Israel Sites – The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is a large inland lake 76 KM long, up to 18 KM wide and it is 400 meters deep at the deepest point. The name “Dead Sea” for the Hebrew “Yam Hamelach” (Salt Sea) was attributed by Christian Monks, astonished by the apparent absence of any form of life in the sea water. Recent scientific research however, discovered 11 types of bacteria in the water; but in wells sometimes only one meter from the Dead Sea shore – for example in Ein Zuqim (Ein Faskha) in the north Dead Sea area, live unique, indigenous small fish. This species evolved from big carp common in Lake Tiberias; these small fish have adapted to survival in these hard conditions.
The area offers fascinating landscapes: In the southern sector, mushroom-like hills from a mixture of minerals and sand were sculpted by erosion from wind and floods in the mountains of Judean the desert. In the northern sector, threatening rocky cliffs rise hundreds of meters high, with sweet water streams and waterfalls in beautiful Nature Reserves, full of flora and fauna. Describing the region, the biblical geographer George Adam Smith says: “surely there is no region of earth where Nature and History have more cruelly conspired, where so tragic a drama has obtained so awful a theater” (Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 1894) an obvious hint to the biblical story and fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In connection to the Dead Sea there are several superlatives:
- The lowest
- The saltiest
- The healthiest
We will explore each of them.
The Dead Sea shore is the lowest dry point in the world; today the level of the Dead Sea is 412 meters below the Mediterranean Sea level. How was this unique phenomenon formed? The Dead Sea is a section of the great Syrian-African rift valley fault, whose geological layers formed a deep valley, after the eastern mountain formations moved northwards. In all, the eastern mountains moved about 105 KM northwards, so we can find mountains today with a particular mineral content in the area of Eilat, and mountains with the same structure and content in the area of Petra – about 100 KM further north on the eastern side of this valley. Dramatic changes occurred when new shifts of the mountains took place in recent millennia, deepening mainly the northern part of the Dead Sea. 6,000 years ago, the Dead Sea level dropped to 700 meters below the Mediterranean Sea level, as evidenced from under-water canyons in the Dead Sea. Changes in conditions were also studied by bore holes in the area, which show different layers of sediments. 2,000 – 3,000 years ago, the level of the Dead Sea was 360 meters below the Mediterranean Sea level. However, diversion of sweet water from the Jordan river since 1950, by both Jordan and Israel, has reduced to less than the half the flow of water from the Jordan river into the Dead Sea. Today, water evaporation is faster than the water supply and the sea is gradually shrinking.
This fall of the Dead Sea level has caused another strange and problematic phenomenon in the area. At points where rivers flow into the Dead Sea, (such as Nahal David and Nahal Arugot in the Ein Gedi area), some hundreds of meters before the Dead Sea shore, the water is absorbed by the sandy ground and underground streams further into the Sea. Because of the fall in the Dead Sea level, the underground rivers stream flow faster, and carrying clay sediments: thus large underground caves have been formed, which sometimes collapse unexpectedly, and people have fallen down holes a few meters deep. This happened to a foreign tourist on the Ein Gedi camping site, who was walking along the pavement and suddenly fell some meters down. The camping site is now closed because of this danger. In the date orchard, one farmer from Kibbutz Ein Gedi fell into a similar hole and gave the alarm from his cellular phone. There have been various plans to bringin water through a canal from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea, and use the power for electicity production, but this project was frozen both for economic reasons and because the ecological effects on the quality of the groundwater along the canal route had been insufficiently researched.
Further South, the Red Sea was also formed by the Syrian-African rift, but sea water was not able to flow through to the more northerly part of the fault, because sand and deposits had blocked the valley. About 3,000,000 years ago, the northern part of the valley was still connected with the Mediterranean Sea by the valleys of Galilee and the sea arm thus formed stretched from Lake Tiberias to about 40 KM south of the present Dead Sea shore, with the level at about 180 meters below the Mediterranean Sea. This sea arm was cut off from the sea about 2,000,000 years ago by the fall of the sea level, and thus became a lake, with its only water supply being the sweet water from the sources of Jordan river in Mount Hermon, from a few other rivers streaming from both sides of the fault, and floods from mountain rain, bringing with them sand and deposits. In this way, the sandy Jordan valley was formed and only the river bed of the Jordan river connected Lake Tiberias with the Dead Sea. The Jordan river carried salt with it to its last and lowest point – the Dead Sea, which has no outlet. The dry climate, led to rapid evaporation, leaving the salt and minerals in the lake – which became more salty. In high summer, the evaporation rate can reach up to 25 millimeters a day. The Dead Sea receive additional mineral supply from salt and sulphur springs on its shores. The salinity of the Dead Sea in the upper water layer is about ten times that of the Mediterranean Sea – about 30%. The water in the Dead Sea is therefore heavier, which is why people swimming in the Dead Sea float; they can even read a paper while lying on their back in the water. This weight of the water mineral-laden is even more concentrated in the lower water layers on the floor of the Dead Sea, and has had another geological effect in the south sector. Here because of the heaviness, sedimentary salt and other layers have been pushed sidewards and upwards over the last 20,000 years at a rate of about 3.3 mm a year. This is how the mountain of Sodom were formed.
In the Dead Sea area various hot springs have been developed as Spa resorts for treatment of rheumatic and skin problems. Because of the additional of 400 meters of atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation is sufficiently filtered out to prevent sunburn, so tanning in the Dead Sea area is less dangerous, although it is always advisable to use sunblock and adapt gradually. People suffering from Psoriasis have found the Dead Sea atmosphere and swimming in the sea very helpful. Smearing mineral rich Dead Sea mud on the body, provides a healing process for the skin, and broadens the capillary veins. It is known that King Solomon, Queen Cleopatra and Herod the Great all visited the Dead Sea for these cures.
Living in the Dead Sea area
The name of the Dead Sea was given only after the rise of Christianity. None of the early peoples living there throughout the centuries used this name. Despite the arid climate, people have lived in this area for thousands of years and from the Chalcolithic period onwards (fifth till fourth century B.C.E.) knew how to exploit the advantages of the area. In ancient times, the Dead Sea had several names such as “Hayam Haqadmoni” (the ancient sea), “Yama shel Sedom” (the Sea of Sodom), “Yam Ha’arava” (the Arava valley sea) “Hayam Hamsriah” (the stinking sea – because of the smell of sulphur). Sodom is mentioned in the Bible as a town where people lived in such prosperity, that even Lot’s wife looked back with regret and nostalgia. But human occupation along the Dead Sea coast did not come to an end with the Lord’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:16-19:29). It was a place for political refuge for over 2,000 years ago, and refugees included King David, Herod the Great, the Essenes, and the fighters of the Bar Kochba revolt. Economic exploitation began as early as the time of the Nabateans, who sold bitumen to Egyptians for their embalming business, and this trade continued into the Roman era. Remnants of Jewish communities have been found in Ein Gedi, in Qumran, and on Mount Massada. The latter was posibly only a place of refuge for King Herod the Great, later becoming a fortification in the revolt against the Romans.
In the Ein Gedi area remnants have been found from the Iron Age (630-582 B.C.E.), the Persian Empire (fifth – fourth century B.C.E), Hellinistic period, early Roman period, late Roman and Byzantine periods (second – sixth century C.E) and the Crusader period. Today, the Dead Sea is exploited by industry, such as the Dead Sea Works at Sodom, which extract potassium and some other chemicals for magnesium, bromide and iodide; there is a cosmetic products industry at Mitzpe Shalem. There are also many tourist sites and facilities, such as nature reserves, archeological sites, cure sites such as spas, hotels, guest houses and commercial beaches.
Text and pictures by: Pinhas Baraq Based on: Andrew Sanger Fodor’s Exploring Israel, New York, 2000. Dave Winter, Israel Handbook,Bath UK 2nd Edition. Risha Kim, Let’s Go Israel, Cambridge USA, 2001 Eli Raz, article in Israel Guide, The Judean Desert and The Jordan Valley, Jerusalem 1979 (Hebrew).