Amman: The ruins were first discovered during an archaeological survey at the south-east end of the Dead Sea in 1986, near a spring named Ain Abata. After further investigations it was evident that the site - near today's Ghor al-Safi, the biblical city of Zoara - was none other that the Sanctuary of Agios ("Saint") Lot. Biblical scholars and archaeologists have sought the site for decades.
Within a year of the discovery and identification of Deir Ain Abata ("Monastery of the Abbot's Spring") an international team of archaeologists was assembled to excavate and study the site. After more than 10 years of excavations and research, the final report is about to be published.
The site is located on a steep mountain slope 3 kilometers southeast of the Dead Sea. At its archaeological center (and historic religious focus) is a cave, discovered in the north aisle of the basilica later erected on the site. Early Christians - drawing on Genesis chapter 19 of the Old Testament - believed Lot and his two daughters lived here after their flight from sinful Sodom and their brief stop at Zoar.
Isolated in the mountains, so the story goes, the daughters feared they would never find a husband to continue their lineage. So they plotted to get their father drunk and seduce him in order to procreate. The issue of this incestuous conspiracy was two sons, Moab from the eldest daughter and Ben-ammi from the younger one. They became the patriarchs of the biblical tribes of Jordan, the Moabites to the south and the Ammonites to the north. This story can be interpreted as somewhat immoral, but there are other stories in the Bible that describe seemingly unethical conduct, usually with some obscure reasoning behind them. In this case, God had not only saved the righteous Lot from the destruction of Sodom but also didn't blame him for fornicating with his daughters, since they had made him drunk beforehand. The daughters also seem to have been excused, because of the need to regenerate after the annihilation of their people.
Another interpretation has it that the story of Lot's seduction is victor's history. As with all stories in the Old Testament, this one was written by the Israelites. Perpetually at war with the Moabites and Ammonites, the Israelites used this story to discredit their traditional enemies after they defeated them.
When the entrance to the cave was revealed, it was preserved to its original height, but had no signs of door fittings. The sandstone pilaster capitals on either side are carved with eight-cornered (Maltese-type) crosses and bore traces of red paint. The lintel had a similarly engraved cross in the center and was flanked by two rosettes, also with traces of red paint. On the south side of the entrance the plastered wall had a number of scratched designs, crosses and graffiti. One such Greek graffito named a local Christian woman as Nestasia Zenobius. Another, in Kufic Arabic, is an Islamic invocation.
Further excavation of the cave revealed a series of steps leading into a 2 by 2.5-meter room, paved with fine white marble slabs, a simple room where early Byzantine Christians evidently believed Lot and his daughters took refuge. As to why the Byzantines venerated this specific cave - there are several in the vicinity - it is assumed it has something to do with ancient oral tradition.
The cave, which is the focal point of the entire monastic complex, had a long sequence of occupation suggesting long-standing use as a refuge. Excavations below the Byzantine-Abbasid floor level in the cave revealed ceramic and glass oil lamps dating from the earlier Byzantine period - circa the 4th-6th centuries. Beneath this were fine Late Hellenistic-Nabataean vessels from the 1st century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. Digging deeper, the team came across a fine ceramic chalice and a copper duck-bill axe-head, belonging to the Middle Bronze Age II period (c. 1900-1550 B.C.).
There are 18 cairn tombs that were identified just north of the monastic complex, which belong to this same period. These tombs represent the only known Middle Bronze Age evidence south of the Dead Sea. Some scholars argue that this may have been the actual era of Genesis. Excavating further down, the team found over a dozen pottery juglettes and cups dating from the Early Bronze Age I (c. 3300-3000 B.C.) and associated with multiple burials. These were surrounded by a stone wall. Flint tools, a complete jug with a dipper and drinking cups characteristic of this period attest to an occupational phase to the west in front of the wall.
The first years of work at Deir Ain Abata were treated as rescue excavations. They concentrated on retrieving as much information as possible from the site, which was threatened by erosion and the modern village of Safi. With its growing population expanding their agricultural activities and constantly rummaging for ancient treasure, Safi was ever encroaching.
Environmental studies have revealed evidence of a wide variety of animal remains - horse, donkey, cattle, pig, sheep, goat, deer, fox, hare, domestic fowl, partridge and quail, to name a few - that were probably consumed on site. Botanical finds included olives, dates, bitter vetch, grape, apricot, lentils, barley, bread wheat and cucumber and/or melon. These results suggest that the Deir Ain Abata community had a relatively rich diet, some of it imported from as far away as the Mediterranean and the Red Sea at considerable expense.
A number of fine architectural pieces were also retrieved, among which was a block inscribed in Greek invoking Saint Lot to bless Sozomenou, Ulpious and a third indistinguishable name. The inscription, written by three monks who probably lived at the site, was the first decisive evidence of Lot's association with Deir Ain Abata. Other Greek inscriptions also invoked Lot's blessing.
The triple-apsed basilica church was uncovered in 1991. The building was particularly well preserved against the eastern mountainside where it still stands to a height above the cornice where the vaulted roof began. The nature of the collapse and the lack of many in situ objects on the church floors led to the conclusion that it was peacefully abandoned and did not suffer destruction either by earthquakes or invaders.
The basilica was paved with four mosaics, three of which had Greek inscriptions. The first, in the north aisle leading to the cave, was decorated with a geometric design of stepped squares, diamonds and candles. At its eastern end in front of the cave entrance is an inscription four lines long, enclosed within a tabula insata naming the Bishop Iakovos, the Abbot Sozomenos and giving a construction date of April 605/7 A.D. This mosaic was of the highest quality found at the site.
Two further mosaic floors - also probably from the early 7th century - were also uncovered. One is just inside the cave entrance and consisted of multi-colored mosaic cubes randomly arranged to resemble the natural conglomerate rock of the cave. The second lies in the chancel of the church and is decorated with typical early Christian/Byzantine motifs such as birds, a lamb and a peacock, all surrounded by vines.
The fourth mosaic, located in the nave of the church, is perhaps the most interesting. It has a Greek inscription of six lines, naming the county bishop and presbyter as Christoforos, the presbyter and steward as Zenon, the governor as Ioannis son of Rabibos and describes the site as a holy place and the church as a basilica. The mosaic construction is dated to the Macedonian month of Xanthikos (roughly May) 691 A.D. The entire inscription is enclosed in a rectangle that has an additional diagonal inscription naming an Iannis son of Sabinaou who presumably was the mosaicist. Considering the fact 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.
This inscription is of considerable importance. By describing the church as a basilica it means that it was large enough to accommodate pilgrims - a small monastic community would normally only require a chapel. The inscription specifically calls the site an agios topos ("holy place") which infers an association with a Biblical episode. There is also clear evidence for the existence of local Christian communities from the Semitic names of Rabibos and Sabinaou on the mosaic.
Finally, the church's renovation date of 691 A.D. is significant because it is well into the period of the Umayyad Dynasty (636-750 A.D.). Deir Ain Abata thus confirms the Umayyad's policy of religious tolerance and collaboration, as have another dozen recently excavated monasteries and churches. These attest to vibrant Christian communities during the first decades of Umayyad reign, such as those at Mefaa/Um al-Rasas and Mount Nebo/Siyagah. The early 9th century Arabic inscriptions on the site may also suggest a Muslim interest in Lot, who the Koran describes as a prophet.
Konstantine D. Politis is an archeologist with the British Museum in London and chairman of the Hellenic Society for Near Eastern Studies in Athens. A longer version of this article was published in Current World Archeology.