Dead Sea Dead

As I was researching an oft asked question about placing stones on Jewish graves, I stumbled on a connection to one of my favorite sites, Qumran.  Qumran, near the Dead Sea, attracts many visitors.  Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the life of the Essenes, and a nice pit stop-on the way to  floating in the Dead Sea all combine to make it worthwhile.  During their visit to Qumran, most pass by the cemetery without stopping, but it gives us clues to one explanation of the contemporary custom.

If you follow my blog, you already know that I like cemeteries.  In Qumran, we find an unusual Second Temple era cemetery, unusual because it is the cemetery of simple, regular folk.  The dearly departed of Qumran were not buried in lavish caves, and no elaborate monuments were erected.  The cemetery here consists of ditches dug in the ground and filled in with stones.  These are not the tombs of the rich and famous that we are used to seeing in Jerusalem.  In other places, nature and neglect erased tombs of simple folk but in  remote, dry Qumran, these tombs remained  preserved.

The casual observer will be hard-pressed to see any sign of Qumran’s cemetery – at least at first.  As we turn off the paved path, I ask people to please try to refrain from stepping on any stones.  We walk east through what could be any Judean desert landscape – that is to say, rocks EVERYWHERE.  And then we stop, and look hard.

“See that group of stones?  That’s a Jewish grave.  And here’s another parallel to the first.  And another.  And another.”

qumran-cemetery-burialsWithin a minute, one realizes that he is in a cemetery with hundreds of graves. One-thousand one-hundred graves have been identified, each marked by a mound of stones.  These are 2000 year old grave-stones, literally.  Before there were headstones, these piles of stones marked the location of the grave and kept wild animals out.  Through the normal course of time and nature, some stones would disperse.

A 15th century Jewish almanac of traditions quotes a 11th century source which states that Jewish tradition includes placing stones on Jewish graves.  The tradition goes back even earlier when a visitor to a grave had a responsibility to maintain it.  That included replacing the piles of grave-stones marking the final resting place of their dearly departed.

The next time you are in Qumran visit the cemetery, and maybe even participate in maintaining an ancient Jewish tomb by (re)placing a stone or two.

Related sites (Second Temple Burial):

  • Dominus Flevit Church
  • Absalom’s Pillar
  • Sidonian Caves in Beit Guvrin National Park


Looting Masada

One of my favorite sites is Masada.  The drama of the story and the messages coupled with the extensive archaeological finds and the desert landscape make Masada a “must see” on most tourists itineraries.  So, it was with much excitement that I approached a recent paper by archaeologist Steven Garfinkle titled “Roman Military Adventurism and the Fall of Masada.”  Dr. Garfinkle has a unique angle on answering some of the pesky technical questions which are asked at Masada.

Why did the Romans bother with such a small group of Jews left on Masada?  About 1000 Jews lived on Masada during winter 73 C.E.  This number does not present a military challenge, especially when only about 250 were fit to be fighters.

Why did the Romans commit so many troops to the battle? Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian who provides us with the narrative of Masada, states that as many as 15,000 trained and battle-hardened soldiers came to Masada for the battle.

Why did the Romans build such an extensive siege camp?  The camp includes a siege wall 4.5 km (2.7 miles) in circumference, 8 separate camps for soldiers, and a siege ramp. masada-ramp

According to Garfinkle, these questions can all be answered by looking at Masada from a different perspective.  Josephus encourages us to look at the Masada battle from a Jewish perspective – the last remnant from a destroyed Jerusalem facing off against the most powerful army of the time.  Garfinkle looks at the situation from the Roman general’s perspective.  War is expensive.  After putting down the Jewish rebellion and destroying the Temple, the Roman army sought to “mop up” what was left and collect the spoils from any lingering Jewish community in the area.  A refugee is likely to take his most valuable possession with him.  Masada, home to nearly 1000 refugees and the administrative center (and treasury) of the rebels, was a profitable target.

According to Roman military law, the spoils from a town which surrenders, go to the commander; whereas a city which is sacked, has its spoils taken by the individual soldiers.  The Roman general, Silva, therefore has a vested interest in the Jews’ surrender.  To this end, he brought many soldiers and built impressive siege structures in order to scare the Jews into giving up.  Silva’s greed is why the soldiers, after breaching the wall, do not ascend to the summit at night as it would be hard for Silva to monitor the collection of spoils under the cover of darkness.  Because there are no Jews left to battle in the morning, it is not counted as a sack but rather a surrender, and therefore any spoils found must go to Silva.  From the Roman perspective, this is just another looting mission to line the pockets of the Roman general.

Exploring different perspectives adds another layer to the complex story of Masada and offers some answers to questions which arise from the narrative.

Nearby sites:

  • Herodian
  • Mt. Sedom
  • Dead Sea


Running Away, But Not Too Far Away

The Dead Sea as a center of refuge was the topic of my oral licensing exam to become a tour guide and continues to fascinate me.  What pressures drive people to seek refuge in this inhabitable landscape?  Men as long ago as the Chalcolithic Period (6000 years ago) fled here and left signs in the desert cliffs above the Dead Sea.  Long before the Dead Sea scrolls were sequestered in caves, Chalcolithic man built temples in the Dead Sea area and suddenly left their habitations and fled into the caves.  Hoardes of copper ritual objects were found in the caves above the Mishmar Stream.  Whatever pushed these early settlers to “head for the hills” was so catastrophic that they did not return to claim their treasures or resume their temple worship.

Uncovering lost treasures has been a driving force for modern exploration in the Dead Sea area.  Unfortunately, not all treasure-hunters are licensed archaeologists but are often Palestinian antiquity thieves.  In a recent sting operation, Israeli police arrested 6 Palestinians on their way out of the Cave of Skulls in the cliffs above Tze’elim Stream.  Habitation in this cliff shows just how far people are willing to go in the name of self-preservation.  Access to this cave is only possible by rappelling down over the cliff edge to the cave entrance.  One wonders how the ancients accessed this cave which is located 80 m (250 ft.) below the cliff top. cave-of-skulls

In order to stay one step ahead of the thieves who will inevitably return to search for scrolls and other items to sell on the black market, last summer a 3-week excavation was undertaken to scientifically study the cave again (a first dig was conducted in the 1960’s).  Among the many bones found in the Cave of Skulls, so named because of the 7 human skeletons buried there during the Bar Cochva revolt, are a few pieces of papyrus.  They have not been fully studied yet to see if perhaps they have writing on them, but this finding leaves the door open for the possibility of finding more scrolls in the Dead Sea area.

There are finds here dating from 139 C.E., several years after the Bar Cochva revolt, and show the presence of Jews in this area even as they had been banned by Hadrian from the area of Jerusalem.  The Jewish connection to Jerusalem is strong and the Jews hiding in the Cave of Skulls over 1850 years ago were not ready to give up on that.  They were willing to live under extreme conditions to keep the dream of return to Jerusalem alive.

Nearby sites

  • Dragot Stream
  • Ein Gedi Chalcolithic Temple
  • Qumran

Deathly Trade Routes

We imaging that we are sophisticated and yet the more we look into the past, the humbler we become.  Technologies, trade and ideas in the past were actually quite complex and far-reaching.  As reported recently, the world was much more interconnected in antiquity than we thought and products associated with burial were shipped around the world.

Researchers in England decided to see what they could find about Roman influence on the local culture by analyzing some Roman era graves in England.  Dating back 1700 years or more, the graves show the extent of the influence of the Roman empire.  Upon opening the tombs, the archaeologists were met with dust.  When they analyzed the dust, they found traces of frankincense.  This precious of all perfumes was from the Middle East and features in the spices used in the Temple and in the gifts of the wise men.  Frankincense kept away the putrid smells associated with the dead but apparently was also buried with them to  make their journey to the next world sweet.

asphaltThe second important find in the English tombs was thought at first to be simply tar, something which can be locally procured.  Upon further analysis, the black gooey substance used in these 4th century burials was found to be asphalt from the Dead Sea.  The Dead Sea, also known as Mar Asphaltis by the Romans, had a unique phenomenon producing pure asphalt.  Every once in a while, a block of pure asphalt would erupt from the sea bottom and float to the surface.  The Egyptians prized this product as it was used for embalming; but from this find we see that it was also important all through the Roman period and was traded as far away as England.

In today’s world, there is much concern over who controls the sources of petroleum products.  Even before the combustion engine, Israel, with no oil resources whatsoever, was square in the middle of a petroleum product – asphalt.  And some of that product made it as far as England.  Sounds like the global village – almost 2000 years ago.

Related sites:

  • Ein Gedi ancient synagogue
  • Ahava Dead Sea products factory in Mitzpeh Shalem
  • Masada

Lakes and Seas

Words are important.

When I am examining an issue, one of the first lines of clarification is, “What do the terms mean?”  I don’t know if this comes from my science background, my desire to break a problem into parts, but very often defining terms is a good first step in an effort to think clearly.  What does this have to do with water?

I often have tourists ask questions something along the line of:

How can the Sea of Galilee be a “sea” if it is fresh water?  It is too small to be a “sea” – more like a lake.

Is that the Jordan River?  Really?  I imagined it would be like the Mighty Mississippi River.

Why do some streams have water all year (like David Stream) and some streams almost never have water (Og Stream)?  How can they have the same classification?

Good questions, but they ignore the main problem with these terms – they are in English.  The bodies of water in Israel were first described in Hebrew in the Bible, with their English “translations” only coming later.  Remember, that the Hebrew of the Bible was used to describe a very specific terrain, the terrain of the Levant, and not to describe other places.  No matter what you believe about the origins of the Biblical text, one thing is for sure.  The author of the Bible was very familiar with the geography of the Land of Israel.   Thus, we can expect that this author uses geographical terms very specifically, without considering how they may be translated into English.

There are a few different Hebrew words used for bodies of water:

Agammediterranean sunset
Nahar (and Yaor)

I have done a fair amount of research on these terms and their meanings.  This post dives into the meaning of the first two:  agam and yam.

These terms are used in the Bible for bodies of water that do not have a clear vector component.  In other words, they are not “going anywhere”.  In English, you may translate them as lake, sea, or even man-made reservoir!

The difference between an agam and a yam, has to do with a related word agamon which is a reed.  An agam is a body of water, without a vector, which has the possibility for growing reeds, ie. shallow enough that much of its surface could be covered by reeds.

“And the parched land will become an agam, and the thirsty land springs of water:  The home of jackals shall become a pasture for cattle, an enclosure of reeds and rushes.”  Isaiah 35:7

Agam is not used as part of a proper noun in the Bible but rather as a descriptive concept.  The current Agam HaHula in the northern part of Israel is aptly named.

The topography of Israel dictates that agamim are not prevalent. Most of the water in Israel’s interior is “on the move” as Israel is a hilly/mountainous (leave those definitions for another time…) land.

A yam, by comparison, is a much larger body of water (still with no vector component), and much deeper.  There are many examples of yamim in the Bible:  HaYam


HaAcharon (Mediterranean Sea), Yam Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), Yam HaMelach (Dead Sea), Yam Suf (Reed/Red? Sea), and many others.  There is no differentiation between salt and fresh water bodies of water, as long as the size dictates a large percentage of clear water.  Yamim can have islands, depths, shores, and are generally much more prevalent (and important) in the Bible than agamim.

“Then sang Moshe and the children of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke saying:  I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously, the hourse and his rider has he thrown into the yam.”  Exodus 15:1



“To whom it may concern,

Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Program – Invitation to public meetings”

Thus read my invitation to presentation of findings on the 6 year study on the proposed Red-Dead canal.  As I have a special love for the Dead Sea and a fascination with all different kinds of topics associated with it, I wanted to hear what the World Bank has to say about this potential solution for the dropping water level.

Here are some of the interesting things I learned at this summary meeting.

The World Bank is interested in this project for three reasons.

dead sea hotels from dredging1.  To Save the Dead Sea

2.  To desalinate water and generate electricity for local governments

3.  To provide a symbol of peace in the region.

The Study is not funded by the World Bank, however.  The World Bank provides management and coordination but the funding came from 8 different countries.  It looked at whether the Red-Dead is feasible, as well as its effects on the environment, alternatives, and modelling of both the Red Sea environment and the Dead Sea environment.

Where does the idea come from?  The Dead Sea is in trouble.  The inflow to the Dead Sea, once 1.3 billion m3/year has now dwindled to about 100,000 m3/year.  This has led to the dramatic drop in the level of the Dead Sea and threats to the environment around it.  The idea of the Red-Dead is to transfer water from the Red Sea in the area of Eilat and Akaba to the Dead Sea.  The drop in elevation from sea level to 427 m below sea level would power hydroelectric plants.  Somewhere along the way, some of the transferred water would undergo desalination and be piped to population centers (mostly in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority), where the need for water is great.

Sounds good?  Maybe.

What the study found, however, is that this plan is costly ($10.6 billion) with 20% of the cost going towards transfer of desalinated water to consumers.  It does not generate any electricity to the grid as all electricity would be expended powering the desalination plants.

Although the technical extraction of water from the Red Sea was evaluated and a possible plan with the smallest environmental footprint was suggested, the effects of transferring a large quantity of sea water to the Dead Sea are unknown.

There are other plans.  The Med-Dead (Mediterranean-Dead Sea pipeline), and restoring the Lower Jordan by a combination of purchasing water from another country (Turkey), desalination, and conservation are the two main contenders.

We could also do nothing.  If we do nothing, the level of the Dead Sea will continue to drop.  At some point, the chemical plants will probably stop pumping, as the cost of pumping will rise as the water level in the northern basin drops (the chemical plants are in the southern basin).  The level of the Dead Sea will stabilize at 550 m below sea level – a full 120 m below the level of today.  We have no idea what kind of damage will be caused by such a dramatic decrease or if the Dead Sea and the environment around it will ever be able to recover.  It could be that endemic species become extinct; that sinkholes threaten population/vacation centers; that industries which provide significant income to both Israel and Jordan are forced to close.

Restoring the Dead Sea is inexonerably linked to tackling water issues in the area in general.  The Dead Sea level continues to drop because we are pulling too much water out of the system.  This is the real challenge, not only to our immediate area but to the entire region.  In Syria where there is a problem with allocating water to agriculture, much of the rural population left their farms and went to the cities.  The resultant strain on city resources is one of the causes of the revolt and bloodshed happening right now in Syria.

“To whom it may concern,”

Solving the crisis in the Dead Sea concerns each and every one of us.  What are you doing for the Dead Sea today?

The Mighty Jordan

As we start the new year, we complete the cycle of reading from the Torah.  The last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, is Moses’s instructions to the people of Israel before entering the land of Israel.  What is considered the land of Israel here?  Everything across the Jordan.  So in honor of this entrance, here is a bit  about the Jordan.

The Jordan is the body of water mentioned most times in the Biblical Text.  In the Tanach (Jewish Bible), the Jordan is mentioned over 170 times. So central is The Jordan to the narrative, that it is never called by any other name than “The Jordan”.  It is not a nahal (loosely translated as a stream) and not a nahar (loosely translated as a river).
The first thing which makes The Jordan special in the history of the Land of Israel is its size.  It is the longest flowing body of water in the area.  The headwaters of The Jordan come from the area  around Mt. Hermon.  Three streams feed into the Jordan north of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) – Nahal Hermon, Nahal Dan, and Nahal Snir.  Up until the  draining of the Hula Lake in 1954, the Jordan fed into the Sea of Galilee and emptied out the other side.  Now, in the area of the Hula, the Jordan is fed into irrigation channels on the east and west sides of the valley to continually water the peat soil and the crops which grow within it.

After passing through the Hula Valley, the channels of the Jordan are reunited and continue through the Corazin heights.  This part of the Jordan is called the Mountainous Jordan as the power of the water cuts a deep channel through the raised plain of  basalt rock.  Long ago, at the northern end of the Mounainous Jordan existed a huge waterfall (300 m high!).  The power of the water serving to further cut away at the hard basalt.  The Jordan empties into the Sea of Galilee.  It is from this  lake/sea that Israel gets most of its non-reclaimed/desalinated water.

The Jordan: synagogue Mosaic in Akko

But after this point is where the Jordan gets really interesting.  The Jordan then transverses the next 100 linear kilometers by  meandering for over 200 kilometers through the Jordan Valley.  And sometimes the course of the Jordan changes.  By international agreement, the border between Israel and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan along this stretch is determined by the mid-point of the  Jordan.  So, our border with the neighboring country is not a steady, GPS-able line, but a line which is dictated by nature – how  much rain there is, how many rainy days we have, etc.

After meandering through the Jordan Valley, the waters flow into the Dead Sea.   In antiquity, it is estimated that 1.3 billion cubes of water entered the Dead Sea in the average year, most of that from the Jordan. The Jordan today is a shadow of its former self with only about 100 million cubic meters of water entering the Dead Sea.  The building of the dam at Deganya by Pinchas Rottenberg in the 1930’s attempted to control the flow of water into this section of the Jordan.  After the dam was out of commission in 1947, however, the Deganya dam was used to concentrate the waters of the Upper Jordan in the Sea of Galilee for Israel’s new engineering project, the  National Water Carrier.  Today, because of extended drought, the  Deganya dam is never opened, cutting off the major source of water to the section of the Jordan in the Jordan valley (and ultimately to the Dead Sea).

Syria and Jordan also prevent water from entering the system by overtaxing the water aquifers surrounding the Jordan valley and diverting other streams in the area, especially the Yarmuk Stream which historically provided 400 million cubic meters of water a year to the system.

Israel has made a pledge to transfer 30 million cubes of water into the Jordan valley between the Kinneret and the Dead Sea.  It is a drop in the bucket but shows a willingness to start to deal with rehabilitating the Jordan and the Dead Sea.  We are waiting for others in our neighborhood to show the same committment to natural habitat.

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Last week I took a group to hike in Lower Nahal Og.  I had done the hike about 4-5 years ago when I started hiking with Yossie.  The hike is in one of the dry (or mostly dry) stream beds which leads from the Judean desert to the Dead Sea and, as such, descends for its entire length.  Along the path, as the chalk gives way to dolomite and the canyon becomes narrow and steep, and in order to continue to descend, you must navigate a series of three ladders.

“Ladders” in hikes in Israel are not what you may think of as ladders in other parts of the world.  “Ladders” here consist of metal u’s,  the width of 2 fists, which are stuck in the sides of rocks allowing you to descend/climb otherwise sheer rock faces.  The three ladders on the Lower Nahal Og hike are 4, 7, and 10 meters high (10 meters is higher than my house!).  You ease yourself over the cliff and carefully climb from rung to rung, often coached by those who have descended before you.  At points it sounds like a Twister game as shouts of “move your left foot a little to the right!” guide descent of one hiker after the next.

The hike starts in the Central Judean desert on the Plain of Hyrcania.  This is the driest part of the Judean desert – there is no residual moisture from the Judean hills to the west and are no springs of the Eastern Judean desert/Dead Sea valley.  It is a great hike for noticing the changing geology and plant life.

But besides nature, there is a historical human footprint in the area.  Despite the existence of a more heavily traveled road to the north in the area of Nahal Prat connecting Jericho to Jerusalem, there was also a secondary road which went along Nahal Og.

Why were there two parallel roads so close to each other?  The answer lies in a product which has fueled world politics and science, exploration and cuisine.  SUGAR!

In today’s world, we take sugar for granted, but it wasn’t always so.  Sugar domestication started about 10,000 years ago in the South Pacific – at approximately the same time as wheat was domesticated here in Israel.  The first sugar addicts chewed the sugar cane stalks to achieve their sugar high.  Later, the stalks were ground and soaked with the resultant liquid left to dry, leaving the sugary residue behind.

Meanwhile, in Israel, sweetness in food was obtained by adding honey (dvash) to foods.  “Dvash” in the Bible almost always (with the exception of the story of Shimshon’s riddle to the people of Timna) refers to sweetener derived from fruits such as dates.  When the Bible is speaking of Israel as a “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”, it is speaking about fruit honey and not honey from bees or other plants. This meaning is preserved in Arabic where “Dibis” refers to sweetener made from any fruit.

Back to Sugar Cane….  Sugar (from sugar cane) became the main sweetener in India, finally making its way to the Arab world.  With the Moslem conquest of the Land of Israel, came also the taste for sugar from canes.  The Moslem conquerors soon discovered that the reeds around what is today Einot Tzukim were suitable for the production of cane sugar.  The plant requires both lots of water and lots of sunlight – both  available in abundance in the Dead Sea area.  It also can tolerate a relatively high level of salinity in its water source, leading it to take over areas closer to the Dead Sea where other plants could not survive.  The Moslem conquerors brought their engineering know-how and made the extraction of cane sugar more efficient and profitable.  They needed to bring their crop to the closest large market (Jerusalem) and also to service the Byzantine monks in the Judean desertand both Muslim and Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.  This is the famed Sugar Route which passes through Nahal Og, joins the monastery of St. Euthymius, to El Azaria and into Jerusalem.  With the coming of the Crusaders, sugar was introduced to the West.  The Europeans were crazy about the sweetener and from the beginning of the Crusader era, sugar refineries were present in Israel, not only for local consumption but for exporting to the markets of Europe.  These industrial installations required a mill, an aqueduct, hearths, and many ceramic pots for storing the resultant sugar powder and the molasses byproduct.   (These installations have been found by archaeologists around areas where sugar cane is grown, including along the Sugar Route.)  At the time of the Crusaders, sugar was just as expensive in the European markets as the spices which were brought from Yemen, such as cinnamon and cardamon.

When the Crusaders were kicked out of the Levant by the Mamelukes, the supply of sugar was now in the hands of the not-so-friendly Arabs who jacked up the prices.  As always, these market pressures forced people to become creative.  Sugar from beets, which are readily grown in Northern European climates replaced cane sugar.  This inferior product, however, was soon supplemented by sugar cane introduced, grown and processed in the New World.

As in Ramle with the development and export of the Gothic arch, in the Judean desert, we walk in the footsteps of history.  A fortuitous confluence of Eastern foods, the development of engineering which allowed for production on a mass scale and the opening of European markets led to the introduction of one of the staples of the modern Western diet.    And no matter what you think of sugar, it definitely  has clutched the stomachs of most of the people on the planet.


Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a princess named Emily.  She would happily go on walks in the forest with her friends, not considered a dangerous thing to do, but not for the tame of heart.  One day, a ferocious dragon spied her as he flew overhead.  The dragon swooped down unexpectedly and caught Emily in his talons.  As he lifted her higher and higher, her friend, Fred, took out his bow and arrow and shot the dragon.  The princess fell through the canopy and arrived on the forest floor a bit out of sorts.  Emily’s bright pink dress was torn, her beautiful blond hair was all mussy, and she was a bit bruised.  The dragon flew off back to his lair to lick his wounds.

Fred said, “Emily, maybe you shouldn’t take walks in the forest.  Maybe none of us should.  The dragon can come back at any time.  And it doesn’t really matter what you do.  He can come back and get you and carry you away for good.”

Emily replied, “I appreciate your concern, Fred.  But I have walked in the woods before without incident.  I love walking in the forest.  I love feeling the cool shade of the trees, exploring the moss growing, picking wild mushrooms with you, my friends.  I will be more careful from the threat of the dragon, but I intend to continue walking in the woods.”

Emily went out and bought pepper spray in case the dragon got close to her.  She learned archery and bought herself the latest, state-of-the-art bow and arrow set, she changed her clothing to blend in more with the trees.  But still in the back of her mind, she remembered the dragon.  If I could just best the dragon, I will be free of him.

And so one day, she decided that this time when she was out in the woods with her friends, if she spied the dragon, she would slay him.

I love hiking, and being outdoors.  When I was in fourth grade, I decided to become a naturalist when I grew up, so I could work outside.  The naturalist plan went the way of so many other little girl career plans, but the love of the outdoors has stayed with me my whole life.

In Israel, hiking is a way of life. G-d told Abraham to walk the land, the width and breadth, North, South, East, West, and that commandment has embedded itself into the Israeli psyche.  Israel offers so many wonderful, beautiful interesting trails and I was excited to find friends who liked to explore these trails.  Also, my kids like to hike, they like the challenge, and  they like going new places; they like the map reading, the discovery of hidden pools, identifying flowers, encountering wildlife.  And they grew up with me – someone who believes that a day is not complete unless you GO somewhere.

When I started hiking for real, on the invitation of my friends Rochel and Yossie, I was an amateur.  I didn’t have the right gear.  I didn’t have the right experience.   One of the first real hikes I went on with them was to Tamror Cliffs and Nahal Bokek in the Dead Sea area.  It is a 5.5 hour hike, the first 2.5-3 hours of which you are hiking in the desert totally exposed to the elements.  The second section is descending 350 m. down (vertical distance) the cliff on a rocky, winding path.  The views of the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert throughout the walk are spectacular.  Chalk slopes, fins, “castles” for birds.  Volcanic blast-out remnants from a long, lost time, remains from fortresses.  All that stuff I really like.

When I went for the first time on this hike, 4.5 years ago, I did it without enough water, in sandals, and without any real hiking experience.  About 1/3 of the way down the cliff face, I tripped on a simple rock.  Nothing so out of the ordinary.  Not a particularly difficult section of the hike.  I tripped with enough force to topple head over heels, spraining my ankle, deeply cutting my elbow and passing out.  Getting me the other 2/3 of the way down was only accomplished through the diligence of my sons Boaz and Asaf who literally helped me every step of the way.  Many really bad things could have happened to me that day, but, thank G-d, they didn’t.  Elliot calmed me down and drove home, Yossie gave me water and sugar.  Friends help friends.

And I made a few decisions about hiking.

1.  Have the right gear.  I bought the hiking boots, the walking stick, the good camelback water system, clothing that was appropriate for hiking.  I bought the entire collection of topographical maps and always hike with a first aid kit.
2.  Hike a lot.  That’s right.  Hike as often as you can.  Learn what works well for you.  I worked myself up to carrying 6 liters of water on even the hottest days and the steepest ascents.  I know that the food I need is protein, nuts, and a few sugary candies.  I know how to pace myself and others who are hiking with me so we don’t run out of water or daylight.

Yesterday I went back to “slay the dragon” of Tamror Cliffs and Nahal Bokek.  I went with Yossie, Rochel, Asaf and a lot of other friends who love being in Israel’s great outdoors as much as I do.   It’s a tough hike, rated “medium” in the book.  But I finished it. That dragon is dead.  I am in a better place now than I was the first time I faced him.

Maybe I am showing my age, but John Denver said it best:

Reach for the heavens
and hope for the future,
all that we can be,
not what we are.

Breathing in the Bromide

This week took me once again to the Dead Sea for another Places in Your Neighborhood trip to Lido, Qumran and Einot Tzukim.  This week the weather was warm and a little breezy – much nicer than the weather we would have experienced had we gone last week.

As we were overlooking the original evaporation ponds of the Dead Sea Works, one of the participants asked me about the commercial application of the Bromide mined here.  I thought perhaps it was used in industry, but thought the subject merited more research.

Bromide is one of the three main minerals mined from the Dead Sea.  The other two being Magnesium and Potash.  Israel is the world’s largest producer of Bromide with 40% of the world’s bromide coming from the Dead Sea!    Most salt water bodies in the world contain 65 parts per million (ppm) bromide; the Dead Sea, in contrast has over 4,000 ppm bromide.

Although bromide compounds have been known for years, the element itself was only isolated in 1824.  The name comes from bromos, a Greek word meaning “stench”.  It is one of only two elements which exist as a liquid, the other being mercury.

Bromide compounds have a place in Jewish law.  According to the Ptil Tekhelet organization, the dye mentioned in the Bible which was used on tzitzit, is extracted from Tyrian purple (dibromoindigo) which on exposure to the sunlight, loses its bromide to become indigo.  This dye, according to the organization, must come from the murex trunculus snail in order to satisfy Jewish law as tekhelet.  This bromide compound (and the snail associated with it, obviously) do not come from the Dead Sea, but many other important bromide compounds do originate there.

Currently, some bromide compounds are used as flame retardants.  Fifteen different brominated chemicals are currently manufactured by the Dead Sea Bromide Group as flame retardants, including some which are polymers.

Another bromide product made from the Dead Sea’s bromide is methylbromide – a pesticide.  Research has showed a possible link between methylbromide and a negative effect on the ozone layer, and so, this chemical application is under pressure to be phased out.

Potassium Bromide (KBr) was, until 1912 the only effective drug available for treating epilepsy, and is still used mainly for treating the disease in dogs.  What KBr does is to calm the nervous system down, making it an option as a sedative in large mammals as well.  It is suggested that the high level of Bromide in the Dead Sea may lead people to relax a bit when in the vicinity (and I thought it was the anticipation of a nice massage that was causing me to relax…)

I am so happy that the people who are touring with me ask interesting questions.  So, here’s this bit on Bromide.

Next month’s Places in Your Neighborhood will be to the town of Ramle.  Most people know Ramle only for her social services, but there is a lot more to see if you only look!  Wonder what interesting questions and insights will surface there….