Biblical Cities That Have Been Lost To Time
The Bible is full of dramatic stories, including the often war-torn tales of many ancient cities. Some of the most famous, like Bethlehem and Jerusalem, are still densely-populated places bursting at the seams with history. But what about the ones that have slipped through our fingers? For every Nazareth that’s been a pilgrimage site since the early days of Christianity, there’s another settlement that has disappeared beneath the sands or gotten lost in a morass of confusing texts and conflicting accounts.
Some of these biblical cities have seen the light of day again, thanks to the efforts of dogged historians and hardworking excavators. Others remain little more than topics of debate at archaeology conferences. Yet they are all fascinating settlements that give us a glimpse into the complicated world of the Bible, with its warring kingdoms, journeying patriarchs, and stunning buildings that can make visitors gasp in wonder. These biblical cities may have been lost to time, but there’s no reason we have to forget them.
In the history of Christianity, Bethsaida turned out to be a big deal, producing three Apostles (Peter, Andrew, and Philip) and hosting Jesus on occasion. It eventually boasted a large wall with a monumental gate flanked by two towers. Despite the fortifications, Bethsaida was overtaken by Assyrians in the 8th century BCE, per the Jewish Virtual Library. It was eventually rebuilt, as both recorded mentions and archaeological excavations make clear, though a local king reportedly renamed it Julias in the 1st century CE to curry favor with Roman overlords. Eventually, Bethsaida’s inhabitants abandoned the city. Nineteenth-century archaeologists were confused as to its location, though the Et-Tel site near the Sea of Galilee was proposed as the old city back in 1838.
Archaeologists didn’t positively identify the mound of Et-Tel as Bethsaida until the late 1980s. And researchers working at the site of El-Araj claim that they’re sitting on top of the real Bethsaida, as evidenced by mosaics and inscriptions from an elaborate Byzantine-era church that may reference Peter’s home, according to a 2022 press release. El-Araj arose as a Bethsaida contender in 2016, when excavations began, though people had spotted hints of a settlement in the area as early as 1930 (via Haaretz). While excavators here agree that Et-Tel’s evidence of biblical-era settlement is compelling, they point to its lack of Byzantine stuff, which doesn’t line up with the account of Bethsaida.
Within the Bible, Babylon has a pretty rough reputation. Jeremiah 51:58 predicts a fiery end for the city and its people, while Revelation 18 uses a personified Babylon as the representation of all that is morally corrupt about the world.
Yet Babylon was also a real city that proved to be a major force in the ancient world. Founded around 2300 BCE along the Euphrates River, the city first rose to prominence under the 18th-century BCE empire builder, Hammurabi. After taking over nearby kingdoms, Hammurabi formed the empire of Babylonia … which then promptly came apart after his death. It rose again over 1,000 years later as the Neo-Babylonian Empire in the 7th century BCE. It lasted a little less than a century, but during that time Nebuchadnezzar II defeated the Kingdom of Judah and held Jewish people in the Babylonian Exile, from around 598-538 BCE. During that time, the city of Babylon was enriched by a massive temple, a grand wall, and luxurious goods that flowed past lavishly decorated gates.
Imposing as Babylon must have been, it was not fated to last. The once-great city was taken in war by the Persian Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE and then entered a long decline. Now, it’s a series of ruins in the Iraqi desert, spruced up somewhat by recreations placed there under orders of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. During the Iraq War, the U.S. built a military base on top of the site, incurring further damage.
Sodom and Gomorrah
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is told in Genesis 18-19, where the two cities were so full of sinful people that God decided to wipe the settlements off the map. If the fire and brimstone of the account really rained down, then surely there wasn’t much of anything left.
However, quite a few archaeologists think that Sodom and Gomorrah actually existed. Some point to a strip of land that bisects the Dead Sea in Israel, noting that it once supported agriculture and presumably many people and their settlements. An earthquake that occurred around 1900 BCE may have so disrupted the area that any cities there would have been brought to ruin.
Or perhaps the detail that God rained down destruction upon the cities points to another explanation. A 2021 study published in Nature Scientific Reports argues that around 1650 BCE, the city of Tall el-Hammam in the Jordan Valley was devastated by a sudden blast of intense heat and pressure. Researchers suspect that the most likely culprits were the combined effects of an "airburst" and a shockwave created by a meteor or comet disintegrating above the city, melting pottery and creating distinctive quartz crystals. Its effects would have been equivalent to a nuclear weapon far more powerful than those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Practically all life in Tall el-Hammam would have been incinerated in an instant, while the city’s buildings were reduced to rubble a blink later.
If the ancient Israelites had a complicated relationship with Babylon, then their take on the Assyrian city of Nineveh was even more troubled. Nahum 3 lays into the ancient city, saying it’s an awful place full of death and sin, whose inhabitants will face a painful punishment. Jonah 3 likewise starts off against Nineveh, with its titular prophet proclaiming that the evil city will fall. When the king orders Nineveh to repent, the Hebrew God spares the city.
As much as ancient writers made hay of Nineveh’s lawless reputation, it wasn’t just a metaphor. It was a real city in what’s now Iraq. Excavations of the ancient Assyrian settlement began in the early 19th century and included an extraordinary cache of cuneiform-inscribed tablets from the library of king Ashurbanipal. These archaeological expeditions have since shown that the once-fertile site was first inhabited around 9,000 years ago, though it began its period of greatest glory under king Sennacherib in the 8th century BCE. The city not only boasted a spectacular and sprawling palace, but its residents benefited from a well-engineered canal system that brought water to the city.
But Nineveh was not alone in the ancient world. A series of outsiders attacked the city around 612 BCE, including invaders from Babylon. People continued to live there for centuries, with archaeological remains dating to the 1500s CE. After that long decline, the city of Nineveh finally fell into ruin and was forgotten for a while, as Jonah once wished many centuries ago.
For readers of the Bible, ancient Susa is probably most recognizable from the Book of Esther, where it serves as the setting for Esther’s heroic efforts to save the Jewish people from genocide. Esther 1 contains a description of the palace of King Ahasuerus in the city, where visitors could gaze upon the ruler’s riches, lush gardens, and elaborate banquets.
Also known as Xerxes in other translations, this king ruled over the Persian Empire from Susa in the 5th century BCE. Susa began as a prehistoric settlement around 7000 BCE, taking centuries to grow into a bustling city. It passed hands from one Mesopotamian invader to another, then became a stronghold of the Elamites before it was burned by Babylonian invaders around 1764 BCE. But, as so happens to nearly all empires, Babylon fell and Susa was on the rise again as an independent city-state. By around 1200 BCE, it was a pretty big deal, with monumental architecture and a thriving economy.
Invading rulers typically chose to preserve Susa’s wealth and beauty. It even became a home base for Christians in the centuries after Jesus’ death, until they so antagonized the Sasanian Empire that the city was — wait for it — sacked yet again in the 4th century CE. Even so, Susa came back until it was finally knocked to its knees by Mongol invaders in 1218 CE. It became a largely forgotten ruin until European archaeologists descended upon the site beginning in the 19th century.
The city of Dan arose as a Bronze Age settlement about 7,000 years ago, according to the site’s excavators, but Bible readers may know it better as the Canaanite city called Laish or Leshem, depending on the text you’re reading. Canaanite walls have been uncovered from the 18th century BCE, while biblical accounts have legendary patriarch Abraham descending upon the city in Genesis 14 to collect his war-captive nephew, Lot. According to archaeological evidence, sometime in the 12th century BCE, the Canaanites were routed and replaced by people with a different culture. The biblical account points to the tribe of Dan, whose people violently took over Laish and named the city after themselves, as related in Judges 18:27-29. Israelites also lived in the city, building a monumental temple in its midst, later uncovered by archaeologists alongside Bronze Age riches and other traces of life deposited in Dan over the many centuries.
As all of the pillaging may indicate, Dan was in a pretty choice location on a major trade route north to Syria. It was also a big enough deal to be mentioned by non-biblical sources including the ancient Egyptians and first-century Jewish chronicler Flavius Josephus. So, what happened? The Bible hints that pagan worship of the definitely non-Hebrew god Baal was the culprit, though the centuries of conflict probably didn’t help, either. However it happened, inhabitants of the ancient city appear to have moved out sometime after the Roman occupation of the region.
You won’t see it called by its current name in the Bible, but Petra is reportedly there in the scriptures as Sela. The name refers to rocks or cliffs, making the connection just vague enough that scholars often argue over what the Bible meant. Still, local tradition maintains that Petra was part of the narrative of Moses and his brother, Aaron. The nearby Wadi Musa is even said to contain Aaron’s tomb, as per Aleteia. Another site not far away is supposedly where Moses struck a rock with his staff to bring forth water, as per Numbers 20.
While the debate over the Bible connection continues, there’s no denying that Petra is awe-inspiring. It was first inhabited about four centuries before the birth of Jesus, established by the native Nabataean people as a hub of commerce. Despite the arid, remote location, the Nabataeans thrived. The influx of money not only helped them establish a city but to carve spectacular edifices for their tombs out of the surrounding rock. In fact, Petra was doing so well that it began to catch the eye of other civilizations. Greek invaders attempted to take the city in 312 BCE, followed by a more decisive victory by the Romans in 106 CE. Eventually, some 700 years after that, Petra slumped into ruin. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that Petra was "found" again by a Swiss traveler, leading to its current role as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist spot.
If we’re being honest, most weddings are pretty forgettable. But the wedding held at Cana some 2,000 years ago is pretty memorable. As John 2:1–11 recounts, this particular celebration was attended by Jesus. Things must have seemed fine until a major issue was uncovered — they were out of wine. Mary approaches her son about the issue and, after some protesting, he tells the servants to bring him large vessels of water. By the time the jars make it to the banquet, they’re full of wine.
Was the site of Jesus’ first miracle a real place? Biblical evidence places Cana somewhere in Galilee, but that’s not much to go on by itself. The most popular guess is the settlement of Khirbet Qana, north of Nazareth, where archaeologists have uncovered evidence of occupation during the Roman period when Jesus would have been active. As per religious studies scholar James Tabor, these include extensive evidence of homes, a possible synagogue, and tombs from the centuries just after the death of Jesus. People certainly caught on to the reputation of the place, as Christians began worshipping there in the 500s CE and the Crusaders and other medieval pilgrims wrote of a church that supposedly contained one of the original water into wine jugs. Kefr Kenna is another proposed site for Cana, but the lack of Roman detritus there isn’t exactly inspiring. Still, unless archaeologists find some definitive evidence, the location of Cana will remain obscure for a while longer.
According to 1 Kings 9:15–17, Gezer was one of a group of cities that had been enriched and strengthened by the order of the legendary King Solomon. In the account, Canaanite Gezer in particular had been sacked by the Egyptian pharaoh, who then made it into a nice gift for his daughter. As if the pharaoh’s daughter weren’t already pretty well-situated — when was the last time you’ve been given an entire city? — it turns out she was also Solomon’s wife.
Excavations of the massive mound that was the city indicate that it was inhabited starting around 3500 BCE and ending sometime after the Romans took over. During its heyday, Gezer boasted a highly engineered water management system that kept residents hydrated while still protecting them behind the city’s fortifications. That’s pretty handy anywhere, but especially in the arid landscape of central Israel. Still, it eventually came under the control of Egypt, then the Philistines, then Egypt again, the Kingdom of Judah, and a series of other kingdoms and rulers ending with Byzantium. After that, it appears that Gezer was largely abandoned.
Gezer was the site of pagan worship during much of the Bronze Age, when inhabitants of the city erected 10 large stones in what’s now known as the "High Place." However, William G. Dever, writing in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, says that it’s unclear if people were practicing child sacrifice there as biblical authors alleged in passages like Jeremiah 32:35 or Ezekiel 20:26–29.
If the name Megiddo sounds familiar, you’re on to something. That’s because the designation of this ancient city in northern Israel led to the word "armageddon." It’s likely that this embattled city was selected as a reference to the biggest, most final battle in the Bible because Megiddo was so often witness to war. Its placement on an important mountain pass made it a prime target for both human connection and conflict. As per the Jewish Virtual Library, the original phrase "Har Megiddo" (hill of Megiddo) likely became the Armageddon referenced in Revelation 16:16.
It may not be fair to focus on the downbeat end of everything when we’re discussing Megiddo, however. This site is a unique spot that’s rich in history, with about five millennia of human life there that only wound down in the 5th century BCE. Many archaeologists have been involved in digging through the remains of an estimated 20 successive settlements at the site since excavations first began in 1903. This work revealed that, like so many other cities in the region, it rose to power as a Canaanite city before it was taken over by invading Egyptians, followed by Israelite rulers, the Assyrians, and finally the Persians. It eventually petered out around the 450s BCE, after which archaeologists haven’t found any evidence of human habitation.
The city of Shechem gets a mention pretty early in the Bible, when Genesis 12 explains that Abraham ended up in the area after God told him to take his family from their homeland and start traveling. Shechem was located in the hilly terrain of what’s now Palestine and, as excavations made clear, was a popular spot from at least 1900 BCE. Ultimately, it grew into a true city, with structures that included a fortified wall and gates, which spoke to the often tumultuous life of an ancient city and its people. Shechem, also sometimes known as Shekhem, was witness to an Israelite rebellion against the king. According to 1 Kings 12, that king was Rehoboam, the successor to Solomon. When the tribes of Israel asked Rehoboam to ease up on the old king’s demands, the new ruler took a harsh tack and threatened the supplicants. A rebellion ensued and Jeroboam was installed as the new king (though, by the end of the next chapter, Jeroboam has incurred the wrath of God for him and his descendants).
As for Jeroboam’s city, it was eventually seized by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, after which it began to fade away. The remains of Shechem were difficult to find, as different writers over the centuries never quite agreed on the exact spot. The city wasn’t uncovered again until German archaeologists got there in 1903, though no one began excavating until a decade later, as per the Jewish Virtual Library.