Driving down from Yerushalayim to the Dead Sea, you will pass a sign indicating that you have reached sea-level. There is usually a Bedouin Arab, with his camel, lounging in the vicinity ready to offer you a genuine Middle-Eastern camel ride. From there, you continue your descent. To be more precise, the elevenmile wide Dead Sea lies at about 1,373 feet (almost a quarter of a mile) below sea-level and is the lowest exposed point on earth.
It is the lowest exposed place on earth, because the Mariana Trench, near Japan, which dives down to 36,201 feet below sea-level, is far lower. If Mount Everest were to be submerged inside, 7,166 feet of water would tower above its peak. Almost no one has been there except for a few intrepid submariners. When a U.S. manned submersible pierced the Trench’s depths for the first time, in 5720/1960, its staff was amazed to discover foot-long soles swimming happily with shrimp at a water pressure of eight tons per square inch.
The Dead Sea is part of series of lakes, stretching along the 3,700-mile long Great Rift Valley, which makes its way up East Africa, through the Red Sea, and via Israel and Syria into Turkey. The Rift Valley is a site of seismic activity and this is why Eretz Yisroel suffers periodically from earthquakes. Geologically, earthquakes and volcanoes are good friends. The debris of Israel’s quiescent volcanoes can be witnessed in Teveryah’s old buildings, built from black basalt rock formed from volcanic lava.
Geologists claim that, thousands of years ago, there were active volcanoes in the Golan. Their peaks mark the border between Israel and Syria in two parallel rows, one in Israel and one in Syria; the massive Israel/Syria tank battles of the Yom Kippur War were fought in the plain between them. Fortunately, they are not expected to re-erupt for many more centuries. The Torah writes that Avraham lifted his eyes and “looked at the entire Jordan plain, which was entirely irrigated before Hashem destroyed Sodom and Amorah.” (Bereishis 13:10). Josephus mentions that, in his time, Yericho was still “the most fertile spot in Yehudah,” and the Jordan Delta remained wondrously fertile until the beginning of the Nineteenth century.
The Malbim theorizes that the site of the Dead Sea was originally a wonderfully fertile delta. When Hashem destroyed Sodom, He gouged out a huge crater, which became filled up with the waters of the Jordan River, and salt and minerals from deep underground leached in and made its waters salty.
A practical ramification of this theory is that, according to the Malbim, it might be inappropriate to bless “Oseh ma’asei Bereishis” on the Dead Sea because it would be of post-Creation vintage. However, core samples drilled from the Dead Sea floor indicate that it has existed since before Avraham’s time. Pillars of precipitated salt next to the Dead Sea are reminiscent of Lot’s wife who turned into a pillar of salt.
The rise and fall of the Dead Sea over the centuries relates to Israel’s annual rainfall and has always been an indication of prosperity or famine. At a time when the sea was rising dramatically (an indication of abundant rainfall), historical records report bumper harvests. During subsequent years (3735/25 BCE-3736/24 BCE), the sea-level dropped and Josephus records that Herod had to sell his treasures to supply his starving populace with Egyptian corn.
The Dead Sea becomes saltier each year because it is an endorheic system. In Greek, endo means “inside” and rhein means to flow; in other words, every drop of water that enters has no way to leave except through evaporation, while it leaves salts and minerals behind.
The difference between the sweet water of Lake Kinneret and the bitter water of the Dead Sea has been compared to the difference between the philanthropist and the miser. By constantly giving away its waters, the Kinneret retains its sweetness, while the Dead Sea only becomes ever bitterer by hoarding every drop.
The waters of the Dead Sea are ten times saltier than the Mediterranean and packed with riches that include twenty-one minerals, such as magnesium, calcium, bromine and potassium. Twelve of these minerals are unique to the Dead Sea and not found in any other ocean or sea. It is said that Queen Cleopatra made cosmetics of its mud and waters. The Egyptians used the bitumen that floats up from the bottom to embalm dead bodies, while the physician, Galen (from whom the Rambam gained many of his medical ideas), and the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, reported the health benefits of Dead Sea water.
Nowadays, the sea is evaporated for its treasures that include Crude Pan Salt (containing magnesium and calcium chlorides) used for tanning and animal food, and potash for fertilizer. For people who want the therapeutic benefits of Dead Sea water without hassle, bath salts and cosmetics are exported worldwide.
LIFE IN THE DEAD SEA
The Dead Sea is not as dead as it looks. In 5696/1936, the marine biologist, Benjamin Elazari-Volcani, discovered organisms tough enough to survive in the saline soup. These are biological wonders that can help revolutionize the development of salt-resistant crops. An algae, known as Dunaliella, survives by filling itself with glycerol, which keeps out salt, and 40,000 Dunaliella cells per milliliter have sometimes been counted on the sea’s surface.
In 5740/1980, after a rainy winter, the Dead Sea’s blue waters turned red when billions of red-pigmented halobacteria (similar to bacteria) began feasting off teeming Dunaliella algae.
The Dead Sea once consisted of a deep northern lake and a shallow south lake, separated by a jutting landmass, known as El Lisan (Arabic for “the tongue”). The southern lake was generally only a few meters deep. However, in 5735/1975, the southern lake became cut off from the north and, nowadays, if you travel south along the Dead Sea shore, you will notice that about two-thirds down, the sea is divided up into pools by immensely long earth barriers. The south sea has totally evaporated and this is the work of Israel’s Dead Sea Works and Jordan’s Arab Potash Company.
This is the most dramatic symptom of the dying of the Dead Sea, which is sinking at the rate of approximately a meter a year. The sea has already lost about a third of its surface area – it may almost disappear in a few centuries, having already dropped about twenty meters in the past few decades. Photos from the 5690s/1930s, show boats at locations where they would, nowadays, be stranded a kilometer from the water’s edge.
Although the average rainfall in the Dead Sea valley is only a few inches a year, the sun’s thirsty drinking of the sea’s waters (about 34 billion cubic feet annually) was offset by inflow from the Jordan River. However, since the early 5720s/1960s, 90% of the Jordan is siphoned off for human use and the Jordan has shrunk to a miserable trickle. If this trend continues unchecked, it is projected that the Dead Sea will end its days as a thick soup in the middle of an arid valley.
The problem is exacerbated an extra 25% by the aggressive evaporation of huge quantities of seawater by various companies to extract the sea’s minerals. Israel and Jordan are not likely to start taking less water and, indeed, it is projected that the two countries will exploit the Dead Sea even more. A daring method to revive the dying sea was first considered by William Allen, in 5615/1855, and mentioned by Theodor Herzl in his 5662/1902 book, Alt-Neuland – to hew out a channel from a neighboring sea and produce hydro-electricity as the water plunges about 1,750 vertical feet below sea level to reach its new home. Since then, it has been realized that some of the seawater could be made potable en route by forcing it through reverse-osmosis membranes.
There has been an ongoing debate whether to build a Med-Dead or Red- Dead channel. A Med-Dead channel from the Mediterranean would be shorter but Jordan is, naturally, more interested in a 125-mile Red-Dead channel, leading from the Red Sea that is adjacent to their territory. What effect this will have on the delicate coral reefs next to Eilat is an open question.
Last year, on May 9, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement to study the proposal of building a “Two Seas Canal” but this grandiose thirteen- year, five- billion dollar project is still at the theoretical stage. Meanwhile, the lowest exposed spot on earth continues to drop lower about a half-inch every week.