Now the "Dead Sea". Midway in the great valley stretching from Mount Hermon to the gulf of Akabah (Genesis 14:3; Numbers 34:3; Numbers 34:12). "The sea of the plain" (Arabah): Deuteronomy 3:17; Deuteronomy 4:49; Joshua 3:16. "The East Sea" (Ezekiel 47:8; Ezekiel 47:10-11; Joel 2:20). "The former sea," in opposition to "the hinder sea," i.e. the Mediterranean, because in taking the four points of the sky the spectator faced the E., having it in front of him and the W. behind him (Zechariah 14:8). It is 40 geographical miles long by nine to nine and three quarters broad. Its surface is 1,292 ft. (or, according to Lynch, 1,316; it varies greatly at different seasons) below the Mediterranean level. Its greatest depth in the northern part is 1,308 ft. Its intense saltness, specific gravity, and buoyancy, are well known. The saltness is due to masses of fossil salt in a mountain on its S.W. border, and to rapid evaporation of the fresh water which flows into it. Neither animals nor vegetables live in it.
Its shores are encrusted with salt. Earthquakes (as in 1834 and 1837) throw up large quantities of bitumen, detached from the bottom, upon the southern shore. The great depth of the northern division does not extend to the southern. It was observed by Mr. Tyrwhitt Drake that the bottom is still subsiding. At the southern end the fords between Lisan and the western shore are now impassable, though but three feet deep some years ago; again the causeway between the Rijm el Bahr and the mainland has been submerged for 12 years, though previously often dry. Dr. Tristram's theory seems probable, that the valley was formed by a depression of the strata subsequent to the English chalk period. The area was filled by a chain of large lakes reaching to the sea. The depression continuing, the heat and the consequent evaporation increased, until there remained only the present three lakes, Merom, Galilee, and the Dead Sea which depends on evaporation alone for maintaining its level. Conder has traced the old shore lines of the ancient great lakes.
The southern bay is shallow, and the shores marshy. It occupies probably what was originally the plain of Jordan, the vale of Siddim. Possibly the Jordan originally flowed on through the Arabah into the gulf of Akabah. The southern part of the sea, abounding in salt, bitumen, sulphur, and nitre, was probably formed at a recent date, and answers to the description of the valley of Siddim, "full of slime pits" (Genesis 14:10), and to the destruction of Sodom; etc., by fire and brimstone, and to the turning of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt. Scripture, however, nowhere says that Sodom, etc., were immersed in the sea, but that they were overthrown by fire from heaven (Deuteronomy 29:23; Jeremiah 49:18; Jeremiah 50:40; Zephaniah 2:9; 2 Peter 2:6). Josephus speaks of Sodomitis as burnt up, and as adjoining the lake Asphaltitis.
Ancient testimony, the recent formation of the sea, its bituminous, saline, volcanic aspect, the traditional names (Usdum), and the traditional site of Zoar (called by Josephus Zoar of Arabia), the hill of salt traditionally made Lot's wife, all favor the southern site for Sodom, etc. Genesis 13:10 is not to be pressed further than to mean that Lot from between Bethel and Ai saw enough to arrive at the conclusion that the Ciccar ("circuit") of the Jordan, i.e. the whole valley N. and S., was fertile and well watered. The lake, comparatively small before, after Sodom's destruction enlarged itself so as to cover the low valley land. It forms an oval divided into two parts by a peninsula projecting from its eastern side, beyond which the southern lagoon, for ten miles (one fourth of the whole length) is shallow, varying from 12 feet in the middle to three at the edges. The northern bottom lies half a mile below the level of the coast at Jaffa, and more than two thirds of a mile below that of Jerusalem! the deepest depression on the earth.
The surrounding region is in many places fertile, and teeming with animal and vegetable life; but every living thing carried by the Jordan into the waters dies. Their specific gravity exceeds that of any other water. A gallon weighs over 12 1/2 lbs. instead of 10, the weight of distilled water. Dr. Robinson could never swim before, but here could sit, stand, lie, or swim. It holds in solution ingredients six times those contained in common salt water: one third common salt (chloride of sodium) and two thirds chloride of magnesium. Of the rest chloride of calcium is the chief ingredient, besides silica, bitumen, and bromine in small quantities. The greasy look attributed to it exists in imagination only; it is transparent and generally clear. The lime and earthy salts, with the perspiration of the skin, make the water feel greasy. Sulphur springs abound around, and sulphur lies over the plains in layers or in fragments. Only in the district near wady Zurka have igneous rocks been found; the lake basin's formation is mainly due to the action of water.
Before the close of the eocene period the sea flowed the whole length of the Ghor and Arabah connecting them with the Red Sea; it is in fact a pool left by the retreating ocean. It receives the Jordan at the northern end; Zurka Main on its E. side (anciently Callirrhoe, and perhaps the older En Eglaim), also the Mojib (Arnon) and the Beni Hemad; on the S. the Kurahy or el Ahsy; on the W. Ain Jidy. Besides it receives torrents, full in winter though dried up in summer. The absence of any outlet is one of its peculiarities; evaporation through the great heat carries off the supply from without. Owing to this evaporation a haze broods over the water. The mountain walls on either side run nearly parallel; the eastern mountains are higher and more broken by ravines than the western. In color they are brown or red, whereas the western are greyish.
On the western side, opposite the peninsula separating the northern lake from the southern lagoon, stood Masada, now the rock Sebbeh, 1,300 ft. above the lake, where the Jewish zealots made their last stand against Sylva the Roman general, and slew themselves to escape capture, A.D. 71. On the western shore three parallel beaches exist, the highest about 50 ft. above the water. The Khasm Usdum or salt mount, a ridge five miles long, is at the S.W. corner. Its northern part runs S.S.E., then it bends to the right, then runs S.W.; 300 or 400 ft. high, of crystallized rock salt, capped with chalky limestone. The lower part, the salt rock, rises abruptly from the plain at its eastern base. It was probably the bed of an ancient salt lake, upheaved during the convulsion which depressed the bed of the present lake. Between the northern end of Usdum and the lake is a mound covered with stones, Um Zoghal, 60 ft. in diameter, 10 or 12 high, artificial; made by some a relic of Sodom or of Zoar.
The N. and S. ends are not enclosed by highlands as the E. and W. are; the Arabah between the S. of the Dead Sea and the Red Sea is higher than the Ghor or Jordan valley; the valley suddenly rises 100 ft. at the S. of the Dead Sea, and continues rising until it reaches 1,800 ft. above the Dead Sea, or 500 above the ocean, at a point 35 miles N. of Akabah. The peninsula separating the northern lake from the southern lagoon is called Ghor el Mezraah or el Lisan (the Tongue: so Joshua 15:2 margin); it is ten geographical miles long by five or six broad. "The Tongue," Lisan, is probably restricted to the southern side of the peninsula. The peninsula is formed of post-tertiary aqueous deposits, consisting of friable carbonate of lime, mixed with sandy marl and sulphate of lime ("gypsum"); these were deposited when the water of the lake stood much higher than now, possibly by the action of a river from the quarter of wady Kerak forming an alluvial bank at its embouchure. It is now undergoing a process of disintegration.
The torrents of the Jeib, Ghurundel, and Fikreh on the S., El Ahsy, Numeirah, Humeir, and Ed Draah on the E., Zuweirah, Mubughghik, and Senin on the W., draining about 6,000 square miles, bring down the silt and shingle which have filled up the southern part of the estuary. The Stylophora pistillata coral in the Paris Cabinet d'Hist. Naturelle was brought from the lake in 1837. Polygasters, polythalamiae, and phytolithariae were found in the mud and water brought home by Lepsius; the phosphorescence of the waters too betokens the presence of life. Lynch mentions that the birds, animals, and insects on the western side were of a stone color, undistinguishable from the surrounding rocks. The heat is what tries health rather than any miasma from the water. The lake is said to resemble Loch Awe, glassy, blue, and transparent, reflecting the beautiful colours of the encircling mountains; but the sterile look of the shores, the stifling heat, the sulphureous smell, the salt marsh at the S. end, and the fringe of dead driftwood, justify the name "Dead Sea."
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