we found a fifth mosaic in front of the reservoir. It consisted of 900 fragments and contained a 12-line inscription dated to 574 A.D.; it named the mosaicist as Kosmas. Animals and floral decorations surround the inscription, making it the largest and most elaborate at the site. This area may have been the entrance to the complex. Other finds here included dozens of carved wooden planks, parchment fragments inscribed in Palestinian Aramaic, and textiles.
The cave, the focus of the monastic complex because of its association with Lot and his daughters, was covered with rubble. An elegant doorway framed the natural rock opening of the cave (
Inside the cave was a mosaic consisting of multicolored cubes (tesserae) randomly arranged to resemble the rock of the cave.
While excavating the cave we discovered steps paved with fine white marble slabs leading down to a small room measuring 6.5 by 8 feet. The early Byzantine Christians apparently thought that in this simple room of the natural cave Lot and his daughters found refuge and committed the acts the daughters hoped would preserve humankind in a destroyed world.
Inside the cave we found hundreds of ceramic oil lamps dated as late as the early ninth century A.D. The later lamps are typical Islamic styles from the Umayyad and Abbasid periods and mark the final period of occupation at the site.
Below the cave’s Byzantine-Abbasid floor we found ceramic and glass oil lamps from an earlier Byzantine period (fourth-sixth century A.D.). Even lower levels revealed fine late Hellenistic-Nabatean vessels (first century B.C. to first century A.D.). Deeper still we found a fine ceramic chalice and a copper “duckbill” axe-head from the Middle Bronze Age II (c. 1900–1550 B.C.).
Surprisingly, beneath all this, we discovered multiple burials surrounded by a stone wall from Early Bronze Age I (c. 3300–3000 B.C.). This level was dated by more than a dozen juglets and cups. Apparently, people lived in this cave 5,000 years ago.
Early finds like these were not confined to the cave. Just north of the monastic complex, we identified 18 Middle Bronze Age (c. 1750 B.C.) tombs with stone cairns heaped over them, the only known Middle Bronze Age site east of the Dead Sea.
Since 1997 we have been reconstructing Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata and conserving and sheltering the mosaic pavements. Last fall, we began building a museum, to be called the Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth. When completed, BAR readers can come and see for themselves where Lot and his daughters were believed to have found refuge after the great Biblical cataclysm of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Photos and illustrations courtesy of the author.
Perched precariously on a steep, barren slope overlooking the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea, I found the remains of what had once been elegant stone buildings—walls, pieces of metal and glass, tiny mosaic cubes and pottery sherds. It was 1986 and I was conducting a survey with Canadian excavator Burton MacDonald. The site is called Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata, the Monastery of the Abata Spring. It was clear that the site had once been an impressive Byzantine-era complex. But why would anyone build in such an inhospitable and desolate location? How much longer these archaeological remains would continue […]