How Long Have We Known the Dead Sea Is the Lowest Place on Earth?

Clearly people living around the Dead Sea in biblical times had displeased the deity – just look at the place. Thus modern research into the Jordan Valley began

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On the road to the Dead Sea
On the road to the Dead SeaCredit: Daniel Tchetchik
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The Dead Sea lies about 430 meters below sea level. Lake Kinneret, also called the Sea of Galilee, is 209 meters below sea level. These two lowest points on Earth are connected by the southern course of the Jordan River, which is the lowest river on Earth.

Those figures relate to their surface: The Dead Sea goes down another 300 meters, at most. Both bodies of water are far deeper than the next-lowest points on Earth: Lake Assal in Djibouti and the basin of Turpan Pendi in China. These lie 155 and 154 meters below sea level, respectively.

Prof. Haim GorenCredit: Courtesy of Haim Goren

Today we take knowledge of the Dead Sea’s elevation for granted. But how long have we known that it lies hundreds of meters below sea level? When did this realization dawn, and how? And what do geopolitics and what does Christian zealotry have to do with all this?

Everything, explains Haim Goren, professor emeritus of historical geography at Tel-Hai Academic College in the Galilee, author of “Dead Sea Level: Science Exploration and Imperial Interests in the Near East” (I. B. Tauris, 2011), and “Facing the Dead Sea: The Explorers of the Lowest Point on Earth” (Itay Bahur Publishing, 2022) in Hebrew.

A bitter sea

Lying in a crack in the Earth, deadly to drink and hemmed in by some of the starkest landscapes in Israel, with its shoreline now dotted with sinkholes, the Dead Sea has captivated the imagination since the dawn of history, not necessarily in a good way.

In the biblical period it wasn’t called the Dead Sea, which is a anyway misnomer. It has no algae or fish but it does have halophilic archaea(single-cell organisms), and even bacterial mats that form around freshwater springs at the lake bottom. The ancients simply called it the Salt or Arabah Sea. And even though sweet dates grew abundantly near its shores, to these peoples the bleak, arid land became emblematic of sinfulness, as we learn from the horrible parable of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God was forgotten, and the story of Lot’s wife, who disobediently turned around while fleeing to look back at Sodom.

The bitter sea also became a euphemism for redemption. After admonishing the Jews for their evil ways and prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the peeved deity, Ezekiel, speaking from exile in Babylon, also spoke of redemption – when the Dead Sea would turn fresh (Ezekiel 47:8-9): “Then said he unto me: ‘These waters issue forth toward the eastern region, and shall go down into the Arabah; and when they shall enter into the sea, into the sea of the putrid waters, the waters shall be healed. And it shall come to pass, that every living creature wherewith it swarmeth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live.”

Barring divine intervention, the Dead Sea is not going to sustain anything but extremophile microbes. Everything is higher than it, as suggested by its soubriquet “the lowest place on earth,” so its minerals have nowhere to go. It cannot “turn fresh” – but the ancients were probably not aware of this. Nor were the first Western explorers reaching this inland lake, starting in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They only knew of it from the Scriptures and from classical writings.

The road between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea: Aerial viewCredit: גיל כהן-מגן

“They didn’t know a thing about its flora and fauna, its geology, its peoples,” Prof. Goren says. Nor did they have any idea about its elevation.

Why did Western explorers come? To study the “Holy Land,” he explains. Indeed, even the most stringent researchers were driven by theological traditions. This is where the events described in the Scriptures happened; these individuals did not doubt this and they set out to see for themselves, while also categorizing the flora, fauna, mapping the land, etc. And the Dead Sea, with its terrible reputation (based on dozens of references in the Bible) and strangeness, was especially mesmeric.

Also, in the first half of the 19th century, the route from England to India went around Africa and the British aspired to develop more convenient routes. Aside from finding a better route to India for the sake of facilitating trade, the British feared that Russia would spread south via Afghanistan to India and then to Egypt through the Jordan Valley, wherein the Dead Sea lies.

That concern spurred the British to support the Ottoman Empire because it would physically block the Russians from the Middle East, Goren says. The English flotilla that supported the Ottomans included royal engineers, one of whom will be one of the keys to our story.

George Henry Moore Credit: ללא קרדיט

As Goren himself delved into the theology-driven research of the Holy Land, he came to wonder: Who was it that realized that the Dead Sea lay almost half a kilometer below sea level, and when?

Answer: An Irishman and an Englishmen, George Henry Moore and William George Beek. At least, they were the first to write about it, publishing in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1837. How they got there is quite the story.

Moore hadn’t intended to devote his life to science or saline lakes. He left England at the behest of his revolted mother who disapproved at his romancing a married woman, Goren explains. But that’s not the story, that’s just gossip. This is the story.

From Beirut by camel

Today reaching the Dead Sea involves driving down Israel’s north-south Route 90. But back then Moore and Beek, having first met in Tbilisi and then encountered one another in the ancient temple of Baalbek in Lebanon, traveled together to Beirut, where they planned to part. Instead they were persuaded to mount an exploration of the Dead Sea.

In Beirut they bought a small but doughty boat, and had it transported to Jaffa aboard a ship. From Jaffa they traveled overland to Jerusalem with camels carrying their boat; they then descended through the desert to Jericho, at which point the vessel was lugged to the Dead Sea in March 1837. It was a great labor considering they had no assistance from any authorities, Goren notes.

Their goal was to measure the depth of the Dead Sea and to procure specimens of all that could be of use to science, the professor adds. And they did so.

Meanwhile, Moore observed an anomaly. The water in the sea didn’t boil at 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), but only at 102 degrees.

The higher the air pressure, the higher the boiling point of any liquid, such as water for tea. Ergo the air pressure at the Dead Sea was greater than one atmosphere, the two men figured out.

Surface of the Dead Sea, by Haim GorenCredit: Haim Goren

Moore and Beek hadn’t actually been the first to think of sailing on the Dead Sea for research purposes. A year and a half beforehand, an Irishman named Christopher Costigan reached Beirut, was inspired to buy a boat there, sailed it to Acre, and had it transported overland to the Sea of Galilee in order to study the Jordan River, and then the Dead Sea. Unfortunately, he chose to pursue this endeavor in August, when the Jordan is extremely low and the weather extremely hot. Exhausted by the stress of the effort, which included actually sailing on the Dead Sea for eight days, he died and was buried in Jerusalem.

Why did Costigan, then Moore and Beek, wind up buying boats in Beirut to sail the Dead Sea, without having had any such prior intention?

“There was nowhere else to buy a boat at the time,” Goren explains. And it was in Beirut that somebody put the idea of sailing the Dead Sea into their heads, possibly an American Presbyterian named John Paxton, who had a bug in the brain on the topic.

Or perhaps it was the French historian and writer François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand, who traveled in the Middle East in the early 19th century and wrote effusively about his trips between Paris and Jerusalem – and to the Dead Sea, evocatively writing: the “Dead Sea; it seems to sparkle, but the guilty cities it hides in its breast seem to have poisoned its waters.”

Le vicomte de Chateaubriand also describes the sea’s sulfuric smell and reports that though it is lifeless, and no boats sail on it – sometimes the locals would venture onto its still waters on rafts to collect bitumen.

Seeking God’s wrath

Among the mysteries of the Dead Sea so entrancing to the nascent scientific bodies of the West were that the Jordan flowed unconstrained (massive irrigation would only start in the 1950s), yet the Dead Sea did not rise; the lake water was toxic and would kill if consumed, yet one could not drown in the sea, but would float (“without needing to know how to swim,” Chateaubriand observed); there was even a belief that any bird flying above the deadly waters would die, which was not true by the way – though if you dive into the sea you will regret it.

Chiefly, this was where God raged. This is where he delivered terrible punishment to the louts of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Attesting to the lurking foulness in the mindset of the time, by the Dead Sea one may catch a whiff of sulfur (now a trendy ingredient in artisanal soap) and then there are those lumps of sticky black bitumen spit up by the planet onto the waters, a sign of the devil if ever there one.

Actually the bitumen in the waters inspired the scientifically minded Chateaubriand to wonder if there was a volcano there. No – which ruins latter-day speculation that Sodom and Gomorrah may have been destroyed by eruption. Absent a volcano by the Dead Sea, another casual theory arose, that the two biblical settlements had actually been in the Syrian Golan Heights, which does have volcanoes; but there is no special reason to think that. Most lately, in 2021 a theory was touted that the destructive agent was a meteor.

In addition, 19th-century minds wondered why the Jordan, which starts in northern Israel, enters Lake Hula, then enters Lake Kinneret from the north, exits it from the south and reaches the Dead Sea, ends there and does not continue onto the Gulf of Aqaba (Eilat).

The 19th-century minds didn’t yet realize the difference in altitude and suspected that the cataclysm at Sodom and Gomorrah had somehow blocked off the River Jordan from the Gulf of Aqaba.

Explorers noticed that the lake-water was toxic and would kill if consumed, yet one could not drown in the sea, but would floatCredit: Ilan Assayag

So whatever their reasons for setting out for the Jordan Valley, armed with a thermometer, Moore and Beek wound up discovering that the Dead Sea lay below the Red Sea, though they did not know by how much and their estimates were wrong.

However, Goren explains, they were followed by research delegations armed with even more advanced technology: a barometer. The first barometer was brought by a German research delegation in 1839, led by the Bavarian natural historian Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert.

At first as the mercury in the device went haywire at the Dead Sea, the thought arose that the barometer was broken, Goren relates; but then in Jerusalem it worked fine, so the team also realized that the lake had to be lower than the Mediterranean.

Ultimately, the true level of the sea was calculated more or less accurately in 1841 by an Englishman, Lt. John F.A. Symonds of the Royal Engineers, who did a trigonometric measurement from Jaffa via Jerusalem to Dead Sea; a more accurate measurement was made in 1848, by an American expedition for the study of Jordan and the Dead Sea led by Lt. William Francis Lynch.

In 1865 the English launched a designated institution, the Palestine Exploration Fund. Fittingly given the religious background to all this, it was founded in Westminster Abbey and remains active to this day. German and Russian societies would come about a decade later; subsequently Italian and American persons of science arrived as well.

The English contribution to Holy Land archaeology is very well known; the German contribution rather less so because they wrote in Gothic script that hardly anybody could understand. Haim Goren’s life work includes deciphering their writings. Passage to India has been arranged; some evidence supporting certain biblical narratives has been found. But none, to this very day, have found a shred of solid evidence for that most haunting of biblical tales (Gen. 19:24): “Then the Lord caused to rain upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”

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