19th-century British Explorer's Boat Returns to Dead Sea

Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi
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Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi

A small wooden boat in the yard of the Dead Sea Works harbors a fascinating tale - a British adventurer who set out to uncover the land's secrets 160 years ago. The story is also about the Jordan River and Dead Sea, long before they began to die.

Some say it is also a story about oblivion: The boat that served Thomas Howard Molyneux should reside today in a place of honor and draw the Israeli public, instead of being abandoned out of sight.

Molyneux, a British naval officer, sought to sail the Jordan River from Lake Kinneret to the Dead Sea and map the region. He had the support of Captain Simonds, commander of the warship Molyneux served on, and in August 1947 the ship docked along Israel's coast and Molyneux transferred the boat to Lake Kinneret and set out to navigate the Jordan.

It was a difficult journey amid the Jordan Valley heat at summer's height. An exhausted Molyneux reached the Dead Sea and managed to make a few measurements in the north, before returning to the ship sick. He died several days later.

The Dead Sea's southern extremity is named for him, Cape Molyneux. The northern extremity is called Cape Costigan, after an Irish fellow-explorer who also died at the end of his Dead Sea expedition, in 1835. Cape Molyneux disappeared as the sea has receded, remaining only a term in geography books.

But it seems that something has remained from Molyneux's courageous expedition. Captain Simonds took the small boat back with him to England, but few know that the boat made its way again from England to Israel, returning to dock by the Dead Sea.

Geographer Zev Vilnay's 1974 guide to Israel includes a chapter entitled, "How I found the Molyneux boat," recounting his odyssey of locating the boat and bringing it back to Israel.

"The boat in which Molyneux made his daring journey was preserved by his commander. The admiral built a small shed on his estate, the overturned boat providing its roof. Over time, the shed became so covered with ivy that it disappeared from view. A nearby town had a branch of the Zionist Federation that was headed by one Jonathan V. Bunt. I wrote to him immediately about the boat and after much effort he indeed found it. He promptly sent me a photograph in which you see him standing beneath the boat and waving a white handkerchief to mark his success."

While visiting London in the summer of 1962, Vilnay and his wife went with Bunt to Simonds' estate to see the boat. Back in Israel, he shared the story with his friend Arye Ben Eli, director of the Haifa Naval Museum, who together with Israel's third army chief of staff, Mordechai Maklef, worked to bring the boat to Israel. It was briefly housed in the yard of the Dead Sea Works in Be'er Sheva, then transferred to Neve Zohar's Beit Hayotzer museum, which is devoted to the Dead Sea.

The museum belonged to the Tamar Regional Council and was maintained by the Dead Sea Works, but the place closed down five years ago, when museum director Shlomo Drori retired. Asaf Madmoni, the council archivist and a Dead Sea tour guide, says that for a while he was permitted to bring groups to the museum three hours per week, but that after numerous break-ins the budget went toward a security system.

The museum was badly damaged by thieves, and almost all of its artifacts were stolen, but the boat remained untouched. It was moved to the Dead Sea Works, where it is displayed in the open with other items.

The company's management denies allegations the boat has been deserted, claiming that between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors come each year to see the display. They add that they will relocate the boat to any museum that wishes to display it permanently.



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