The Dead Sea’s Secret River


Two weeks ago Israel’s Channel 11 aired a three-part series on a secret river that nobody knows in the southern basin of the Dead Sea. The media jumped on the bandwagon, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel immediately mounted a campaign to save the river and its amazing canyon and a course of tour guides and self-appointed experts hiked to the river and reported on its amazing beauty.

It took ERETZ Magazine and other experts just a few hours to explain that the river is not a river and certainly not a secret. Three decades ago, as the Dead Sea waters receded the shallow southern basin of the Dead Sea began to dry up. In order to continue producing potash and bromine, the Israeli and Jordanian Dead Sea Works each created artificial evaporation ponds in the southern soon to be dry area of the Dead Sea and pumped water into the ponds from the deep northern basin. A drainage channel emptied the excess water from the ponds down the steep newly exposed shores back to the Dead Sea. This is the so-called Secret River, clearly marked on the map and visible in Google earth and satellite pictures.

The reason it is unknown is that the area of the “river”, the dried-up strait between the peninsula that used to divide the northern and southern basins, is one of the most dangerous places to walk in. Years of flash floods have scattered mines from the border between Israel and Jordan on the soft former sea bed, and the receding waters of the Dead Sea have created hundreds of hidden sinkholes as the underground layers of salt erode. Stepping on the dried-up floor of Lynch’s Strait can end up with stepping on a mine or falling into a sinkhole that will suddenly open up. The whole TV publicity scoop was irresponsible, to say the least, even with the warnings not to go there. But, maybe all the publicity will force the authorities to open up the area with a few safe hiking routes that will allow nature lovers to enjoy this unique place.

The interesting part of the story is not the so-called secret river, but why the area is called Lynch’s Strait – a name that goes back to the rediscovery of the Dead Sea. In the early nineteenth century, when modern geographical research began, very few dared to travel to the Dead Sea, it was an unknown and nearly uninhabited area. It was impossible for a foreigner, especially a European, to venture into the deserts of the Ottoman Empire. The first travelers who attempted to navigate these routes learned to speak Arabic, versed themselves in Moslem customs, and dressed as Arabs. Some lost their lives in their attempt to explore these forbidden lands; they were murdered, died of unfamiliar diseases, lost their way, or dehydrated in the desert sun.

The first modern European traveler to circumvent the Dead Sea was a German explorer, Ulrich Jasper Seetzen who traveled to the deserts of Arabia in 1807, disguised as a Moslem doctor by the name of Mousa al-Hakim. A sketch that Seetzen made of the Dead Sea area was the base for the first modern map of the Dead Sea.

the next chapter in the rediscovery of the Dead Sea was the sad sojourn on the sea of a 25-year-old Irishman by the name of Christopher Costigan, who set out in a small boat with a Maltese servant to sail on the Dead Sea. Costigan bought a boat in Beirut, transferred it to Acre, and then transported it on camelback to the Sea of Galilee. He arrived there at the height of summer, in July 1835, and tried to sail down the Jordan to the Dead Sea. the Jordan, then a mighty river, had a strong, turbulent current that overturned Costigan’s small boat repeatedly. He did not give up and instead hired camels to carry the boat to Jericho and the Dead Sea. A few days after he and his servant arrived in Jericho, he sailed the boat on the waters of the Dead Sea. For the next eight days, Costigan circumvented the shores, measuring the depth of the waters at different points. At night, he slept onshore. At four points along the shores, the two sailors saw ancient ruins, one of which they identified as the ruins of Gomorrah. On the sixth day of their voyage, they ran out of water. The next day, Costigan started to drink Dead Sea water and on the eighth day, they barely managed to get back to the northern shore. He managed to get taken to Jerusalem, but by then, however, he had contracted malaria, which claimed his life a few days later.

In 1847, Lt. Thomas Molyneux, of his HMS Spartan, and three volunteers were sent to sail down the Jordan from the Sea of Galilee in order to measure the difference in elevation. Molyneux sent his companions to try to navigate the river again, but they were attacked by Bedouins who stole everything on board the boat. When the boat failed to arrive at the agreed-upon meeting point, Molyneux set out to look for his men, found the empty boat, and made a dash for Jericho and Jerusalem, where he put together a search party that was unable to find his crew. Molyneux did not give up. He recruited a new crew: a guide from Tiberias and a young Greek from Jerusalem. As evening fell, he set sail on the Dead Sea. Molyneux’s boat was equipped with only two oars and his crew members did not have the faintest idea of how to maneuver the small vessel. After two stormy nights at sea, Molyneux realized that they would not make it to the peninsula in the middle of the eastern shore and decided to return to Jericho. After a night and a day of hard rowing, the three managed to return to the northern shore. Molyneux loaded the boat on camels and managed to return to the HMS Spartan, where he discovered his three original companions, safe and sound.

The American Expedition

William Francis Lynch was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1801. At the age of 16, he left school and headed for the sea, seeking a life of wandering and excitement. He joined the US Navy, sailed around the world, battled slavers along the coast of Africa, and chased pirates in the West Indies.

At the age of 27, Lynch was promoted to the rank of lieutenant; a while later, he was promoted to captain. When the American Civil War broke out, Lynch resigned from the US Navy and joined the Confederate navy. He actively took part in the Civil War and passed away six months after it ended, in October 1865.

More than a decade earlier, in 1847, as the U.S.-Mexican War was coming to a close, Lynch sought permission to take an expedition to the Dead Sea. The official reason was to measure the difference in elevation between the Jordan River and the Dead Sea; unofficially, as he later admits in the book he published on his voyage, he yearned to discover the sunken remains of Sodom and Gomorrah. On May 27, 1847, the secretary of the navy authorized his request. Lynch ordered two boats, one with a copper hull and the other with a hull of iron, selected the members of his team and assembled equipment. Through the American ambassador in Istanbul, he requested permission from the Ottoman authorities to explore the Jordan River and the Dead Sea as well as an audience with the sultan, Abdul Mejid I.

At the end of November, he took command of the US Navy vessel Supply and headed for the Mediterranean. Toward the end of March 1848, the Supply docked in Beirut. On March 31, 1848, Lynch arrived in Haifa and unloaded his two boats, Fanny Mason and Fanny Skinner. The boats’ masts served as tent poles for the two tents of the American camp, over which, for the first time in the history of the Holy Land, flew the American flag.

The boats were put onto carts, but the horses, unused to this kind of labor, refused to pull them. Lynch replaced the horses with camels. On April 5, the American expedition set out for Tiberias, which still was struggling to recover from the devastating earthquake that had struck the town 10 years earlier. Lynch provided an interesting description of the town’s Jewish population, which formed the majority of Tiberias’s 1,300 inhabitants.

After touring the sites around the Sea of Galilee, Lynch launched his metal hulled boats along with a wooden one that he purchased in Tiberias and christened the Uncle Sam. He sailed his small fleet to the mouth of the Jordan River, writing in Narrative of the United States’ Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea, “Buoyantly floated the two ‘Fannies,’ bearing the stars and stripes. Since the time of Josephus and the Romans, no vessel of any size has sailed upon this sea, and for many, many years, but a solitary keel has furrowed its surface.”

Sailing down the Jordan River was not a simple affair in 1847. The river was replete with rapids and had a strong current. Furthermore, many large rocks jutted out of the waters, endangering the three boats. The wooden Uncle Sam was smashed to smithereens on one of the rocks very quickly. The metal boats, on the other hand, were true to the task that they were designed for.

Lynch sailed for a week down the river, safely shooting the 27 rapids he encountered on the way, and recording his adventurous meetings with Bedouins, soldiers, and pilgrims. On April 18, he reached the Dead Sea. At 3:25 p.m., he sailed out of the estuary of the Jordan River into the Dead Sea. He was met by a strong wind and high waves.

“But, although the sea had assumed a threatening aspect, and the fretted mountains, sharp and incinerated, loomed terrific on either side, and salt and ashes mingled with its sands, and fetid sulfurous springs trickled down its ravines, we did not despair: awe-struck, but not terrified; fearing the worst, yet hoping for the best, we prepared to spend a dreary night upon the dreariest waste we had ever seen.”

As night fell, they camped at the springs of Ain el Feshkhah (Ein Feskha). The storm abated and in the silence of the night, they heard the tolling of the bell of the monastery at Mar Saba. At midnight, they again heard the bell.

“It was a solace to know that, in a place wild and solitary in itself, yet not remote from us, there were fellow Christians raising their voices in supplication to the Great and Good Being, before whom, in different forms, but with undivided faith, we bow ourselves in worship,” Lynch writes.

His team spent the next days exploring the shores of the Dead Sea, measuring the depths of the waters, and seeking the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah in the slimy mud of the shallow southern side of the lake.

The Lynch expedition explored the Dead Sea and its shores for 22 days. All its members, except one who caught malaria, returned safety. Lynch did not manage to find the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah, which reinforced his opinion that these two cities had been completely destroyed just as the Bible relates, but he left with a wealth of accurate information about the Dead Sea and its surroundings.

Lynch arrived at the Dead Sea on the eve of a new period in the Land of Israel: The Ottoman authorities now were amenable to foreign visitors and explorers. Lynch was the first to enjoy the benefits of this new period and his expedition marked the border between those searching for vestiges of the biblical narrative and the beginning of modern geographical exploration of the land.

Lynch’s final act was to name the two capes of the peninsula that juts out into the Dead Sea, separating the northern basin from the southern one – cape Costigan and Molyneux, after the two explorers who had first sailed on the waters of the Dead Seaץ His deputy named the strait between the peninsula and the shore after the commander of the expedition.

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