Dead Sea PDF Print E-mail
Written by Micah Key and Stephen Langfur
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Dead Sea
Biblical Dead Sea

beach-and-mts-narrow.jpgDeep in the Dead Sea Transform, at the lowest habitable place on the face of the earth, lies a lake that seems to belong to another world. It is 42 miles long by 11 wide. On its east and west rise the formidable walls of the rift valley.

The salt concentration varies between 25 and 35%. (The Atlantic ocean's is 3.5%.) No person has yet been found who can sink here. Aristotle heard about this buoyancy, perhaps from his distinguished pupil, Alexander. In the Meteorology (2, 359a) he mentions a sea in this land which is so constituted that when you tie a man up and throw him in, he doesn't sink. Josephus reports that the Roman general Vespasian, with plenty of captives on hand from the Jewish revolt of 66 AD, put the statement to a test (Jewish War, IV 8.4):

Accordingly, when Vespasian went to see it, he commanded that some who could not swim should have their hands tied behind them, and be thrown into the deep, when it so happened that they all swam as if a wind had forced them upwards.

The various names of the lake through the ages reflect the fascination it has aroused: the Sea of the Desert and the Salt Sea (both in Deuteronomy 3:17);  the Asphalt Sea; the Sea of Sodom; the Stink Sea, from a time when the smell of sulfur was more pervasive here. The sulfur led the Crusaders to call it the Devil's Sea. 
Where do the salts come from? There are brackish springs, for one thing. Flash floods bring in salts. And before the sea had its present form or content, the region was connected via the Jordan and Jezreel valleys to the Mediterranean: sea water filled the deepening rift. To these three factors we must add a fourth: evaporation. Other things being equal, the lower we go on the face of the earth, the hotter it is. The evaporation from the Dead Sea is enormous, reaching 25 mm. per day in the summer months. (In four summer days it loses the equivalent of its yearly supply of rain.) When evaporation occurs, the salts are left behind. The same occurs to the human body here, so you must drink plenty or join Lot's wife.

On the sea bottom are large amounts of asphalt (bitumen, referred to in the Bible as pitch or tar). When the earth trembles (as it often does in this deep rift) pieces break away and float to the surface. The sea has been known to spew up chunks as big as houses. In the third millennium BC, people from the city of Arad (in the desert west of Masada) exported the asphalt to Egypt, which used it to seal ships and mummies. (The word "mummy" comes from the Semitic word for bitumen, "mumiya.") For a while, in the Hellenistic period, the Nabataeans had the monopoly on hauling in the asphalt and selling it to Egypt. Sodium chloride was also valuable (as reflected in the root of the English "salary," and a worker, we hope, is "worth her salt"). Salt appears above the water in the southern basin, whose western shore includes a mountain of it eight miles long. In the 2nd century BC, the camel caravans of the Nabataeans bore it, together with asphalt, to harbors on the Mediterranean.

Today (2005) the Dead Sea is 418 meters below the level of the oceans and falling. Its level has varied greatly throughout the ages, however. During the last 150 years, it has fluctuated between a height of -389.5 meters below sea level and the present -418. Source.  In 1900, the Palestine Exploration Fund made a mark on a rock at the water level. It is still visible (enlarge photo, right), but today it is over our heads as we drive by.

Before the states of Israel, Jordan and Syria harnessed the sources of the Jordan River for drinking and irrigation, the sea received 1.2 billion cubic meters of fresh water yearly. It lost that much through evaporation (the sky is its only outlet), so a balance was maintained. Today it gets a billion cubic meters less; its surface is sinking by more than a meter per year. The northern basin is 1100 feet deep, so it will be around, though shrinking, for a while. The shallow southern basin, however, would be utterly dry if Israel and Jordan didn't channel water to it from the northern one (note the canal in the photo below).

These two nations have an economic interest in keeping the southern basin wet. The salts are valuable. Among them are chlorides of potash, magnesium and bromide. The shallow southern basin is divided into a series of evaporation pools. The salts reach saturation points at different stages and are then hauled in.


Afloat in the Dead Sea

Floating in the Dead Sea is a unique experience, but there are several cautions:

1. Avoid getting water in the eyes. It stings like mad, although this passes. For the same reason, don't splash one another.

2. Don't swallow the water.

3. Salt water can tarnish cheap jewelry.

4. There are rocks. It is best to sit down on the shore and paddle in.

5. The human body is 70% water. When you emerge from the Dead Sea, your skin is covered with salt, and salt absorbs water. Therefore, you must take a shower. Otherwise, you will shrink to 30% of your previous size. Showers are available free at all the official beaches.


The mud of the Dead Sea is packed with magnesium, potassium, sodium, bromide and calcium, and our skin needs all of them. When the mud dries on the skin, furthermore, it absorbs any toxins that are there as a result of diet, so that one feels - and looks - refreshed.

In response to a man who had Dead Sea water imported all the way to Italy, an ancient doctor named Galen (129-199AD) pointed out that you could get the same effect by putting salt in your bath. (De simplicium medicamentorum temperamentis 4, 20.) But one would have to have the right minerals in the salt.

Note: The region of the Dead Sea is excellent for the relief (though not necessarily permanent cure) of psoriasis. The crucial factor is not the water, but rather the length of the solar rays that reach this depth, while harmful ultraviolet rays do not. Treatment requires a stay of about one month.