A Sea of Superlatives—But Dead!
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN ISRAEL
IT IS the saltiest, the lowest, the deadest and, for some, the most healthful body of water on earth. Over the centuries it has been called the Stinking Sea, the Devil’s Sea, and the Lake of Asphalt. The Bible calls it the Salt Sea and the sea of the Arabah. (Genesis 14:3; Joshua 3:16) A tradition confirmed by many scholars maintains that the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah are deep under its waters. So it is also known as the Sea of Sodom or the Sea of Lot, who was a Bible character involved in the ancient drama of those cities.—2 Peter 2:6, 7.
Some of those names do not exactly conjure up the idea of a pleasant place to visit. Yet, each year thousands of people are drawn to this unusual body of water, today commonly known as the Dead Sea or Salt Sea. Why is it so salty? Is it really dead, and are its waters healthful at the same time?
The Lowest and Saltiest Sea
The Dead Sea is situated on the northern part of the Great Rift Valley fault line, which extends southward into East Africa. The Jordan River snakes its way down from the north until it reaches the lowest surface point on earth—approximately 1,370 feet [418 m] below sea level. There the inland sea is flanked by the rift walls—the Judean hills to the west and the mountains of Moab in Jordan to the east.
But what makes the Dead Sea so salty? Salts—mainly magnesium, sodium, and calcium chlorides—are washed into the Dead Sea in water flowing from the Jordan River and other smaller rivers, streams, and springs. It is estimated that the Jordan River alone deposits an incredible 850,000 tons of salt each year. Because the sea is at such a low point, the water cannot drain out; the only way for it to escape is by evaporation. On a hot summer day, an enormous seven million tons of water evaporates, which explains why the volume of the lake does not increase. Although the water disappears, the salts and the minerals are left behind. This results in the saltiest sea on earth, with a salinity of about 30 percent, several times saltier than the oceans.
From antiquity, people have been intrigued by the unique characteristics of the Dead Sea. Greek philosopher Aristotle heard that the Sea was “so bitter and salt[y] that no fish [lived] in it.” The unusually high concentration of salt results in a density that creates increased natural buoyancy, making it easy for even nonswimmers to stay afloat. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells of how Roman General Vespasian put this phenomenon to the test by throwing his prisoners of war into the sea.
At this point you may be wondering how this body of water can be dead and yet healthful.
The Most Healthful Sea?
Medieval travelers brought home tales of a sterile sea with no birds, no fish, and no vegetation. It was even thought that the smelly vapors from the lake were deadly. This, of course, propagated the idea of a stinking sea that was dead. It is true that because of its high salinity, only simple organisms, such as some resilient forms of bacteria, can survive in its waters and any unfortunate fish that are swept into the sea with incoming water quickly expire.
The sea is unable to support life, but the same cannot be said of the surrounding region. Though much of the area is barren, there are pockets of land that stand out as lush oases with waterfalls and tropical plants. The region is also recognized as a flourishing wildlife habitat. There are 24 species of mammals living near the sea, including the sand cat, the Arabian wolf, and the oft-sighted ibex. Freshwater sources provide habitat for the many amphibians, reptiles, and fish. Since the Dead Sea is located on a major migration route, over 90 bird species have been identified here, such as the black stork and the white stork. The griffon vulture and the Egyptian vulture can also be spotted here.
But how is the Dead Sea the most healthful body of water? In ancient times people were said to drink the water, believing that it had curative properties—something that is obviously not recommended today! More reasonably, the salt water is said to have a cleansing effect on the body. The therapeutic benefits of the whole region are also highly extolled. The low altitude creates a naturally oxygen-enriched atmosphere. The high concentration of bromide in the air is said to have a relaxing effect, and the mineral-rich black mud and hot sulfur springs along the shores are both used to treat a number of skin ailments and arthritic disorders. Furthermore, balsam, a tree that used to grow in the area, has always been valued and used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes.
Asphalt From the Sea
One of the strangest phenomena of the Dead Sea is its discharge of bitumen (asphalt), which has occasionally been seen floating to the surface in lumps.* In 1905 the periodical The Biblical World reported that a piece of bitumen weighing about 6,000 pounds [2,700 kg] had floated ashore in 1834. Bitumen has been described as “the first petroleum product ever used by the human race.” (Saudi Aramco World, November/December 1984) Some people used to think that earthquakes caused chunks to break away from the bed of the Dead Sea and then float to the surface. It is more likely that the asphalt filters up through diapirs or cracks and reaches the sea bottom together with salt rock structures. Then, when the salt rocks melt, blocks of asphalt surface.
Over the centuries bitumen has been used in various ways—as waterproofing for boats, in construction, and even as an insect repellent. It is thought that about the middle of the fourth century B.C.E., Egyptians started to make abundant use of bitumen for mummification, although this belief is challenged by some experts. At that time the Nabataeans, an ancient nomadic people who settled in the area of the Dead Sea, monopolized the trade in the region. They brought the bitumen ashore, cut it up, and then took it to Egypt.
The Dead Sea is truly a sea of superlatives. It is no exaggeration to describe this sea as the saltiest, the lowest, the deadest, and perhaps the most healthful sea. Certainly it is one of the most interesting seas on our planet!
Petroleum-derived bitumen is also called asphalt. However, in many places asphalt refers to bitumen mixed with mineral aggregates such as sand or gravel, often used in the paving of roads. For the purpose of this article, we have used bitumen and asphalt interchangeably to indicate the crude product.
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PRESERVED IN BRINE
Historians report that the Dead Sea was once a bustling trade route—a claim that has been backed up by the recent discovery of two wooden anchors.
These anchors were found on the receding shores of the Dead Sea, close to where the ancient harbor of En-gedi was once located. One anchor is thought to be about 2,500 years old, making it the oldest anchor ever discovered in the Dead Sea area. The second one is thought to be about 2,000 years old and is believed to have been crafted with the best Roman technology of the time.
Wooden anchors usually decompose in normal seawater, and the metal ones last. Yet, the lack of oxygen in the Dead Sea and its salinity have preserved the wood and attached ropes, which are in remarkably good condition.
Wooden anchor dated to between the 7th and the 5th centuries B.C.E.
Photograph © Israel Museum, Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority
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Reading the newspaper while floating