by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books

 

Chapter 29 | Contents | Chapter 31


The Holy Land and the Bible
A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine

Cunningham Geikie D.D.

With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
Special Edition

(1887)

CHAPTER 30—THE DEAD SEA

The distant Past and the Present—The Jordan near its MouthThe Waters of the Dead SeaIts TributariesEvaporation Extraordinary—How the Sea was formedThe Original Dimensions of the SeaThe Winter StormsBaked RockThe View from the Mouth of the JordanThe Plain of EngediHenna and the Apple of SodomThe Fountain of EngediSituation of the Cities of the PlainThe probable Mode of their DestructionLot's Wife—The Abode of Silence and Death

How vast is the interval between the present day and the time of the earlier of those events which have given the Dead Sea and the Jordan an interest so imperishable! The ancient world has passed away, and the modern world has grown old since then. And yet, though the hosts of Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome, the swift squadrons of the Saracens, and the mailed battalions of the Crusaders, who played their part in those remote events, have disappeared, with all the generations they represent, the Jordan still flows in its bed as it did on the day when Joshua led the Hebrew tribes over it; and the clear blue waters of the Dead Sea fill the same hollow as when they reflected the lightnings on that dreadful day when fire and brimstone from the Lord rained down from heaven on the Cities of the Plain. The peaks and rounded tops of the mountains of Moab and Judæa have been unchanged since the waters of the Deluge. Nature lives, but what a shadow is man, and what shadows he pursues! On that bank, yonder, stood John the Baptist, in his camel's-hair "abba" (Matt 3:4): lean, and fiery-eyed, like one of the Bedouins of to-day; full of glowing zeal to prepare his nation for the expected Messiah. Round him stood a crowd of men, of all classes, baptised and not yet baptised, in whose faces one could read the intense longing of their hearts. Sighing for a Redeemer who should deliver them from the deep misery of the times and the still deeper misery of sin, they little dreamed that He stood unrecognised in their midst (Matt 3:1).

I did not bathe in the Jordan, but others did so, though it is not very easy of approach. In one place reeds and rushes stood in the way; at another, a bed of deep mud bars access, especially in the little bends; at a third, the bank was so steep that one could not get down to the water. But as we came nearer the Dead Sea no vegetation was to be seen, except in the beds of small flat wadys, which had a sprinkling of stunted herbage. Close to the sea, however, the view was a little more kindly, herbage of different sorts and small flowers dotting the ground, in some places almost to the edge of the water. The northern bank rises only a few feet above the lake, and small waves played, in slow dimples and murmurs, against the level strand. But for the most part the shore was a shingly slope of about fifteen feet, strewn with a large quantity of driftwood, crusted over with the salt of the water. As a whole, the north shore is barren and treeless, with a delta of soft mud and marsh, from which spring a few rushes. In some places the rocks come very near the water, and the beach is strewn with huge boulders and stones, fallen from the cliffs. No one could cross the Jordan just where it enters the lake, soft mud flats, with plentiful driftwood embedded in them, forbidding the passage of either man or beast.

The view around was very fine. East and west, lofty ridges seemed to spring from the water, their fronts cut into deep clefts by the winter torrents. One would not have supposed that the beautifully clear water was impregnated with salt to the extent of no less than from twenty-four to twenty-six per cent of its weight; seven per cent of this being common salt, while the rest consists of the salts of various metals. The lake stretched away to the south in placid beauty, between its yellow mountain banks, under the deep-blue sky, itself almost as blue. It is forty-six miles long, and ten miles broad where widest. Two or three friends ventured to bathe, and those who did so seemed to enjoy it, though it was necessary to rub the skin and hair well on coming out, as otherwise small crystals of salt were formed when the water dried, and an oily feeling was left on the body. To open the mouth when swimming ensures a gulp of water more bitter than agreeable, almost taking away the breath by its taste. To float, it is only necessary to lie back; you cannot sink. Cloths wetted with the water seemed, when dry, to have been dipped in some oily fluid, but no evil consequences follow a bathe, beyond swollen and chapped lips. The saltness may be imagined from the fact that drops falling on one's clothes leave a white mark behind on drying, as if wax had fallen on them instead of water.

It is a mistake to think that there is no life round the sea, though there is certainly none in it. Fish brought down by the Jordan die on entering the lake, and there are no shell-fish; but the oases, here and there on both sides, are filled with life of all forms, nor is it unfrequent to see divers and ducks flying over the waters or swimming joyfully on their bosom. The basin of the lake is a huge cup or bowl, sinking nine hundred feet sheer down close to the Moab shore, and in its deepest part 1,310 feet below the surface of the water, which makes it in its darkest depths nearly four thousand feet below the streets of Jerusalem. The southern part, however, is a mere flat, covered with about twelve feet of water, and in great measure divided from the deeper portion by a tongue of land, which runs out from the eastern shore. Besides the Jordan, which pours into it about six million tons of water daily, the lake receives the flow of three permanent streams on its eastern side, one of them the Arnon of the Bible. There is, besides, a tributary stream on the south, and another, that at Engedi, on the west. These vary in their force, but always flow more or less strongly. The ravines, moreover, become torrent beds after the rains, and, together, must pour a large quantity of water into the lake in winter. There are, besides, many springs, fresh, warm, or salt, which run into it, all helping to increase its volume, for it has no outlet. Yet, notwithstanding this huge accumulation of water, the level of the lake in winter is only a few feet above its height in summer; not more, apparently, in the wettest years, than fifteen feet.* This is enough, however, to cover several miles of the low, sloping shallow at the south which are bare in summer, the water apparently extending sometimes even eight to ten miles farther in the one season than in the other.

* Canon Tristram thinks the rise and fall not more than four feet (Pict. Pal., i. 157). Dr. Robinson and others estimate it as in the text. The Survey Party found it in 1874 to be fifteen feet.
That the sea does not fill up the framework of hills and wadys around it with a spreading and accumulating flood is due solely to the great evaporation, at a depth so far below the level of the sea. Shut in by hills on all sides from any cooling breezes, the tropical heat of the "ghor" raises from the surface of the lake a greater amount of water, in vapour, than is poured into it from the Jordan and all other sources.* A thick mist, from this cause, lies over the surface when the sun is under the horizon, and the air is at all times full of steaming moisture. It is the constant separation from the lake of vast quantities of absolutely fresh water, all saline particles being left behind, that causes the exceeding saltness of what remains, just as in the case of the Salt Lake of Utah. Saline particles, moreover, are being constantly poured into it from the tributaries of the Jordan, and there are, besides, several small streams which flow into it at its south end from a vast salt deposit that rises into a series of low hills several miles long, and which bring constant additions of brine. Yet, wherever a stream of fresh water flows, the warmth and moisture create charming nooks, where the palm-tree grows almost to the edge of the lake.
* It has been calculated that while the average quantity of water received daily by the Dead Sea cannot be more than 20,000,000 cubic feet, the evaporation may be taken at 24,000,000 cubic feet daily. Journal fur Prakt. Chemie, Leipzig, 1849, 371. In apparent contradiction to this, however, the Arabs say that the lake is now deeper than it was fifty years ago, fords once passable on donkeys being no longer so. These fords are at the shallow, southern end.
The extraordinary depth of the water on the eastern side—nine hundred feet, perpendicular, from the shore—is due to the great geological convulsions that formed the whole Jordan valley as it at present exists. At some epoch very remote, though comparatively recent in geological chronology, the present bed of the valley, through its whole length, from Beisan to the watershed between it and the Red Sea, and even further north and south, must have sunk by a sudden and tremendous cleaving of the whole crust of the earth, the crack running along the eastern edge. The rocks corresponding to those that now form that side were buried, on the western side, in the chasm, so that they have disappeared. Hence, on the east we have lofty hills consisting, at the base, of sandstone, on which rest beds of hard limestone; while at the south-western end of the lake the limestone is wanting, and beds of rock-salt tower up, apparently over the sandstone. These speak of distant geological eras, but on the west side we have, instead of them, approximately recent soft beds of chalk and allied rocks, broken and dislocated from west to east, and often strangely twisted. The fact that these strata slope to the east, and the cracks and shifting of level at different places, prove that they must have been deposited before the great cleavage took place, while beds rich in fossils lying above them show the tremendous height of the waters in those early days. The lake must, till that time, have stood nearly fourteen hundred feet higher than it does at present,* so that it must have extended from Lebanon to the Akabah ridge north of the Red Sea—a length of nearly two hundred miles from north to south. Its shrinking, however, was very gradual, for there are raised beach terraces of various heights above the present level.
* Hull, Mount Seir, 180, 181.
This strange difference in the state of things in Palestine in these remote ages is in part explained by the fact that for a very long period the country was very rainy. Proofs of this are found in the remains of ancient lake-beds, in the existence of terraces left by streams on the hill-sides, far above their present level, and in the great size and width of many valleys and gorges, now waterless except after rain-storms. This watery time, it is believed, extended from the era of the latest rocks in the geological system, through the glacial period, to recent times. Perennial snow and glaciers existed in Lebanon during the Great Ice Age, and this probably gave Palestine a climate something like that of Britain at the present day, involving an abundant rainfall in a country many parts of which are more than two thousand feet above the sea. And even when the snows and glaciers of the Lebanon had disappeared, the rainy character of the climate must have only gradually passed away, so that vegetation would be comparatively luxuriant as late as the period of human habitation.*
* Hull, Mount Seir, 182.
Volcanic action on a great scale took place in Palestine in those remote ages. In Lebanon, on the Sea of Galilee, in the Hauran, at different points in the Jordan valley, and all along both sides of the Dead Sea, rocks occur which were poured forth as lava from burning mountains. These outbursts are of various ages, but for the most part seem to date from the period when the lake stretched as far north as the small lake Huleh, the ancient Merom, and the great glens of Moab and Western Palestine were so many fiords or bays. The huge crack which had dislocated the strata in the Jordan valley, letting down those on the western side to a great depth below their former position, while those on the eastern side remained unaffected, seems to have permitted the water, then so very deep, to force its way into the glowing abyss, under the thin solid crust of the earth, and thus to create a vast body of vapour, or steam, which caused the volcanic explosions, and the outpourings of melted rocks; for water is now recognised as necessary to volcanic activity. Or it may have been that the filtration of water through the bottom of the great ancient sea may have caused this vast dislocation, or "fault." The pressure of the water diminishing as the inland sea shrank lower and lower and the fissure through which its waters had filtered into the subterranean fires closed up, these volcanic forces gradually died out, no signs of activity being known in the historical period, or, indeed, for ages before it, though earthquakes are still, unhappily, too common.

The great size of the ravines and valleys at the sides of the lake, and indeed, throughout Palestine, is less astonishing if we think of the violence of winter storms, even now, when the rainfall has so greatly diminished. In the Wady Kelt a violent rain fills the upper and narrower parts of the gorge, in half an hour, to a depth of from eight to ten feet, and the lower, broader parts, to a depth of three or four feet, so that the wady is at times entirely dry, and at others impassable. The question, however, often forced itself on me, how there could be such a vast quantity of broken rock and boulders in every torrent bed, and over all the hill-slopes throughout the country, for the whole land appears as if it were buried beneath a universal rain of ballast, large and small. There is less stone on the maritime plain than elsewhere, but all through the hill-country, from Beersheba to Baalbek, it is hardly too much to say that you can see very little of the soil for the stones upon it, and that the hills are cased in a thick bed of fragments from their own surface. It does not matter whether the mountain, hill, or cliff, be of hard or soft rock, its outer coat is almost always rotten. The sides, as you climb them, seem like the rubbish of a quarry, even your horse having difficulty in choosing where to put his feet securely.

The explanation of this strange peculiarity is to be found in the heat of the sun. The mountains of South-Equatorial Africa are spoken of by Mr. Stanley as "skeletons," and the splitting up of their surface, he tells us, is so extensive, that the cracking may be heard as one passes over them. It is the same in India and in Palestine. During the day, the rays of a nearly vertical sun raise the temperature of the rocks to an extraordinary degree, so that all moisture is expelled, and the stone is unnaturally expanded. After sunset, when this excessive heat rapidly passes off into the air, their temperature is necessarily lowered very quickly, till, through the night, it falls from 90o Fahrenheit in the shade, and 120o in the sun, to 45o or 50o. Renewed daily, this expansion and contraction splits up the layers and joints, all over the surface, reducing it to a vast heap of loose fragments. A heavy rainstorm falling on these bare stones, protected by no coating of turf as in England, completes the wreck. The deluge rushes down every hill-slope, and sweeps away the loosened rock with incredible violence into the wadys and over the plains, far and near, leaving the hills clear for a repetition of the same process of breaking up and subsequent washing away.

Perhaps the finest view of the Dead Sea is that from the lofty cliffs on the western side, where the Jordan enters. The eye sweeps southwards nearly as far as Engedi. On the east, the yellowish-red mountains of Moab, extending beyond the southern horizon, pass northwards into those of Gilead, which trend on, in a sea of rounded tops, till the view is closed. Light and shade throw one part into brightness and cover another with purple, varied by the deeper obscurity of great ravines, like those of the Callirhoe and the Arnon. A line of tall reeds fringes the plain, twelve hundred feet below, beyond which the lake lies blue and shining, with the long peninsula of the Lisan, or "Tongue," at the southern end, and many small spits of shore, sparkling in the light like silver. Nor is the landscape less striking from the shore itself, though in some respects different. The lofty cliffs of the western side, rising above the long slope of wreck fallen from them, and hiding them from sight far up their height; the blue waters; the rich verdure of every spot reached by moisture; and the bright colours of the sandstone on the eastern shore, showing every colour but green—make a picture one can never forget.

The chalk hills on the western side are marked by the presence of bitumen in them, both liquid and in a solid form, and in some places by layers of rock-salt. Between the mouth of the lake and Engedi, indeed, the marl is so strongly impregnated with bitumen at some points that it burns like our bituminous shale, and a strong odour of bitumen is given off by the hills. The cliffs run alongside the lake at a distance, in some parts, of half a mile, though they often come very near it; but it is a weary and desolate ride to reach Engedi—now called Ain Jidy—"the Kids' Fountain"—half way down the coast. About three miles north of it, however, a momentary break is made in the oppressive desolation by strong sulphur springs, which bubble up from the gravel, at a temperature of 95o Fahrenheit, blackening the hands and covering the boots with yellow as you scoop out a hollow. The temperature of the spring is so high that it raises that of the lake, where it flows into it, nearly twenty degrees, and one may easily imagine that mineral waters so strong, and of a kind so much valued in different ailments, must have been utilised for baths in the prosperous days of the country. Now, however, the water runs to waste.

A very rough track, or rather scramble without a track, brings one to the plain of Engedi, which slopes upwards from the lake to the foot of the cliffs, about half a mile behind. Two small streamlets cross it, but neither is the true Engedi, which springs down the cliffs in silver threads from its fountain some hundreds of feet up the hill-side. In the centre of the plain, which is about a mile and a half from north to south, but of no great width, are some ruins built of square stones, not very large, and much eaten into by time: all that remains of the old-world city of Hazazon-Tamar—"the Felling of the Palm," "which is Engedi" (2 Chron 20:2). Thousands of years ago a town stood here, when Abraham was a wanderer in the land, and Lot dwelt in Sodom, and it was near it that the petty kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, with their allies, attacked the host under Chedorlaomer, as it returned laden with the spoils of the Negeb and descended to the Salt Sea by the precipitous path which still leads to this spot from the lofty table-land above (Gen 14:7). It was in the numerous caverns on the face of the precipice of Engedi that David hid himself when Saul took with him "three thousand men, and went to seek him and his men, upon the rocks of the wild goats." Still later, it was up the steep path on the face of these rocks that the forces of Moab and Ammon climbed to invade Judah, though their confidence was turned into panic by a battle among themselves in the Valley of Berachah (2 Chron 20:2). This is the very route still taken by any band from Moab desirous of making a raid on Southern Palestine.

The plain is now desolate, though once famous for its palm groves, and the slopes behind it, once a proverb for their vineyards (Song 1:14, 4:13), know nothing of them now, though the terraces on which they grew are still to be seen, step above step, up all the hills around, as high as the Fountain. But the henna shrub in those vineyards, to which the Beloved is compared, is still found on this spot; in vivid illustration of the sacred text. For it is not "a cluster of camphire," but of henna, which the Hebrew poet introduces, a plant eight or ten feet high, with clusters of yellow and white blossoms, highly esteemed for their fragrance. A paste, moreover, is made from its pounded leaves, and used by women of every class, and by rich or luxurious men, to dye the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, and the nails, which it makes of a reddish colour. Instead of palms and vines, there are only a few acacia-trees, a tamarisk, a few bushes, and, now and then, the "osher" of the Arab, which is the true apple of Sodom. A very tropical-looking plant, its fruit is like a large smooth apple, or orange, and hangs in clusters of three or four together. When ripe, it is yellow, and looks fair and attractive, and is soft to the touch, but if pressed, it bursts with a crack, and only the broken shell and a row of small seeds in a half-open pod, with a few dry filaments, remain in the hand.

The Fountain itself gushes from under the rock, high up on the slope of the cliff, at a temperature of 79o Fahrenheit, and broadening out over a patch of gravelly sand, presently begins its course down-hill, marked, as it descends, by a winding fringe of green, till it is lost in the soil beyond. Freshwater crabs, and some other small shellfish, are the only living creatures found in its basin. Traffic is still carried on by the path climbing past the Fountain, salt being thus carried from the south of the lake to Bethlehem on files of donkeys, by Arabs who wisely travel well armed, to guard against the dangers of the route. There are still many wild goats on the face of the lofty cliffs, but pursuit of them is hopeless, except for a hunter accustomed to perilous work in such places. North of the Fountain is found the source of the spring seen on the plain below—a very delight for its rich luxuriance of all kinds of foliage. In long-past ages, a spot like this, utilised as it would be, must have been thought a very paradise in such surroundings.

The Cities of the Plain stood on some part of the plain of Jericho, which in Abraham's day was much the same as it is now. The shape of the basin of the sea, and its geological history, make it impossible that any towns could have existed except at its northern or southern end, but those which perished are expressly called the Cities of the Plain, or "Circle" of the Jordan; an expression used only of the slopes reaching, on both sides, from the hills to the river, immediately before it enters the lake. Abraham and Lot, moreover, could see the fertile region of Sodom and Gomorrah from the hill-top on which they stood, between Bethel and Ai, but intervening hills shut out the southern end of the sea, which is sixty miles off, from any point near that from which the patriarchs looked down into the great depression, while they could see the plain of Jericho and the rich green of the Sultan's Spring, as if at their feet. Nor could Abraham, as he stood at his tent door at Mamre, have seen, as he did, "the smoke of the country rising like the smoke of a furnace," as he looked "towards Sodom and Gomorrah," had they been at the south end of the lake; whereas the openings between the hills are such that, though the plain itself is not visible from near Hebron, the clouds of smoke ascending from the doomed cities must have been seen in all their grandeur. That Chedorlaomer, on his way north from Mount Seir, after smiting the Amorites at Engedi, should have fallen upon the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah in the plains of Siddim, continuing his march northwards towards home after defeating them, so that in his turn he was overcome by Abraham near the sources of the Jordan, further implies that the Cities of the Plain were north of the Dead Sea. Still more, the fact that Moses, from his lofty outlook on Mount Pisgah, "beheld the Negeb and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm-trees, unto Zoar," requires that this landscape should have been that of the northern end of the sea, for the other end cannot be seen from the neighbourhood from which Moses surveyed the landscape.

Sodom and Gomorrah must therefore have stood either on the eastern or the western side of the Jordan, just above the lake, probably on the eastern. Both sides are remarkable for the number of mounds which dot them—silent monuments of ancient towns or cities, for excavations in any of them bring to light fragments of pottery, and burnt or sun-dried bricks, and even fragments of pillars, and squared stones. In all probability some of these indicate the true sites of the long-lost cities.

There is no reason, from the language of Scripture, to think of these cities as submerged, nor is the mode of their destruction difficult to understand. The whole region is full of the materials for such a catastrophe as overtook them. Wells of liquid bitumen, or, as we may call it, petroleum, abounded in the neighbourhood, and vast quantities of it ooze through the chalky rocks, while the bottom of the lake is bedded with it, vast masses rising to the surface after any convulsion, as in the case of the great earthquake of 1837. Indeed, huge cakes float up, at times, even when there is no seismal disturbance, and are seized by the Bedouins, who carry what they can gather to Jerusalem for sale. Sulphur abounds, in layers and fragments, over the plains and along the shores of the lake. We have only, therefore, to imagine a terrific storm, in which the lightning kindled this vast accumulation of combustibles, aided, perhaps, by an earthquake setting free additional stores from the hill-sides and the lake depths, to have a conflagration, the fiery sulphurous sparks and flames of which would in very deed be fire and brimstone out of heaven, burning up the whole district, with all the towns or cities on it. The fullest and only reliable account of this stupendous judgment is that given in Scripture, but it is the subject of local traditions, and ancient Assyria has left us a striking legend which seem to have sprung from it.*

* Geikie, Hours with the Bible, i. 392.
No one appears to have passed along the eastern shore of the lake since the famous traveller Seetzen did so in 1807. The whole journey is over a region in vivid keeping with the story of the destruction of the doomed cities. It was only with the greatest difficulty that any progress could be made, so rough and almost impassable was the track. The rocks stand up in a succession of huge terraces, on the lowest of which, but still far above the water, lies the path, if path it can be called which leaves one to climb and force himself through and over a chaos of enormous blocks of limestone, sandstone, and basalt, fallen from the cliffs above, or brings him abruptly to a stand before wild clefts in the solid walls of the precipice. The range of salt hills at the south, known as Jebel Usdum, is no less worthy of its place as a boundary of the Sea of Death. Mr. Holman Hunt resided here for several days in 1854, and has given us in his terrible picture of "The Scapegoat" and embodiment of the landscape of that portion of the Dead Sea at sunset—a vision of the most appalling desolation. The salt hills run for several miles nearly east and west, at a height of from three hundred to four hundred feet, level atop, and not very broad, the mass being a body of rock-salt, capped with a bed of gypsum and chalk. Dislocated, shattered, furrowed into deep clefts by the rains, or standing out in narrow, ragged buttresses, they add to the weird associations of all around. Here and there harder portions of the salt, withstanding the weather while all around them melts and wears off, rise up as isolated pillars, one of which bears among the Arabs the name of Lot's wife (Gen 19:26). In front of the ridge the ground is strewn with lumps and masses of salt, through which streamlets of brine run across the long muddy flat towards the beach, which itself sparkles in the sun with a crust of salt, shining as if the earth had been sown with diamonds. Everywhere, except at the very few spots where fresh springs or streams enter it, the lake deserves the evil name it has borne for ages. Here and there, indeed, birds sing and twitter on its banks, and in favoured spots rich vegetation covers the rocks; Bedouins, pilgrims, and travellers visit its shores; but these gleams of life only deepen the impression of its unutterable loneliness. The stillness of death is over it all.

 

Chapter 29 | Contents | Chapter 31

 

Notes on Revelation | Judeo-Christian Research

This online book is original to this site.
This online book has been edited.

1997-2006 NOR/JCR