The Sanctuary of Agios Lot, the City of Zoara and the Zared River

by Konstantinos D. Politis

Recent archaeological excavations in Ghor es-Safi have identified the Sanctuary of Agios Lot depicted on the Madaba map as the site of Deir 'Ain 'Abata. On the basis of this discovery a reassessment of the topography of the southeastern Dead Sea shore is necessary. Additional new surveys and surface collections have confirmed the location of the city of Zoara and suggest a more probable course for the Zared River.
The site of Deir 'Ain 'Abata was first recorded in 1986 during the Southern Ghors and Northern 'Arabah Survey as site no. 46 (MacDonald 1992: 253-254). The evidence from the surface was strong enough to suggest that a Byzantine monastic complex once existed there (MacDonald and Politis 1988: 292-291). The clear importance of the site spured an excavation project that began in 1988 and continued until 1996.

St. Lot Church at Deir 'Ain 'Abata with the sacred Cave (left).

The first seasons of excavations at Deir 'Ain 'Abata involved limited excavations and detailed surface and survey work. A contour map was produced and a reservoir fed by a water catchment system, a domestic area, and part of a mosaic floor pavement were excavated (Politis 1989 and 1990). These discoveries encouraged support for additional seasons of excavations which resulted in the uncovering of a triple-apsed basilical church built over a natural cave and adorned with four mosaic floor pavements containing Greek inscriptions (Politis 1992 and 1993). The mosaic in the north aisle was dated to April 606 A.D. and the one in the nave to Xanthikos (roughly May) 691 A.D. This later date marked a general renovation of the church during the early Islamic period. The final seasons of excavations revealed a refectory with a large oven, a communal burial chamber, a hostel and a number of small cells (Politis 1995, 1997 and 1998). The entire monastic complex was built on a terrace of a steep mountain slope and enclosed by a protective wall.
The triple-apsed basilical church found at Deir 'Ain 'Abata, perched high on a mountain cliff above the south-eastern Dead Sea coast, occupies a location matching that of the Sanctuary of Lot portrayed on the Madaba map. The building depicted as the Sanctuary is apparently a church with a central entrance facing west, three adjacent rectangular windows on the south side and a gabled roof with red tiles and a circular window at the front. Such a church was unearthed at Deir 'Ain 'Abata. The cost of erecting such a structure and adorning it with four ornate mosaic pavements as well as constructing adjacent buildings, would have been very substantial for an average monastery, which normally would have needed only less elaborate facilities for the monks. The investment was obviously meant to serve a larger community of worshipers.
The characterisation of Deir 'Ain 'Abata as a "Holy Place" (as recorded on the inscription in the nave mosaic) implies that it had a connection with a Biblical passage. The discovery of two inscribed stones (reg. nos. DAA 48 and 86) in the church that invoked Lot support the conclusion that the site should be identified as the Sanctuary of Agios Lot of the Madaba map. The cave at the site, which had no liturgical or practical function, was incorporated into the central part of the church and was consequently the focal point of the entire site. As evidenced by pilgrim graffiti at the cave entrance, it was presented as the actual place where Lot took refuge with his daughters after the destruction of Sodom and their flight to the city of Zoara, as recorded in Genesis 19. Furthermore, the existence of large numbers of animal bones in the refuse of the monastery, whose monks would have normally been vegetarian, attests to the presence of a regular pilgrimage to the monastery. Accounts exist of such pilgrimages by St Stephen the Sabaite in the 8th century (Garitte 1959: 365) and the Russian Abbot Daniel in the 12th century (Wilson 1888: 47).
Significant material evidence was discovered through excavations attributable to a 5th-6th century church and monastery at the site. However, no structures were found in situ from this earlier period that could be associated with the church depicted on the Madaba Mosaic Map.
The identification of Deir 'Ain 'Abata as the Sanctuary of Agios Lot fits well with the location of Zoara on the Madaba map as well as with the Biblical episode. Zoara lies west, and slightly south of the Sanctuary, on the Dead Sea plain. A large walled building is depicted with an arched entrance and three towers, each with a square window. It is surrounded by six date palm trees, indicating a well-watered agricultural settlement.
Today, evidence for ancient Zoara can be found in the fertile neighbourhoods of Khirbet Sheik 'Isa and al-Naq', which form part of the modern town of Safi at the mouth of the Wadi Hasa. Those sites have been investigated during the past hundred years by a number of scholars (Tristram in 1873, Albright in 1924, Philby in 1925, Frank in 1934, Glueck in 1935, Abel in 1938, Rast and Schaub in 1974, King in 1982 and MacDonald in 1986), who suggested that they may be the site of Byzantine Zoara, based on architectural elements found on the surface (Politis 1998b). During the installation of underground water canals in the 1970s and 1980s more archaeological remains were discovered in support of this identification (Politis 1994: 12-15). Since then great interest has been aroused for the antiquities of the Ghor es-Safi. Unfortunately much of the discoveries have come from illicit activities, particularly in al-Naq' where the Byzantine cemetery is located.
In 1995 test excavations revealed part of a large structure at Khirbet Sheikh 'Isa (Waheeb 1995: 555) which might be related to the large building of Zoara depicted on the Madaba map. Consequently, a rescue survey and collection was undertaken to salvage as much information as possible about Khirbet Sheikh 'Isa and al-Naq' (Politis 1998b). The most significant finds were over 300 inscribed funerary stelai from the 4th-6th centuries A.D. Most of these stones were inscribed in Greek and belonged to Christian burials, although a small percentage were in Aramaic from Jewish tombs. Such a multi-ethnic community corroborates descriptions of Roman-Byzantine Zoara in the documents of Babatha (Bowersock 1983: 76-78).
The Zared River on the Madaba map is located north of both the Sanctuary of Lot and Zoara, and runs east, close to Charachmoba (the modern city of Kerak). If we accept the relative topographical accuracy of the map, the Wadi Hasa is not the best candidate for the Zared because its eastern end is distant from Charachmoba and it flows south of the Sanctuary of Lot and Zoara. A closer examination of the surviving portions of the southeastern end of the Dead Sea on the map hints that a river was depicted in the place of Wadi Hasa, but its ancient name has not survived.
A ground survey of the other wadis in the area shows that either the Wadi Kerak or Wadi 'Isal would more accurately fit the location of the Zared on the map. Both have courses near Charachmoba and are geographically connected with Judaea (and consequently Jerusalem) to the west via the Lisan peninsula. The Wadi 'Isal may be the more likely possibility, considering its proximity to the Lisan, the existence of an ancient road that can be traced along it leading eastwards up to Kerak and its easier, more gradual ascent. In this light it seems reasonable that the topographer of the Madaba map chose to highlight the most important western route to Charachmoba by over-emphasising its proportions in relation to the other wadis in the area. Furthermore, the Zared is actually depicted narrower than the great Arnon (identified as the Wadi Mujib) which would match the relative width of the Wadi 'Isal.
The discovery and excavation of Deir 'Ain 'Abata has confirmed the locations of the Sanctuary of Lot and Zoara and has demonstrated the topographic reliability of the Madaba mosaic map in the Ghor es-Safi. Furthermore, from the 606 construction date of the church it may be possible to argue for an early 7th century date for the Madaba map. Finally, the sanctification of Lot (who was dikaios, or a righteous man in the Old Testament), as evidenced by the designation of Agios (= saint in Greek) on both the inscription on the Madaba map and the two inscribed stones found during the Deir 'Ain 'Abata excavations, alludes to a Christianisation of this Old Testament character.


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Waheeb, Mohammad
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This contribution was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 225-227.

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