The rolling hills of northern Palestine were carpeted with flowers that spring day in 1848. A freshening wind from the nearby Mediterranean made it the kind of morning when small Arab boys ran their fastest and jumped their farthest. At a spot near the crumbling remains of Tiberias, once a stately resort for Roman soldiers, a group of youths interrupted their games to stare saucer-eyed at an unusual scene.
Along the flinty road came a caravan headed by 16 Americans in naval dress and accompanied by an escort of Bedouin scouts in the flowing garments of the desert. Some of the men walked; others sat astride fine Arabian horses, and behind them plodded a string of laden camels.
As one of those almost forgotten episodes of American history, this was a United States Navy expedition sent 6,000 miles to the Middle East. Command rested with Lieutenant William Francis Lynch, a 46-year-old Virginian who conceived and organized the trip. Lynch's orders directed him to "promote the cause of science and to advance the character of the naval service" by navigating the Sea of Galilee, the River Jordan and the Dead Sea.
After camping at Tiberias, Lynch's team of sailors and Arab guides continued their 40-mile overland march, which had started at the port of Acre on the Mediterranean, to the Sea of Galilee. There they launched their trio of vessels, each the size of a stout lifeboat, at a point near where Jesus had walked on the waters. Their first seafaring challenge came when they left the Sea of Galilee behind and entered the River Jordan. On the first day Lynch and his men encountered water so turbulent that the boats were repeatedly upended, and one was smashed to splinters. The southward passage along the river required eight days. Twenty-seven major rapids and a current that often ran as swiftly as eight knots an hour tested their skill over the 200-mile serpentine path of the river.
Lieutenant Lynch, despite the hazardous journey, kept his daily log with the calm, detached eye of a scientific observer. "The western shore," he wrote, "was peculiar from the high calcareous limestone hills; while the left or eastern bank was low and fringed with tamarisk and willow, with here and there a thicket of lofty cane and tangled masses of scrubs and creeping plants, giving it the character of a jungle. In one place we saw the tracks of a tiger and in another startled a wild boar."
On the evening of the eighth day, Lynch and his companions sailed into the placid expanse of the Dead Sea. For the next 22 days they probed it from end to end. Repeated soundings put its greatest depth at 1,308 feet, and its surface was found to be 1,316 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point on earth.
The lieutenant's log noted that the shores were lined with rocks of bituminous limestone and the beaches littered with fragments of sulphur, flint and salt. To Lynch it seemed a scene of "utter desolation," from the mountains of Moab to the east, to the hills of Edom on the south, to the wilderness of Judah on the west, to the valley of the Jordan on the north. There was almost no vegetation, and an odor of sulphur hung constantly in the 100-degree air.
On the sea's southwest shore, at Usdum, the expedition came upon a pillar of salt 40 feet tall. Ancient writers contended that the column was the remains of Lot's wife and related it to Jehovah's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the nearby vale of Siddim.
The expedition officially ended on the southern shore of the Dead Sea, and the sailors bade their Arab escorts fare well. Before returning home in December 1848, Lynch and his men visited all the shrines of the Holy Land from Dan to Beersheba. Back in the United States Lynch filed his official reports and presented his scientific findings. He noted that the cost of the entire expedition was only $700, a modest sum to pay for one of the first American ventures in cooperation with the Arab peoples.