Sea of salt

It is common to see bathers floating on its waters, at times even reading a newspaper. This is the Dead Sea. So called because the waters do not allow animals or plants to flourish in it because of its high percentage of salinity. It is one of the world’s saltiest water bodies, with 34% salinity.

Let’s take a look into the past and get an idea of how the lake was formed. Around 3.7 million years ago, the valley of the Jordan river, Dead Sea and northern Wadi Arabah (south of the Dead Sea basin, which forms part of the border between Israel to the west and Jordan to the east) was constantly being inundated by the waters from the Mediterranean Sea.

It formed a narrow, crooked bay (Sedom Lagoon, as it is known today) which connected to the sea through the Jezreel Valley. Over time, the Sedom Lagoon deposited beds of salt.

Then, two million years ago, the land between the Rift Valley and the Mediterranean Sea rose so high that it could not be flooded, and the long lagoon became a landlocked lake. The Sedom Lagoon extended at its maximum from the Sea of Galilee in the north to somewhere around 50 km south of the current southern end of the Dead Sea.

The first prehistoric lake to follow the Sedom Lagoon was Lake Amora, followed by Lake Lisan and finally by the Dead Sea. The water levels and salinity of these lakes have either risen or fallen as an effect of the tectonic dropping of the valley bottom, and due to climate variation. As the climate became more arid, Lake Lisan shrank and became saltier, leaving the Dead Sea as its last remainder.

The great amounts of sediment that collected on the floor of Lake Amora was heavier than the salt deposits, squeezing the salt upwards into what is today the Lisan Peninsula and Mount Sodom. Geologists say, the effect is similar to a large flat stone being placed in a bucket of mud, forcing it to creep up along the sides of the bucket. When the floor of the Dead Sea dropped further the salt mounts of Lisan and Mount Sodom stayed in place as high cliffs — almost 600 m of it. At places there are shallow valleys which at times house temporary vegetation.

The main salts of the lake are magnesium, sodium chloride and calcium chloride. Bacteria is almost non-existent.

The Dead Sea area is said to have curative properties. This could be attributed to the mineral content of the water, the low content of pollens and other allergens in the atmosphere and the reduced pressure at this great depth. Natural asphalt constantly floated to the surface where they were harvested with nets. The Egyptians were steady customers, as they required it in their process of embalming the mummies.

In the past

The area in and around the Dead Sea is also rich in history. It was an important trade route with ships carrying salt, asphalt and agricultural produce. Ships could anchor on both sides of the sea.

King Herod the Great (74/73 BCE – 4 BCE) built or rebuilt several fortresses and palaces on the western bank of the Dead Sea. In 70 CE, a group of Jewish zealots (a political movement in the first century who incited the people of Judea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy Land by force of arms, during the First Jewish–Roman War) took refuge here.

Also, in Roman times, some Essenes (a Jewish sect) settled on the Dead Sea’s western shore and left an extensive library, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, that were discovered in the 20th century. These Scrolls are ancient Jewish religious manuscripts, and have great historical, religious, and linguistic significance.

Almost all of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection is currently under the ownership of the Government of the State of Israel, and housed in the Shrine of the Book on the grounds of the Israel Museum.

Today, the sea is receding at a swift rate. The ever-decreasing levels of water in the Dead Sea is due to the simple fact that less water is being brought in via the Jordan River and other tributaries. This is due to human intervention in the form of pipelines, dams and storage reservoirs diverting the water to other areas. The decreasing water level could spell doom for the diverse ecosystem of plants, birds and other wildlife that depend on this water body for survival.

One potential solution to this problem is the construction of a canal that would channel water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The planned project is known as the Two Seas Canal, and would be 180 km long.

As this site is the lowest point on Earth, there is a high amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. Travelling the longest distance from the sun, the ultra violet rays are filtered — a boom for sun bathers, who can rest assured they won’t get burnt.

Hebrew: Yam ha-Melah - Sea of Salt.

Arabic: Al-Baḥr Al-Mayyit - Sea of Death

Greek and Roman: Asphalt Sea

Sea of salt

The Dead Sea is bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. It lies in the Jordan Rift Valley, and its main tributary is the Jordan River. It is 80 km long and 18 km wide. The depth is 400 m below normal sea level and at certain points is twice as deep.

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 3:45:26 PM |

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