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Volume 18, Number 2March/April 1967

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The Crookedest River What Is

"Anchors aweigh," said the Lieutenant and down the river they sailed—on the Navy's strangest adventure.

Written by John Brinton

"Now this is the plot and I tell you it's got everything! There's this Navy officer, see, and he wants to explore this unknown river. But first he has to get permission from the ruler of this exotic country. Then he has to haul his ships across a whole range of mountains. All around there are armed tribesmen. But he makes it, see, and explores the river. Then he decides to visit this ancient city where they don't like strangers. His friends tell him it's dangerous, but he goes anyway. For a while it looks like a mob might tear him apart, but instead they welcome him. Later his men come down with a strange disease and he nurses them back to health. Then he goes home and writes a book about his adventures and it becomes a best seller. After that..."

The story line for a low-budget movie? The outline of a bad novel? No, it's history. Unlikely as it may sound, it is the story of an American naval lieutenant named W.F. Lynch who, in 1847, convinced the Secretary of the Navy that the United States owed it to the world to explore and chart the Jordan River in the Holy Land. Granted that permission, he sailed to Turkey, won the permission of the Sultan to travel in the Ottoman Empire, hauled his boats overland from the Mediterranean coast to the Sea of Galilee, explored and mapped the River Jordan and the Dead Sea. Later he returned to the United States and published an account of his adventures. The book was an instant success and went into several editions.

Not many Americans realize that their country's ties with the Muslim world go back so far. Actually, they go back even further, to 1784—just a year after the United States signed its peace treaty with England. A Moroccan warship cruising in the Atlantic spotted an American merchant brig called the Betsey, and the Moroccan captain, seeing the new American flag for the first time, quite naturally assumed that the Betsey was a potential enemy and thus a fair prize. He seized her, escorted her to Tangiers and soon the American captain found himself in the presence of the Emperor of Morocco.

That ruler, fortunately, was anxious to improve his country's trade. Thus instead of leading to conflict with the United States the brig's capture led to the beginning of diplomatic parleys. After six months, both countries signed and ratified a treaty of friendship and Morocco, an Arab state, became the first neutral power to officially recognize the existence of the United States of America.

America's subsequent dealings with the North African states were not always as fortunate. In spite of treaties, promises and presents, the infamous Barbary pirates from Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, plagued American ships for many years, until, as every schoolboy knows, Stephen Decatur, in 1815, finally blasted them from their lairs once and for all, thus making the Mediterranean safe for shipping.

Relations did not improve either when the Sultan of Turkey met his first American—under somewhat inauspicious circumstances. That honor went to Captain Bainbridge, commander of a ship called the George Washington, which the Dey of Algiers had commandeered while it was on an abortive peace mission in the early days of the struggle with the North African states. The Dey forced Captain Bainbridge to sail to Constantinople, taking with him the Dey's envoy to the Sultan of Turkey,

In 1800, however, the new republic's flag made its appearance off Seraglio Point, where it caused a mild sensation. And although diplomatic relations between Turkey and the United States developed slowly, an American consulate was opened in Smyrna in 1824, and a formal treaty was signed in 1831—a treaty that in effect, opened the vast domains of the Ottoman Empire to the new, young nation. Proud of its newly-won independence, proud of having borne the major share of clearing the Mediterranean of pirates, the United States, then, was, like Caesar's wife, "above suspicion." Thus began a friendly invasion of the oldest world extant by the newest nation to emerge in the world—an invasion by missionaries, proselytizing educators, explorers, scientific expeditions, and travelers, all intent on a new crusade to bring knowledge and Christianity to an area that had given birth to both. It was a crusade that brought many great and stimulating ideas with it, the results of which are visible to this day.

Among the Americans who were drawn toward the East there were few more adventurous than Lieutenant Lynch, an enterprising officer of strong religious feeling and a great interest in the Holy Land.

Lieutenant Lynch had learned that despite two recent attempts no one since the Romans had succeeded in navigating the Jordan River and exploring the Dead Sea, and that the two most recent attempts had failed.

Of those attempts the first had been made in 1835 by Christopher Costigan, and the second, in 1847, by Lieutenant Molyneaux of the Royal Navy. Although both men spent a short time on the Dead Sea, one was found by Bedouins dying upon the shore and the other died a few months after his return home from a fever contracted on its waters. They had accomplished very little, except possibly to reinforce the age-old belief of the Arabs that no one could venture upon the Dead Sea and live.

Lieutenant Lynch, determined to succeed where they had failed, somehow persuaded the Secretary of the Navy that it was to America's advantage to back such an expedition and soon received orders to make immediate preparations to depart. He assumed command of the U.S. store ship Supply, once appropriately named Crusader, and began to choose the crew. "I was very particular in selecting young, muscular, native-born Americans, of sober habits, from each of whom I exacted a pledge to abstain from all intoxicating drinks," he wrote, explaining that sobriety seemed essential for the preservation of good health under the "severe privations" and "severe exposure" which they would have to endure. He also chose two excellent draftsmen, Lieutenant Dale and Midshipman Aulick.

Supplies of all sorts were assembled: tents, sails, oars, flags, air-tight gum bags (which could be used as life preservers in emergencies), preserved meats and cooking utensils. The armory consisted of one blunderbuss, 14 carbines with long bayonets, 14 pistols, four revolving and 10 with bowie knife blades attached. Each officer was provided with a sword. And of course there were also the boats in which they hoped to sail down the Jordan, special vessels that Lieutenant Lynch designed and built himself—one of copper and one of galvanized iron, each mounted on low carts with wheels to facilitate overland transport from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee.

Lieutenant Lynch and the Supply sailed on Friday, November 26, 1847, from New York and reached Smyrna on February 17, 1848. From Smyrna he and his two officers proceeded at once to Constantinople by commercial steamer hoping to obtain official permission from the Sultan for their expedition at once. There, they were to get their first taste of Middle Eastern ways—and the Ottoman Empire was to get its first taste of Lieutenant Lynch.

Although the Sublime Porte, as the center of the Ottoman Government was called, was friendly to the young American officers, it was not to be rushed. No matter what he did, Lieutenant Lynch was unable to hurry either the Sultan or his ministers. But at last the American minister intervened and obtained a private interview with the Sultan.

This, as it happened, was an unheard-of honor. Imagine then the horror of all concerned when, in an antechamber of the palace, the proud and stubborn Lieutenant Lynch flatly refused to surrender his sword. "But no one can see the Sultan wearing a weapon," he was told. That may be, he replied, but "no sword, no interview."

For a short time the palace quivered with shock and the expedition trembled on the brink of failure. Then the Sultan, Abdul Magid, a kindly man, apparently amused by the audacity of the impetuous young officer, not only granted the interview, but issued him a permit to travel the empire and explore it at will.

On the 25th of March, the Supply, having left Smyrna without delay, reached Beirut. There, Lieutenant Lynch persuaded one Dr. Anderson, a prominent physician and a geologist, to join the party and sailed on south to St. Jean d'Acre, where, in heavy surf, they unloaded their supplies and their boats. One boat was called the Fannie Mason, and the other the Fannie Skinner. From then on the little flotilla was referred to as "the Fannies."

Near St. Jean d'Acre they set up camp, posted guards and, as the lieutenant was to boast later, displayed "for the first time, perhaps, outside of the consular precincts, the American flag... in the Holy Land." Not long after, the Supply sailed away, leaving the young lieutenant standing on the beach wondering, "Shall any of us live to tread her clean, familiar deck?"

Before the party was free to set out, of course, there were negotiations to be got through with local authorities, there were presents to be offered and last-minute problems to be solved. But at last they were ready and on a hot spring day they rode inland, the officers and crew on horses and donkeys, their boats mounted on carriages bouncing along behind braces of camels, the only beasts strong enough to get them across 30 miles of the hot trackless coastal plain and over a mountain trail some 1,500 feet high.

After a journey that Lieutenant Lynch later called "a nightmare" four days to cover 30 miles—the two "Fannies" were at long last floated on the Sea of Galilee where Lynch and his party fired off a salute and retired to the town of Tiberias for a modest celebration. There they also bought the only wooden boat available as an auxiliary to their little flotilla. They christened her Uncle Sam.

The expedition was now divided into two sections. One, mounted on camels, was to travel overland to protect the river party in case of an attack by Bedouins, and the other, with Lieutenant Lynch in command, was to man the boats in the descent of the River Jordan.

On the 10th of April the two parties left Tiberias. The three boats were rowed slowly to the foot of the lake while the land party, made up of local Bedouins armed with rifles and long spears, followed the west bank of the Jordan.

Since no one in Tiberias had been able to give Lynch any information as to the water course of the Jordan, the flotilla was literally plunging into the unknown. Conditions turned out to be far worse than had been expected. A swift current sweeping them along at a steady four knots forbade the use of oars and there were so many rapids that most of the time the men stayed in the water, hauling the boats over the rapids or lowering them down with ropes. In places it was impossible to navigate the river at all and they were obliged to cut new channels to float through. The going was so difficult that in three days' time the wooden boat bought in Tiberias, was wrecked and her crew half drowned. At night the men camped ashore, immediately posting a guard and mounting the blunderbuss in the most prominent position. When possible, they were joined by the land party, but that was not very often. They lived on tinned food and Jordan water.

But there were compensations. The scenery was beautiful and wild life abounded. The river was full of fish—one sailor caught a trout—and birds of every description such as storks, ducks, swallows, pigeons and bulbuls flew about and herons left their nests in the reeds. They also saw wild boar and, at one spot, found the fresh tracks of a tiger where he had come to the water's edge to drink. One sailor killed an animal having "the form of a lobster, the head of a mouse, and the tail of a dog." The Arabs called it kalb el mayya (water dog), but it was probably a badger. Trees and oleander bushes grew along the banks in great profusion, and in places the scenery was almost tropical. Graceful willow trees dropped their shade over the boats as the little flotilla labored by and great tamarisk trees sighed in the wind. There were old ruins to inspect and small islands and picturesque streams emptying into the river.

The journey down the river took seven days. The last day on the river was spent at a place called "Pilgrim's Ford," not far from Jericho. Concerned that pilgrims out of a large party that had come from Jerusalem to be baptized might drown, the "Fannies" and their crew stood by to rescue them but were not needed.

In his first report to the Secretary of the Navy, Lieutenant Lynch introduced a homely but forceful expression, "The Jordan is the crookedest river what is," adding that it was even more crooked than the Mississippi. In the space of only 65 miles latitude and four or five miles longitude the Jordan traverses 200 miles, one of the most tortuous courses in the world. The drop is nine to ten feet per mile with an average current speed of three to four knots. There are 27 rapids and countless whirlpools. The small party, however, made it to the end safely and a week after they had set out sailed onto the Dead Sea.

It should have been a great moment for them but suddenly a powerful wind began to blow. It was as if the wrath of the gods was suddenly let loose, perhaps to justify the old Arab belief that nothing could survive on the waters of Dead Sea. The first gusts nearly swamped the boats and minute by minute the wind velocity increased. The surface of the water turned into foaming brine and the spray covered everything with a layer of salt, blinding the crews. The heavily-laden boats struggled sluggishly and the salt-heavy waves hit the bows "like the sledge hammers of the Titans." In minutes the boats began to ship water and Lieutenant Lynch feared they would sink.

Suddenly, according to the commander, Providence intervened. Lieutenant Lynch kept exact records despite emergencies and he recorded that at 5:58 p.m. the wind instantly abated. Twenty minutes later the sea, "which threatened to engulf us," had suddenly become "a placid sheet of water," and the frightened, exhausted party rowed north toward Ain el Feshka, where they were to meet the land party. The northern shore was a desolate mud flat, scattered with the debris of tree trunks and branches, blackened by asphalt or white with salt. It was dark when the party, wet and weary, arrived at Ain el Feshka, and although their landing place turned out to be a fetid marsh, the crews of the two boats collapsed on the ground and slept in their clothes. Thus they came to the Dead Sea.

In the morning Lynch dismissed his land escort, sent a party to Jerusalem to request the Pasha to send a few soldiers to guard their camp, and ordered the two "Fannies" to commence sounding operations in the northern end of the Dead Sea, The object of the expedition was to make detailed studies of the river and the sea. The party was to take systematic soundings, make topographical, astronomical and barometrical observations and sketch and chart the shores. As Lieutenant Lynch put it, "all hands must be occupied."

On the second day they moved on to Ain Jidi (Engaddi) which was to be their base. Lieutenant Lynch, indefatigably patriotic, named it "Camp Washington." Halfway between the deep northern end and the southern shallows, Ain Jidi was the most picturesque spot on the Dead Sea. It has a sweet water spring. Tamarisks and cane grew along the banks of the stream, as well as pink oleanders, yellow mignonette and rock roses. There were wild boar, duck and many birds.

At Ain Jidi, fortunately, letters and supplies from America finally caught up with them. The party also made friends with local Bedouins who treated them to Arab dancing (in which some of the well-traveled American sailors detected a resemblance to the South Sea Islander's war dance.)

Meanwhile, the work went on. On April 25, after the survey of the northern end of the sea, the two boats started south to circumnavigate the southern end. This had never been done before and because there were rumors that Bedouin brigands controlled the southern coast, the crews fingered their arms nervously and mounted the formidable blunderbuss in the bow of the leading boat.

The landscape was infernal. Masses of scorched, calcinated rock, purple like "coagulated blood," rose on all sides of a salty, sickly sea; chunks of black asphalt, named by the Arabs "Moses' stone," floated on the surface, and the atmosphere stank of sulphur. Dr. Anderson, who acted as geologist, found traces of what he said were deposits of ore.

The expedition spent four days exploring the southern end of the sea. The first night the men slept on a dismal beach. Continuing south next morning they reached the extreme point of land where the Jabal Usdum, "the Great Salt Mountain," is situated. This mountain rests on a broad, flat, marshy delta coated with salt and asphalt. It is 350 feet high, seven miles long and a mile wide. It oozes salt into the Dead Sea. There, at the head of a deep chasm, they saw a great round pillar standing free. Intrigued, they waded ashore and scrambled to the top. To their amazement they fovind that the pillar was made of pure salt and that it was slowly crumbling to bits. (Several years later the French traveler Edouard Delesert remarked that the salt column could not be found. "Lot's wife" apparently had crumbled away. But this was usual—the landscape was volatile and always changing.)

As they rowed southwest, conditions worsened. The depth of the sea varied between two and three feet, too shallow to permit even the "Fannies" to get closer than 200 to 300 yards from shore. Once, in search of drinking water, the men had to wade through hot, salt muck to reach a small stream. The water was bitter, and so was a small wild melon they found growing on its banks.

By now, the crews were suffering from heat exhaustion, thirst and nausea caused by the stifling, fetid atmosphere. Lieutenant Dale had to walk across 300 yards of salt mud to the shore to take a bearing. He described it as "walking over live coals,'' and somehow concluded that it was here, under this slime, that the ill-fated cities of Sodom and Gomorrah must lie.

Then, suddenly, a wind, hotter and stronger than they had so far encountered, engulfed them and the temperature rose to 116 degrees. The metal boats became instruments of torture. Without water and in a state of almost utter collapse they headed for shore, landed and set up camp for the third night, wondering if they could make it back to Camp Washington. The next morning they were lucky to find one of those extraordinary inlets of fresh water that trickle into the Dead Sea. It saved their lives. They drank, bathed, and filled their water bottles, and found a small tropical valley in which there were quail and partridge. They also stumbled across a party of hostile Bedouins who surrounded them, but took fright when confronted by the blunderbuss and quickly vanished.

It was tempting then to consider going back, but Lieutenant Lynch kept steadily to his course and thus completed the entire circuit of the Dead Sea for the first time in modern history. Their last night was spent on the Lisan peninsula on the opposite side of the shore from Camp Washington. Lynch named the two extremities of the peninsula in honor of Costigan and Molyneaux who had lost their lives in their attempts to explore the Dead Sea.

Their return to Carnp Washington the following morning was a nightmare. The poisonous atmosphere had affected the men with a "terrible, almost irresistible drowsiness." They almost slept at their oars. But they persevered and soon arrived at Camp Washington with its cool shade, its sweet water and its safety.

By then most of their work was complete, and so the party began to prepare to depart. They took time out to mark the death of ex-President John Quincy Adams—by lowering the flag to half mast, and firing a salute—then continued their preparations. A collection of the flora and fauna was carefully packed, as well as many geological specimens and a supply of the famous "apples of Sodom," a strange fruit, "fair to the eye, but bitter to the taste." The fruit was brought in by Bedouins and four jars were sent to the Patent Office in Washington. The two sturdy little "Fannies" were dismantled and sent overland to Jerusalem.

On the 10th of May, after 22 days exploring the Dead Sea, the men plunged in for a last swim, pulled down the last traces of their camp and rode off to Jerusalem, where they spent a few days sightseeing. Then they moved on to Jaffa, hired a sloop and sailed to their starting point at St. Jean d'Acre. Here the party divided into two groups. One sailed on to Beirut with the boats and supplies. The other, headed by Lieutenant Lynch, set out on further exploration. The Lieutenant, anxious to trace the main source of the Jordan River, rode into the mountains. There he found a cavern from which, dramatically and beautifully, poured the foaming Hasbani River, in present-day Lebanon.

From there Lieutenant Lynch rode forth to one final adventure. lie had wanted to visit Damascus officially but had been told that the inhabitants would mob him unless he were to go humbly on foot, as all Christians were required to do. The stubborn Lieutenant Lynch decided to go anyway. It must have been dangerous, but he passed unmolested and left safely.

After a visit to Baalbek—even then a must for tourists—he joined the main party in Beirut. That was on the 30th of June. He found most of his men sick with fever, apparently contracted on the Dead Sea. Working beside two missionary doctors in Beirut, Lynch helped save most of the men, but poor Lt. Dale succumbed, and was buried in the Beirut "Frank" (i.e. Christian) cemetery.

The rest of the story can be quickly told. Since the Supply had still not arrived to pick them up, Lieutenant Lynch and his men joined her in Malta, where they sailed at once for America. On his return Lieutenant Lynch submitted his official report to the Secretary of the Navy, and then requested permission to write a popular account of his journey. It was called Narrative of the United States Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea, and was an immediate success on both sides of the Atlantic and went into many editions. It was in fact a best seller, and justly so. The plot, after all, had everything.

John Brinton, an American businessman and long a resident of the Middle East, is a collector of old travel books and is presently engaged in preparing a bibliography of American travelers to the Arab world.

This article appeared on pages 14-21 of the March/April 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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