Return to Sodom and Gomorrah, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 1994 (1995 reprint), 386 pages, C$16.00 tpb, ISBN 0-380-72633-5

A few years ago, I remember seeing a TV special that purported to explain the mysteries of the Bible through scientific investigation. Problem was, this show was obvious produced by fundamentalist authorities. The explanations were so ludicrously far-fetched that my basic feeling was that it was far simpler to blame the miracles on tall stories than to actually try to give them a rational, scientific explanation.

Now here comes Charles Pellegrino, with a book that’s ostensibly about “solving the Bible’s ancient mysteries through archaeological discovery.” Normally, I wouldn’t have even picked up the book, but then you’ve got to realize that Charles Pellegrino is no ordinary writer: His three Science-Fiction novels (Marching to Valhalla, The Killing Star and Dust) were deeply impressive work from a writer who obviously brimmed with innovative concepts, and could present them in an intriguing fashion.

Pellegrino is obviously someone with far-ranging interests. His professional credits cover a wide range of accomplishments, from anti-matter rocket designs to paleontological thought experiments that led to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. On top of accomplished scientific and literary careers, he’s also an archaeologist, and Return to Sodom and Gomorrah is nothing less but a book-length essay about middle-eastern archaeology.

The Bible elements remains, but Pellegrino (as a confirmed agnostic) works in a radically different fashion from that TV Special of my youth; he uses the Bible as a way of demonstrating what he’s seen in the field, not the other way around. And most often, the archaeological record is even more fantastic than the Bible itself.

Take Sodom, for instance. Archaeologists have discovered a city that roughly corresponded to the biblical city of Sodom. But that city presented them with a puzzle: It seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry, and left untouched for several years afterward, even though other fertile places nearby had been re-colonized very quickly. Even more mysterious; the remains of the city appeared to have burned quite thoroughly, this despite the fact that there were no flammable materials in the city, dried mud being the construction material of choice. Charred animal bones everywhere, even though it takes a formidable amount of energy to char bones.

Pellegrino and his friends in the field came up with a rather spectacular explanation: Underneath most of the middle east, as we know, lies multiple deposits of flammable hydrocarbons. What if, spurred by continental plaque movement, one large deposit made its way to the surface, like a natural tar pit? What if it first came out as natural gas -the lightest part of a petrol deposit-, and encountered an open cooking flame?

Instant firestorm, fuelled by natural geological pressure and instantly lethal. Completely destroying habitable land. Typical Hollywood blockbuster premise, right there. Only a theory, of course, but doesn’t it sound good?

Return to Sodom and Gomorrah is filled with discoveries of the sort. From evidence of a mitochondrial Eve to the common volcanic origins of both Palestinians and Israelis, passing by an explanation of the Dead Sea Scroll controversy and a huge amount of lucidly told ancient history, Pellegrino truly delivers the goods with this book. And he leaves plenty to the imagination too, as be regularly tosses off tantalizing hints of personal exploits (randomly mixing fire-fights, nuclear accidents and personal vendettas) with mind-blowing bigger issues. (Are we destined to create our evolutionary successors? Are we repeating the environmental mistakes that previously destroyed other civilizations?) Pellegrino is fluent not only in past history or prehistoric lingo, but also in the jargon of astrophysics and the vernacular of SF, and the result is simply unique.

This is a book that will stimulate your thought processes, push you to buy everything else that Pellegrino wrote, and reconsider the Bible with a keener eye. Trying to make it justice is almost impossible; like most great scientific vulgarizations, you have to read it to truly feel it. Great reading for persons actively looking for their next big idea rush.

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