Dead Sea, The








1. The Plain of the Jordan

2. Ain Jidi (En-gedi)

3. The Fortress of Masada

4. Jebel Usdum (Mount of Sodom)

5. Vale of Siddim

6. El-Lisan



The name given by Greek and Latin writers to the remarkable inland lake occupying the deepest part of the depression of the ARABAH (which see). In the Bible it is called the Salt Sea (Ge 14:3; De 3:17); the Sea of the Plain (`Ardbhah). (Jos 3:16); and the (East) Eastern Sea (Eze 47:18; Joe 2:20). Among the Arabs it is still called Bahr Lut (Sea of Lot). By the time of Josephus it was called Lake Asphaltires (Ant., I, ix) from the quantities of bitumen or asphalt occasionally washed upon its shores and found in some of the tributary wadies.

I. Present Area.

The length of the lake from North to South is 47 miles; its greatest width is 10 miles narrowing down to less than 2 miles opposite Point Molyneux on el-Lisan. Its area is approximately 300 square miles. From various levelings its surface is found to be 1,292 ft. below that of the Mediterranean, while its greatest depth, near the eastern shore 10 miles South of the mouth of the Jordan is 1,278 ft. But the level varies from 10 to 15 ft. semiannually, and more at longer intervals; and we are not sure from which one of these levels the above figures have been derived. Throughout the northern half of the lake on the East side the descent to the extreme depth is very rapid; while from the western side the depth increases more gradually, especially at the extreme northern end, where the lake has been filled in by the delta of the Jordan.

About two-thirds of the distance to the southern end, the peninsula, el-Lisan ("the Tongue"), projects from the East more than half-way across the lake, being in the shape, however, of a boot rather than a tongue, with the toe to the North, forming a bay between it and the eastern mainland. The head of this bay has been largely filled in by the debris brought down by Wady Kerak, and Wady Ben Hamid, and shoals very gradually down to the greatest depths to the North. The toe of this peninsula is named Point Costigan, and the heel, Point Molyneux, after two travelers who lost their lives about the middle of the 19th century in pioneer attempts to explore the lake. Over the entire area South of Point Molyneux, the water is shallow, being nowhere more than 15 ft. deep, and for the most part not over 10 ft., and in some places less than 6 ft. In high water, the lake extends a mile or more beyond low-water mark, over the Mud Flat (Sebkah) at the south end.

From the history of the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua and the expedition of Chedorlaomer when Lot was captured, it is evident that the outlines of the sea were essentially the same 3,500 years ago as they are now, showing that there has been no radical change in climatic conditions since then.

II. Former Enlargement.

But if we go back a few thousand years into prehistoric times the evidence is abundant that the valley has witnessed remarkable climatic changes (see ARABAH). At Ain Abu Werideh, about 40 miles beyond the south end of the lake, Hull in 1883 discovered deposits of an abandoned shore line 1,400 ft. above its level (see ARABAH). A pronounced abandoned shore line at the 650 ft. level had been observed first by Tristram, and noted afterward by many travelers. But from the more detailed examination made by Professor Ellsworth Huntington in 1909 (see Palestine and Its Transformation) five abandoned shore lines of marked size have been determined, surrounding the valley at the following approximate heights above the present level of the lake: 1,430, 640, 430, 300 and 250 ft. He writes that "at its greatest extent the sea stretched at least 30 miles south of its present termination, while northward it probably covered the Sea of Galilee and the Waters of Merom, and sent an arm into the Vale of Jezreel. .... Lacustrine deposits exist in the Jordan valley shortly south of the Sea of Galilee. A mile north of Jisr el-Mujamiyeh, as the modern railroad bridge is called, a tilted series of clays, apparently lacustrine, lies under some untilted whitish clays, also apparently lacustrine. The elevation here is about 840 ft. below that of the Mediterranean Sea, or 450 above the Dead Sea. .... So far as can be detected by the aneroid the highest deposits (about the Dead Sea) lie at the same elevation on all sides of the lake."

There are also numerous minor strands below the 250 ft. major strand. These are estimated by Huntington as 210, 170, 145, 115, 90, 70, 56, 40, 30 and 12 ft. above the lake successively, It is noted, also, that the lower beaches all show less erosion than those above them. This certainly points to a gradual diminution of the water in the basin during the prehistoric period, while on the other hand there is much evidence that there has been a considerable rise in the water within the historic period. Date palms and tamarisks are seen standing out from the water in numerous places some little distance from the present shore where the water is several feet deep. These are of such size as to show that for many years the soil in which they grew was not subject to overflow. As long ago as 1876 Merrill noticed such trees standing in the water 40 ft. from the shore, near the Northeast corner of the lake (East, of the Jordan, 224). Numerous trunks of date palms and tamarisks can now be seen submerged to a similar extent along the western shore. In 1818 Irby and Mangles (Travels, 454) saw a company of Arabs ford the lake from Point Molyneux to the west side, and noted that the line of the ford was marked by branches of trees which had been stuck into the bottom. In 1838 Robinson found the water at such a stage that the ford was impracticable and so it has been reported by all travelers since that time. But Mr. A. Forder, having recently examined the evidence for the Palestine Exploration Fund, learns from the older Arabs that formerly there was a well-known causeway leading from el-Lisan opposite Wady Kerak to Wady Umm Baghek, across which sheep, goats and men could pass, while camels and mules could be driven across anywhere in the water. Moreover the Arab guide said that the channel "was so narrow that the people of his tribe used to sit on the edge of the Lisan and parley with Arabs from the west as to the return of cattle that had been stolen by one or other of the parties." (See PEFS (April, 1910), 112.)

III. Level of, in Early Historic Times.

Numerous general considerations indicate that in the early historic period the level of the water was so much lower than now that much of the bay South of Point Molyneux was dry land. In Jos 15:2,5 f the south border of Judah is said to extend from "the bay (tongue, Lisan) that looketh southward"; while the "border of the north quarter was from the bay (tongue, Lisan) of the sea at the end of the Jordan; and the border went up to Beth-hoglah, and passed along by the north of Beth-arabah." If the limits of the north end of the Dead Sea were the same then as now the boundary must have turned down to the mouth of the Jordan by a sharp angle. But according to the description it runs almost exactly East and West from beyond Jerusalem to Beth-hoglah, and nothing is said about any change in direction, while elsewhere, any such abrupt change in direction as is here supposed is carefully noted. Furthermore, in detailing the boundary of Benjamin (Jos 18:19) we are told that "the border passed along to the side of Beth-hoglah northward; and the goings out of the border were at the north bay (tongue, Lisan) of the Salt Sea, at the south end of the Jordan: this was the south border." This can hardly have any other meaning than that the north end of the Dead Sea was at Beth-hoglah. From these data Mr. Clermont-Ganneau (see Recueil d'archeologie orientale,V (1902), 267-80) inferred that in the time of Joshua the level of the sea was so much higher than now that a tongue-like extension reached the vicinity of Beth-hoglah, while the underlying topography was essentially the same as now. On the contrary, our present knowledge of the geologic forces in operation would indicate that at that time the Dead Sea was considerably lower than now, and that its rise to its present level has been partly caused by the silting up of a bay which formerly extended to Beth-hoglah.

The geological evidence concerning this point is so interesting, and of so much importance in its bearing upon our interpretation of various historical statements concerning the region, that it is worth while to present it somewhat in detail. As already stated (see ARABAH), the present level of the Dead Sea is determined by the equilibrium established between the evaporation (estimated at 20,000,000 cubic ft. per diem) over the area and the amount of water brought into the valley by the tributary streams. The present area of the sea is, in round numbers, 300 square miles. The historical evidence shows that this evaporating surface has not varied appreciably since the time of Abraham. But the encroachments of the delta of the Jordan upon this area, as well as of the deltas of several other streams, must have been very great since that period. The effect of this would be to limit the evaporating surface, which would cause the water to rise until it overflowed enough of the low land at the south end to restore the equilibrium.

It is easy to make an approximate calculation of the extent to which these encroachments have tended to narrow the limits of the original lake. The sediment deposited by the Jordan, at the north end of the Dead Sea, is practically all derived from the portion of the drainage basin between it and the Sea of Galilee--the latter serving as a catch-basin to retain the sediment brought down from the upper part of the valley. The Zor, or narrow channel which the Jordan has eroded in the sedimentary plain through which it flows (see JORDAN, VALLEY OF), is approximately half a mile wide, 100 feet deep, and 60 miles long. All the sediment which formerly filled this has been swept into the head of the sea, while the Jarmuk, the Jabbok, and a score of smaller tributaries descending rapidly from the bordering heights of Gilead, three or four thousand ft. above the valley, bring an abnormal amount of debris into the river, as do a large number of shorter tributaries which descend an equal amount from the mountains of Galilee, Samaria, and Judah. The entire area thus contributing to this part of the Jordan is not less than 3,000 square miles.

All writers are impressed by the evidence of the torrential floods which fill these water courses after severe storms. The descent being so rapid, permits the water after each rainfall to run off without delay, and so intensifies its eroding power. The well-known figure of our Lord (Mt 7:26 ff) in describing the destruction of the house which is built upon the sand, when the rains descend and the winds beat upon it, is drawn from Nature. The delta terraces at the mouths of such mountain streams where they debouch on the lowlands are formed and re-formed with extreme rapidity, each succeeding storm tending to wash the previous delta down to lower levels and carry away whatever was built upon it.

The storms which descend upon the plains of Gilead, as well as those upon the Judean hills, are exceedingly destructive. For though the rainfall at Jerusalem, according to the observations of Chaplin (see J. Glaisher, "On the Fall of Rain at Jerusalem," PEFS (January, 1894), 39) averages but 20 inches annually, ranging from 32,21 inches in 1878 to 13,19 inches in 1870, nearly all occurs in the three winter months, and therefore in quantities to be most effective in erosive capacity. And this is effective upon both sides of the Jordan valley, in which the rainfall is very slight. "Day after day," Tristram remarks, "we have seen the clouds, after pouring their fatness on Samaria and Judea, pass over the valley, and then descend in torrents on the hills of Gilead and Moab," a phenomenon naturally resulting from the rising column of heated air coming up from the torrid conditions of the depressed Jordan valley.

Tristram (The Land of Moab, 23, 24) gives a vivid description of the effect of a storm near Jerusalem. As his party was encamped during the night the whole slope upon which they pitched became a shallow stream, while "the deep ravines of the wilderness of Judah (were) covered with torrents, and tiny cascades rolling down from every rock. .... So easily disintegrated is the soft limestone of these wadies, that the rain of a few hours .... did more to deepen and widen the channels than the storms of several years could effect on a Northumbrian hillside. No geologist could watch the effect of this storm without being convinced that in calculating the progress of denudation, other factors than that of time must be taken into account, and that denudation may proceed most rapidly where rains are most uncertain."

Lieutenant Lynch writes that while ascending the Kerak "there came a shout of thunder from the dense cloud which had gathered at the summit of the gorge, followed by a rain, compared to which the gentle showers of our more favored clime are as dew drops to the overflowing cistern. .... The black and threatening cloud soon enveloped the mountain tops, the lightning playing across it in incessant flashes, while the loud thunder reverberated from side to side of the appalling chasm. Between the peals we soon heard a roaring and continuous sound. It was the torrent from the rain cloud, sweeping in a long line of foam down the steep declivity, bearing along huge fragments of rocks, which, striking against each other, sounded like mimic thunder."

I can bear similar testimony from observations when traveling in Turkestan where the annual rainfall is only about 4 inches. At one time a storm was seen raging upon the mountains 20 miles away, where it spent its entire force without shedding a drop upon the plain. Upon skirting the base of the mountain the next day, however, the railroad track was covered for a long distance 2 or 3 ft. deep with debris which had been washed down by the cloudburst. No one can have any proper comprehension of the erosive power of the showers of Palestine without duly taking into account the extent and the steepness of the descent from the highlands on either side, and the irregularity of the rainfall. These form what in the Rocky Mountains would be called arroyos. After the debris has been brought into the Jordan by these torrents, and the rise of water makes it "overflow all its banks," the sediment is then swept on to the Dead Sea with great rapidity.

All these considerations indicate that the deltas of the streams coming into the valley of the Jordan and the Dead Sea must be increasing at an unusually rapid rate. It will be profitable, therefore, to compare it with other deltas upon which direct observations have been made. The Mississippi River is sweeping into the Gulf of Mexico sediment at a rate which represents one foot of surface soil over the whole drainage basin, extending from the Rocky Mountains to the Alleghenies, in a little less than 5,000 years. The Hoang-Ho is lowering its drainage basin a foot in 1,464 years, while the river Po is reducing its level a foot in 729 years. So rapidly has the river Po filled up its valley that the city of Adria, which was a seaport 2,000 years ago, is now 14 miles from the mouth of the river. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers have silted up the head of the Persian Gulf nearly 100 miles. (See Croll, Climate and Time, 332, 333; Darwin, Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, 233.) From these considerations it is a conservative estimate that the tributaries of the Jordan valley between the Lake of Galilee and the Dead Sea bring down sediment enough to lower the basin one foot in 2,000 years, so that since the time of Abraham 167,270,400,000 cubic feet of solid matter have been added to its delta. This would cover 25 square miles 250 ft. deep. Taking into consideration the probable depth of water at the north end of the sea, it is, therefore, not an extravagant supposition that the Jordan delta has encroached upon the sea to the extent of 15 or 20 square miles, limiting the evaporating surface to that extent and causing the level of the water to rise, and extend an equal amount over the low lands at the south end.

At the same time the other streams coming directly into the lake have been contributing deltas to narrow its margin at various points. The Kerak, the Amen and the Zerka Ma'ain bring in an immense amount of sediment from the East; el-Hessi, el-Jeib and el-Fikri from the South; and Wady el. Muhauwdt, el-Areyeh and the Kedron, with numerous smaller intermediate streams, from the West. A detailed examination of these deposits will serve the double purpose of establishing the point in question and of giving a vivid conception of the sea and its surroundings.

Throughout the lower part of its course the river Jordan flows as has been already said, through a narrow gorge called the Zor, which the river has eroded in the soft sedimentary deposits which cover the bottom of the valley (or Ghor) from side to side. Opposite Jericho the Ghor is about 15 miles wide. The Zor, however, does not average more than one-half mile in width and is about 100 ft. lower than the general level of the Ghor, But at "the Jews' Castle." about 8 miles from the mouth of the Jordan, the Zor begins to enlarge and merge into a true delta. The embankment of the Zor slopes away in a Southwest direction till it reaches the Judean mountains at Khurbet Kumran. 10 miles distant, leaving a triangle of low land between it and the Dead Sea averaging fully one mile in width and being nearly 3 miles wide opposite the mouth of the Jordan. The face of the embankment separating the Zor from the Ghor has in several places been deeply cut into by the small wadies which come down from the western mountains, and the wash from these wadies as well as that from more temporary streams after every shower has-considerably raised the western border of the Zor throughout this distance. But it can safely be estimated that the original boundary of the Dead Sea has here been encroached upon to the extent of 10 or 15 square miles. Again, upon the eastern side of the Jordan the other limb of the delta, though smaller, is equally in evidence. Merrill (East of the Jordan, 223, 224), in describing his survey of the region, says he was compelled to walk for some hours along the shore and then north to reach his horses, which evidently had been coming over the harder and more elevated surface of the Ghor. "The plain." he says, "for many square miles north of the sea is like ashes in which we often. sank over shoe."

Returning to the Northwest corner of the lake we find the delta deposit which we left at Khurbet Kumran extending 2 miles farther south with an average width of one-half mile to Ras Feshkah, which rises abruptly from the water's edge, and renders it impossible for travelers to follow along the shore. But just beyond Ras Feshkah a delta half a mile or more in length and width is projected into the sea at the mouth of Wady en Nar, which comes down from Jerusalem and is known in its upper portions as Kedron. This is the wady which passes the convent of Mar Saba and is referred to in such a striking manner in Eze 47:1-23. Like most of the other wadies coming into the Dead Sea, this courses the most of its way through inaccessible defiles and has built up a delta at its mouth covered with "fragments of rock or boulders swept along by the torrent in its periodical overflows" (De Saulcy, I, 137, 138).

From Ras Feshkah to Ras Mersid, a distance of 15 miles, the shore is bordered with a deposit of sand and gravel averaging a half a mile in width, while opposite Wady edition Derajeh and Wady Husasa (which descend from Bethlehem and the wilderness of Tekoah) the width is, fully one mile. At the mouth of one of the smaller gorges De Saulcy noted what geologists call a "cone of dejection" where "the gravel washed down from the heights was heaped up to the extent of nearly 250 yards" (I, 44).

Ras Mersid, again, obstructs the passage along the shore almost as effectually as did Ras Feshkah, but farther south there is no other obstruction. The plain of En-gedi, connected in such an interesting manner with the history of David and with numerous other events of national importance, is described by the Palestine Exploration Fund as "about half a mile broad and a mile in length." This consists of material brought down for the most part by Wady el-'Areijeh, which descends from the vicinity of Hebron with one branch passing through Tekoah. The principal path leading from the west side of the Dead Sea to the hills of Judea follows the direction of this wady.

Between En-gedi and Sebbeh (Masada), a distance of 10 miles, the limestone cliffs retreat till they are fully 2 miles from the shore. Across this space numerous wadies course their way bringing down an immense amount of debris and depositing it as deltas at the water's edge. These projecting deltas were noticed by Robinson as he looked southward from the height above En-gedi, but their significance was not understood.

"One feature of the sea," he says, "struck us immediately, which was unexpected to us, namely, the number of shoal-like points and peninsulas which run into its southern part, appearing at first sight like flat sand-banks or islands. Below us on the South were two such projecting banks on the western shore, composed probably of pebbles and gravel, extending out into the sea for a considerable distance. The larger and more important of these is on the South of the spot called Birket el-Khulil, a little bay or indentation in the western precipice, where the water, flowing into shallow basins when it is high, evaporates, and deposits salt. This spot is just South of the mouth of Wady el-Khubarah" (BR, I, 501). One of these deltas is described by De Saulcy as 500 yds. in breadth and another as indefinitely larger.

Six miles South of Masada, probably at the mouth of Wady Umm Baghek, Lynch notes a delta extending "half a mile out into the sea." Still farther South the combined delta of the Wady Zuweirah and Wady Muhauwat covers an area of 2 or 3 square miles, and is dotted with boulders and fragments of rock a foot or more in diameter, which have been washed over the area by the torrential floods. Beyond Jebel Usdum, Wady el-Fikreh, draining an area of 200 or 300 square miles, has deposited an immense amount of coarse sediment on the West side of the Sebkah (a mud flat which was formerly occupied, probably by a projection of the Dead Sea). Into the South end of the depression, extending from the Sebkah to the Ascent of Akrabbim, deltas of Wady el-Jeib, Wady el-Khanzireh and Wady Tufileh have in connection with Wady Fikreh encroached upon the valley to the extent of 12 or 15 square miles. Although these wadies drain an area of more than 3,000 sq. miles, and the granitic formations over which they pass have been so disintegrated by atmospheric influences that an excessive amount of coarse sediment is carried along by them (see Hull, Mount Seir, etc., 104-106). In ascending them, one encounters every indication of occasional destructive floods.

Following up the eastern shore, Wady el-Hessi coming down from the mountains of Edom has built up the plain of Safieh which pushes out into the neck of the Sebkah and covers an area of 3 or 4 square miles. Farther North, Wady Kerak and Wady Beni Hamid have with their deltas encroached to the extent of 2 or 3 square miles upon the head of the bay, projecting into the Lisan east of Point Costigan. Still farther North, Wady Mojib (the Arnon) and Wady Zerka Ma'ain (coming down from the hot springs of Callirrhoe) have built up less pronounced deltas because of the greater depth of the water on the East side, but even so they are by no means inconsiderable, in each case projecting a half-mile or more into the lake.

Putting all these items together, there can be little doubt that the area of the Dead Sea has been encroached upon to the extent of 25 or 30 square miles since the time of Abraham and that this has resulted in a rise of the general level of the water sufficient to overflow a considerable portion of the lagoon at the South end, thus keeping the evaporating area constant. The only escape from this conclusion is the supposition that the rainfall of the region is less than it was at the dawn of history, and so the smaller evaporating area would be sufficient to maintain the former level. But of this we have no adequate evidence. On the contrary there is abundant evidence that the climatic conditions connected with the production of the Glacial Period had passed away long before the conquest of the Vale of Siddim by Amraphel and his confederates (Ge 14:1-24).

The consequences of this rise of water are various and significant. It lends credibility to the persistent tradition that the sites of Sodom and Gomorrah are covered by the shallow water at the South end of the sea, and also to the statement of Scripture that the region about these cities (on the supposition that they were at the South end of the sea) was like the garden of the Lord; for that plain was then much larger than it is now, and was well watered, and possessed greater elements of fertility than are now apparent. Furthermore, this supposed lower level of the lake in early times may have greatly facilitated the passage of armies and caravans from one end to the other, thus rendering it more easy to understand the historical statements relating to the earliest periods of occupation. Even now the road at the base of Jebel Usdum which is open at low water is impassable at high water. On the last of December, 1883, Professor Hull (Mount Seir, etc., 133) traversed the shore at the base of the salt cliffs along a gravel terrace 100 ft. wide, which "abruptly terminated in a descent of about 5 ft. to the line of driftwood which marked the upper limit of the waters." On the 1st of January, 1901, the water along the base of the salt cliffs was so deep that it was impossible for my party to pass along the shore. It is easy to believe that the level might have been lowered sufficiently to expose a margin of shore which could be traversed on the West side from one end to the other.

IV. Constitution of the Water.

As in the case of all enclosed basins, the waters of the Dead Sea are impregnated to an excessive degree with saline matter. "The salt which they contain," however, "is not wholly or even principally common salt, but is mostly the chloride and bromide of magnesium and calcium, so that they are not merely a strong brine, but rather resemble the mother liquors of a saltpan left after the common salt has crystallized out" (Dawson, Egypt and Syria, 123). The following analysis is given by Booth and Muckle of water brought by Commander Lynch and taken by him May 5 from 195 fathoms deep opposite the mouth of Wady Zerka Ma'ain. Other analyses vary from this more or less, owing doubtless to the different localities and depths from which the specimens had been obtained.

Specific gravity at 60 degrees ......... 1,22742

Chloride of magnesium ................... 145,8971

Chloride of calcium ..................... 31.0746

Chloride of sodium ...................... 78,5537

Chloride of potassium ................... 6,5860

Bromide of potassium .................... 1,3741

Sulphate of lime ........................ 0,7012


sub-total: 264,1867

Water ................................... 735,8133


Total: 1000.0000

Total amount of solid matter found

by direct experiment .................. 264.0000

What is here labeled bromide of potassium, however, is called by most other analysts bromide of magnesium, it being difficult to separate and distinguish these elements in composition. The large percentage of bromide, of which but a trace is found in the ocean, is supposed to have been derived from volcanic emanations. As compared with sea water, it is worthy of note that that of the Dead Sea yields 26 lbs. of salts to 100 lbs. of water, whereas that of the Atlantic yields only 6 lbs. in the same quantity. Lake Urumiah is as salty as the Dead Sea.

As results of this salinity the water is excessively buoyant and is destructive of all forms of animal life. Lynch found that his metal boats sank an inch deeper in the Jordan when equally heavily laden than they did in the Dead Sea. All travelers who bathe in it relate that when they throw themselves upon their backs their bodies will be half out of the water. Josephus (BJ, IV, viii, 4) relates that the emperor Vespasian caused certain men who could not swim to be thrown into the water with their hands tied behind them, and they floated on the surface. Dead fish and various shells are indeed often found upon the shore, but they have evidently been brought in by the tributary fresh-water streams, or belong to species which live in the brackish pools of the bordering lagoons, which are abundantly supplied with fresh water. The report extensively circulated in earlier times that birds did not fly over the lake has no foundation in fact, since some species of birds are known even to light upon the surface and frolick upon the waters. The whole depression is subject to frequent storms of wind blowing through its length. These produce waves whose force is very destructive of boats encountering them because of the high specific gravity of the water; but for the same reason the waves rapidly subside after a storm, so that the general appearance of the lake is placid in the extreme.

The source from which these saline matters have been derived has been a subject of much speculation--some having supposed that it was derived from the dissolution of the salt cliffs in Jebel Usdum. But this theory is disproved by the fact that common salt forms but a small portion of the material held in solution by the water. It is more correct to regard this salt mountain as a deposit precipitated from the saturated brine which had accumulated, as we have supposed, during the Cretaceous age. Probably salt is now being deposited at the bottom of the lake from the present saturated solution to appear in some future age in the wreck of progressive geological changes. The salts of the Dead Sea, like those in all similarly enclosed basins, have been brought in by the streams of water from all over the drainage basin. Such streams always contain more or less solid matter in solution, which becomes concentrated through the evaporation which takes. place over enclosed basins. The ocean is the great reservoir of such deposits, but is too large to be affected to the extent noticeable in smaller basins. The extreme salinity of the Dead Sea water shows both the long continuance of the isolation of the basin and the abundance of soluble matter contained in the rocks of the inscribed area. The great extent of recent volcanic rocks, especially in the region East of the Jordan, accounts for the large relative proportion of some of the ingredients.

V. Climate.

Because of the great depression below sea level, the climate is excessively warm, so that palms and other tropical trees flourish on the borders of the rivers wherever fresh water finds soil on which to spread itself. Snow never falls upon the lake, though it frequently covers the hills of Judea and the plateau of Moab. As already explained the rainfall in the Jordan valley is less than on the bordering mountains. During the winter season the Arab tribes go down to the valley with their flocks of sheep and goats and camp upon the surrounding plains. But the excessive heat of the summer, rising sometimes to 130 degrees F., drives them back to the hills again.

VI. Roads.

Except at the North end, the approaches to the Dead Sea are few and very difficult to travel. On the West side the nearest approach is at En-gedi, and this down a winding descent of 2,000 ft. where a few men at the top of the cliff could hold an army at bay below. The path up Wady Zuweirah from the North end of Jebel Usdum is scarcely better. Upon the South end the path leads up Wady Fikreh for a considerable distance on the West side of the Mud Flat, and then crosses over to the Wady el-Jeib, up whose torrential bed during the dry season caravans can find their way through the Arabah to Akabah. More difficult paths lead up from the East of the Mud Flat into the Arabah, and through the mountains of Moab to Petra into the plains beyond and the Pilgrim route from Damascus to Mecca. From the Lisan a difficult path leads up Wady Kerak to the fortress of the same name 20 miles distant and 5,000 ft. above the lake. Another path a little farther north leads up the Wady Beni Hamid to Ar of Moab. From the Arnon to the North end of the Dead Sea the mountains are so precipitous that travel along the shore is now practically impossible. But there are, according to Tristram (The Land of Moab, 355), remnants of an "old and well-engineered road of ancient times" extending as far South at least as the Zerka Ma'ain.

VII. Miscellaneous Items.

There are numerous points around the border of the lake of special interest:

1. The Plain of the Jordan:

When Lot and Abraham looked down from the heights of Bethel (Ge 13:10 ff) they are said to have beheld "all the Plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before Yahweh destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of Yahweh, like the land of Egypt, as thou goest unto Zoar. So Lot chose him all the Plain of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed east: .... and Lot dwelt in the cities of the Plain, and moved his tent as far as Sodom." The word here translated "Plain" is kikkar (Ciccar), meaning "circle," and indicating the appearance from Bethel of the Jordan valley surrounding the North end of the Dead Sea. From this fact, many recent writers have located Sodom and Gomorrah at that end of the sea (see CITIES OF THE PLAIN). But it is by no means certain that it is necessary thus to narrow down the meaning of the phrase. Though the South end. of the Dead Sea is not visible from the heights of Bethel, it is so connected with the general depression that it may well have been in the minds of Abraham and Lot as they were dividing the country between them, one choosing the plain, a part of which was visible, the other remaining on the bordering mountainous area, so different in all its natural resources and conditions. The extent of the region chosen by Lot may therefore be left to be determined by other considerations.

2. Ain Jidi (En-gedi):

Ain Jidi, "fountain of the kid" (?) (see EN-GEDI) is an oasis at the base of the western cliffs about half-way between the North and the South ends of the lake, fed by springs of warm water which burst from beneath the overhanging cliffs. The 650 ft. shore line composed of shingle and calcareous marl is here prominent, and, as already remarked, there is an extensive gravel terrace at the present water level. Palms and vines formerly flourished here (Song 1:14), but now only a few bushes of acacia and tamarisk are to be found. From time immemorial, however, it has been the terminus of the principal trail which zig-zags up the cliffs to the plateau, across which paths lead to Hebron and Bethlehem.

3. The Fortress of Masada:

The Fortress of Masada was the last stronghold held by the fanatical Jews (Zealots) after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, and offers a bird's-eye view of the Dead Sea, which is as instructive as it is interesting. It is situated half-way between Jebel Usdum and En-gedi, directly opposite the northern promontory of el-Lisan. Here on a precipitous height, 2,000 ft. above the sea, is a plateau about 700 yds. long, and 200 wide, adorned with ruins of dwellings, palaces and temples of the Herodian age. Standing upon this height one sees the outlines of the Roman camp, near the shore of the sea, and those of another camp in a depression several hundred yards to the West, from which the final attack of the besiegers was made over a pathway constructed along a sloping ridge. Here many miles away from their base of supplies the Romans slowly but irresistibly drew in their besieging lines to the final tragic consummation when the last remnant of the defenders committed suicide (BJ, VII, ix, 1). The view gives one a profound impression of the difficulties attending military campaigns in all that region. Upon lifting up one's eyes to take in the broader view, he sees the Dead Sea in its whole length with the low ridge of Jebel Usdum, the Valley of Salt, the Ascent of Akrabbim, the depression of the Arabah, and Mt. Hor, to the South, while across the whole horizon to the East is the long wall of Moab dissected by Wady Kerak and the river Arnon, leading up to the strongholds of Ker, Aroer and Dibon, of Moab; while immediately in the front are the white cliffs of el-Lisan, and to the North, near by, the green oasis of En-gedi, and, dimmed by distance, the plains of Jericho, and the cluster of peaks surrounding Mt. Pisgah; while the sea itself sparkles like a gem of brilliant azure in the midst of its desolate surroundings, giving no token of the deadly elements which permeate its water.

4. Jebel Usdum (Mount of Sodom):

Jebel Usdum (Mount of Sodom) is a salt mountain extending 7 or 8 miles along the Southwest shore of the lake and on the West side of the Valley of Salt to its southern boundary. Its name is derived from the traditional belief that Sodom was located at the South end of the sea; but, on the other hand, it is not unlikely that the name would become attached to it because of its seeming to contain the pillar of salt, which, according to the ordinary translation, marked the place where Lot's wife was overwhelmed. The mountain rises 600 ft. above the lake, and has a general level surface except where streams have worn furrows and gullies in it. The eastern face presents a precipitous wall of rock salt, which, as said above, at the time of my visit (January, 1901), was washed by the waves of the lake making it impossible to pass along its base. At other times. when the water is low, travelers can pass along the whole length of the shore. This wall of salt presents much the appearance of a glacier, the salt being as transparent as ice, while the action of the waves has hollowed out extensive and picturesque caverns and left isolated towers and connected pinnacles of salt often resembling a Gothic cathedral. These towers and pinnacles are, of course, being displaced from time to time, while others are formed to continue the illusion. Any pillar of salt known to the ancients must be entirely different from those which meet the eye of the modern traveler. It follows also as a matter of course that the gradual dissolution of this salt must partly account for the excessive salinity of the Dead Sea.

It is uncertain how deep the deposit extends below the surface. It rises upward 200 or 300 ft., where it is capped by consolidated strata of sedimentary material, consisting of sand and loam, which most geologists think was deposited at the time of the formation of the 650 ft. terrace already described, and which they connect with the climatic conditions of the Glacial period.

This view is presented as follows by Professor B. K. Emerson: "In the earlier portion of the post-glacial stadium, a final sinking of a fraction of the bottom of the trough, near the South end of the lake, dissected the low salt plateau, sinking its central parts beneath the salt waters, while fragments remain buttressed against the great walls of the trench forming the plains of Jebel Usdum and the peninsula el-Lisan with the swampy Sebkah between. .... It exposed the wonderful eastern wall of Jebel Usdum: 7 miles long, with 30-45 m. of clear blue salt at the base, capped by 125-140 m. of gypsum-bearing marls impregnated with sulphur, and conglomerates at times cemented by bitumen" ("Geological Myths," Proc. Am. Assoc. for Adv. of Sci. (1896), 110, 111). If this was the case there has been a depression of the South end of the Dead Sea to the extent of several hundred feet within a comparatively few thousand years, in which case the traditional view that Sodom and Gomorrah were overwhelmed by Dead Sea water at the time of their destruction would refer to an occurrence exactly in line with movements that have been practically continuous during Tertiary, Glacial, and post-Glacial times.

With more reason, Lartet contends that this salt is a Cretaceous or Tertiary deposit covered with late Tertiary strata, in which case the sinking of the block between Jebel Usdum and el-Lisan, for the most part, took place at a much earlier date than the formation of the 650 ft. terrace. A striking corollary of this supposition would be that the climatic conditions have been practically the same during all of the post-Carboniferous times, there having been cycles of moist and dry climate in that region succeeding each other during all these geological periods.

The Vale of Siddim (Ge 14:3,8,10) is probably the same as the Valley of Salt (2Ki 14:7; 1Ch 18:12; 2Ch 25:11).

5. Vale of Siddim:

This is in all probability the plain extending from the southern end of the Dead Sea to the "Ascent of Akrabbim" which crosses the valley from side to side, and forms the southern margin of the Ghor. At present the area of the vale is about 50 square miles; but if our theory concerning the lower level of the Dead Sea in the time of Abraham is correct, it may then have included a considerable portion of the lagoon South of el-Lisan and so have been a third larger than now. In Ge 14:10 the vale is said to have been full of slime (that is, of bitumen or asphalt) pits. In modern times masses of asphalt are occasionally found floating in the southern part of the Dead Sea. After the earthquake of 1834 a large quantity was cast upon the shore near the Southwest corner of the lake, 3 tons of which were brought to market by the Arab natives. After the earthquake of January, 1837, a mass of asphalt was driven aground on the West side not far from Jebel Usdum. The neighboring Arabs swam off to it, cut it up with axes and carried it to market by the camel load, and sold it to the value of several thousand dollars. At earlier times such occurrences seem to have been still more frequent. Josephus affirms that "the sea in many places sends up black masses of asphalt having the form and size of headless oxen"; while Diodorus Siculus relates that the bitumen (asphalt) was thrown up in masses covering sometimes two or three acres and having the appearance of islands (Josephus, BJ, IV, viii, 4; Diod. Sic. ii.48; Pliny, NH, vii.13; Tac. Hist. verse 6; Dioscor., De re Med., i.99).

Since asphalt is a product of petroleum from which the volatile elements have been evaporated, the ultimate source of these masses is doubtless to be found in the extensive beds of bituminous limestone which appear in numerous places on both sides of the Dead Sea. An outcrop of it can be observed at Neby Mousa, on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, which Dawson describes as resembling dry chalk saturated with coal tar. When long weathered this becomes white and chalky at the surface, so that a mass of it, quite white externally, reveals an intense blackness when broken. It is this that the people of Bethlehem call "Dead Sea stone," and which they carve into various ornamental articles and expose for sale. Some specimens of it are sufficiently bituminous to burn with flame like cannel-coal. These beds are still more abundant around the South end of the lake and doubtless underlie the whole region, and for all time must have been exuding bituminous and gaseous matter, but much more abundantly in former times than now.

In these accumulations of bitumen at the South end of the Ghor we probably have the incentive which led the Babylonians under Amraphel and Chedorlaomer to make such long expeditions for the sake of conquering the region and holding it under their power. Bitumen was much in demand in Babylonia.

6. El-Lisan:

El-Lisan (the Tongue), which projects half-way across the lake from the mouth of Wady Kerak, is, like Jebel Usdum, a promontory of white calcareous sediment containing beds of salt and gypsum, and breaking off on its western side in a cliff 300 ft. high. Its upper surface rises in terraces to the 600 ft. level on the East, as Jebel Usdum does on the West. The length of the promontory from North to South is 9 miles. This corresponds so closely in general structure and appearance to Jebel Usdum on the opposite side of the lake that we find it difficult to doubt theory of Professor Emerson, stated above, that the formation originally extended across and that a block of the original bottom of the lake has dropped down, leaving these remnants upon the sides. Frequent occurrences similar to this are noted by the United States geologists in the Rocky Mountain region.

VIII. History.

Difficulty of access has prevented the Dead Sea from playing any important part in history except as an obstruction both to commerce and to military movements. Boats have never been used upon it to any considerable extent. From earliest times salt has been gathered on its western shores and carried up to market over the difficult paths leading to Jerusalem. A similar commerce has been carried on in bitumen; that from the Dead Sea being specially prized in Egypt, while as already remarked, it is by no means improbable that the pits of bitumen which abounded in the "Vale of Siddim" were the chief attraction leading the kings of Babylonia to undertake long expeditions for the conquest of the region. Productive as may have been the plain at the South end of the sea, it was too far outside the caravan route leading through Petra to the South end of the Arabah and the mines of the Sinaitic Peninsula to divert the course of travel. Still the settlements on the eastern border of the Vale of Siddim were of sufficient importance in medieval times to induce the Crusaders to visit the region and leave their marks upon it. The Arabian town of Zoghar, probably the Biblical Zoar, appears at one time to have been a most important place, and was the center of considerable commercial activity. Indigo was grown there, and the oasis was noted for its fine species of dates. The country round about abounded in springs and there was much arable land (see Le Strange, Palestine under the Moslems, 286 ff). The hot springs upon the eastern shore of the Dead Sea at Callirrhoe some distance up the Wady Zerka Ma'ain were much resorted to for their medicinal properties. Here Herod came as a last resort, to secure relief from his loathsome malady, but failed of help. The fortress of Macherus, where John the Baptist was imprisoned, is situated but a few miles South of the Zerka Ma'ain, but access to this region is possible only through a difficult road leading over the mountains a few miles East of the sea.

On four occasions important military expeditions were conducted along the narrow defiles which border the Southwest end of the Dead Sea: (1) That of Amraphel and his confederates from Babylonia, who seem first to have opened the way past Petra to the mines of the Sinaitic Peninsula, and then to have swept northward through the land of the Amalekites and Amorites and come down to the Dead Sea at En-gedi, and then to have turned to subdue the Cities of the Plain, where Lot was dwelling. This accomplished, they probably retreated along the west shore of the lake, which very likely afforded at that time a complete passageway to the valley of the Jordan. Or they may have gone on eastward to the line of the present pilgrim route from Damascus to Mecca and followed it northward. (2) In the early part of the reign of Jehoshaphat (2Ch 20:1-37), the Moabites, Ammonites and some other tribes joined together, forming a large army, and, following around the South end of the Dead Sea, marched along the West shore to En-gedi, and having ascended the zigzag path leading up the precipitous heights to the wilderness of Tekoa, were there thrown into confusion and utterly annihilated. (3) Not many years later Jehoram and Jehoshaphat "fetched a compass (the Revised Version (British and American) "made a circuit") of seven days' journey" (2Ki 3:9) around the South end of the Dead Sea and attacked the Moabites in their own country, but returned without completing the conquest. The particulars of this expedition are given in 2Ki 3:1-27 and in the inscription on the Moabite Stone. (4) The Romans shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem conducted a long siege of the fortress of Masada, of which an account has already been given in a previous section (VII, 3). All their supplies must have come down the tortuous path to En-gedi and thence been brought along the western shore to the camp, the remains of which are still to be seen at the base of the fortress.

For many centuries, indeed for nearly 1,800 years, the Dead Sea remained a mystery, and its geology and physical characteristics were practically unknown. The first intimation of the depression of the lake below sea level was furnished in 1837 by Moore and Beke, who made some imperfect experiments with boiling water from which they inferred a depression of 500 ft. In 1841 Lieutenant Simmons of the British navy, by trigonometrical observations, estimated the depression to be 1,312 ft. In 1835. Costigan, and again in 1847 Lieutenant Molyneux ventured upon the sea in boats; but the early death of both, consequent upon their exposures, prevented their making any full reports. Appropriately, however, their names have been attached to prominent points on the Lisan. In 1848 Lieutenant Lynch, of the United States navy, was dispatched to explore the Jordan and the Dead Sea. The results of this expedition were most important. Soundings of the depths were carefully and systematically conducted, and levels were run from the Dead Sea by Jerusalem to the Mediterranean, giving the depression at the surface of the Dead Sea as 1,316,7 ft., and its greatest depth 1,278 ft. More recently Sir C. W. Wilson in connection with the Ordinance Survey of Palestine carried levels over the same route with the result of reducing the depression to 1,292 ft., which is now generally accepted to be correct. But as already stated the stage of water in the lake is not given, and that is known to vary at least 15 ft. annually, and still more at longer intervals.


Hull, Mount Seir, Sinai and Western Palestine, 1889; Huntington, Palestine and Its Transformation, 1911; Lartet, Voyage d'exploration de la Mer Morte, 1880; Lynch, Report of U.S. Expedition to the Jordan and Dead Sea, 1852; Robinson, BR, 1841; De Saulcy, Voyage dans la Syrie, 1853; Tristram, Land of Israel, 2nd edition, 1872, The Land of Moab, 1873; G. A. Smith, HGHL; Wright; Scientific Confirmations of Old Testament Hist, 1906, and Journal of Biblical Lit., 1911.

George Frederick Wright

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