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Volume 17, Number 6November/December 1966

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The Dead Sea

Written by Jan Van Os
Photographed by T. F. Walters
Additional photographs by Khalil Abou El Nasr

What's in a name? Sometimes very little, sometimes everything. The White Mountains, for example, are seldom white whereas the Rocky Mountains are certainly rocky and the Dead Sea, even though it doesn't look it, is indisputably dead.

The Dead Sea surprises visitors. Conditioned by such legends as the story that no bird can fly across the sea and live, visitors approach it with a sort of cautious dread. They seem to expect it to be grim and gray and ominous and it isn't like that at all. It is bright and vivid and the sight of its rich blue water against red-gold cliffs and stark barren hills is one of the most unforgettable sights in the Middle East.

It is true that the Dead Sea is "dead." With water six times saltier than ocean water and with enormous quantities of other minerals stirred in besides, the Dead Sea can only support life in bacterial form. It is also true that the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth—1,300 feet below sea level—that it is one of the hottest places on earth, and that few if any birds inhabit the region. But the high salinity is neither lethal nor threatening, the searing, unbearable heat occurs only in the middle of the summer months and birds avoid the sea not because it gives off any kind of toxic fumes, but because there are no fish or insects for them to eat.

In other times the Dead Sea was known by other names. The Old Testament called it the "Sea of the Plains." The Arabs called it the "Sea of Lot," But it was probably much the same sea as it is today—a long (48 miles), narrow (3 to 10 miles), intensely-blue oval bordered on the south by the great Wadi Arabah, on the north by the fertile Jordan Valley and on the west and east by the majestic mountains of Moab and Judea. In prehistoric times, it was probably much larger. Some experts believe it once measured 200 by 400 miles and that its water level may have been as high as 1,400 feet, 100 feet higher than the Mediterranean. It began to shrink, they believe, during a long drought that followed a tremendous earthquake.

The Dead Sea is fed by numerous streams, including the famous River Jordan. Some six: million gallons of water pour into the sea every day. It is a generous supply and since the sea has no outlets one would think that it would soon be restored to its prehistoric dimensions. But that does not allow for evaporation. In a region where winter temperatures never drop below 70 degrees Fahrenheit and summer temperatures usually reach 140 degrees, and where, furthermore, the annual rainfall never exceeds five inches, the water vanishes almost as fast as it comes in. Evaporation is also the cause of the dense salinity. Over the centuries the water evaporated but the minerals remained. The water has gotten so dense that bathers can neither swim nor drown in it but just bob on the surface. So buoyant is the water that visitors delight in reading, eating, drinking or maybe even taking a nap as they float.

For many years the Dead Sea was considered a complete waste. Then someone decided to try and extract some of the minerals from the water. Today, thanks to modern science and engineering, plants are extracting huge quantities of potassium chloride and other chemicals from the water. Since potassium chloride is a valuable fertilizer, the Dead Sea in an indirect way has become an important life-giving source.

The Dead Sea is coming to life in other ways too. On its northern shore a modern hotel has been built and work is going ahead on nearby roads and other facilities to serve the increasing crowds of tourists coming to see the caves where" in 1947 a local shepherd made one of the most important archeological finds of the century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

There are several versions of how the shepherd happened on the scrolls. The most common is that in search of a lost goat he noticed a hole a little way up the cliffs to the northwest of Qumran. He and a friend crawled into the hole and found themselves in a natural cave. In the cave were some jars and in the jars a number of scrolls. On the chance that the scrolls might be valuable the shepherds decided to take them to Jerusalem, where, fortunately, someone realized that a valuable discovery had been made.

The shepherds' discovery triggered a long, widespread search of the entire Dead Sea region, a search that turned up thousands of fragments of similar scrolls. In one instance a copper plaque was rolled up as scroll, but most of the original scrolls were of either leather or papyrus. Since most of them were just lying on the ground it is a miracle that they survived at all. If the caves had not been exceptionally dry it would have been impossible.

Among the principal finds—from the first cave, as it happened—were two copies of the Book of Isaiah, one of them complete. The two copies were almost a thousand years older than any original Biblical manuscript known before. Also discovered were a Commentary on the Book of Habakkuk, a copy of the Apocalypse of Lameh and, at another site, some later texts completely unrelated to those found near Qumran. These were found in 1951 in the caves of Murabbat at Khirbet Mira, north of the Kidron Valley and 11 miles south of Qumran.

Scholars were not slow in trying to decipher the scrolls nor did they find any insuperable obstacles. With the exception of a few scrolls in Greek and Aramaic, most were written in Hebrew and, once the calligraphy had been mastered, were easily translated. That fact has made them of inestimable value in unraveling Biblical texts and in studying the background of Christianity itself—that and the great age of the scrolls. While a few dissenters still disagree, most experts say some scrolls go back at least to the first half of the first century—i.e. while Christ was still alive—and the earliest ones to the 2nd century before Christ was born. Soon after the search for more scrolls began, archeologists decided it would be fruitful to excavate the site of the ancient ruins at Qumran, the only ruins anywhere near the caves. To all appearances those ruins were the remnants of Roman fortifications, but digging soon unearthed a large community building with many rooms, baths, cisterns, kilns and a tower. Archeologists also found coins, more fragments of scrolls and two inkpots. The inkpots were discovered in a room called a scriptorium where, presumably, scrolls were written or copied.

From findings like that and from internal evidence in the scrolls, archeologists finally concluded that the scrolls were composed and copied by the Essenes, a small, strict Jewish sect. The Essenes apparently settled down at Qumran during the reign of a Jewish high priest and ruler called John Hyrcanus I. That was between the year 135 B.C. and 104 B.C. What happened to them thereafter is still open to conjecture. One school of thought holds that in 31 B.C. after a severe earthquake (which did occur at that time) the Essenes decided they had received a command from God to go into exile, and so emigrated. This is a plausible theory since it is clear from archeological evidence that the site was unoccupied from just about this time to about 4 B.C., when it was rebuilt and reoccupied. In A.D. 68 or 69, however, during the first Jewish revolt, a strong Roman legion, ruthlessly restoring order, marched on Qumran. That was just a year before the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. The Essenes hurriedly hid the scrolls in the only hiding places available to them—the nearby caves. Then they fled or were massacred. Their settlement was destroyed and the Romans, either unaware of the scrolls or indifferent to them, left them in the caves to await the coming of a curious shepherd 1,900 years later and, after him, the scholars and the theologians of the modern world.

Jan van Os is the Assistant Editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 1-5 of the November/December 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1966 images.