In The Prophet, the seminal work of Lebanese American writer Khalil Gibran, we read: “For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” This quote is fitting for the Dead Sea, the salt lake located at the lowest elevation on earth. For millennia travelers have journeyed to the Dead Sea for its restorative powers, yet both the sea and the Jordan River which feeds it are threatened with extinction.
“Every time I visit Israel, Jordan, or the West Bank, I feel compelled to go to the Dead Sea, if for no other reason than to see it, maybe to reassure myself it is still there,” writes Barbara Kreiger, author of The Dead Sea and the Jordan River (Indiana University Press (March, 2016). “For me, the Dead Sea is like a creature in distress: a living organism ensnared by human need, or greed, depending on one’s vantage point, but in any case subject to the consequences of regional and local decisions that seem often to be based on short-term or parochial objectives.”
The Dead Sea, the author explains, “is the terminus of the Jordan River, the other half of this environmental tragedy. The two are historically, religiously, and culturally coupled, their destinies intertwined by natural law. The situation today is dire, because the Jordan River, which figures so large in historical and religious memory” is “hardly more than a stone’s throw from bank to bank,” its waters diverted near their source for human consumption and agricultural purposes.
This exhaustive report on the history and geopolitical details of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River is an expanded new edition of the author’s earlier works published in 1988 and 1997. It is primarily a well-documented academic study, but one richened by the tales of explorers and adventurers.
The mysterious sea and the guilty cities below
“Thrice daily it alters its appearance and reflects the sun’s rays with varying tints,” wrote Jewish historian Josephus. American author and humorist Mark Twain was not as appreciative in his descriptions. “After an hour’s weary ride [from Jericho] we reach the shore of the Dead Sea, with its unwholesome swamps and slimy margin, and ridges of drift wood, all incrusted with salt,” he wrote in The Innocents Abroad.
Many early travelers kept their distance from the lake as they associated it with the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Others took refuge along its shores, hiding from the Romans in desert caves and on the Masada mountain fortress, living ascetic lifestyles and composing literary works such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Modern day entrepreneurs saw the huge potential in the lake’s minerals and began extracting its salt, potash, bromine, and other products, utilizing huge evaporation pans that effectively transformed the lake’s entire southern end into an outdoor chemical plant.
The Dead Sea’s quickly receding shorelines are quite shocking to visitors at the northern and western beaches, where one has to travel huge distances in order to float on the salty waters. An ever-growing number of unpredictable sinkholes cause havoc along the shore, while tourist hotels in Ein Bokek are threatened by flooding due to rising sea levels in that area resulting from the chemical extraction process.
Is there hope for the Dead Sea and the Jordan River?
EcoPeace Middle East, the book reports, is a unique organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists with the goal of not only raising awareness to the lake’s plight but also to develop regional strategies that will help convince decision makers to work towards saving this shared, complex ecosystem. The Sharhabil Bin Hassneh Ecopark, which was developed under EcoPeace’s auspices and is the first such park in Jordan, will help promote ‘green’ tourism along both banks of the river.
In December 2013 an agreement was signed by representatives of Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority to build a conduit running from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. This hugely expensive project is intended to provide potable water to the region’s inhabitants, generate electricity, and help stabilize the level of the Dead Sea. The environmental impact of the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal is not known, and the manmade damage to the Dead Sea may be irreparable. If nothing else, the efforts of EcoPeace and the proposed canal demonstrate that the region’s stakeholders can put differences aside to work together on important environmental projects.
The Dead Sea and the Jordan River may not be standard reading material for those interested in books about Israel but its format as part travelogue, part history, and part review of the challenges facing this unique natural phenomenon makes it hard to put down.
Barbara Kreiger lives in New Hampshire and teaches at Dartmouth College. Her publications include Divine Expectations: An American Woman in Nineteenth-Century Palestine, articles in Smithsonian magazine and the New York Times, and introductions to travel classics. She participates in the activities of EcoPeace Middle East and in 2014 she was invited by CNN to contribute to their film about the Dead Sea and Jordan River.