Amid the barren wilderness of Biblical Zoar (ancient Zoora) southeast of the Dead Sea, thousands of ancient burials, some more than 4,500 years old, have been discovered, making it perhaps the ancient world’s largest cemetery. The ancient burials of Zoora shed light on the panoply of cultures and religions that lived here from the Early Bronze Age to the end of the Byzantine period.
At the southeastern end of the Dead Sea, nestled between the salt-encrusted shores of the sea and the dark, foreboding slopes of the Transjordanian highlands, lies Biblical Zoar (ancient Zoora or Zoara). According to the Bible and early Christian tradition, Lot and his daughters escaped to Zoar (Zoora) after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But as author Konstantinos Politis explains in “Death at the Dead Sea,” the harsh, desolate hills of Zoar (Zoora), located at the lowest spot on earth, shelter what is possibly the ancient world’s largest cemetery, which served for thousands of years as the favored burial ground for countless peoples and faiths. The ancient burials that Politis has discovered over the course of three decades working in Zoar (Zoora) have shed light on the panoply of cultures and religions that were found here from the Early Bronze Age and thereafter, including Nabateans, Jews and Christians.
Other than Israel, no country has as many Biblical sites and associations as Jordan: Mount Nebo, from where Moses gazed at the Promised Land; Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John baptized Jesus; Lot’s Cave, where Lot and his daughters sought refuge after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and many more. Travel with us on our journey into the past in our free eBook Exploring Jordan
The earliest ancient burials discovered by Politis at Zoar (Zoora) date to the Early Bronze Age I-II (c. 3100–2600 B.C.). These cist tombs were built during the heyday of the region’s two largest sites, Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira, considered by some to be the ruins of the ill-fated cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Some 2,500 years later, the site of Khirbet Qazone, about 15 miles north of Zoar, was used as an extensive burial ground during the period of the Nabatean kingdom. Here more than 5,000 ancient burials from the first century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. have been identified. Around the same time, Jewish families were also moving into the region of Zoar (Zoora) and purchasing date orchards and farms. Scores of later Jewish tombstones found at Zoar (Zoora) attest to the Jewish community’s continued presence in the region throughout late antiquity.
During the Byzantine period (fourth–sixth centuries A.D.), Zoar (Zoora) became the center of a thriving Christian community. Local Christians built an impressive monastery to commemorate the cave where they believed Lot and his daughters had found refuge during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The town was even the site of a major Christian bishopric. As such, it is no surprise that hundreds of ancient burials and Greek-inscribed Christian tombstones have been found at Byzantine Zoora.
While some of these ancient burials from Zoar (Zoora) have survived largely intact, most have been robbed and destroyed by looters. Fortunately, Politis has managed to record many of the undisturbed ancient burials and salvage more than 400 of the Greek and Aramaic tombstones that have been looted from Zoar (Zoora), the ancient world’s largest cemetery. Some of these tombstones are now on display in a new museum dedicated to Zoar’s antiquities (see “New Lot’s Cave Museum Set to Open at Ancient Zoar”.)
To continue learning about Biblical Zoar and the ancient world’s largest cemetery, read Konstantinos Politis, “Death at the Dead Sea,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2012.