Chalcolithic Climate Changes

Climate change is a hot topic today.  How is man impacting his environment and what can we expect in the future if the current trends continue?   Deep in the heart of the Negev comes evidence of another climatic change from pre-historic times.

The Chalcolithic era lasts from about 5500-3300 B.C.E. in the area of Israel today.  Chalcolithic means copper/stone and marks the transition between the technology of the stone age and that of the bronze age.  During Chalcolithic times there were many settlements in places which today are considered the fringe of civilization.  The Negev region is one of them.  In June 2016 as part of road works extending Rt. 6 to Shoket Junction, there was a discovery of a Chalcolithic settlement in a region which today has less than 200 mm of rain per year.  That little amount of rain is not even enough to support wheat, and so could not provide a community’s food needs.  The dig in this location uncovered a Chalcolithic agricultural settlement as indicated by its grain storage pits which existed through all 4 layers of settlement.   If it was an agricultural settlement, this is a sign that at that time there was more rainfall than there is today.

Not only grain pits were found but also water cisterns for catching flood waters from Nahal Hebron were found at the site.  During one period the entire site was covered by a layer of loess from Nahal Hebron indicating a much wetter climate where alluvial material to a depth of 1-1.5 m was deposited over the site.  After this period, the cisterns got even larger necessitating steps.  Buildings during this time were made of mud bricks, just like those found from the same time period at Tel Sheva; mud bricks can only be made if there is abundant water.  However, during the latest settlement period, the cisterns were filled in and the settlement drastically shrunk in size.

What led to the collapse of this settlement and others like it in the Negev during the Chalcolithic time?  Does the filling in of the cisterns show a lack of water?  And if the climate changed and caused the abandonment of the settlement, what caused the change? Besides learning about the past, studying these climate changes can help us to understand what may happen if we experience a drastic climate change as perhaps the people of ancient Shoket junction did. negev-water

Nearby sites:
  • Tel Beer Sheva National Park
  • Yatir forest
  • Lakia Bedouin crafts

Intelligent Crossing

“I see humanity now as one vast plant, needing for its highest fulfillment only love, the natural blessings of the great outdoors, and intelligent crossing and selection.”

Luther Burbank

Today my Places in Your Neighborhood tour took me to guide at one of my favorite sites – Qesr al-Yehud on the Jordan.  I have been fascinated by this place ever since qesr-dadmy first visit as part of the tour guide course.  During that time, the site was closed to the general public, and only with consultation with the army, could a group enter.  As you drive along the road which leads you to the site, an eerie combination of run-down  Christian compounds and barbed-wire fences warning of mine fields accompanies you on both sides.  As you approach the site, in the near distance you can see brand new churches, their gold domes and spires glistening.

But it isn’t the modern military history or the site’s place in the Christian mythos that attracts me to Qesr al-Yehud.  What draws me here over and over again is the ability to access the Jordan, and the thought that very near to this spot, the Children of Israel crossed into the Land of Israel and started their journey to nationhood.

Today, we reached Qesr al-Yehud after exploring part of Nahal Prat and beginning an encounter with wilderness and water.   The soothing noise of the Jordan flowing by their feet started lulling some people into a short snooze.  I started to tell the story of the Children of Israel crossing the Jordan, when David O.  asked how I could be sure that this was the spot.  I explained about how this is one of the natural places along the Jordan where it is easier to cross and so it makes sense that they would have chosen this location.  But, he countered, the crossing of the Jordan was miraculous, so wouldn’t it have been even more of a miracle to stand somewhere where it wasn’t so easy to cross?  Maybe somewhere randomly along the Jordan?

I heard his argument.  G-d did magnify the miracles performed during the exodus from Egypt to prove his might in front of the world and the Jewish people.  Interesting point.  But something didn’t sit right.  Whether Qesr means Castle or Breaking through, this site is connected to the Jewish people (al-Yehud).  The Eshtorei HaParchi who was one of the early travelers to Israel in the Medieval period, tells us that the probably the most
accurate factor in determining the location of a Biblical place is the current Arabic name, so there must be some Jewish connection preserved here throughout the ages.  Why not the crossing?

As we continued on our visit to the site, David O. just would not let it rest.  He kept after me for evidence that this was the site of the crossing.   Maybe some pottery shards, some ancient buildings marking the spot?  I explained that there would not have been much material culture from a nomadic people.  But he still didn’t let it rest.

In case you think I am complaining, let me assure you, I am not.  These challenges push me to think deeper, research more, and put things in order.  This is one of the experiences which makes me happy to be a tour educator and not just a tour guide.  I don’t have all the answers and thrive on input from others.  If people don’t let up, then I know they are engaging with the subject matter, and that is a total win for me.

And then, after another comeback, it hit me.  Something which made sense of my intuitions; something more concrete.

Maybe we were looking at the story from the wrong angle?  Maybe the perspective of 3500 years of history had colored our view of the events?

I asked David O. to put himself in the position of Joshua.  He had just taken over from the greatest leader/prophet of all time, Moses.  Joshua needed to complete a task – lead the children of Israel over the Jordan and into Israel.  How was this going to happen?  At the beginning, the mechanics were not clear.  It was not clear to Joshua that the people would merit a miraculous crossing; it is not even on his radar scope as a possibility.  So, Joshua takes the people to a place where it would make sense to cross, Qesr al-Yehud.  Only after he arrives there and sets up camp for a week or so is Joshua let in on G-d’s plan to bring the Children of Israel over the Jordan in a miraculous fashion.

It isn’t that Joshua doesn’t have faith in G-d, it is just that he is making a sensible plan.  It is Joshua’s Intelligent Crossing here at Qesr al-Yehud and G-d’s Selection of the Jewish people which forged the nation .  And while I am still not sure that David O. is convinced, I think that both he and I learned something today.  Fabulous!

Let It Flow

“If you have a good idea, use it so that you will not only accomplish something, but so that you can make room for new ones to flow into you.”                                                   Deng Min-Dao, Everyday Tao:  Living with Balance and Harmony

Next week, I will be offering a Places in Your Neighborhood trip to two water sources:  Nahal Prat and the Jordan, so it is time to complete last week’s discussion of water.

Nahar, Nachal, and HaYarden have one common factor – they are vectors. That
just means that they have a path which they follow to take water from one place to another.  Israel is a hilly country and water seeks the lowest level, so this type of feature is very prevalent.

A Nahar is a large, flowing body of water.  There are two main naharot mentioned in the Bible – Nahar Prat (Euphrates River) and Nahar Mitzrayim (Nile River). The main purposes of naharot in the Bible are for denoting borders (people cross over the nahar to get to another land), drinking, and irrigation.  There are no naharot in the land of Israel.  The lack of a nahar in the Land of Israel means that there are no “borders” between the people who live in the land.
In contrast to nahar is nachal.  A nachal refers not to water, but to a place which, at a minimum, has a potential for water.  These stream beds may always flow, or only for a few hours a year during flash floods.   Eight different specific nechalim in Israel are mentioned in the Bible.

This difference, between a nahar and a nachal is crucial in understanding the mission of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.  Before entering the land of Israel, the children of Israel ask G-d what it’s like there.  I think of this as kind of a consultation with the
tour guide.    In Deuteronomy 11:10 we get to the core of this description.  Israel is not Egypt;  it is supplied with water by rain (not by a nahar – the Nile).  G-d’s eyes are always on Israel (to provide sufficient water) which also means that G-d’s eyes are also
on the land’s inhabitants to determine how much rainfall will be provided.  The Children of Israel must be aware of their actions and how they affect their survival.  They can walk around the land and see  the potential for water through the dry nechalim.  This is the complete dependence on G-d and a continual striving to do good deeds, mitzvot.  G-d sees Israel’s potential.  That’s awesome!

Now maybe you noticed at the beginning that I put The Jordan (HaYarden) in its own category.  Most English translations of the Biblical text translate HaYarden as the Jordan River.  In the Bible, however, never once is HaYarden referred to as anything other than HaYarden.  This body of water, which flows continually and fluctuates in depth and course, is mentioned 181 times in the Bible.  (The next runner up within the land of Israel, Nahal Kishon, is mentioned only 11 times.)  The Jordan figures prominently in 3 stories.

#1:  Children of Israel enter the Land of Israel crossing The Jordan.  This story is a replay of the crossing of Yam Suf (mentioned only 23 times) but forms the basis of the Jewish people in the Land of Egypt.  During the crossing, they take 12 stones from The Jordan to make one monument.  The Jordan makes us one people.

#2:  Elijah the prophet leaves the people of Israel by ascending into the sky near The Jordan.  Elijah leaves his leadership role and his life when he crosses The Jordan.  The
Children of Israel, the country of Israel, need a new face, Elisha, one which will connect more strongly with the struggles of the people.  The role of The Jordan here is to cement the leader, Elisha, with the national experience. Leaders who can no longer be effective, such as Elijah, are destined to die on the other side of The Jordan, symbolizing their distance from the Jewish people.

#3:  The Jordan provides healing for the Aramite king, Naaman who is afflicted by leprosy.  He comes for a cure to Elisha and Elisha tells him to go and wash in the waters of The Jordan.  The Jordan is muddy and Naaman becomes angry.  “Are not the waters of the rivers of Damascus,  better than all the waters of Israel?”  But sometimes being a Mighty River is not the best medicine.  Leprosy, associated in the Bible with speaking improperly, can be cured by a bit of humility.   Dunking 7 times in the murky waters of The Jordan takes one down a notch, and works wonders (literally for Naaman).  This reminds us that this important body of water is not meant to build up and glorify Israel.

What can we learn from these three stories about The Jordan?  The Jordan is unifying, clarifying and humbling.  This is no ordinary River, meant to be crossed, drank and siphoned off to fields.  This is no mere creek or wash, waiting for us to pray for it to be filled.  The Jordan is a symbol of the Children of Israel as a nation, and as such, the most important body of water that exists. The Jewish people ebbs and wanes, we meander in our path, we are surrounded by thick brush amidst arid land, but we continue to flow.

So next time you are at Qesr al-Yehud, Gesher Bnot Yaacov, or Kayaking in the north, remember you are not encountering a river, rather you are experiencing The Jordan, and it is Mighty indeed.

A Sea of Reeds?

Barbara brought to my attention an apparent crack in my definitions of yam and agam in my earlier post.  How could the Yam Suf be a yam (sea?) if it has suf (reeds?)?  If it has suf, it should be an agam.

Let’s think about the most famous story involving Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds?), that of the Children of Israel crossing the Yam Suf.  After an arduous period of slavery and 10 grueling plagues, which wiped out the economy of Egypt and left 90% of the Children of Israel dead, the remaining people run for their lives out of Egypt.  After journeying for 3 days away from the comforts and resources of Egypt, they reach Yam Suf.  Up until this point, G-d is continually acting in a way to show his might, not only to the Egyptians but also to the Children of Israel.

Imagine what the Children of Israel were seeing when they stood before the Yam Suf.  What would be the best way for G-d to show His power?  Would they be standing in front of a small pond with lots of reeds (suf)?  How could such a body of water swallow up Egypt’s mighty chariots as described in Exodus 15?

eilat mountainsWe know from the Bible where the Yam Suf is and its description as a border is listed in many places.  Yam Suf is equated with the Red Sea of today.  One of the bordering towns of the Yam Suf is listed as Etzion Gever, near today’s Eilat.  An event which happens on the sea by Etzion Gever gives us another description of not just where the Yam Suf is, but what it is like.

“Yehoshofat (one of the kings of Yehuda) constructed Tarshish ships (a fleet of ships) to sail to Ofir for gold.  But he did not sail because the ships were wrecked (by natural means) at Etzion Gever.”  II Kings 22:49

From this passage, we see that Yam Suf is stormy.  But is the Red Sea stormy?  Most people who visit Eilat would disagree.  Stormy seas are in the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Rim, the Straits of Gibralter.  We need to remember, however,  that the Bible only cares about the Levant.  The main yamim here are the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and the Red Sea.  Using this as our scale, the Red Sea is the stormiest.  Only 8 years ago, a storm in the Red Sea sank an Egyptian ferry carrying 1300 people.

How then can it be called Yam Suf, Sea of Reeds?  The Atlas Daat Mikra gives an interesting interpretation.  Instead of suf=reeds, think sufa=storm.  That colloborates what we know of Yam Suf from the Children of Israel’s crossing.  It magnifies the miraculous nature of this story; a weakened people comes to a stormy sea pursued by the greatest army of the day.  They cross over on dry land, and the army is swept up in the storm surge.

The result of the fjording of Yam Suf is that the Children of Israel realize G-d’s might, and that all the nations of the world tremble before them.  The way is paved for the birth of a nation.

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?

Down the Drain

During this winter of rain, it is hard to focus on the fact that Israel is in the middle of a long drought.  Finding enough water, developing ways to conserve and reclaim water, saving water are all tactics to try to maintain some kind of balance between people and nature.  And because it is a limited resource, skirmishes, battles and entire wars have been fought thrjilabun-waterfalloughout history over the control of water.

The present is no different.

Found this interesting article about Water resources and the situation between Israel and the PA.  The conflict between the Palestinians and Israel is fought on many fronts nowadays.

via How water became a weapon in Arab-Isr… JPost – Opinion – Op-Eds.

Do You Diguette?

I went to the Negev yesterday with a few colleagues and I got into a discussion with Shany about the JNF (Jewish National Fund) plantings we saw.  I contended that the technique for planting the rows of trees was called “Liman”; she called them “Terrasot” (pl. for terraces in Hebrew).  Shany said that “Liman” is a term only used for planting trees in bowls – depressions in the ground made to preserve water in the center of the bowl.  According to her, these lines of piled up soil on the sides of the hills were terraces, similar to the terraces we see throughout the central mountain range.

Up until this point, I thought I understood Negev agricultural terminology; and, I was so convinced that I was right, I decided to do a bit of research to find out if both the desert farming technique using “bowls” and the technique of building up lines of soil on hillsides were both called “Limans” or if one was a Liman and the other a simple terrace.

This research took me into another question I have been wanting to tackle which was posed by Leah from my Tour Guide class.  She asked what was the name and the purpose of the rock piles we see all over the Negev.

I like to remind people who are traveling with me that despite appearances, Israel has plenty of natural resources.  We have water, sun, access to other places, trees, land – and all this was sufficient for supporting rich societies here ONLY because people knew how to manage them.  Ecology may be a 21st century idea for the rest of the world, but here in Israel ecology has been a necessity since the dawn of civilization.

So, too, in the Negev, an area which received less that 200 mm rainfall a year (in some places much less).  In antiquity, the people living in this desert climate figured out how to harvest water during the bleak winter rains, channel it to fields and grow wheat, barley, wine, olives, figs, etc.  It may take a lot of engineering and a lot of land, but it is possible.  Around the area of Avdat, approximately 25 acres of land were needed to collect enough water for 1 acre of crops.

One technique used by ancient peoples was the Liman.  A Liman is a depressed area surrounded by low hillocks.  The water falling on these hillocks flows into the center of the “bowl”.  This technique was initially used by the JNF  for planting large trees to provide shade.  You can see many JNF Limans on the road down to Beer Sheva. Most of the Limans planted in the Negev today are populated by Eucalyptus trees as they grow quickly.
Another technique is the Diguette.  Diguettes are small mounds built along a line on a slope.  Trees can then be planted uphill from each of these lines.  The mounds help to catch the water flowing down the hill and give it a longer exposure to the plant, decreasing run-off.  In Hebrew they may be called “Terraces” but actually they have a special name/function when they are in a desert climate. Diguettes are used around the world in arid areas, including Africa, and boost the ability of an area to produce crops thereby saving lives today.  The JNF uses Diguettes today to plant indigenous species and it is the main technique used in the Yatir forest project.

Catchment farms were used in natural stream beds.  Various dams were built along the stream bed.  The rain which fell on the surrounding hills flowed naturally into the stream bed, where the crops were. The water which overflowed each step of this terraced structure flowed to the step below, controlling the amount of water in each step and holding the water in the farmed area for a longer amount of time.

The rock piles my friend Leah asked about are an interesting phenomena in the Negev.  They are called by the local population Tolilat al-Anev (Grape Mounds).  In the 1830’s when these were first described by 2 British surveyors/explorers/botanists/geologists, it was assumed that these mounds were used in ancient times for growing grapes.  On further inspection, not only were there no grapevine remnants found in any of the areas, but also there were no adjacent wine presses.  There still is no definitive explanation for these mounds, but there are a few theories.  One is that the  clearing of the rocks into mounds allowed for more erosion of the soil on the slopes.  This soil was washed to the
valleys and mixed along the way with organic material to make a richer soil in the valleys.

The mounds are not only found on the slopes of hills, but also in relatively flat areas.  This leads to another hypothesis that the rocks randomly strewn about impinged upon the rainwater’s path to a central point.  Gathering the rocks in mounds meant that there was more free and clear smooth ground to draw the water to that central collection area.

Turns out that I was only partially right about Limans.  Shany was correct that Liman is a very specific term and not a general one. Thanks to Shany and Leah for piquing my curiosity and pushing me to learn more about agriculture in the Negev!

Do you Diguette?  I DO!

Some Things Never Change

Some things never change.

(OK, I know that never is a long time, but in historic time, topography/geology doesn’t change.)  Routes that develop naturally (through usage and not through planning) form where the topography makes such routes easy.  People and animals tend to be lazy.  If they need to get from point A to point B, then they will pick the way on which they expend the least energy to make the journey.
The same is true with fording bodies of water, such as rivers and streams.  Generally, places where the topography made fording easier in the past are the same places where bridges are built today to cross those bodies of water.One such example has to do with the Jordan.  By looking at the Jordan today and the available crossing points today, you can relate these places to Jordan crossings from the Bible.Why does the Jordan have only a few places available for crossing?
The places where the water is fordable are the places where the nehalim (streams) coming from the west empty into the banks of the Jordan (or in the vicinity). The nehalim carry with them silt from the mountains and create a sort of “sand bank” where the Jordan is narrower and easier to cross. In these silty spots, one could send a boat with a pulley system, or in Roman times, even build a bridge.

What are these crossing places?   Starting in the North, the beginnings of the Jordan are in the swampy Hula Valley.  There is no crossing a swamp, so the first available place to cross was where the geology changes – at the juncture of the Hula Valley and the Heights of Corazin, at the Bnot Yaacov bridge.

South of the Kinneret there are several crossings of the Jordan.
Tzemach – immediately to the south of the Kinneret
Gesher – at the confluence of the Yarmuk (from the east)  and the Jordan
The Jordan River Crossing – opposite Beit Shean – at the mouth of Nahal Harod
Adam Bridge – at the mouth of Nahal Tirtza (this one leads directly to Shchem/Nablus and is mostly likely the route the Patriarchs took when entering the Land)

Qesr al-Yahud – at the mouth of Nahal Prat.

Qesr al Yehud (Castle of the Jews) is being developed by the Tourism Ministry as a site for tourists.  The site was off-limits for civilians for over 30 years – a closed military area  – as it lies on the Israel – Hashemite kingdom of Jordan border.  Before that time, however, many monasteries and  capellas sat near this area of the Jordan and many pilgrims visited.

What makes a point on a route into a destination?  Routes, and especially confluences of routes or crossing points, are points of human meetings and activities.

Qasr al Yehud is thought to be the spot where the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan on their  way in to Israel (Joshua 3:7-17). It is where Elijah and Elisha forded the Jordan on Elijah’s journey to the divine chariot (II Kings 2:1-12).  According to Christian tradition, it is also the place where John baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:1-17).  

It brings up an interesting debate. I hear frequently from people I guide, “How can we really know that this is the exact spot where such-and-such an event took place?”  And I understand from where the question is coming.  Biblical events happened a long time ago (at least in the historic framework), and there are no signs left stating: “The Children of Israel crossed here” or similar things. But what I can tell  people is that the topography and geology during the Biblical era was extremely similar to what it is today. It is reasonable, therefore, to place Biblical events in places where the physical lay of the land indicates that such an event would have been likely.

Walking and touring the Land of Israel today, with eyes open to the physical surroundings, helps one have a unique perspective on Biblical events.  Come to Qesr al Yehud and see for yourself!

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.