Dead Sea

views updated May 08 2018


DEAD SEA (Heb. יָם הַמֶּלַח, Yam ha-Melaḥ; "Salt Sea"), an inland lake in central Ereẓ Israel. It was created in the Upper Pleistocene Age by the drying up of the Rift Valley Sea (except for the southern end which probably dates to historical times). The measurements of the sea are not constant; its length is about 50 mi. (80 km.), maximum width about 11 mi. (18 km.), and total area about 363 sq. mi. (940 sq. km.). It lies about 1,305 ft. (398 m.) below the level of the Mediterranean and is thus the lowest point on earth (for further details see *Israel: Mineral Resources, Dead Sea Minerals). In the Bible it is usually called Yam ha-Melaḥ ("Salt Sea"; Gen. 14:3; Num. 34:3; Josh. 15:2, etc.). The "bay" (Heb. lashon, "tongue") of the Dead Sea mentioned in the last citation probably refers to the bays on the northern and southern ends of the sea and not to the Lisān (Halashon) Peninsula which juts out from about the middle of its eastern shore. Alternative biblical names for the sea are Yam ha-Aravah ("Sea of the Aravah"; Deut. 3:17; Josh. 3:16; 12:3) and "eastern sea," a term used by the inhabitants of the country west of the Dead Sea to distinguish it from the Mediterranean (Ezek. 47:18; Joel 2:20). In biblical times the western shore of the Dead Sea was included within the Egyptian province of Canaan while the eastern shore was largely uninhabited until the establishment of the kingdoms of Moab and Edom in the 13th century b.c.e. With the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the eastern shore was divided between the tribe of Reuben and the Moabites, north and south of the Arnon, and the western shore was occupied by Judah (the tribe and the kingdom) until 586 b.c.e. After the Babylonian Exile, the entire eastern shore passed into the possession of the Nabateans and the western shore was divided between Judea and Idumea. The Nabateans extracted bitumen from the sea (mentioned in Gen. 14:10) and sold it to Egypt where it was used in embalming mummies. In the Hellenistic period the Dead

Sea began to attract the attention of Greek scientists becauseof its peculiar natural phenomena. It is mentioned by Aristotle in his Meteorology (2:3, 39) and also by Strabo (5:2, 42). The common Latin name for the sea, Lacus Asphaltitis (Lake of Asphalt), is first recorded in this period. The successors of Alexander the Great, Antigonus and Demetrius, attracted by the wealth which the Nabateans derived from the sea, tried to subject them, but failed (Diodorus, 19:95–96). Alexander Yannai, on the other hand, succeeded in his military campaigns in conquering the entire area around the Dead Sea and thus secured for his kingdom the income from its products. Navigation developed on the sea in Hellenistic and Roman times; Vespasian's ships pursued the Jews fleeing by way of the sea during the Jewish War (66–70/73). The physical properties of the sea were well known by this time and are mentioned by Pliny, Tacitus, and Solinus. Vespasian ordered a bound man to be thrown into the sea to determine whether he would sink. In the Talmud the Dead Sea was called Yammah shel Sedom, "the Sea of Sodom"; according to R. Dimmi, "no one ever drowns in the Sea of Sodom" (Shab. 108b). It was considered the juridical boundary of Ereẓ Israel (tj, Shev. 6:1, 36c). Throwing an object into the sea was suggested as a means of disposing of a religiously or morally undesirable advantage which a person had received unintentionally (Av. Zar. 3:9; Av. Zar. 49b; Tosef., Dem. 6:13, etc.). The name Dead Sea first appears in Roman times in writings of Pausanias (Periegesis 5:7, 4–5) and Galen, who made the most thorough study of the sea and its properties (De simplicium medicamentorum facultatibus 4:20). Documents from the time of the Bar Kokhba War (132–135) found in Dead Sea caves indicate that En-Gedi was the main supply port for the Jewish army during the final phase of the war. In Byzantine times the Dead Sea attracted pilgrims; on the Madaba Map two ships are depicted navigating the sea, one sailing northward with a cargo of salt and the second southward with wheat. The Arabs called the sea Buḥayrat Sadūm wa-ʿAmūra (the Sea of Sodom and Gemorrah) or Baḥr Zuʾār (the Sea of Zoar). The modern Arabic name for the Dead Sea, Baḥr Lūt (the Sea of Lot), first appears in the account of the Persian traveler Nasir-i Khusrau in 1047. In Crusader times navigation again increased on the sea; Idrīsī in 1154 mentions small boats sailing on it. Heavy customs duties were levied on goods transported across the sea; the Hospitalers obtained an exemption from them in 1152 which was renewed in 1177. The Dead Sea made a strong impression on European pilgrims who called it "the Devil's Sea." The Arab historian and geographer Yāqūt (1225) refers to it as al-Buḥayra al-Muntina, "the Stinking Sea." It was generally believed that deadly vapors emitted from the water prevented all life in its vicinity but at no time was the land along its shores wholly uncultivated. The large oasis of Zoar to the south was famous for its palm groves. A detailed account of the produce of these groves and of the methods used in their irrigation and cultivation are given in legal documents found in the *Judean Desert caves (second century c.e.) The southern part of the sea – the shallowest – was possibly created by an earthquake which occurred in historical times. This section has generally been regarded as the site of the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; some scholars, however, locate them farther north. The southern part of the western shore, although barren, was studded with fortifications, such as the Roman forts at Meẓad Bokek and Meẓad Zohar, and above all the fortress of Masada. The fertile oasis of En-Gedi north of Masada produced balsam and many kinds of semi-tropical fruits. On the northwestern shore the Essenes established themselves at *Qumran (Meẓad Hasimin) and Ein Fashkha. On the eastern shore are, from north to south, the oasis of Bet ha-Jeshimot (Khirbat al-Suwayma); the warm springs of Kallirhoe; a fort at Qaṣr al-ʿAsal; and a road station at Beit Nimrin (Rujm al-Numayra) where the road from Kerak to Zoar descends into the valley. Until 1830 a ford was reported to have existed between the Lisān Peninsula and the opposite shore but this later disappeared.

[Michael Avi-Yonah]

In the 19th and 20th Centuries

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Dead Sea attracted many explorers and scholars. In 1806–07, the German U.J. Seetzen toured its shores and took notes on its morphology and climate. In 1837, the Irishman C. Costigan descended in a boat from Lake Kinneret to the Dead Sea, where he was caught in a storm, thrown up on the Lisān Peninsula, and died of hunger and thirst before aid could be brought. Between 1838 and 1872, the scholars E. Robinson, F. de Saulcy, and B. Tristram conducted research mainly into the region's historical geography.In 1847 the British naval officer T. Molyneux toured the Dead Sea, also going by boat from Lake Kinneret; he fell ill and dieda few days later in Beirut. In 1848, an expedition of the American navy led by W.F. Lynch toured the Dead Sea area. Lynch named the two capes of the Lisān Peninsula "Cape Costigan" and "Cape Molyneux"; his own name was in turn commemorated by the German geographer C. Ritter who named the narrows connecting the southern with the northern basin "Lynch Straits." Further travelers who explored the Dead Sea include the geologists L. Lartet (France), M. Blanckenhorn (Germany), E. Hull and G.S. Blake (Great Britain; the latter was murdered by Arabs on the Dead Sea shore in 1940).

On the initiative of M. *Novomeysky, the first potash and bromine works were built in 1930 at Rabbat Ashlag near Kallia in the northwest corner of the Dead Sea by the Palestine Potash Company. A supplementary plant was opened in 1937 at the southern end of the western shore, at the foot of Mount Sedom. Among the pioneers working at both places was a group composed of members of Ha-Kibbutz ha-Me'uḥad which called itself "Pelugat Yam ha-Melaḥ." A hotel was opened at Kallia in the 1930s. In 1939, the kibbutz *Bet ha-Aravah was established northeast of Rabbat Ashlag. In Israel's War of Independence, the Jewish workers of Rabbat Ashlag and Kallia and the settlers of Bet ha-Aravah found themselves completely cut off by the Transjordanian Arab Legion; during the night of May 19, 1948, they succeeded in evacuating the sites and sailing over the Dead Sea southward to reach the Sedom potash plant in whose defense they participated until the end of the war. In "Operation Lot" (October 1948) overland contact with Sedom was reestablished, and in March 1949 units of the Israeli Army moved along the Dead Sea shore north to the site of En-Gedi which had been allocated to the Jewish state in the 1947 un partition plan. In 1955, the new Sedom potash plant of the Dead Sea Works began operating after the Beersheba-Sedom highway was completed. In 1995 a new plant for magnesium was established, a joint project of Israeli and Germanfirms. Kibbutz En-Gedi was founded in 1953, and the motor road leading there from Sedom was built in 1956. The Dead Sea region was further integrated into Israel's communications network with the construction of the Arad-Sedom and Sedom-Eilat highways in 1964 and 1967 respectively. These not only aided production and marketing of the Dead Sea Works but also created conditions for the development of the tourism and recreation branch in the region. In the late 1960s a restaurant, hotel, picnic camps, and a museum of the Dead Sea Works were opened at Shefekh Zohar, two large hotels and bathing facilities at Ein Bokek making use of medicinal springs and thermal mud, a museum at the foot of Masada Rock, a nature reserve and nature study center at En-Gedi, youth hostels, etc. The occupation of the Judean Desert and the entire west coast of the Dead Sea by Israel in the Six-Day War made the region again easily accessible from Jerusalem.

According to measurements taken from 1818, the level of the Dead Sea waters rose, until 1898, by 36 ft. (11 m.), but since that time it has steadily fallen. Between 1930 and 1997, for example, the water level fell by 100 ft. (30 m.). One of the main reasons for the drop in the water level has been the use made of Jordan River water for agriculture and industry. Another reason is the water exploitation of Dead Sea industries, which have been drying out the sea in phosphate production. Up to 1977 the Dead Sea stretched over two basins, a large northern one and a smaller and shallower southern basin. In 1977, the water level was so low that a ribbon of dry land appeared between the two basins. The southern basin became a series of steaming pools, so that the present-day Dead Sea consists in effect of only the northern basin. Recently, as a result of the low water level, a new phenomenon, large suckholes, began to appear near the shore.

At the beginning of the 21st century 2,250 people were living in the area's kibbutzim, moshavim, and urban communities. The Shefekh Zohar and Ein Bokek area had about 1,550 hotel rooms and served as the center of the region's tourism. Tourist attractions were based on the sea itself, curative sites, and wildlife.

[Efraim Orni /

Shaked Gilboa (2nd ed.)]


J. Braslavi, Ha-Yadata et ha-Areẓ, 3 (1951); J. Almog-Eshel, Ḥevel Yam ha-Melaḥ (1956); Abel, Géog, 1 (1933), 498–505; Powell and Kelso, in: basor, 95 (1944), 14–18; C. Klein, On the Fluctuations of the Level of the Dead Sea since the Beginning of the 19thCentury (Israel Water Commission, Hydrological Paper No. 7, 1960); W.F. Lynch, Narrative of the United States Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea (1850); A. Molyneux, in: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, 18 (1848), 104–30; M. Novomeysky, The Dead Sea (1936).

Dead Sea

views updated May 14 2018


A body of water in Palestine at the southern end of the Jordan Valley. The Dead Sea, whose surface lies 1,286 feet below sea level, is the lowest point on the surface of Earth. Its name is well chosen, since the excessive chemical content of the lake, including potassium, sodium, and magnesium chlorides, prevents all forms of vegetation and sea life from existing there. It resembles the Great Salt Lake of Utah in that both have a salt concentration of more than 20 percent, almost six times that of ordinary sea water. The Israelites called it the Salt Sea. The OT refers to it also as the Sea of the Arabah, i.e., of the desert. The Greeks were fascinated by the chunks of bitumen that were occasionally found floating on its surface, and therefore they referred to it as the Asphalt Lake. In modern Arabic it is the Bahr Lūt (Lot's Sea), recalling Gn 19.129.

In its northern sector the waters of the Dead Sea reach down to depths of about 1,300 feet. The warm and dry climate causes heavy evaporation and leaves a bluish haze hanging perpetually over the lake; thus although it has no outlet, a natural balance with the incoming waters of the jordan River is maintained, so that the level of the Dead Sea from year to year is fairly constant; but the minerals carried into it remain. In recent years, however, the inflow has been greatly reduced by the increased use of the waters of the Jordan for irrigation.

The lake, 48 miles long and 8 miles wide, is surrounded on both its east and west sides by barren highlands that break off unevenly as they descend to the water's edge. The hills on the eastern side are for the most part very precipitous, often plunging directly into the

depths of the lake and making travel along the shoreline impossible. At best, travel is hazardous even on the high plateau, which is broken by deep canyons leading down to the lake. The most treacherous of these are the Arnon (Wâdī el-Môjib) and the Zared Valley (Wâdī el-esā), both providing an abundant source of water for the Dead Sea during the winter rainy season.

A broad marl peninsula, called the Lisân (tongue), extends from the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea to within two miles of the opposite shore. It helps to form the large shallow bay, averaging about three feet in depth, at the southern extremity of the lake. According to biblical tradition, this area was the inhabited plain of the Five Cities, or Pentapolis, among which were the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. On the western corner of the bay there is a sizable natural mountain of salt (Jebel Usdum), which, with its contorted cliffs and dunes, easily evokes the image of Lot's wife.

Because of the lack of rainfall on the Desert of Judah, no rivers flow into the Dead Sea from the west, although a few wadies (e.g., Wadi Qumran) may have small streams in the winter. Nevertheless, two important springs form little oases along the western shore. One, called Ain Feshkha, is located close to the Dead Sea near the site of the former qumran community, where the dead sea scrolls were found. Farther south, another spring, that of Engedi (modern Arabic Ain Jidi), which lies on a plateau, provides sufficient water for rather extensive irrigation.

Symbolic of desolation and destruction, the wrath of nature and of God, the Dead Sea somewhat surprisingly figures but little in the pages of the Bible. The single account, however, of the punishment of the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gn 19.129 leaves mankind with an interpretative history that is not easily erased. Tradition has also placed the imprisonment and beheading

of John the Baptist at Herod's fortress of Machaerus overlooking the northeastern end of the Dead Sea.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 513514. d. baly, The Geography of the Bible (New York 1957) 202210. f. m. abel, "Notes complémentaires sur la Mer Morte," Revue biblique 38 (1929) 237260; Géographie de la Palestine, 2 v. (Paris 193338) 1:498505. e. g. kraeling, Rand McNally Bible Atlas (2d ed. New York 1962) 2526. w. smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, 2v. (London 187378).

[j. w. rausch]

Dead Sea

views updated May 29 2018


Salt-water lake situated between Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel.

The Dead Sea (Arabic, Bahr al-Lut; ancient Greco-Romano, Lacus Asphaltites), the lowest surface point on the planet (the actual lowest point is under the ocean), is situated in the 350-mile-long (560 km) JordanDead Sea rift valley, bordered by the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan to its east, the State of Israel to its southwest, and the West Bank to its northwest. The surface of the Dead Sea is 1,302 feet (397 m) below Mediterranean sea level, with an area of about 395 square miles (1,020 sq km). It is 51 miles (82 km) long.

This inland lake is the world's saltiest; its water contains about 25 percent solid concentrates, as compared to ocean concentrates of some 4 to 6 percent. The lake has no outlet and is fed from the north by waters of the Jordan River and wadis (streams that are usually dry but fill during the rainy season). In its middle, it is divided by the Lisan (tongue), which stretches across some 75 percent of the lake's width from Jordan toward Israel. Economically, the Dead Sea is important to the bordering regions, since each uses it for tourismmany visitors seek its purported medicinal properties and spas exist to allow such visits, especially in Israel. The land near its shores is also cultivated, with sweet irrigation water brought to those fields. From the Dead Sea's brine, both Jordan and Israel extract potash, an important component of agricultural fertilizer.


Davila, James R., ed. The Dead Sea Scrolls as Background to Post-biblical Judaism and Early Christianity: Papers from an International Conference at St. Andrews in 2001. Boston, MA: Brill, 2003.

Hodge, Stephen. The Dead Sea Scrolls Rediscovered: An Updated Look at One of Archaeology's Greatest Mysteries. Berkeley, CA: Seastone, 2003.

Let the Dead Sea Live; Concept Document: Moving towards a Dead Sea Basin Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Listings. Prepared by Friends of the Earth Middle East Consultant Team: Mike Turner, Gaith Fariz, Husan Abu Faris FoEME Team: Sefan Hoer-mann, Gidon Bromberg, 1 November 1999.

Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2003.

peter gubser

Dead Sea

views updated May 29 2018

Dead Sea a salt lake or inland sea in the Jordan valley, on the Israel–Jordan border. Its surface is 400 m (1,300 ft) below sea level. The name is recorded from Middle English, and is a translation of Latin mare mortuum, Greek (in the writings of Aristotle) hē nekra thalassa. The term was used by the Greeks and Romans for the Arctic Ocean in the North of Europe, perhaps because it was regarded as devoid of life or movement.
Dead Sea fruit a name for a legendary fruit, of attractive appearance, which dissolved into smoke and ashes when held (also called apple of Sodom); figuratively, a hollow disappointing thing. The fruit are described in the Travels attributed to the 14th-century John de Mandeville.
Dead Sea Scrolls a collection of Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts discovered in pottery storage jars in caves near Qumran between 1947 and 1956. Thought to have been hidden by the Essenes or a similar Jewish sect shortly before the revolt against Roman rule ad 66–70, the scrolls include texts of many books of the Old Testament; they are some 1,000 years older than previously known versions.

Dead Sea

views updated Jun 08 2018

Dead Sea (Al-Bahr-al-Mayyit) Salt lake in the Jordan valley, on the Jordan-Israel border. It is fed by the River Jordan. The surface, 403m (1320ft) below sea level, is the lowest point on Earth. It is situated in a hot, dry region, and much water is lost through evaporation. One of the world's saltiest waters, large amounts of its salts are extracted. It supports no life.