The Dead Sea, which shimmers like a blue mirror under all-days full of sunshine, is one of the most unusual bodies of water in the world.
It is set in the lowest dry land on earth, so it has no outlet. It is so loaded with minerals that no fish can live in it. It is so dense that bathers can lie back on its surface and read a newspaper.
The Dead Sea is located east of Jerusalem, along the border between Israel and Jordan. About half of it is actually in Jordanian territory.
The ancient Hebrews called this body of water the Sea of Salt. Other ancient names include the Sea of Solitude, the Sea of Arabah and the Asphalt Sea. The Crusaders called it the Sea of Satan.
The Dead Sea’s therapeutic qualities attracted Herod the Great. Its minerals and sticky black mud provided balms for Egyptian mummies and cosmetics for Cleopatra.
Now its health resorts treat psoriasis and arthritis, its skin-care products are marketed worldwide, and its industrial evaporation pans harvest potash and other minerals.
Wicked cities were destroyed
The region has many biblical connections. Here, though their locations are unknown, the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God with “sulphur and fire” and Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at the destruction (Genesis 19:24-26). Among the salt encrustations around the sea is an unusual column at the southern end called Lot’s Wife.
On the eastern side, the highest peak visible is Mount Nebo, where Moses glimpsed the Promised Land.
Further south stands the fortress of Machaerus, where Herod Antipas imprisoned and then executed John the Baptist.
On the western side, from north to south, are Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found; Ein Gedi, where David hid from King Saul in a cave (and cut off a corner of the king’s cloak when he entered the cave to relive himself); and Herod the Great’s fortress of Masada.
Evaporation concentrates the minerals
The Dead Sea is 67km long, 18km across at its widest point, and 420 meters below sea level.
Because it has no exit, water is lost only through evaporation, which leaves behind the minerals. The Dead Sea is nearly 10 times as salty as the open seas. The high concentration of minerals (predominantly magnesium chloride) provides the buoyancy that keeps bathers suspended — as well as a bitter taste.
A low promontory of land called el-Lisan (“the tongue”) projects across the sea from the east, dividing the southern third from the northern section.
At one time the Dead Sea covered four times as much land as it did in 2006, when its surface was falling by up to a meter a year.
Much of the water that once flowed into the Dead Sea is being diverted for drinking water and agriculture purposes, so there is not enough to offset the high evaporation rate.
Rescue proposals to prevent the sea drying up have included canals to bring water from the Mediterranean Sea or the Red Sea.
If the Dead Sea becomes rejuvenated with fresh water, this could fulfill a prophecy in Ezekiel 47:8-10, that it will “become fresh . . . and there will be very many fish”.