Right in Front of Your Eyes

How many times have you been looking for something only to find it right in front of your eyes? In St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, researchers are finding ancient heretofore undiscovered literary works right in front of their eyes on the page – yet hidden under later texts.

The monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula has been functioning since the 6th century CE and has the world’s oldest continually operating library in the world. This small library, now headed by Father Justin Sinaites from Texas, has opened its doors and its pages to researchers from all over the world to examine its literary treasures. (Some of the literary treasures have been mentioned before in this blog.)

Among the thousands of texts in the library, the researchers found remnants of script written under the current text. Writing texts has always been a major part of monastic life. In order to perform this important function, however, you need materials on which to write. Following the rise of Islam in the 7th century, many other monasteries in the Sinai Desert began to disappear, leaving St. Catherine’s in relative isolation. Only because of a agreement with Mohammad, according to tradition, was this monastery saved.


Palimpset, with earlier Greek text beneath medieval Greek text

But materials became scarce, including parchment for writing. The monks found a creative solution to their dilemma. They took older, less relevant texts, soaked them in lemon juice and scraped off the old text. They then had a clean page on which to write new text.

These re-written texts are called palimpsests and around 130 of them have been investigated from the St. Catherine’s library comprising some 6,800 pages. Michael Phelps, the director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library and leader of the project at St. Catherine, in conjunction with scientists and linguists, has helped to elucidate these earlier writings. Tiny bumps and shadows are photographed from different angles in different lights helped to reveal bumps and depressions in the surface. Technology helps to turn those discrepancies into readable text.

The hidden writing dates from the 6th to the 12th century CE and represent a wide range of languages. Among the exciting discoveries are 108 previously unknown Greek poems and the earliest copy of a recipe from Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine. Knowledge and expansion of the vocabulary of rare languages such as Caucasian Albanian and Christian Palestinian Aramaic, have greatly benefited from examining their use in these palimpsests. Caucasian Albanian was used by Christians living in today’s Azerbaijan, and had only been found on a few stone inscriptions; their churches were destroyed in the 8th/9th century CE bringing an end to their unique community and language. Christian Palestinian Aramaic was a mix of Syriac and Greek but was discontinued in the 13th century.

There is urgency today for this project as the Islamic State’s presence in the Sinai Peninsula has, again, made St. Catherine’s even harder to reach. We can only hope that St. Catherine’s can be protected in these days and continue to function as a sanctuary, not only for pilgrims, but also for its important library.


Water, Water Everywhere

Israel has entered winter. The nights are cold, dipping into the single digits centigrade (30’s and 40’s Fahrenheit) and sometimes during the day it rains. During these colder, damper months it is hard to remember that Israel is now in the middle of a drought. Water issues have been a limiting factor in settlement and a cause of conflict for years. Even in the Biblical text, Abraham has disputes over water. Genesis recounts a tense situation in Abraham’s life:

And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away….And Abraham put seven ewes of his flock by themselves. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewes that you separated?” And he said, “Because of these seven ewes which you will take from me, and it will be a witness that I have dug this well.”

In World War I, Beer Sheva was a target for the British because of the well water there.

Today in Israel, wells are not sufficient to supply the population with water. Israel is forced to turn to other sources, including the development over the last 20 years of desalination.

The first desalination plant in Israel was constructed in the 1950’s for the city of Eilat. There is no fresh water source for this city and if Israel wanted to develop the town into an international port to the east, water was a necessity. The technology of this first plant was distillation, the oldest desalination technique. Distillation was even used in the 1700’s on ships to provide sailors with water. As the quote reminds us, “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

Distillation is costly, however, and by 1973 Eilat had switched to reverse osmosis, a process which forces salt water at high pressure through a series of filters to remove the salt. They located this plant not on the Red Sea but on above a brackish ground water reservoir. This water source was not as salty as the sea and halved the cost of desalinating Red Sea water.

Desalination remained isolated in Eilat until three consecutive years of drought (1998, 1999, 2000) forced Israel to look for solutions to a water crisis in the rest of the country. Desalination again came on the table. Technology had improved, and a new funding strategy of BOT ventures (build-operate-transfer) lured foreign corporations into the equation. A French company built the plant in Ashkelon, which came online in 2005, at a cost of $250 million with rights to collect revenue for 25 years. This plant was the largest reverse osmosis plant in the world at the time with the cheapest water cost at $0.52 per cubic meter.  The construction of the plant in Ashkelon and 3 other coastal plants  jettisoned Israel into the world scene as a leader in desalination.desalination ashkelon

There are environmental challenges in the production of water through desalination. Chemicals released through reverse osmosis and increased saltiness of the effluent released back to the ocean affect marine ecosystems. The biggest economic footprint, though, is from the energy used by the desalination plants themselves. If the energy used is dirty energy, then the carbon footprint from desalination increases. Currently, Israel relies on coal to power the coastal desalination plants. Brackish water desalination plants inland take their energy from the electric grid. Israel needs to develop new renewable energy sources to power her water crisis. Stay tuned for Israel’s emergence not only as a water-technology leader but a renewable-energy leader in the world scene.

King Solomon’s Mines?

One of the hot debates in Israel’s archaeological community is on the extent of the Jewish kingdom during the time of Kings David and Solomon (read about another town involved in this debate here). Were David and Solomon rulers over a vast kingdom as described in the Bible or simply tribal chieftains with a penchant for telling good stories?

One of the places this debate is playing out is deep in the southern Arava, north of Eilat in the valley of Timna. During the past few years, researchers have gone back and forth over the designation of the copper mines there as being the famed King Solomon’s Mines, popularized by the 1885 book by H. Rider Haggard.king solomons mines

Conventional archaeology conjectured that the lack of finds from the 10th century B.C.E., the time of David and Solomon, pointed to the site being unsettled then and shattered the Solomonic mines myth. Excavations at 2 sites during the past few years using advanced technology are changing the picture once again. Discovery of preserved mule dung and left over food from the miners which were examined with Carbon 14 dating may actually shore up the Biblical account.

Site 34, Slaves’ Hill, is an ancient site of copper smelting on a flat mesa at the center of the Timna valley. According to the C14 finds, this site was occupied during the Iron Age, during which David and Solomon were kings. The production of copper carried with it a well-organized, centralized society, such as is described in the Bible under David and Solomon.  Not only that, but the food remains found in the dung show that the mule ate a diet of Mediterranean food products – the type which were found in David and Solomon’s kingdom around Jerusalem pointing to a connection between the miners and Jerusalem.

Other finds put the cessation of settlement at Site 34 to around 930 B.C.E. during the invasion of Shishak from Egypt, and the reorganization of supply lines which come with a change of sovereignty.

Nearby Site 30 was found to have a peak in copper production in the first half of the 10th century B.C.E. – exactly the time period of Kings David and Solomon.

The C14 studies in Timna bring to light archaeological questions, especially questions of societal complexity in tent-dwelling societies, which do not leave behind plentiful physical remains. Unless ancient people were engaged in unique activities, such as mining or smelting, they were completely transparent in common archaeological practice. New technologies can help to uncover these societies and contribute to a greater understanding of not only their particular social orders, but also the wider questions in archaeology.

Worms to Words

Silk is one of the most desirable fabrics. Ever since the Chinese discovered the strength, sheen and malleability of silk threads in the 4th millennium B.C.E. silk has been the textile of privilege. Although silk is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible, finds from ancient times are scarce. Organic materials break down with time and do not survive for archaeologists to find them.  The drier regions of Israel, however, have an ideal climate for the survival of organic finds.

During Byzantine times, with prosperity in the Negev and open trade routes, there are a few surviving fragments. Christian pilgrims traveling to holy sites from Egypt brought silk fragments to Nitzana where 4 fragments of this rare cloth were found. In Avdat, the Nabatean Byzantine city, one fragment was found dating from before the destruction of the city in 636 C.E. This fragment’s pattern was discernible and resembles patterns of tunics found in Egypt from this same time period. Nahal Omer in the Arava Valley yielded 3 silk fragments from among 250 textiles found there from the 7th-8th century C.E. The location of the spice route from Petra to Gaza led to the opulence of these locations and the existence of people who had the means to acquire silk garments.

qarantal silkThere is another place in Israel where silk has been found which is not associated with the spice route – Qarantal, above Jericho. In Cave 38 beneath Qarantal fortress (today known as the Mount of Precipice), were found 800 textile fragments from the 9th-13th century C.E. Many of them are compound silk fragments – silk woven in with other less expensive threads. All of these 800 fragments were used and most were from repaired garments.

Who was storing old clothes in a cave above Jericho? In antiquity, clothing was used and patched until it was beyond repair, and only then discarded. Researchers believe that this was not a giant trash heap but rather a horde of raw materials for another purpose. During this time, new technology came to the Middle East. A cheap substitute for parchment or papyrus was available. Developed and streamlined in China in the 2nd century C.E., paper-making made its way on the trade routes. Using wood pulp for paper would only be invented in 1843, and ancient paper production was from fabrics. Quality paper would be made from quality textiles, like silk, which could provide durable fibers.

Writing started circulating on this paper. Silk, which started as a product of worms, became at the end of their journey, substrate for words.  Worms to words.

2% Cave Men

Israel has always been a bridge between cultures.  Its unique location between Europe, Africa and Asia positioned it at the center of transportation and exchange of goods and ideas.  This function goes way back to prehistory.  In the last few years, paleo-archaeological sites in the Negev are reaching back into time to uncover a colossal meeting between Neanderthals and homo sapiens (modern man).

Scientists believe that Neanderthals were being forced out of Europe because of environmental changes.  At the same time, sub-Saharan African homo sapiens were spreading out and heading north.  The exact route of these journeys is hard to determine exactly.  The only remains that were found in the Negev to date are their technologies so its hard to create a narrative of their meeting.  Genetics today shows that 2% of non-sub-Saharan human DNA comes from Neanderthals, so there must have been some sort of contact.

flintThe Negev would have been a rich source of flint for spear heads for early man.  Today, even the casual visitor comes across areas of concentrations of flint shards on the ground.  Careful examination of the technology involved in forming spear heads and their shape provides a clue into what this meeting between Neanderthals and Modern Man looked like in the Negev and whether it occurred here at all.  A recent archaeological dig in Boker Tachtit, within the National Park of Ein Avdat, aims to look into this past.  At the site are 4 layers of human settlement between 55,600 and 42,850 years ago.  The results are still being examined at Weizmann Institute in Rechovot.  Next time you are hiking in the Negev and you come across a seam of flint, look for shaped stones and wonder whether this was shaped by a Neanderthal, a homo sapiens, or like most of us, someone who has some of both.

Related Sites:

  • Ein Avdat
  • Ein Ekev
  • Weizmann House and Institute

Synagogue on the Heights

In this week’s Torah reading, we have one of the examples in the Pentateuch of stories which happen in the land of Israel. Jacob and his family cross into the land after many years living near today’s Turkey/Syrain border in the home of Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law.  They cross over the Jabbok stream on their way towards Shchem/Nablus.

The Jabbok stream today separates the Golan Heights from the country of Jordan.  Archaeology shows that this area of the Golan Heights  was an important area of Jewish settlement.  With the inclusion of larger territory under the rule of the Romans and freedom of movement, Jews were free to spread out and follow opportunity.  After Hadrian exiled Jews from Judea, these peripheral areas became more important for preserving Jewish community.  One such village in the Goaln Heights in the region of Sussita, one of the cities of the decopolis, was Um el-Kanatir.

Perhaps it was the spring which first drew Jews to live there as early as 23 C.E.  The name of the site today comes from the arched building  which once protected the spring.  The town continued to thrive and used the spring as a resource for the flax industry which developed there.  Being close to the major Roman town of Sussita was also a benefit for this community.

But it isn’t  the spring that makes this place a site for visitors today, but rather the memory of the Jewish community who once lived there.  Jews not only lived and worked here, but also celebrated their religious beliefs and the eternal connection to Jerusalem.  They built an impressive synagogue in the 6th century which has been unearthed.

In 1884, Lawrence Olefant and Gottleib Schumacher were taken to this pile of stones by a local Arab sheik.  There they saw what remained of the 6th century synagogue after it had been destroyed by an earthquake in 749 C.E.  Olefant and Schumacher were impressed and identified it as a synagogue but they did not excavate there.  (The land of Israel has a plethora of sites and there simply are not enough resources to properly excavate them all.)  The “neglect” of the site for over 100 years after its discovery allowed for modern archaeological techniques to be implemented to rebuild this synagogue. um-el-kanatir-wall

In the past 14 years, under the archaologists Yehoshua Drey, Ilana Gonen and Chaim BenDavid, the ancient synagogue of this small Jewish town on the outskirts of Sussita is being rebuilt stone by stone.  The stones are tagged and measured and computers figure out from their physical attributes and location, where they sat in the synagogue.  This synagogue is not yet open for bar mitzvahs and weddings, but has been developed so that we can visit this site of Jewish life from the past.

Eight Days a Week

Arial view of Kathisma Church

Arial view of Kathisma Church

I recently visited the Kathisma Church in southern Jerusalem.  The Katisma church was a Byzantine shrine from the 5th century.  The building was octagonal with its focus being a rock in the center, allegedly the spot where Mary stopped to rest on her flight to Egypt. The structure existed for several hundred years, even going through a phase as a mosque, maintaining its internal octagonal space, even as rooms were added to the exterior.   It got me thinking about a topic which seems to come up every once in a while in my head – octagonal buildings.  Why did the octagon emerge as a somewhat common shape for buildings?

Most buildings (or parts of buildings)  which have survived from the Byzantine era reflect the architectural sensitivities of the West.  The many synagogues and churches from this era are mostly basilical in shape.  A basilica is a rectangular building with an entry from the short side.  The internal space is divided into 3 parallel sections – a central nave flanked by side aisles.  The basilica was a development based on the Roman ideas of proportion and beauty, and as such, Western. In contrast, octagonal buildings reflect the Eastern sensibilities.
The most prominent octagonal building in Israel is the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.  Built in the 7th century, it survives today in its original shape (the mosaics have undergone renovation).   Another notable octagonal building from the Byzantine period is the Domus Eclasia in Kfar Nahum.

And so one question which begs to be asked is whether eight is symbolic of some sort of religious/cultural ideal.   Besides the architectural considerations, are there philosophical explanations of 8-sided buildings?  Why is 8 important?

At the risk of sounding inane, the number 8 comes after the number 7. Seven represents the natural world.  With no religious underpinnings, humans organize their lives around 7.  It is said that 7 is the largest number you can gestalt, and so the largest intuitive number.  Eight is already not easily graspable – you have to count eight objects.

Not so Seven.  Seven is natural and Seven repeats, naturally.  We have the 6 days of work and the one day (the seventh) as the day of rest.  Then you repeat.  Seven and start over.   Or 7 musical notes in a scale.  (The 8th note in an OCTAVE is actually the first note in the next group.)  Seven and start over.

Eight represents that which goes beyond 7, which is above nature – supernatural.  Like the song by the Beatles, loving someone “eight days a week” shows that you are not in the realm of normal.  The first “8” in the Bible has to do with Abraham, the father of monotheism.  He is commanded to circumcise his son, Isaac, on the 8th day.  A human body is formed through natural means (7) and on day 8, the human body goes above and beyond nature.  Other 8’s include the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, the “8” holiday, which follows the Festival of Tabernacles – Sukkot.  There is the celebration of the harvest (natural) and then the holiday which pushes beyond the natural – Shmini Atzeret.  Shavuot, Pentecost, comes after 7 cycles of 7 days.  It is day 50, super x supernatural and the day on which the most supernatural event of the Jewish tradition occurs – the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Also, the Temple is dedicated over 8 days, signifying the Temple’s role in helping people to go beyond the physical, natural world and reach something beyond themselves.  And during the second Temple period, the holiday of Chanukkah celebrating the rededication of the Temple will last 8 days.
On a larger timescale, There are 6 years of planting and working fields, and one (the seventh) where the field lays fallow.  The Jubilee year is the year which goes beyond the natural cycle and occurs in the 50th year (7 x 7 + 1).
In Christianity, Jesus reveals himself 8 times after he is resurrected.  His name in Greek (where letters=numbers as in Hebrew gematria), totals 888.

Constantine understands this symbolism and so, when he dedicates major churches will celebrate for 8 days, and the shape of at least parts of the new churches will be eight-sided.  Very often the octagonal sections will be the baptistries, those structures dedicated to baptism – the act symbolizing going beyond the physical and natural.  This is the case throughout the centuries.  The baptistery in Florence is an octagon and the baptismal font in Pisa is octagonal – both of these buildings were built in the Middle Ages well after the Byzantines.  On a more eccleasitical level, the custom of local celebrations lasting 8 days will become prevalent in the church and are called “octaves”.
You may find all this a bit sketchy.  After all, maybe they just liked octagons, or maybe an octagon was practically as close as they could get to a circle, or some other strictly practical reason.  But I don’t believe that strict logic gives us the most complete story.  How  a society builds says as much about its character as what clothes you wear speaks volumes about a person’s personality.  I have a house with blue stripes.  That says something about me (I am not afraid to be different) and about the community in which I live (they allow houses with blue stripes).  These elements are not random or practical, but thought out and reflect important values.  Similarly, the octagonal structures were built with purpose and message.  They are meant to inspire you to push beyond the natural boundaries and to connect with the extraordinary in your life.

Second Pressing

I always enjoyed learning how things work.  Especially things we take for granted.  There is that great TV show that takes us inside factories to see how things work.  When I took a 9 week cross country (US) trip with my family, we loved factory tours to see how they make all kinds of things from whistles to bears.  We also loved industry – our visit to the Hoover Dam was one of the highlights.

So it should be no surprise that even ancient “factories” catch my eye.  I love learning how things were made and how technologies improved, but usually didn’t really change all that much.
ramat hanadiv 1
I was out with a friend hiking in one of my favorite spots to go – Ramat HaNadiv Nature Reserve.  Ramat HaNadiv is located just south of Zichron Yaacov and is on the very southern tip of the Carmel Mountain.  Here, overlooking the agricultural fields, the fish ponds and the power plant, was built a farm, named by archeologists Hurvat Akev.  This farm dated from the Second Temple period and had a major renovation in the Byzantine era.  It was a massive compound with a guard tower, places for animals, mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths), cisterns, and an extensive agricultural center.

Today, we may look at this place and understand why people would want to live here – it is beautiful and has a gorgeous view.  But you need more than beautiful vistas to make an area desirable, especially in the past.  So, why is this farm here?  How could it be so successful to support such a large infrastructure?
ramat hanadiv 2
The answer can be found in the compound’s yard.  In a relatively small area, there is a threshing floor, a wine press and an olive press.  That’s like having 3 different factories all within your home!  These three – wheat, grapes, and olives – are the most important crops of the Levant.  It is very unusual to have so much different technology concentrated in one farm as the technologies are all different.

Wheat needs a high degree of processing before it becomes edible.  The wheat needs to be harvested and then winnowed.  This is usually done near the fields as so much of the wheat stalk is waste.

Olives were generally harvested in the fields and brought to a central processing facility.  Olives travel well so you don’t need to worry about them spoiling on the way and almost all of the olives were used, with the waste providing great organic fertilizer.

Grapes, like wheat, were harvested and processed in the fields.  But grapes were processed in the fields not because of the large percentage of waste, but because grapes are fragile and transporting them can interfere with the fermentation process.

We saw a Byzantine wine press with a depression which held a screw (this was the new technology of the day – increasing torque through use of a screw).  I have seen many screws used for olive oil production but was unfamiliar with screws in wine production.

In olive oil production, the entire olive is crushed with a crushing stone.  About 25% of the oil in olives comes from the pit; crushing the pit helps to release the oil.  Then the “olive mash” is transferred to mesh baskets.  The first olive juice which flows freely from this mash is the highest quality oil (virgin olive oil), with lesser quality oils released relative to the force squeezing the olive mash.

With wine, seems there is a similar process.  Grapes are picked and crushed with feet so as not to crush the pits/seeds.  Crushed pits/seeds in grapes make for bitter wine and feet are much gentler on the crushing process.  The juice which runs off from this crushing makes for higher quality wine.

This is not the end, however.  Because during the Byzantine era (4th-7th century C.E.) wine was drunk like water (literally), they wanted to extract the maximum product from the grapes.  The mash which was left on the crushing floor was gathered and put into an underground pit in the center of the crushing floor.  This pit was usually not so large – only about 3 feet deep – and had a channel which led to the collection pit.  Then, a screw was inserted which pressed down on a piece of wood or stone to press this grape mash.  This is what was called the “second pressing” and was used to make lower quality wine.

In today’s wine world, where we have clean drinking water (something not to be taken for granted), there is less of a need to get every little drop out of a grape.  With modern equipment, very often the yield on second pressings is low, and is deemed not financially profitable.  First pressings, or better yet, “free run” wines, however can demand a higher price and are generally higher in quality.  Just like they did 2000 years ago.

The past and present meet – over a glass of wine.

Next time you are are in Israel and up for a glass of wine, or a tour through ancient wine installations, let’s do that together.  Cheers!

It’s Magic!

Caves are magical.  Caves provide us with an “ultrasound” of sorts into the earth’s interior.  Caves also provide shelter to many unique plant and animal species and were the first homes for humans.  (For another post on dwellings      in this area.)  People explore caves for the mineral riches contained underground, for scientific studies of this netherworld and for the sheer thrill of it.  Sometimes, caves provide clues not only to the earth’s interior, but to our own human past.  Such is the continuing research at Qesem (Magic) Cave in Israel.

Qesem Cave was discovered during a civil project to widen the road between Rosh HaAyin and Ariel.  This road has been a thoroughfare  throughout history and, apparently, also during prehistoric times.

Humanoids have been in the current Land of Israel for 1.5 million years, having migrated north up the Syrian African rift.  The recent excavations at  Qesem Cave explore  the period of occupation is between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago, which corresponds to the Lower Paleolithic period, a period with mixed humanoid populations.

What was interesting to me as I was learning about Qesem Cave were the same things that interest me particularly about  archaeology – namely the interplay between history, the environment and technology – are evident in paleontology as well.  More  than 400,000 years ago, Homo Erectus was the dominant species of  hominid species and his main food was ELEPHANTS!


Once you think about it and get past the picture of Dumbo flying  in the sky, however, elephants are an ideal food.  Killing one  elephant provides enough meat to feed a lot of people.   It is a very efficient dinner.  But times change.  And around 400,000 years ago, elephant populations lessened/disappeared in current  Israel.

And so, between 400,000 years ago and 200,000 years ago, the period of the current findings of the Qesem cave, hominid species had to adapt.  We do not know exactly what caused the disappearance of the elephant, but removing this staple from the diet of early humanoids had a profound affect on their technologies.  Switching the main food source from elephant to fallow deer and other smaller mammals meant that there needed to be a change in the Qesem kitchen.   Fallow deer became so important that their bones were found through all 9 m of layers from this time period excavated in the Qesem cave.

We have in the Qesem cave the oldest evidence of daily household use of fire IN THE WORLD.    Talk about an Israeli Start Up – home cooked food!  Food was cooked on a daily basis and not only sporadically.  Because the area of the kitchen had a new importance, certain areas of the cave were set aside for this purpose.  Not only cooking, but other activities in the cave dwelling were carried out in specific locations within the cave leading to developing of areas for “cottage industries”.

Qesem_Cave_bladesThe level of innovation was high in this cave.  Besides cooking food on a daily basis and having an area set aside for this, and other, functions, over half a million flint tools were found, some “before their time” being the earliest instance of that tool type found IN THE WORLD.  We are not talking about random flint knives, but rather about complete knife sets, each knife for a specific purpose.  Uniform flint knives were found that were used only once for slaughter, then they were recycled for cutting meat.  This recycling is the only instance of this behavior IN THE WORLD at this time.

The research at Kesem cave has been carried out for the last 12 years by Tel Aviv University Department of Archaeology under the direction of Ran Barkai and still continues.  Next summer the archaeologists hope to start work on a new cave dating from still earlier.  Wonder what new “firsts” will be discovered this summer?


“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?