Not Looking Back – An excerpt from ‘Salt – A World History’ by Mark Kurlansky
Not Looking Back
SOME 3,000 YEARS ago, wanting a capital in the commanding heights of the Judean hills, David conquered the fortress of Zion and built Jerusalem. Those heights have at times been a fortified high ground and at other times a peaceful gardened promenade. They offer, depending on the times, either a scenic or a strategic view of the region. Not only can a great deal of Israel be seen from here, but, on a clear day, the Moab mountains of Jordan are in view as a distant pinkish cloud. But what cannot be seen, because it is lower than the horizon—in fact, it is the lowest point on earth, 1,200 feet below sea level—is a vanishing natural wonder: the Dead Sea. The Hebrews called the sea Yam HaMelah, the Salt Sea.
About forty-five miles long and eleven miles at its widest, the Dead Sea, with the Israeli-Jordanian border running through the center of it, seems a peaceful place, of a stark and barren beauty. A first impression might be that the area is uninhabitable, and yet, like many of the world’s uninhabitable corners, it has been converted, with a great deal of water and electricity, into a fast-growing and profitable resort.
The minerals in the Dead Sea give a strange buoyancy that entices tourists for brief dips. The sea is oily on the skin and doesn’t feel like water. This is brine that will float more than an egg. After wading in a few feet, a human body pops to the surface, almost above the water, as though lying on an air-filled float. It is a most comfortable mattress, perfectly conforming to every part of the back—what a waterbed was supposed to be. The water, if it is water, is clear, but every swirl is visible in its syrupy density. The minerals can be felt working into the skin, and it feels as though some metamorphosis is taking place. The bather is marinating.
The Dead Sea from Picturesque Palestine, Sinai and Egypt (Volume 2) edited by Charles Wilson, 1881.
Pliny wrote: “The bodies of animals do not sink in it—even bulls and camels float; and from this arises the report that nothing sinks.” Edward Robinson, an American professor of biblical literature, reported after his 1838 trip, with no more hyperbole than Pliny, that he could “sit, stand, lie or swim in the water without difficulty.”
JERICHO, AN OASIS a few miles north of the Dead Sea near the Jordan River, which flows to the Dead Sea, is thought to be the oldest town in the world. Almost 10,000 years ago, Jericho was a center for the salt trade. In 1884, in the nearby Moab Mountains of Jordan, the Greek Orthodox Church decided to build a church at the site of a Byzantine ruin in the town of Madaba. Workers uncovered a sixth-century mosaic floor map, still on display on the floor of the church of St. George, showing the Dead Sea with two ships carrying salt, heading toward Jericho.
But the sea may have been better for transporting salt than producing it. The oily water of the Dead Sea is bitter, as though it were cursed. The area is famous for curses, the most well known being the one that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. The exact locations of Sodom and Gomorrah are unknown, but its residents are thought to have been salt workers and the towns are believed to have been located in the southern Dead Sea region. Since Genesis states that God annihilated all vegetation at the once-fertile spot, this barren, rocky area fits the description. But this area also has a mountain—more like a long jagged ridge—called Mount Sodom, of almost pure salt carved by the elements into gothic pinnacles.
According to the Book of Genesis, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, lived in Sodom and was spared when God destroyed the town, but Lot’s wife, who looked back at the destruction, was turned into salt. As columns break away from Mount Sodom, they are identified for tourists as Lot’s wife. Unfortunately, they are unstable formations. The last Lot’s wife collapsed several years ago, and the current one, featured in postcards and on guided tours, will go very soon, according to geologists.
In biblical times, Mount Sodom was the most valuable Dead Sea property. It was long controlled by the king of Arad, who had refused entry to Moses and his wandering Hebrews from Egypt. One of the most important trade routes in the area was from Mount Sodom to the Mediterranean—a salt route. Not far from Mount Sodom, in the motley shade of a scraggly acacia tree, are a few stone walls and the remnants of a doorway. They are the remains of a Roman fort guarding the salt route. A little two-foot-high stone dam across the wadi, the dry riverbed, after flash floods still holds water to be stored in the nearby Roman cistern.
The other source of wealth in the area besides Mount Sodom, which was mined for salt until the 1990s, is the Dead Sea. A body of water appears so unlikely in this arid wasteland cursed by God that in the afternoon, when the briny sea is a cloudy turquoise mirror reflecting pink from the Jordanian mountains, the water could easily be mistaken for a mirage.
Pliny wrote that “the Dead Sea produces only bitumen.” This natural asphalt was valued for caulking ships and led the Romans to name the sea Asphaltites Lacus, Asphalt Lake. Its water is 26 percent dissolved minerals, 99 percent of which are salts. This concentration is striking when compared to the ocean’s typical mineral concentration of about 3 percent.
The Judean desert, the below-sea-level continuation of the Judean hills, is a bone-white world of turrets and high walls, rising above narrow, deep canyons so pale they glow sapphire blue in the moonlight. The millions of small marine fossils embedded in the rock prove that this desert was once a sea bed, whose waters dried up in the heat that is sometimes more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
The seemingly barren desert hides life. There are said to be 200 varieties of flowers in the Judean desert, but they bloom only briefly and only by chance does a lucky wanderer ever see one. Graceful long-horned ibex, desert mountain goats, leap over rocks. Acacia trees, which grow in the wadis, have roots that grow as deep as 200 feet and contain salt to help them draw up the water hidden underground. A shrub known as a salt bush absorbs salt from the ground into its leaves so the leaves can soak up any moisture from the air.
The dry earth is actually laced with underground springs, some fresh, some brackish, which are easy to find because they are marked by small areas of vegetation. Each of these springs, ein in Hebrew and Arab, has its own history. This desert by a sea too salty to sustain life has attracted the margins of society. They have huddled along its life-giving springs: the adventurers, the pioneers, the dreamers, the fanatics, and the zealots. Many biblical references to going off “into the wilderness” allude to this area.
Across the Dead Sea, the barren, rocky, Jordanian desert is browner. The eight-mile-wide fertile strip of the Jordan Valley’s east bank feeds the nation. Israel, across the river, is the land of cell phones and four-wheel-drives. Here, farmers ride on donkeys, Bedouin ride on camels, some still living in their dark wool tents, their long dark gowns elegantly furling in the desert wind.
Jordanians sometimes call the Dead Sea “Lot’s Lake.” Mohammed Noufal, a pleasant, graying government employee, explained that, according to the Koran, it was made the lowest point on earth to punish Lot’s tribe for being homosexuals.
But if they were all homosexuals, how can they have descendants to punish?
Well, many were homosexuals.
THE CAUSE OF the Dead Sea’s tremendous salinity has been the object of curiosity for centuries. In December 1100, after the knights of the first crusade made him ruler of what they termed the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Baldwin I toured what is now the Israeli side of the Dead Sea. Fulcher of Chartres, who accompanied him, observed that the sea had no outlet and hypothesized that the source of its salt was minerals washing off of “a great and high salt mountain” where the Dead Sea ended to the south—Mount Sodom.
Several times in the eighteenth century, Dead Sea water samples were sent back to Europe for analysis. One such study was published by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the celebrated French chemist. A number of nineteenth-century American Protestant fundamentalists tried to study the Dead Sea, some through exploration and others by way of samples. Edward Hitchcock, who taught at Amherst, concluded through samples and biblical studies that the source of the sea’s salt was sulphurous springs some 125 miles away. Had he visited, he would have found brackish springs much closer.
In 1848, an American navy lieutenant, W. F. Lynch, reasoning that since the Mexican-American War was over, “there was nothing left for the Navy to perform,” persuaded his superiors to finance his own expedition to the Dead Sea. Two boats with hulls of corrosion-resistant metals, in itself a considerable technical advance at that time, were specially designed and carried overland from the port of Haifa to the Jordan River. Lynch and his team sailed down the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, which he found to be “a nauseous compound.” They continued sailing south for eight days and landed at the southern end of the sea. Lynch thought Mount Sodom to be not much of a mountain, which is true, and thought its composition to have a low percentage of salt, which is less true. Finding a broken-away column, he had a not particularly original thought: that it resembled Lot’s wife. When he analyzed a sample, he discovered that it was almost pure sodium chloride, which either proved the salt content of the mountain or confirmed the identity of the salt pillar.
Contemporary geologists still argue conflicting theories of why the Dead Sea is so salty. According to the most widely accepted of them, 5 million years ago the Dead Sea was connected to the Mediterranean near the current port of Haifa. A geologic shift caused the Galilee Heights to push up, and these newly formed mountains cut off the Mediterranean from the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea no longer received enough water to keep up with the rate of solar evaporation, and it began to get saltier.
This theory would explain why the sea is becoming more concentrated, slowly evaporating like a huge salt pond. It is already at the density at which sodium chloride precipitates, and salt has started crystallizing out on the bottom and the edges. Bathers gingerly step over sheets of icelike salt as they enter for a Dead Sea swim.
IN THE EARLY twentieth century, Theodor Herzl, an Austrian visionary, began writing of the return of Jews to their homeland. In contemplating the viability of a Jewish state, he hypothesized that one of its valuable resources would be the Dead Sea, from which the new state could extract mineral wealth, including bromine and potash. In the 1920s, Moishe Novamentsky, a Jewish engineer from Siberia, established the Palestine Potash Company along the northern coast of the Dead Sea, in British-ruled Palestine.
In 1948, when the Arab League attacked the newly formed state of Israel, the Jordanian army crossed the Jordan River and seized most of the Dead Sea area, including the Palestine Potash Company, much of the Judean desert, and the eastern side of Jerusalem. For the next nineteen years, gun- and rocket fire crossed the border. The Potash Company was moved to Israeli-held land in the southern Dead Sea area and renamed the Dead Sea Works. The workers of the Dead Sea Works became the first Israeli pioneers in this frontier wilderness, living in rough huts with little electricity, limited water, and no air-conditioning. There too they were regularly shelled by Palestinians on the Jordanian side. Cut off from Jerusalem and much of Israel by the Jordanians, the Dead Sea Works found its own water wells. Today the saltworks have relocated along extensive artificial ponds, and the original camp—the small houses and dining hall abandoned on a dusty plateau—is being restored as a monument to the resourceful adventurers who built Israel.
In 1956, some Israeli soldiers, having finished a tour of duty at the Dead Sea, decided to stay, drawn to a freshwater spring called Ein Gedi where a green wadi leads to a tall, thin cascade magically tumbling water out of the desert, one of only two waterfalls in Israel that flow all year. Pliny had mentioned the spot for its remarkable fertility, though, he said, it had been destroyed in war with the Romans. Possessed by Herzl’s Zionist dream of making the desert bloom, the Israeli soldiers founded a collective settlement in Ein Gedi, a kibbutz, where everyone worked for the profit of the community, children were raised collectively in separate dormitories, and a paradise was to bloom on the Judean frontier. Plants were brought into a garden with lawns and tropical trees from Asia and Africa—lichees, brilliant red flamboyants, thick, climbing, green broad-leafed vines. Birds, spotting the rich green garden from the air, have made it a principal stop on their Europe-Africa migration.
It had all been predicted in Herzl’s 1902 novel, Old New Land, in which he imagines visiting the new Jewish state in 1923 and finding the Jews not only exploiting the Dead Sea’s mineral wealth but making the desert green through irrigation and living in farm collectives that exported produce to Europe. However, he also predicted that Israel would be a German-speaking nation and that Arabs would eagerly welcome Jews for the economic development they would bring to the region.
The kibbutz grew, building a health spa on the shore of the Dead Sea that offered Dead Sea mud and Dead Sea water, both of which had long been supposed to have healing properties. By the late 1960s, the kibbutz had built a hotel that today is one of Israel’s leading tourist attractions.
In 1960, the Israelis built a hotel along another spring to the south, Ein Bokek. Since the Jordanians were to the north of Ein Gedi, the south was the only place for Israelis to develop. The Dead Sea Works had brought in water and electricity, and now the visitor could be offered the miracle that makes deserts livable: air-conditioning. But the Ein Bokek development was not really on the Dead Sea. Just south of the sea, the salt company had pumped Dead Sea water into a flooded area divided by dikes. There, the brine was moved from pond to pond, ever more concentrated until finally the precious salt minerals fell out of the solution in the form of a white slush that was scooped up. Still, these artificial salt ponds, concentrated to a brilliant turquoise, made a stunning sea, and sand was brought in for small beaches.
By 2000, Ein Bokek had 4,000 rooms in fourteen hotels, all with Dead Sea health spas offering a variety of treatments—an improbable oasis of white and pastel high-rises on the shores of a saltworks. The Israelis keep building ever taller hotels, and the discreet screens used by religious people to separate women’s and men’s nude sunbathing on the roofs of older hotels are of little help when hundreds of guests can look down from newer hotels ten stories above.
The Israeli Defense Ministry pays for every wounded Israeli veteran, and there are many, to visit a Dead Sea spa hotel two times a year. Both Danish and German government health insurance will pay for a stay in an Ein Bokek spa hotel. The Israeli tourism business has in recent years begun rethinking its markets. It has not attracted Jews in the numbers hoped for. Herzl had said that attracting the Jewish diaspora would be a slow process, but after a half century as a nation, according to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, only 17 percent of American Jews have ever visited Israel. Christian American tourism does better, and Germans, either seeking sunshine or health spas, are the new booming trade, Israelis report without the least note of irony. Germans are the largest national group, after Israelis, to visit Ein Bokek. They also comprise one third of the visitors to Ein Gedi.
BUT THERE IS a problem.
In 1985, the Ein Gedi kibbutz built a new spa on the edge of the Dead Sea. It has the atmosphere of a public beach, packed on Saturdays with Israelis lined up like crudely formed clay statues, bizarrely coated in thick black mud, baking to a gray crust in the sun. But though the spa was originally built on the water’s edge, today a trolley carries bathers to the water almost a mile away. The sea recedes from Ein Gedi about fifty yards a year.
In the first century A.D., Pliny described the now 45-by-11 mile body as being 100 miles by 75 miles. A two-lane road that used to run along the sea is now several miles inland. A flat, rocky plain that was once the sea’s floor leads to the water’s edge. Mountains rise up against the other side of the road, and on one rock about ten feet above the pavement the initials PEF are written. This is where the Palestinian Exploration Fund, a British geographic organization, marked the surface of the Dead Sea in 1917.
The greatest problem of the Dead Sea is that since the Israelis built the National Water Canal from the Sea of Galilee, the Galilee has served as Israel’s primary source of freshwater, greatly reducing the flow to the Jordan River, which in turn is siphoned off by Jordanian farmers in the valley, who provide 90 percent of Jordan’s produce. Not much water is left for the dying ancient sea.
Pliny called the Jordan “a pleasant stream” and said, “It progresses, seemingly with reluctance, toward the gloomy Dead Sea by which it is finally swallowed.” But today the stream that approaches the Dead Sea is a little rush of silted water in a reedy gully a few feet wide. Lieutenant Lynch’s specially designed boats or even a one-man rowboat could not navigate this river to the Dead Sea.
Is the Dead Sea becoming a Saharan-like sebkha, a dried bed ready for scraping? Currently, the sea loses about three feet in depth every year. Since the northern end is in places 1,200 feet deep, it is thought that the sea has several centuries left. Another theory is that it will shrink but reach a level of such concentration that it will no longer evaporate, which seems optimistic considering the ubiquitous dry salt beds in all of the world’s major deserts.
A few years ago, “Dead-Med” became a popular phrase in Israel. The plan was to dig a waterway reconnecting the Dead Sea with the Mediterranean. This idea currently appears deader than the Dead Sea. The introduction of Mediterranean water would alter the composition of the Dead Sea, and mineral extraction would no longer be practical, thereby destroying one of Israel’s most profitable industries.
The Dead Sea has its health spas and tourism, but the biggest business in the area, as Herzl had predicted, is the Dead Sea Works, which has even become an international company, investing in a potash mine in Spanish Catalonia, near Cardona.
The Jordanians, apparently having read their Herzl, are also counting on their Dead Sea works. The Arab Potash Company is a mirror image directly across from the Israeli company. This is the Arab-Israeli border: two sets of earthen dikes less than three feet high with a cloudy turquoise Israeli evaporation pond on one side and a cloudy turquoise Jordanian pond on the other, and in between about 100 yards of white and rust and amber soil where minerals from the two ponds leach through the earthworks.
Until a peace treaty was signed with Israel in 1996, the Jordanian Dead Sea region was a military zone, off limits to civilians. Now, at peace, Jordan has few resources but is full of plans. Mohammed Noufal observed with a smile, “All we need is Israel’s technology, Egypt’s workers, Turkey’s water, and Saudi Arabia’s oil, and I am sure we can build a paradise here.”
The Jordanians too are building health spas and attracting German tourists of their own. But for them also, salt will remain the leading economic activity. There are four Israeli pumps and two Jordanian pumps moving Dead Sea water into evaporation ponds.
Sodium chloride, the salt of the past, is the first to precipitate out of concentrated brine. But hauling in bulk out of the Judean desert is too costly because of the lack of a waterway connection. The climb through the mountains is too steep for a railroad. The salt had to be hauled by truck until the Israelis built an eleven-mile-long conveyer belt. It carries 600 to 800 tons of salt in seventy minutes to the town of Tzefa, where the land is then level enough for a railroad to the Mediterranean.
This system is still too expensive for sodium chloride to be profitable. But the Israeli company sells 10 percent of the potassium chloride—potash—in the world, a product much in demand for fertilizers. It also produces liquid chloride and bromide for textiles and pharmaceuticals and methyl bromide, a pesticide. Under pressure because of damage to the ozone layer, it is phasing out methyl bromide production. The Jordanians say they are thinking of starting it up.
The Dead Sea Works believes its future is in magnesium. Magnesium chloride, what Lieutenant W. F. Lynch called “a nauseous compound,” is the salt that gives the sea its bitter unpleasant taste. It is a slightly more expensive but less corrosive alternative to sodium chloride for deicing roads. From magnesium chloride, the Dead Sea Works also produces magnesium, a metal that is seven times stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. The company has invested in a joint venture with Volkswagen to make car parts. Will one more Herzl prediction come true and Israel become German-speaking after all?
Once the sodium chloride precipitates out, falling to the bottom of the pond, the principal target mineral is 6H2O MgCl2 KCl. This grayish crystal sludge, called carnolite, fuses potassium chloride, sodium chloride, and magnesium chloride into a single crystal.
The sodium chloride that precipitates out before carnolite is allowed to fall to the bottom of the pond, constantly raising the height of the pond bottoms. The company keeps building the dikes higher, but the raised ponds have been flooding hotel basements, to the great irritation of the tourism industry. The Dead Sea Works counters that its workers were the pioneers who dug the wells and provided the water and electricity that made the area usable in the first place. Tensions persist. This is, after all, the Middle East. The Dead Sea Works, recognizing the problem, has started a flood prevention program to help hotels.
Common salt has become a nuisance.