BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

The Land of Lot

Exploring Jordan's Ghor al-Safi

The region of Ghor al-Safi in Jordan, with the Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth in the foreground and the southern portion of the Dead Sea in the distance. Photo by Glenn J. Corbett

The region of Ghor al-Safi in Jordan, with the Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth in the foreground and the southern portion of the Dead Sea in the distance. Photo by Glenn J. Corbett.

Most travelers to Jordan have visited the famous Nabatean city of Petra or the dune-swept, otherworldly landscape of Wadi Rum, both UNESCO World Heritage sites. But traveling along on the picturesque Dead Sea Highway between Amman and Petra, few notice the small farming town known as Ghor al-Safi. This fertile plain of vegetable fields and palm groves, which owes its prosperity to the Wadi al-Hasa (the biblical Zered River) that flows from the rugged mountains of the eastern Jordanian highlands, is an area of biblical legend, historic sites, spectacular scenery, and friendly people.

Ghor al-Safi is perhaps most famous for being the site of biblical Zoar, one of the infamous “cities of the plain” that, unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, was spared destruction by fire and brimstone (Genesis 19:20–22). According to the Bible, Lot and his daughters fled to a cave above Zoar following their escape from Sodom. Even today, the stunning contrast between the region’s lush agricultural fields and the blackened slopes of the surrounding mountains vividly brings to mind the setting of the biblical story.


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Visitors to Safi often begin their visit at the aptly named Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth, opened in 2012 to house artifacts discovered at sites from around the southeastern Dead Sea region. Artifacts range in date from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (c. 11,000 BCE) to the 15th century CE. Informative displays highlight the region’s rich history, especially the many tombs and cemeteries of the peoples who inhabited Safi across the generations.1 The museum also serves as a base for archaeological excavations and local conservation programs. Entrance to the museum is 2 Jordanian dinars (about 3 U.S. dollars). It is a convenient place to grab a snack, use the bathroom, or pick up some gifts before heading out to explore the surrounding area.

The Byzantine-era Sanctuary of St. Lot at Ghor al-Safi. Photo by Glenn J. Corbett

The Byzantine-era Sanctuary of St. Lot at Ghor al-Safi, which commemorates the cave (visible at the left of the photo) where early Christian tradition held that Lot and his daughters fled following the destruction of Sodom. Photo by Glenn J. Corbett.

Just behind the museum is a small road accessible by car that takes visitors to the base of the mountain where they can then ascend a stone-paved staircase to the Sanctuary of St. Lot. The location of Lot’s Cave was determined by early Christians, who subsequently built a church and monastic complex to commemorate the biblical site.2 Excavations revealed a triapsidal basilica church decorated with mosaics, several of which have inscriptions dated to the sixth and seventh centuries. Inside the church’s northern apse is an elegantly built doorway and a small set of stairs that leads to the cave where it was believed that Lot and his daughters sought refuge. The church was flanked by a large reservoir on one side and a refectory and pilgrim’s hostel on the other. Conservation and restoration work has made the site easily accessible for visitors, who can view the mosaics under the cover of a modern shelter, while taking in stunning vistas of the southern Dead Sea plain below.

The name Zoar is well attested as Zoara in Roman and Byzantine documents, including the archive of Babatha, a first-century Judean woman who owned property in the area.3 On the famous sixth-century mosaic map at Madaba, Zoara is depicted next to Lot’s Sanctuary. The city’s prominence is underscored by the fact that it was the seat of an early Christian bishopric. So far, two churches have been unearthed in the town, one of which is dated to 571/2 based on an inscription mentioning a certain Bishop Petros, whose name also appears in one of the mosaics at the Church of St. Lot. Moreover, bishops from Zoara were regularly in attendance at the Nicean councils.


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During the Crusader and Islamic periods, the city—then known as Segor or Zughar—was the major commercial center in the southern Levant for producing indigo and sugar. The nearby site of Masna al-Sukkar, or “sugar factory” in Arabic, was the largest industrial complex in the medieval Levant that processed locally grown sugarcane into crystalized sugar. Visitors will find their experience improved by recent restoration work, including the re-erection of six arches, the construction of wooden pathways, and the placement of informative signage.

BAS tour participants Morgan Danner (left) and Bruce Thieman enjoying the Safi Kitchen experience. Photo by Glenn J. Corbett.

Importantly, Ghor al-Safi’s local community has taken the lead in presenting the region’s unique heritage to the public and tourists. Community members have also established a number of small businesses to enhance the visitor experience. Safi Crafts, a local women’s cooperative that sells its products in the museum and also in hotel shops across Jordan, employs ancient designs in its scarves, dresses, and cushion covers and has revitalized the ancient tradition of indigo-dyed fabrics. Nearby is Safi Kitchen, an agrotourism enterprise that allows visitors to handpick fresh produce from nearby farms and then learn how to prepare and cook delicious Jordanian dishes with the help of local chefs.

Ghor al-Safi is easily reached by car along the beautiful Dead Sea Highway and is a convenient 45-minute drive from the many resort hotels located at the northeastern end of the Dead Sea. The region’s summer heat can be excessive, however, so it is recommended to visit from October to April for the best visitor experience. A comprehensive guidebook to the region is available online.


Konstantinos Politis is an archaeologist of the eastern Mediterranean lands ranging from prehistory to Ottoman times. He focuses on late antiquity to the early medieval period, particularly in Jordan and Syria.


Notes

1. Konstantinos Politis, “Death at the Dead Sea,” BAR, March/April 2012.

2. Konstantinos Politis, “Where Lot’s Daughters Seduced Their Father,” BAR, January/February 2004.

3. Anthony J. Saldarini, “Babatha’s Story,” BAR, March/April 1998.

Related Reading in Bible History Daily

Locating Zoar

Lot’s Cave Museum at Ancient Zoar (Zoora)

Abraham and Lot in the Bible

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Death at the Dead Sea

Where Lot’s Daughters Seduced their Father

Babatha’s Story: Personal archive offers a glimpse of ancient Jewish life

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