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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

Explanation of the Seas, Rivers, Mountains, and Valleys of Palestine.

Palestine has three lakes* or seas:--1, the Dead Sea, or Lake Asphaltites; 2, the sea of Genezereth, or Lake of Tiberias; and 3, the sea of Merom, or Lake Semechonitis.

* In Tractate Baba Bathra, fol. 74b, we read: "There are seven seas and four rivers which surround (or border) Palestine, namely, the seas of Tiberias, Sodom, Chelath, Chiltha, Sibchi, Aspamia, and the Great Sea (the Mediterranean). The four rivers are the Jordan, the Yarmuch, Kirmion, and Pigah." It is farther stated there that the Jordan’s sources are in the cave of Pameis, and that it runs through the lakes of Sibchi and Tiberias, through the Salt Sea into the mouth of Leviathan.--At the end of Talmud Yerushalmi, on Kilayim, these seven seas or lakes are called the Great Sea, the Sea of Tiberias, Somcho, the Salt Sea, the Chultha, Shelyith, and Apamia. But, as regards the Lake of Chamatz, it is observed that the Emperor Diocletian had it dug, and had it filled by the rivers which he conducted into it, wherefore it is not reckoned among the lakes formed by nature. This reading appears to me more correct than the first; still several corrections are necessary. Through means of literary investigations, I correct and explain the above as follows. Chultha or Chiltha signifies the Lake Phialo, which is called in Arabic Birkath al Ram. It is about 120 paces in circumference, and lies 10½ English miles east of Banias, and is the actual source of the Jordan. (See Josephus, Bell. Jud., book iii. ch. 18.) The whole country bears at this day the name Balad al Chuli, Land of Chuli. I suppose the origin of the word to be חול Chul (see Gen. 10:23). This, by the way, will explain a very obscure passage in Erechin 2, where it speaks of בחולת המחוז, or the district Cholath, which was very stony and salty, and therefore unfruitful. The country is likewise called Balad al Malchi; which means "the country of salt," from the fact that the country is, so to say, covered with a crust of salt (see Tractate Ahaloth, the end of chap. iii.); whence I conclude that the present Chuli is derived from the ancient Chiltha or Chultha.--Sibchi is an incorrect reading, and should be Somcho, which is the same as the sea Semechonitis, also called Kaldayeh, which signifies "the high," identical with the Hebrew מי מרום (Me Merom), literally the "high waters" (Josh. 11:5). The common people call it very erroneously ים חוילה Yam Chavila, the Sea of Chavila.--Chelath or Shelyith is wrong, and should be אילת Elath, which is the Red Sea (Deut. 2:8), which bounds Palestine at the south, since the Talmud speaks here of the country in its greatest extent.--Aspamia is also incorrect, since under this term there is always understood Ispania, Latin Hispania, or Spain, of which I shall speak more extensively in another place; the correct reading would be Apamia. Even at the present day there is found, north of the village Phamia (which see), the dry bed of an ancient lake, which the Arabs call Bacharea, which means "the little sea." The river Al Azy, the ancient Orontes, runs through the bed of this lake in a northerly direction.

Chamatz Lake is south of the town of Hams or Chams, and is called Bachr Chams, "the Great Sea," also Bachr Kadissa. It is formed by the just mentioned Al Azy, which runs into it, and continues its course after issuing from it. This will explain the meaning of the passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi, quoted above, that Diocletian had made it by causing rivers to run into it. (See also T. Yer. Shekalim, chap. vi.)

Yalkut to Deut. 33: 23, speaks erroneously of the sea Sufni, as it should be Somcho.

ים המלח or ים סדום

(Gen. 14:3.)

The Salt or Dead Sea (Lake Asphaltites) is called in the Arabic language Bachr Lot (Lot's Sea), and is 70 English miles in length, and from 15 to 20 in breadth.* Towards the south, however, it is narrow and shoal, and about 4 miles broad, and from 3 to 4 feet in depth. This sea is enclosed on the east and west by high mountains and rocks; but towards the southeast there is an extensive, fair and fruitful plain, several miles in size.

* According to Josephus, Bell. Jud., book v., chap. 5, is this sea 580 stadia in length, and 150 in breadth.

It is true that the water of this sea is clear and pure; nevertheless it is more impregnated with salty matter than all other sea-waters, and is withal very bitter, somewhat sulphurous in smell, and so acrid that no one can keep it in his mouth. When I made the attempt to take a little of it in my mouth, the sharp, bitter, and sulphurous taste remained perceptible more than half an hour. Salt thrown in this water remains undissolved. 100 parts of this water contain 42 parts of salts, 24 parts bitter, salty, and sour calcareous earth, and 7 parts salty natron. The weight of this water, compared to pure distilled water, is as 1211 to 1000. To institute several comparative experiments, I employed water from the Dead Sea, some taken from the Mediterranean at Jaffa, and the usual cistern (rain) water; and, on weighing them, I found that the first compared to the second as 9 to 8, and to the latter as 9 to 7. I have, however, to remark here, that I made these experiments in the month of April, at which time the Dead Sea had, on account of continued rains, taken up many streams, through which circumstance the weight of its water was much less than it usually is, and especially in the summer months, when the evaporation condenses it more than at other times. The water of this sea has also a peculiarity that nothing thrown into it will sink. Even a man, unacquainted with swimming, may confidently bathe here, for he can no more sink in this lake than in an empty vessel.* Josephus even tells† that the Emperor Vespasian had men who could not swim thrown into the Dead Sea with their hands even tied on their backs, and that not one of them was drowned.

* The Talmud therefore remarks correctly (Sabbath 108b), that a person never was drowned in the Salt Sea.

† Bell. Jud., book v., chap. 5.

Everything which lies a little time in this water is covered with a crust of salt. On living objects, however, the skin is partially peeled off. The air in the vicinity of this sea is so impregnated with particles of salt and sulphur, that the clothes of persons who are a short time* on its shore are covered, so to say, with a coating of salt. Neither fish, nor worms, nor any other living things are ever found in this sea. Even those fish which swim in the Jordan, as it disembogues itself into this sea, perish the moment they touch it. If you carry this water to ever so great a distance, and place fish therein, they nevertheless die immediately. At the bottom of the Dead Sea there is found a black, fetid slime. Every morning there ascend such strong sulphurous vapours from this water, that they can be seen at a great distance. On a winter's day, at the time of the rains, I was once able to observe this from the holy city itself; for as I looked in the direction of this sea, I saw, so to say, a great cloud rising upward from the same. Should a bird fly over the surface of the water during the disengagement of these strong vapours, it would drop down dead instantly. For this reason there are but few living animals seen in the whole neighbourhood, also but few trees and plants. In the vicinity of this sea is found a species of stone-coal; there is also a species of black bitumen met with, which floats on the surface of the water, and is afterwards driven on shore. The salt, which is found in large quantities in the whole adjacent country, and especially on the seashore, cannot be used in food, because it is extraordinarily bitter, and has, moreover, the smell and taste of saltpetre. (See art. Salt.)

Although the surface of this sea is 598 feet lower than the Mediterranean, and receives the Jordan and several other minor streams, yet it never overflows its shores. This circumstance furnishes sufficient proof that this sea must have subterranean† outlets, either to the Mediterranean or the Red Sea.

* This is, however, the case only in damp and foggy weather, but not when it is hot and in sunshine.

† These unknown outlets the Midrash expresses by saying that the Jordan passes through the Dead Sea into the mouth of Levithan, to wit, the unknown terminations.

The mountains on the shores of the Dead Sea are almost perpetually encircled by the mists ascending from its waters. These mists, which are very unwholesome, and cause the drying up of the vital powers, producing consumption, &c., have also the most pernicious influence on vegetation. It therefore happens that the fruit produced on the trees of these mountains, though to outward appearance healthy and sound, are dried up within, rotten, and filled with a carbonaceous powder. Especially is this the case with the pomegranate and lemon; which circumstance is no doubt referred to by Josephus, when speaking of the Sodom-apples, which he says fall into dust on being touched. (See also Deut. 32:32.)

It is thus that the divine curse still rests on this neighbourhood, destroyed in consequence of the sins of its inhabitants. [It yet stands as the personified consequence of vice, and forms the most striking contrast in what it is now to the hopeful future promised in the thirty-sixth chapter of Ezekiel 5: 8-16, 33-36, and ibid. 47:1-12 ; the latter especially being a remarkable prophecy, promising a complete change of the whole surface of the country, as it was and as it now is, and which, if accomplished, must render Palestine indeed the highway of nations and the centre of the earth,--situated, as it is, in the midst of the great thoroughfare between the sea of India on the east, and the Mediterranean on the west.]

The Sea of Chinnereth. ים כנרת

(Numb. 34:11.)

This lake, called in the Arabic Bachr Tibaria, i. e. Sea of Tiberias, because this city is situated on its western shore, is about 12½ English miles in length, and 5 in breadth,* and lies 535 feet lower than the surface of the Mediterranean. On the north, near the village Tanchum (which see), the Jordan enters this lake, and leaves it again at the south, near the village Samach (כפר צמח). It is a remarkable thing that the Jordan, which passes through this lake its entire length, does not mingle with its waters, since its course is clearly perceptible in the midst of the lake till it leaves it again, and resumes its own proper course. (Compare with Bereshith Rabba, chap. 2, and Josephus, Bell. Jud., chap. 18.)

* Josephus (Bell. Jud., book iii., chap. 18), gives the dimensions 100 stadia in length, and 40 in breadth.

The environs of Chinnereth are uncommonly fertile and productive; and it forms, on the whole, a complete contrast to the recently described Dead Sea. For instance, in the same measure as the water of the latter is nauseous, bitter, heavy, and salty, so is the water of Chinnereth agreeable, sweet, and light, and used, therefore, by the inhabitants of Tiberias, as drinking water. The Dead Sea is, moreover, as its name already indicates, dead; and is neither navigated by men in vessels, nor inhabited by fish or other living things. The Chinnereth, however, has all kinds of the best fish, and other species of aquatic animals; and one sees constantly an active intercourse carried on there through means of small vessels, in which, at times, the inhabitants of the other side of Jordan bring wood and other articles for sale to Tiberias. And lastly, whereas on the other district still rests the punishment sent from heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah, and the whole environ of the sea is nothing but a frightful scene of desolation, one sees near Chinnereth, as already stated, a fruitful country and one truly blessed of God, extending itself before the eye, and presenting an abundance of earthly treasures.

There prevails a calm nearly the whole year on the Sea of Chinnereth ; when, however, a storm does arise, which is seldom the case, it occurs very suddenly, and then, in a few minutes, the boats which may be caught out in it are generally upset. The force of the waves in that case is also so great, that many of the houses in town are thereby endangered.

Waters of Merom. מי מרום or מי סומכי

(Joshua 11:5.)

This little lake is called by the Arabs Bachr Chit, Wheat Sea, because much wheat is sown in its neighbourhood; it is also called Bachr Banias, or improperly Bachr Chuli. It is 10 English miles south of the sources of the Jordan, and is about 5 English miles long and 3¾ broad. It is only in winter, however, that this lake has water in it, which is turbid and muddy, and in which fish are found. In summer, however, it is dried up; and it is then a swamp overgrown with weeds, and then serves the Arabs, who come hither with their numerous flocks, and encamp thereon during the whole summer, as a pastureground. Many canes also grow here, among which wild beasts, &c., find shelter, especially serpents and wild boars. Not far from the village Malcha, situated on its northern shore, the Jordan enters this lake. The inhabitants of the village just named cultivate the rice plant in this vicinity, which is the only place in Palestine where this plant grows. This rice, which is sent to the other towns, is quite singular in its colour and flavour; it is red in appearance, and swells in cooking to an unusual degree. The western portion of this lake is inhabited by the Duphni-Arabs, who derive their name from the town of Daphne (Riblah), which formerly stood in this district. (See Riblah p. 26. )