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The historic Dead Sea lies in an arid landscape of salt and gypsum

Posted in Ancient History, Bible, Geography, Geology, Historical articles, History, Minerals, Sea on Tuesday, 12 June 2012

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This edited article about the Dead Sea originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 725 published on 6 December 1975.

Dead Sea, picture, image, illustration

The Dead Sea

From the city of Jerusalem eastward to the north shore of the Dead Sea is a mere 15 miles (24km). Yet it is like a journey to a different planet. At the point where the River Jordan makes its way through its Delta into the sea, the visitor is confronted with one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in the world.

Northward the river winds its way down its age-old valley; to the west are the hills and mountains of Judea, while eastward rises the steep, forbidding face of the Jordanian highlands. And stretching away to fill the southern end of the Jordan valley is that strange, almost sinister, stretch of water known as the Dead Sea.

The surface of the sea, with its varying shades of intense blue, is often shrouded in mists as its still waters evaporate in the stifling heat. Swiftly changing patterns of light play upon cliffs and outcrops, reflected in the rich reds and other colours of the rock. The shores glitter as if with frost or snow; but it is with salt crystals, not ice crystals, that they are covered.

Travellers descending to the Dead Sea from the highlands are conscious of a sense of oppression. In their eardrums they may even sense the same painful sensations we feel in an aircraft when it rapidly changes altitude.

This is hardly surprising, for at its surface the Dead Sea is about 1290 ft (393 m) below the level of the Mediterranean Sea; and its bed, at its deepest, is another 1300 ft (396 m) down. It is the lowest lying sea, or lake, on the surface of the Earth.

It is not only its situation that sets the Dead Sea apart. Its water contains more than six times the proportion of mineral salts found in ordinary sea-water. No fish or plant life can survive in it. In the season of rains, in the early part of the year, flood waters from the Jordan and some other streams carry quantities of fish into the sea. They live only for a few minutes.

So great is the concentration of salt that it would be hard for anyone to drown in these waters. TV star Jimmy Saville, a non-swimmer, has described how he smoked a cigar, drank a cup of tea, and wrote part of an article – all while reclining on his back on the surface of the Dead Sea!

The high proportion of salt and other minerals is easily explained. The sea has no outlet for the water which the Jordan, and the smaller streams around the shores, feed into it at an average rate of 7,000,000 tons daily. But the level does not rise, except during periods of flood, because the intense heat of the sun and the dry air cause continuous evaporation.

When water evaporates, it leaves behind the minerals dissolved in it. So year by year the quantity of salt and other chemicals in the Dead Sea has increased. When flood waters raise the surface a few feet a deposit of salt is left on the mud-flats along the shore.

The Dead Sea is about 50 miles (80km) long and 10 miles (16km) across at its widest. For about a third of its length, in the south, it is only a few feet deep.

Till some 17,000 years ago the Dead Sea was part of a large inland sea stretching about 200 miles from the north to south. Then, as the climate became drier, it shrank, leaving Lake Huleh and the Sea of Galilee in the north, and the Dead Sea in the south, with of course, the Jordan linking them.

Geologists trace the origin of the Jordan and Dead Sea valleys to a gigantic double fracture that occurred in the Earth’s crust nearly 20 million years ago – the same rift that formed the bed of the Red Sea.

The earth has not yet fully settled in the Jordan region. Earthquakes still occur, and there are numerous hot springs around the Dead Sea’s shores. It was doubtless some volcanic disturbance that gave rise to the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the other cities destroyed by “brimstone and fire”. Archaeologists have not established the position of these cities. It is generally thought that their remains lie below the shallow waters at the south end of the sea.

The name of one of these cities is commemorated in Mount Sodom (or Sdom), a hill of salt and gypsum (the raw material of plaster of Paris). Part of it, shaped into a column by erosion, became known as Lot’s Wife – transformed into a pillar of salt, according to the story in Genesis, because she looked back as she fled from the doomed cities.

Today the south-west corner of the sea presents a busy scene, as it is the site of an important plant for extracting the minerals which the Dead Sea yields. Chief of these is potash, vital as a fertiliser.

About half-way along the western shore stands the ruins of Masada, the towering rock fortress where the Jews made their last heroic stand against the Romans in AD 73. Farther north are the fresh water springs of Ein Gedi (“Goat Springs”), where David took refuge from the anger of King Saul, and where now a thriving agricultural oasis has grown up in the midst of that arid land.

To the people of Israel the Dead Sea is a source of mineral wealth, as well as being linked with their ancient history. To geologists and to archaeologists it poses many fascinating problems. Even the naturalist finds interest in the sparse plant and animal life. But above all it is unique, a natural curiosity without parallel in the world.

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