Spell of the Dead Sea

I just returned from a trip to the Dead Sea – one of my favorite places.  Like for many travelers, the Dead Sea has me in its spell.

dead sea sunrise

Sunrise over the Dead Sea

It wasn’t always called the Dead Sea, though. In the Bible, it is referred to as the Salt Sea. It is mentioned in the context of borders (Numbers 34:3,12; Joshua 15:2,5) and in the story involving the war of the 5 kings vs. the 4 kings (Genesis 14:3).

During the times of the Romans, the Salt Sea became known as the Asphalt Lake after one of the most lucrative products harvested from it. Asphalt blocks, sometimes as large as a bull, emerged from the cracks in the sea floor and floated to shore. The locals, especially those who lived in the area of Ein Gedi, a wealthy town on the coast which controlled the springs in the central area of the sea, collected these asphalt chunks and sold them to Egyptians who used the natural asphalt for mummification and anti-venom remedies. (The last asphalt block emerged above the waters in the 1970’s – this phenomenon has stopped today due to the falling level of the sea.)

Because of the lack of life within the sea, European translators of the Latin Bible in the late 4th century called it the Dead Sea. As the tales of the Dead Sea passed from one person to the other, the degree of fantasy grew. At some point, the legend developed that not only was there nothing living in the sea but also that one would die if he entered the sea – it was not only a Dead Sea but a Sea of Death. So strong was this belief that British Captain Charles Leonard Irby, who visited the Middle East between 1816 – 1818, traveled around the Dead Sea (not through) in order to avoid its evil powers.

The air of adventure caused Christopher Costigan, an Irish priest, to come to the area of the Dead Sea. He would prove for once and for all that the Sea of Death was a fallacy. He arrived in Beirut in August 1835 determined to survey the Dead Sea. There, he bought a boat and hired a Maltese sailor as Costigan had no sailing (or surveying) experience. He put his boat in the water on August 26 and successfully crossed the sea and slept on the eastern shore. The next day, August 27, he traveled 16 km to the south to the mouth of the Arnon Stream and spent the night anchored off of the el-Lisan peninsula. August 28 saw him landing on the point of land which would eventually bear his name.

August 29th he landed on the southern part of the sea at the ruins of Ein Bokek, which he identified with the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. After the ecstasy of finding a Biblical site, on August 30 he became ill and could row no further. Two days of rowing (by the Maltese sailor) brought him to the northern shore of the Dead Sea on September 1st where he camped. The next day, September 2, his trusty Maltese seaman brought him to Jericho and went to find “any European” to come and help him. Rev. John Nicolayson from the Anglican mission responded to the call and brought him to Jerusalem on September 5. On September 7, 1835 Costigan died; he was 25 years old.

Twelve years later, a proven surveyor, Lt. Thomas Molyneux, took a similar route to Costigan’s at a similar time of the year. On September 3, 1847, Molyneux found a maximum depth of 1350 ft in the Dead Sea. On September 5, exhaustion forced him to abandon his survey and by October 30 he, too, was dead.

The next explorer, Lt. William Lynch from the US navy, arrived in Spring 1848. It was Lynch who provided the best modern map of the sea and its depths. He honored both Costigan and Molyneux by naming landmarks in the Dead Sea after them. He survived his journey on the Dead Sea and died in his own bed at a ripe old age (64) in 1865.

The spell of the Dead Sea had been broken.

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