The Dead Sea and the Jordan River

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For centuries travelers have been drawn to the stunning and mysterious Dead Sea and Jordan River, a region which is unlike any other on earth in its religious and historical significance. In this exceptionally engaging and readable book, Barbara Kreiger chronicles the natural and human history of these storied bodies of water, drawing on accounts by travelers, pilgrims, and explorers from ancient times to the present. She conveys the blend of spiritual, touristic, and scientific motivations that have driven exploration and describes the modern exploitation of the lake and the surrounding area through mineral extraction and agriculture. Today, both lake and river are in crisis, and stewardship of these water resources is bound up with political conflicts in the region. The Dead Sea and the Jordan River combines history, literature, travelogue, and natural history in a way that makes it hard to put down.

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1 Some Early History, Travelers, and Myths

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The drive down to the Dead Sea from Jerusalem is a plunge of more than 4,000 feet in the space of twenty miles, and the sensation it creates is that of landing in an airplane, ears stopped and voices muffled. If one can reach the bottom of the valley before the sun shows itself over the eastern Moab Mountains, one will catch the pink wash that is thrown briefly on the western side. One drives south along the shore, with the lake stretching out on the left and separated from the road by bare, rocky beach, a few scrappy bushes scattered among the stones. Immediately to the right is the line of cliffs whose contours the road will follow most of the length of the sea.

The Moab Mountains, just a few miles across the lake, are veiled by a dusty haze, and the entire southern portion of the sea is barely distinguishable from the sky. The shore is outlined by a line of froth created by little waves stirring the edge of the water. The two-lane asphalt road winds as the coast does, a black ribbon imitating the thread of white foam.

 

2 Three Sailors and a River

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Exploration of the Dead Sea, most of which took place in the nineteenth century, may be roughly divided into two periods—from the end of the 1700s to 1848, and from 1865 through the early years of the 1900s, with the intervening years attached in different ways to both periods. Two hallmarks of the century were the Lynch expedition of 1848, in which the first half-century of exploration culminated, and the founding of the Palestine Exploration Fund, a society established in London in 1865 for the purpose of “investigating the Holy Land by employing competent persons to examine . . . archaeology, manners and customs, topography, geology, [and] natural science.” It might be said that the first half of the century saw the transition from individual exploration to organized expeditions, and that the second half systematized, organized, and refined the methods of inquiry. If the secrets of the Dead Sea were by then less mysterious, the attraction of the awesome valley was not less compelling, and more and more names—English, French, German, American—became associated with research efforts there.

 

3 Along the Briny Strand

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In 1800, when exploration of the Dead Sea was in its tentative early stage, there was no central source of information to which a potential traveler could refer in preparing for his trip. Hardly anything had been written about the region, and much of what had been written was so distorted by individual and religious bias that it was of little use to serious explorers. But by the middle of the century, things were considerably different, and by the third quarter, it has been noted, several thousand books and articles had been published about Palestine in general, many of them containing at least some reference to the Dead Sea or its environs.

Explorers of the second half of the nineteenth century inherited from those of the first half a dogged enthusiasm and a wealth of information about this previously little known, much misunderstood lake, and a good part of their time was devoted to sifting through the material, distilling questions and looking for leads. Given the remoteness of the Dead Sea valley and the diversity of the travelers, the constant exchange of information throughout those decades was remarkable. Some reports were admired, some criticized, and some even mocked. But if one thing can be said, it is that there was an eager audience, both lay and professional, for all that was written, and no explorer set out ignorant of the findings and opinions of those who had preceded him.

 

4 The Life of a Lake

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Only with great effort can we project ourselves far enough back in time to reconstruct the earlier years of our planet. Few are supplied with such natural elasticity of imagination, and the mind resists the elaborate stretching exercises it is called on to undertake. Yet geological history requires this extension, for only when we are thinking comfortably in terms of millions of years can we begin to visualize how the configurations of the earth came to be. What we may customarily refer to as sudden and dramatic upheavals that altered the earth’s surface forever were indeed dramatic, but sudden only in the way that a few hundred thousand years in the course of several billion may be considered so.

Our sense of time is gradually altered as we stand by the shore of the Dead Sea and consider the creation and evolution of this comparatively young lake, one of the youngest important bodies of water on earth. Eons of geological history are exposed in the sharp cliffs that tower over it, and we are asked to imagine figures such as a hundred million years as we extend back to its ancestry. We work our way slowly from there into the more manageable five million year range. Before we know it we have arrived at the era of its immediate predecessor, a mere 60,000 years ago, a figure with which we can feel quite at home. The Dead Sea itself is probably only about 12,000 years old, and so expanded has our sense of time become that its birth seems now to crowd the history of human civilization, which began roughly around the same time at, from all indications, nearby Jericho. Abraham’s migration somewhere in the second millennium BCE, marking the advent of western religions, seems within this context as accessible as our own childhoods, and the Byzantine period, which saw the last extensive settlement at the Dead Sea until this past century, strikes us as not just recent, but virtually contemporary. The alteration in our perception of time is startling. As the antique becomes familiar and ancient civilizations merge with our own, the brevity of human history is emphasized and the unity of our species seems attainable.

 

5 A Gentleman from Siberia

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Long before scientists and engineers turned their thoughts to the multiple potential of the Dead Sea, those who lived by its shores were finding a livelihood in its unusual treasures. Asphalt, though the most prized, was also the least predictable. A much more mundane substance was harvested with absolute reliability. After visiting the Dead Sea in the early 1740s, Pococke described the Arab practice of digging small pits on the beach. With the melting of the snow in the north, he explained, the Jordan River would swell, causing the lake to rise and overflow into the pits. When the water evaporated, the hollows would be left filled with inch-thick cakes of salt that were then collected. In this way, the tables of the surrounding countryside were supplied. In subsequent years, a number of travelers mentioned meeting salt-laden caravans en route to Gaza, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. At mid-century, an Englishman spoke of camels being brought to Mt. Sedom, rather than the Dead Sea, to be loaded with salt. The Arabs received ten shillings per load of five hundred pounds on their arrival in Jerusalem, he noted, in addition to which the purchaser was required to pay a duty to the Turkish Government. Evidently this commerce was eventually made illegal, and much of the contraband was transported during the night. One unhappy explorer, camping at Ein Gedi in the 1870s, complained about being kept awake all night by the running conversation his sentries carried on with the Arabs of a caravan as they led their camels up the narrow pass.

 

6 A Lake Divided

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After their evacuation from Qalya, the potash workers and kibbutzniks remained for months under siege at Sedom. On their release from the army a year later, the kibbutzniks split for ideological reasons into two groups and went north to found two new kibbutzim in the Galilee. Left at the plant was a group of six men: an Egyptian, a Turk, a Druse, and three Jews, one of whom was Langotzki. And there they stayed, isolated and idle, for four years, until the road from Beersheba was completed and contact with the rest of the country restored. Then they hauled in supplies, drilled for water, and prepared to resume production. The scientists at the potash works also contrived to make use of the surface water of the Dead Sea. At that time the influx from the Jordan River was still so great that it could be skimmed off the top of the lake and used for washing the evaporation pans of their salt residue.

Novomeysky suffered bitterly in those days. It was not only war, partition, destruction, and the ruin of everything he had spent a quarter of a century building that he had to bear, but, he felt, the betrayal of his own people, as well. No help, no sympathy was offered from official quarters for his loss. Not one expression of understanding did he hear for the fact that his company was struck down in its prime through no fault of his own; instead, he claims, only slanderous words came his way. The situation was complicated and unpleasant. The Government had no interest in the business; after all, the plant was entirely cut off from the rest of the country, besides which the machinery had rusted. But there were those who were convinced anyway of the importance of a Government takeover, and they persuaded Ben Gurion to form a Dead Sea committee to investigate. Such a committee was appointed in November 1949, purportedly to examine the problems connected with exploitation of the Dead Sea. Yet its real purpose, Novomeysky accused in an angry pamphlet published in 1950, was to fabricate an excuse for nationalizing his industry by discrediting management so thoroughly as to sway the public and leave the Government no alternative but to take over.

 

7 The River and Lake in Distress

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Every time I visit Israel, Jordan, or the West Bank, I feel compelled to go to the Dead Sea, if for no other reason than to see it, maybe to reassure myself it is still there. For me, the Dead Sea is like a creature in distress: a living organism ensnared by human need, or greed, depending on one’s vantage point, but in any case subject to the consequences of regional and local decisions that seem often to be based on short-term or parochial objectives. For millennia nature ran the show, and the Dead Sea’s vicissitudes were part of an exquisite ecological web. Only in recent times, indeed for hardly more than half a century, has its destiny been isolated from its environment, and to see it now is to have one’s capacity for empathy tested. The view is of a bruised landscape, and the situation challenges us to redefine our relationship with the natural world. Caged, the Dead Sea is at our mercy, as politically and environmentally charged debates and initiatives thunder from all corners of the region. Yet the lake itself is only half the picture. The Dead Sea is the terminus of the Jordan River, the other half of this environmental tragedy. The two are historically, religiously, and culturally coupled, their destinies intertwined by natural law. The situation today is dire, because the Jordan River, which figures so large in historical and religious memory, is threatened with extinction.

 

8 Reclamation and a Vision of the Future

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The complex and disturbing conflicts that have spread in the Middle East are identified by obvious issues of intransigence and militancy. Like a plague or a recurrent nightmare, hostility rules the land. In the Lower Jordan River Valley, where Israel, the Palestinian people, and the Kingdom of Jordan come together, the dispute has been sadly resistant to solutions for decades, and yet at that very geographical junction there are developments that may alleviate the despair. This is not to minimize intricacies and intractability: the situation is anything but simple, anything but static, and has several dimensions to it, some of which are at odds. Still, the very volatility of the circumstances, as well as the common threat that everyone recognizes, may encourage unparalleled productive responses.

Unlike the solution, the problem is straightforward: There is simply not enough fresh, potable water to sustain the growing populations of the Kingdom of Jordan, Palestine, and Israel; and the strain on Jordan has been magnified in the last few years by the arrival of two million refugees from Syria and Iraq. Aquifers are stressed, the Jordan River system is defunct, and the need keeps growing. The insufficient quantity of fresh water is at issue, but fair proportioning is also a key element. Israel controls the major aquifer that runs under the occupied West Bank, which means that Palestinians are dependent on Israel’s will. The Joint Water Committee, the water sharing mechanism formed under the Oslo Agreement, governs apportionment but is insubstantial. Palestinians do not receive a share commensurate with their needs, even though Israel has recently become virtually water independent. Desalination of Mediterranean water was long thought of as the panacea, but the cost had been prohibitive. In recent years the technology has improved to such a degree that Israel now runs five desalination plants on the Mediterranean coast and produces more fresh water than it needs, highlighting the question of reasonable distribution.

 

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