Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Asphaltus is a Chaldæan word, signifying a species of bitumen. There is a great deal of it in the countries watered by the Euphrates; it is also to be found in Europe, but of a bad quality. An experiment was made by covering the tops of the watch-houses on each side of one of the gates of Geneva; the covering did not last a year, and the mine has been abandoned. However, when mixed with rosin, it may be used for lining cisterns; perhaps it will some day be applied to a more useful purpose.

The real asphaltus is that which was obtained in the vicinity of Babylon, and with which it is said that the Greek fire was fed. Several lakes are full of asphaltus, or a bitumen resembling it, as others are strongly impregnated with nitre. There is a great lake of nitre in the desert of Egypt, which extends from lake Mœris to the entrance of the Delta; and it has no other name than the Nitre Lake.

The Lake Asphaltites, known by the name of Sodom, was long famed for its bitumen; but the Turks now make no use of it, either because the mine under the water is diminished, because its quality is altered, or because there is too much difficulty in drawing it from under the water. Oily particles of it, and sometimes large masses, separate and float on the surface; these are gathered together, mixed up, and sold for balm of Mecca.

Flavius Josephus, who was of that country, says that, in his time, there were no fish in the lake of Sodom, and the water was so light that the heaviest bodies would not go to the bottom. It seems that he meant to say so heavy instead of so light. It would appear that he had not made the experiment. After all, a stagnant water, impregnated with salts and compact matter, its specific matter being then greater than that of the body of a man or a beast, might force it to float. Josephus’s error consists in assigning a false cause to a phenomenon which may be perfectly true.

As for the want of fish, it is not incredible. It is, however, likely that this lake, which is fifty or sixty miles long, is not all asphaltic, and that while receiving the waters of the Jordan it also receives the fishes of that river; but perhaps the Jordan, too, is without fish, and they are to be found only in the upper lake of Tiberias.

Josephus adds, that the trees which grow on the borders of the Dead Sea bear fruits of the most beautiful appearance, but which fall into dust if you attempt to taste them. This is less probable; and disposes one to believe that Josephus either had not been on the spot, or has exaggerated according to his own and his countrymen’s custom. No soil seems more calculated to produce good as well as beautiful fruits than a salt and sulphurous one, like that of Naples, of Catania, and of Sodom.

The Holy Scriptures speak of five cities being destroyed by fire from heaven. On this occasion natural philosophy bears testimony in favor of the Old Testament, although the latter has no need of it, and they are sometimes at variance. We have instances of earthquakes, accompanied by thunder and lightning, which have destroyed much more considerable towns than Sodom and Gomorrah.

But the River Jordan necessarily discharging itself into this lake without an outlet, this Dead Sea, in the same manner as the Caspian, must have existed as long as there has been a River Jordan; therefore, these towns could never stand on the spot now occupied by the lake of Sodom. The Scripture, too, says nothing at all about this ground being changed into a lake; it says quite the contrary: “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire, from the Lord out of heaven. And Abraham got up early in the morning, and he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld; and lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.”

These five towns, Sodom, Gomorrah, Zeboin, Adamah, and Segor, must then have been situated on the borders of the Dead Sea. How, it will be asked, in a desert so uninhabitable as it now is, where there are to be found only a few hordes of plundering Arabs, could there be five cities, so opulent as to be immersed in luxury, and even in those shameful pleasures which are the last effect of the refinement of the debauchery attached to wealth? It may be answered that the country was then much better.

Other critics will say — how could five towns exist at the extremities of a lake, the water of which, before their destruction, was not potable? The Scripture itself informs us that all this land was asphaltic before the burning of Sodom: “And the vale of Sodom was full of slime-pits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled and fell there.

Another objection is also stated. Isaiah and Jeremiah say that Sodom and Gomorrah shall never be rebuilt; but Stephen, the geographer, speaks of Sodom and Gomorrah on the coast of the Dead Sea; and the “History of the Councils” mentions bishops of Sodom and Segor. To this it may be answered that God filled these towns, when rebuilt, with less guilty inhabitants; for at that time there was no bishop in partibus.

But, it will be said, with what water could these new inhabitants quench their thirst? All the wells are brackish; you find asphaltus and corrosive salt on first striking a spade into the ground.

It will be answered that some Arabs still subsist there, and may be habituated to drinking very bad water; that the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Eastern Empire were wretched hamlets, and that at that time there were many bishops whose whole diocese consisted in a poor village. It may also be said that the people who colonized these villages prepared the asphaltus, and carried on a useful trade in it.

The arid and burning desert, extending from Segor to the territory of Jerusalem, produces balm and aromatic herbs for the same reason that it supplies naphtha, corrosive salt and sulphur.

It is said that petrifaction takes place in this desert with astonishing rapidity; and this, according to some natural philosophers, makes the petrifaction of Lot’s wife Edith a very plausible story.

But it is said that this woman, “having looked back, became a pillar of salt.” This, then, was not a natural petrifaction, operated by asphaltus and salt, but an evident miracle. Flavius Josephus says that he saw this pillar. St. Justin and St. Irenæus speak of it as a prodigy, which in their time was still existing.

These testimonies have been looked upon as ridiculous fables. It would, however, be very natural for some Jews to amuse themselves with cutting a heap of asphaltus into a rude figure, and calling it Lot’s wife. I have seen cisterns of asphaltus, very well made, which may last a long time. But it must be owned that St. Irenæus goes a little too far when he says that Lot’s wife remained in the country of Sodom no longer in corruptible flesh, but as a permanent statue of salt, her feminine nature still producing the ordinary effect: “Uxor remansit in Sodomis, jam non caro corruptibilis sed statua salis semper manens, et per naturalia ea quæsunt consuetudmis hominis ostendens.”

St. Irenæus does not seem to express himself with all the precision of a good naturalist when he says Lot’s wife is no longer of corruptible flesh, but stillretains her feminine nature.

In the poem of Sodom, attributed to Tertullian, this is expressed with still greater energy:

Dicitur et vivens alio sub corpore se us,

Mirifice solito dispungere sanguine menses.

This was translated by a poet of the time of Henry II., in his Gallic style:

La femme à Loth, quoique sel devenue,

Est femme encore; car elle a sa menstrue.

The land of aromatics was also the land of fables. Into the deserts of Arabia Petræa the ancient mythologists pretend that Myrrha, the granddaughter of a statue, fled after committing incest with her father, as Lot’s daughters did with theirs, and that she was metamorphosed into the tree that bears myrrh. Other profound mythologists assure us that she fled into Arabia Felix; and this opinion is as well supported as the other.

Be this as it may, not one of our travellers has yet thought fit to examine the soil of Sodom, with its asphaltus, its salt, its trees and their fruits, to weigh the water of the lake, to analyze it, to ascertain whether bodies of greater specific gravity than common water float upon its surface, and to give us a faithful account of the natural history of the country. Our pilgrims to Jerusalem do not care to go and make these researches; this desert has become infested by wandering Arabs, who range as far as Damascus, and retire into the caverns of the mountains, the authority of the pasha of Damascus having hitherto been inadequate to repress them. Thus the curious have but little information about anything concerning the Asphaltic Lake.

As to Sodom, it is a melancholy reflection for the learned that, among so many who may be deemed natives, not one has furnished us with any notion whatever of this capital city.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01