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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Wealth of Desolation

The Dead Sea - modified from a photograph by David Shankbone (CC BY SA

The Dead Sea is dying. It has been for some time. Since I first saw it a half century ago the shallow south of the lake has all but vanished, the hard-won achievement of chemical over-harvesting, water mismanagement, climate change, politicians' promises, plutocrats' greed, and the overall lack of empathy of a public too weighed down with other cares to find the energy to look after its back yard.

But it remains a remarkable place. Across the plate glass sea the mountains are muted crystal. There is no divide between rock, water and air. At midday when the valley is a cauldron, the light washes out all but the palest pinks and blues. The hills on this side are scarred with cuts and trenches and the shoreline is pimply with sinkholes. In the north the abandoned Lido stands far from its shore in a desolate expanse of dust; a pathetic marker of this slow but progressive dying. This is a landscape slowly crumbling into itself - a return of the Biblical overturning, a place like no other on earth, at once stunningly, painfully beautiful, and repulsively diseased, reeling in its poisonous chemical stench. It seems to exemplify waste and worthlessness, and yet the Dead Sea is and has long been a source of valuable commodities.

The pilgrim Rorgo Fretellus went down to observe it in the mid-1130s and he was absorbed and impressed by what he saw, and by the remarkable products of the sea and of its desolated surroundings. There was the asphalt of course, which had various uses, most notably in making ships seaworthy, and also in embalming the dead. The German pilgrim, John of Würzburg who came around 1160, recorded the "pitch" which was found and collected from the sea by the Jewish inhabitants of Ein Gedi and was consequently known as "Jewish bitumen". His fellow countryman, Theoderich, arriving about a decade after him, also noted the "Jews' pitch" which was of great use to sailors, and Fretellus observed that it was "useful to doctors." In the thirteenth century the Dominican, Burchard of Mount Sion wrote that the bitumen was "strong and medicinal, can only be dissolved with menstrual blood, and was called Jews' glue." And there was Catranium, "...a sort of black smelling liquor" a liquid bitumen, oil of naphtha or petroleum, possibly used in the manufacture of Greek Fire. Burchard refers to it as "...very necessary for anointing camels to remove the mange, and for rubbing vines to drive away the worms that consume them."

Various travellers mentioned Alum. Burchard called it the “salt liquor of the earth, which in winter coagulates from the slime and the water and is matured by the summer sun”. It derived its name – alum (alumen), so he enlightens us, from the Latin "lumen" (light), because it exhibits light with coloured tinges, and he notes that it was used in dyeing. And there was the abundant salt that could be gathered directly from the sea or from its surroundings. Fretellus referred to "...a mountain which is almost altogether of gem-like salt." Another thirteenth century traveller, Thietmar, noted that one of the lake's names was the “Lake of the Saltings”, because peopled collected the salt there.

There were also certain agricultural products grown in the vicinity of the sea, in spite of the hostile conditions. Grapes were grown at Ein Gedi, date palms in the north near Jericho and sugar cane around Jericho and to the south east, at Kerak. But of all the products and produce of this strange landscape, certainly the most fascinating was balsam (Opobalsamum), the perfumed resinous sap from a plant identified with Commiphora gileadensis, that classical writers like Theophrastus, Strabo, Pliny, Diodorus Siculus and Josephus had admired for its medicinal value and highly agreeable aroma. They had noted the fact that it was only cultivated in the neighbourhood of the Dead Sea, in Jericho and Ein Gedi, but by the Middle Ages this was no longer the case, although it could still apparently be found in small quantities in the vicinity. According to John of Würzburg it was still grown at Ein Gedi, and exported from there, and Thietmar explains why it had largely disappeared from the region by the Middle Ages, recording that the Egyptians had clandestinely uprooted the balsam plants of Ein Gedi and transplanted them to a place near Cairo (the royal garden at Matariyya, northeast of Cairo). But, he noted, a garden of balsam "about the size of half a hide (c. 60 acres)" had survived. The removal of this important crop from the Dead Sea had been, according to Burchard, carried out by Cleopatra “out of hatred of Herod and by the favour of Antony.”

* For the travellers mentioned here see Palestine Pilgrims Text Society, vol. v, London 1896 and Denys Pringle, Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land (1187-1292), Farnham and Burlington, 2012. On balsam see also Zohar Amar and David Iluz, “Balsam: The Most Expensive Perfume Plant in the Ancient World”, in A.S. Ferziger, ed., The Paths of Daniel: Studies in Judaism and Jewish Culture in Honor of Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber, Ramat Gan, 2017, pp. 15-27.

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