When one thinks of touring Israel, in most cases the trip will include a visit to the Dead Sea. After all, it is the lowest place on earth currently at minus 423 meters (‐1387 feet) below sea level! If you are a pilot, you can especially appreciate that this is one place on earth where you can fly well below sea level and still stay airborne! If you are going to tour Israel, certainly the Dead Sea is a wonderful place for a visit!
First, let us talk about the Dead Sea water level. In 1900, under the auspices of the PEF (the Palestine Exploration Fund), R.A.S. McAllister, head of archaeological excavations at Tel Gezer (1 Kings 9:15‐17) and the Shephela (the agricultural foothills region of Israel just to the east of Israel’s Coastal Plain), was ordered by his superiors in London to do routine measurements involving the fluctuations of the Dead Sea water level. This was not his specialty, but he took a boat and made the measurements anyway. He marked off some reference lines in a cliff along the shoreline of the Dead Sea (while sitting in the boat, because there was no Road 90 at the time, as there is now) and then went back to his regular archaeological work at Tel Gezer.
If you want to see something really interesting while traveling south along Highway 90, just a few minutes of driving time south of Ein Feshka (site of the ancient Israelite and Roman Balsam plantations) on a rock outcropping that hugs the Dead Sea shoreline, look for a safe place to park in the area and then carefully (watch the traffic!) walk over to that very same rock where McAllister marked the water level of the Dead Sea over a century ago! Imagine McAllister, gently bobbing on the water while in his boat! He reaches to the rock and chisels a mark into it for the sake of posterity saying, “This is the water level of the Dead Sea today.” If you do manage to see the mark that McAllister made (and again, be extremely cautious in regards to the fast‐moving traffic on Highway 90), remember that this was the level of the Dead Sea back in 1900! Compare what you see here to what you see today; the difference is amazing! After archaeologist McAllister, others were then given the task of measuring the Dead Sea fluctuations twice a year – in the fall and in the spring between 1900 and 1913 and again in 1917, each time marking off low points and high points. The highest documented level of the Dead Sea was minus 390 meters or about ‐1279 feet. Again, these days the level is sitting about minus 423 meters or ‐1387 feet.
The Dead Sea is mentioned in Hebrew Scripture at Genesis 14:3; Numbers 34:12; Deuteronomy 3:17; and Joshua 3:16. In each of these references, it is called the Salt Sea
because of its massive salt content. Think of it this way: the ocean is about 4% salt content; the Salt Sea is a whopping 34%. If you decide to spend some time floating your body in its therapeutic waters, be extremely careful to not get any of the water in your eyes or mouth. People have been known to drown in the Salt Sea but not because they cannot swim! On the contrary, all you can do is float in the water! Rather, some have been known to ingest the water through the mouth and then while in a panic, they start flailing their arms and legs around, quickly creating a matter that goes from bad to worse. Remember, no roughhousing in the water!
In the New Testament, the Salt Sea is referenced in the book of Revelation three times:
And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. (Revelation 19:20)
And the devil that deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also…. (Revelation 20:10)
And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14)
Indeed, the Dead Sea is called the “Lake of Fire” because millennia ago, the waters of the Dead Sea could go into spontaneous combustion, and its black floating blocks of bitumen would catch fire and burn, hence Josephus’ terminology for the lake, referring to it as Lake Asphaltitus (Wars, Book 7, Section 281). This bitumen, a type of asphalt or pitch, was used in ancient days for waterproofing, medications, mummification, among many other uses. Genesis 14:10 tells us the following:
Now the valley of Siddim was full of tar pits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and they fell into them. But those who survived fled to the hill country.
Metaphorically, the prophet Isaiah uses the image of these tar pits to evoke the Day of YHWH when the land and streams shall be turned into burning pitch (Isaiah 34:9). On one of my visits to the plains that lie alongside the Dead Sea, there is still evidence of these blocks of black bitumen that become dislodged from the depths of the Sea, float to the surface, and then are washed ashore. Here are some photos that I shot of these blocks that can show you exactly why the Salt Sea, since antiquity, has been called Asphaltitus and the Lake of Fire that burns with brimstone.
When in the region, always obey the posted signs (in English and in Hebrew) to stay out of certain areas of the Dead Sea that are known to have sink holes; actually about 2,500 of them exist from the south to the north, which has a length of about 50 miles. The Dead Sea at Ein Gedi is known to have 75 sink holes. Israeli Geologist Eli Raz, who was one of my Israeli State tour guide course professors, taught our class that with the drop in the Dead Sea water level ‐‐ due to limited rainfall, the
diversion of much needed water from its upstream sources, pollution, and industrial evaporation by the Dead Sea Works‐‐ high levels of salt are being left behind in the soil. Then, fresh water washes in from the nearby mountains and dissolves the salts, creating cavities, which then create sinkholes. They are very dangerous! So please, pay attention and don’t go wandering off into areas that you think are okay because you could fall into a sink hole in a moment of time and not only will your tour be over, but maybe even your life.
A final topic for this short expose’ on the Dead Sea involves ancient Jewish history. While driving south on Highway 90 along the Dead Sea shoreline towards Ein Gedi and Masada, not far from Ein Tzukim, look carefully toward the sea for what appears to be a large well‐constructed stone structure, that you can literally miss with the blink of your eye, if you don’t know what you are looking for!
What you are looking for is an ancient boat dock that was first excavated in 1970 by the late excavator Pesach Bar‐ Adon, who had lived amongst the Bedouin; spoke fluent Arabic and Hebrew, and was never university trained in the field of archaeology. But, he was nonetheless, a very important man in Israel’s discipline of archaeological studies.
1) A 7th century BCE construction dating to the days of King Hezekiah and
2) A 2nd century BCE construction dating to the days of the Hasmoneans (remember, they are part of the story of Chanukah).
The northern part of the dock (we’ll call this “area 1”) was built in the late Iron period (7th century BCE), which was during the end of the First Temple period and the Kingdom of Judah. The southern part of the dock (we’ll call this “area 2”) dates to the Second Temple Hashmonean period because lots of coins were found, dating to the reign of Alexander Yannai. We know that the 7th century BCE and the 2nd Century BCE periods were both times of great prosperity here in Eretz Israel.
The purpose of the building, which appears to have been more than a one‐story complex (noted by the large ashlars strewn next to the lower walls, as though the entire wall came crumbling down) was that of a shipping yard structure. Both constructions (the 7th century and the 2nd century BCE) were NOT built according to the same plan but they did serve the same purpose.
We know from the area that there was a lot of commerce in Balsam and oils and it needed transportation to other localities up and down the Great Rift Valley (also called the Valley of Siddim) such as to Ein Gedi, Jericho, Zo’ar, etc…. But at the time, there was no road to speak of because the water level of the Dead Sea was still fairly high. Also, besides Balsam plantations, a collection was made of salt and asphalt blocks which were taken from the Dead Sea surface and brought to market as a viable product to be sold as the charcoal of the day as well as other uses in that time period . So, this boat dock appears to have been built as a central shipyard or shipping warehouse location for raw product distribution.
In the First Temple part of the shipyard dock (7th century BCE in the days of King Hezekiah), one can easily see a wall that would appear to serve no other purpose other than to act as a protection for the boats that were coming in to dock at the site, so that they could anchor next to the building. At the northern part of the building the corridor is perpendicular to the sea, giving easy access to boats. Behind the corridor we can see a white hall; between the corridor and the white hall was a wooden gate, probably a very large one (because in the archeological dig of the site, a lot of ancient metal nails were found at this spot). Based on these
conclusions, we can see the intensity of the constructions and date everything pretty accurately. More importantly however, is that these findings clarified and ended a debate about the water level of the Dead Sea in ancient times! THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. Based on these findings, we also know that the water level at the north end of the sea was high enough so that the southern basin of the Dead Sea was also full of water.
Further, we know that the water level was even higher than what we first thought because at the east end of the dock (as we are looking west) the ground level is noted to contain a large volume of pebbles which covered this construction site, indicating that the water level was at least that high at some point. This of course, is further evidence of what was found in conjunction to the work of the PEF – the Palestine Exploration Fund and the work of R.A.S. McAllister in the early 1900s.
This boat dock excavation by the legendary Pesach Bar‐Adon, while living in and around the Dead Sea, interestingly, found an ancient shipping anchor on the north edge of the shoreline. Actually, it was found near a large pile of stones at Lido, not far from the junction of present day Highway 1 and Highway 90. From ancient sources, we know that Christian pilgrims believed that this pile of stones was at least part of one of the cities of the plain that was destroyed in the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis chapters 13 and 14.
Several years later, Israeli geologist Eli Raz found three similar anchors at Ein Gedi, because of the drop in the Dead Sea water level. He also found ropes made from palm date fibers which were carbon‐14 dated to the beginning of the 2nd century, BCE or the end of the 3rd Century BCE, which is close to the Hasmonean period. These three anchors are on display at Kibbutz Ein Gedi.
This ancient shipyard tells us a lot about the Dead Sea and its naval activity, shipyard construction, boats and how they were made, and what they looked like (from a drawing carved into the northern palace of Masada, which unfortunately, is a drawing that is not able to be seen today). Perhaps it was done by a bored Roman solider! This drawing could also tell us a lot about when Masada was built up).
Based on this information we can conclude that there was a lot of shipping commerce on the Dead Sea, particularly in the time of Alexander Yanai and of course, this tells us where the Dead Sea water levels were in the 7th and the 2nd centuries, BCE.
Come along with me at Avinoam’s Coming Home Study Tours, for a detailed look at these and other fascinating on‐location lessons about life in Israel during the First and Second Temple periods; that is from the 10thcentury BCE to the year 70 CE.