The Dead Sea

The Syro-African rift valley becomes deepest at the Dead Sea. The surface of the water lies 400 meters (1300 feet) below world sea level, making it the lowest place on earth. It is 53 miles long by 11 wide (85 km. by 17.5 km). On both sides, east and west, rise the formidable walls of the rift.

The salt content of Dead Sea water is 30% (six times higher than the ocean's), and nothing can live in it. Hence the name, which made its initial appearance in the first century AD. But the sea has had many names: the Sea of the Desert (yam ha-arava, in Deut. 3:17 and elsewhere); the Salt Sea (again Deut. 3:17); the sea in front (Zechariah 14:8 and elsewhere, because the ancients pictured the land as though they were facing east); the Asphalt Sea (in classical sources, because asphalt comes to the surface after earth tremors); the Sea of Sodom, which tradition locates in the badlands on the southern end; the Stink Sea, from a time when the smell of sulfur was more pervasive, and the Sea of the Devil. (For more on the names, see Keel and Kuechler, pp. 238-241.) 

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea

Where does the salt come from? There are brackish springs, for one thing. Flash floods bring in salts. And before the sea had its present form or content, the region was connected via the Jordan and Jezreel valleys to the Mediterranean: sea water filled the developing rift. To these three factors we must add a fourth: evaporation. Other things being equal, the lower we go on the face of the earth, the hotter it is. The evaporation from the Dead Sea is enormous, reaching 25 mm. per day in the summer months. (In four summer days it loses the equivalent of its yearly supply of rain.) When evaporation occurs, the salts are left behind. The same occurs to the human body here, so you must drink more than usual or join Lot's wife.

Before Israel, Jordan and Syria harnessed the sources of the Jordan River for drinking and irrigation, the Dead Sea received 1.2 billion cubic meters of fresh water yearly. It lost that much through evaporation (the sky is its only outlet), so a balance was maintained. Today the sea gets a billion cubic meters less; its surface is sinking by 1.5 feet per year. The northern basin is 1300 feet deep, so it will be around for a while. The shallow southern basin, however, would be utterly dry if Israel didn't channel water to it from the north. One can see the canal from Masada .

Israel has an economic interest in keeping the southern basin wet. The salts are valuable. Among them are chlorides of potash, magnesium and bromide. The "Dead Sea Works" divide the Israeli part of the shallow southern basin into a series of evaporation pools. The salts reach saturation points at different stages and are then hauled in. Jordan has a similar operation on its side. 

The salts give Dead Sea water a high specific gravity. No person has yet been found who can sink in it. This is a unique experience and fun, but there are several cautions:

  • Avoid getting water in the eyes. It stings like mad, although this passes. For the same reason, don't splash one another.

  • Don't swallow the water.

  • Salt water can tarnish cheap jewelry.

  • There are rocks. It is best to sit down on the shore and paddle in.

  • The human body is 70% water. When you emerge from the Dead Sea, your skin is covered with salt, and salt absorbs water. Therefore, you must take a shower. Otherwise, you will shrink to 30% of your previous size. Showers are available free at all the official beaches.

Note: The region of the Dead Sea is excellent for the relief (though not necessarily permanent cure) of psoriasis. The crucial factor is not the water, but rather the length of the solar rays that reach this depth. Treatment requires a stay of about one month. 

The Dead Sea: Historical Notes

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (

© 2003 Near East Tourist Agency (NET)
Text © 2003 Stephen Langfur