Normally, you’d expect something with the name Dead Sea as a place to avoid. Something like Chernobyl, even. However, once you learn more about it and fill your mind with all sorts of Dead Sea facts, you will soon discover that it is truly one of the most fascinating places on Earth! This place is more than just a tourist attraction. People seeking relief from chronic skin, respiratory, and joint problems benefit from the Dead Sea’s unique sun and mineral qualities.
Dead Sea, Arabic Al-Baḥr Al-Mayyit (“Sea of Death”), Hebrew Yam HaMelaẖ (“Salt Sea”), also called Salt Sea, landlocked salt lake between Israel and Jordan in southwestern Asia. Its eastern shore belongs to Jordan, and the southern half of its western shore belongs to Israel. The northern half of the western shore lies within the Palestinian West Bank and has been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Jordan River, from which the Dead Sea receives nearly all its water, flows from the north into the lake.
Did you know that people have frequented the Dead Sea as far back as ancient times? That’s how long it’s been there!
It was even used as a refuge for King David based on a story in the Bible. Its importance has only grown with the coming of modernity with all the changes it brings. Now, there are numerous resorts, spas, and hotels near the Dead Sea. If you want to be like David, and go on a vacation there, don’t be surprised if you begin to float like a boat! People float in the Dead Sea for a variety of reasons. The Dead Sea’s water is saltier than any other body of water on the planet. The amount of salt in the water exceeds 34%. The water is thicker than normal freshwater due to the exceptionally high concentration of dissolved mineral salts in it.
Also, don’t ever open your eyes underwater because you’ll almost certainly have to rush out to rinse them. You can expect to have red eyes for the rest of the day! Did these bits and pieces of trivia make you want to know more about the Dead Sea? Then, you know what to do! Read on.
The Dead Sea has the lowest elevation and is the lowest body of water on the surface of Earth. For several decades in the mid-20th century, the standard value given for the surface level of the lake was some 1,300 feet (400 metres) below sea level. Beginning in the 1960s, however, Israel and Jordan began diverting much of the Jordan River’s flow and increased the use of the lake’s water itself for commercial purposes. The result of those activities was a precipitous drop in the Dead Sea’s water level. By the mid-2010s, measurement of the lake level was more than 100 feet (some 30 metres) below the mid-20th-century figure—i.e., about 1,410 feet (430 metres) below sea level—but the lake continued to drop by about 3 feet (1 metre) annually.
Physiography and geology
The Dead Sea is situated between the hills of Judaea to the west and the Transjordanian plateaus to the east. Before the water level began dropping, the lake was some 50 miles (80 km) long, attained a maximum width of 11 miles (18 km), and had a surface area of about 394 square miles (1,020 square km). The peninsula of Al-Lisān (Arabic: “The Tongue”) divided the lake on its eastern side into two unequal basins: the northern basin encompassed about three-fourths of the lake’s total surface area and reached a depth of 1,300 feet (400 metres), and the southern basin was smaller and considerably shallower, less than 10 feet (3 metres) deep on average. During biblical times and until the 8th century CE, only the area around the northern basin was inhabited, and the lake was slightly lower than its present-day level. It rose to its highest level, 1,275 feet (389 metres) below sea level, in 1896 but receded again after 1935, stabilizing at about 1,300 feet (400 metres) below sea level for several decades.
The drop in the lake level in the late 20th and early 21st centuries changed the physical appearance of the Dead Sea. Most noticeably, the peninsula of Al-Lisān gradually extended eastward, until the lake’s northern and southern basins became separated by a strip of dry land. In addition, the southern basin was eventually subdivided into dozens of large evaporation pools (for the extraction of salt), so by the 21st century it had essentially ceased to be a natural body of water. The northern basin—effectively now the actual Dead Sea—largely retained its overall dimensions despite its great loss of water, mainly because its shoreline plunged downward so steeply from the surrounding landscape.
The Dead Sea region occupies part of a graben (a downfaulted block of Earth’s crust) between transform faults along a tectonic plate boundary that runs northward from the Red Sea–Gulf of Suez spreading center to a convergent plate boundary in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey. The eastern fault, along the edge of the Moab Plateau, is more readily visible from the lake than is the western fault, which marks the gentler Judaean upfold.
In the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (about 201 million to 66 million years ago), before the creation of the graben, an extended Mediterranean Sea covered Syria and Palestine. During the Miocene Epoch (23 million to 5.3 million years ago), as the Arabian Plate collided with the Eurasian Plate to the north, upheaval of the seabed produced the upfolded structures of the Transjordanian highlands and the central range of Palestine, causing the fractures that allowed the Dead Sea graben to drop. At that time the Dead Sea was probably about the size that it is today. During the Pleistocene Epoch (2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago), it rose to an elevation of about 700 feet (200 metres) above its modern level, forming a vast inland sea that stretched some 200 miles (320 km) from the H̱ula Valley area in the north to 40 miles (64 km) beyond its present southern limits. The Dead Sea did not spill over into the Gulf of Aqaba because it was blocked by a 100-foot (30-metre) rise in the highest part of Wadi Al-ʿArabah, a seasonal watercourse that flows in a valley to the east of the central Negev highlands.
Beginning about 2.5 million years ago, heavy streamflow into the lake deposited thick sediments of shale, clay, sandstone, rock salt, and gypsum. Later, strata of clay, marl, soft chalk, and gypsum were dropped onto layers of sand and gravel. Because the water in the lake evaporated faster than it was replenished by precipitation during the past 10,000 years, the lake gradually shrank to its present form. In so doing, it exposed deposits that now cover the Dead Sea valley to thicknesses of between about 1 and 4 miles (1.6 and 6.4 km).
The Al-Lisān region and Mount Sedom (historically Mount Sodom) resulted from movements of Earth’s crust. Mount Sedom’s steep cliffs rise up from the southwestern shore. Al-Lisān is formed of strata of clay, marl, soft chalk, and gypsum interbedded with sand and gravel. Both Al-Lisān and beds made of similar material on the western side of the Dead Sea valley dip to the east. It is assumed that the uplifting of Mount Sedom and Al-Lisān formed a southern escarpment for the Dead Sea. Later the sea broke through the western half of that escarpment to flood what is now the shallow southern remnant of the Dead Sea.
Another consequence resulting from the Dead Sea’s lower water level has been the appearance of sinkholes, especially in the southwestern part of the region. As the water in the lake dropped, it became possible for groundwater to rise up and dissolve large subterranean caverns in the overlying salt layer until the surface finally collapses. Several hundred sinkholes have formed, some of them in areas popular with tourists.
Climate and hydrology
The Dead Sea lies in a desert. Rainfall is scanty and irregular. Al-Lisān averages about 2.5 inches (65 mm) of rain a year, the industrial site of Sedom (near historical Sodom) only about 2 inches (50 mm). Because of the lake’s extremely low elevation and sheltered location, winter temperatures are mild, averaging 63 °F (17 °C) in January at the southern end at Sedom and 58 °F (14 °C) at the northern end; freezing temperatures do not occur. Summer is oppressively hot, averaging 93 °F (34 °C) in August at Sedom, with a recorded maximum of 124 °F (51 °C). Evaporation of the lake’s waters—estimated at about 55 inches (1,400 mm) per year—often creates a thick mist above the lake. On the rivers the atmospheric humidity varies from 45 percent in May to 62 percent in October. Lake and land breezes, which are relatively common, blow off the lake in all directions in the daytime and then reverse direction to blow toward the centre of the lake at night.
The inflow from the Jordan River, whose high waters occur in winter and spring, once averaged some 45.5 billion cubic feet (1.3 billion cubic metres) per year. However, the subsequent diversions of the Jordan’s waters reduced the river’s flow to a small fraction of the previous amount and became the principal cause for the drop in the Dead Sea’s water level. Four modest streams descend to the lake from Jordan to the east through deep gorges: the wadis (intermittent streams) Al-ʿUẓaymī, Zarqāʾ Māʿīn, Al-Mawjib, and Al-Ḥasā. Down numerous other wadis, streams flow spasmodically and briefly from the neighbouring heights as well as from the depression of Wadi Al-ʿArabah. Thermal sulfur springs also feed the rivers. Evaporation in summer and the inflow of water, especially in winter and spring, once caused noticeable seasonal variations of 12 to 24 inches (30 to 60 cm) in the level of the lake, but those fluctuations have been overshadowed by the more-dramatic annual drops in the Dead Sea’s surface level.
The waters of the Dead Sea are extremely saline, and, generally, the concentration of salt increases toward the lake’s bottom. That phenomenon can create two different masses of water in the lake for extended periods of time. Such a situation existed for some three centuries, lasting until the late 1970s. Down to a depth of about 130 feet (40 metres), the temperature varied from 66 to 98 °F (19 to 37 °C), the salinity was slightly less than 300 parts per thousand, and the water was especially rich in sulfates and bicarbonates. Beneath a zone of transition located at depths between 130 and 330 feet (40 and 100 metres), the water had a uniform temperature of about 72 °F (22 °C) and a higher degree of salinity (approximately 332 parts per thousand); it contained hydrogen sulfide and strong concentrations of magnesium, potassium, chlorine, and bromine. The deep water was saturated with sodium chloride, which precipitated to the bottom. The deep water thus became fossilized (i.e., because it was highly salty and dense, it remained permanently on the bottom).
The dramatic reduction in inflow from the Jordan River that began in the 1960s gradually increased the salinity of the upper-layer waters of the Dead Sea. By the late 1970s that water mass had become more saline (and denser) than the lower layers, but, because it remained warmer than the layers beneath it, it did not sink. By the winter of 1978–79, however, the upper-level layer had become cool and saturated enough to sink, setting off an event known as an overturn (a mixing of the water layers). Since then the trend has been toward restoring the formerly stratified water layers, but with more instances of overturning.
The saline water has a high density that keeps bathers buoyant. The fresh water of the Jordan stays on the surface, and in the spring its muddy colour can be traced as it spreads southward from the point where the river empties into the Dead Sea. The lake’s extreme salinity excludes all forms of life except bacteria. Fish carried in by the Jordan or by smaller streams when in flood die quickly. Apart from the vegetation along the rivers, plant life along the shores is discontinuous and consists mainly of halophytes (plants that grow in salty or alkaline soil).
The name Dead Sea can be traced at least to the Hellenistic Age (323 to 30 BCE). The Dead Sea figures in biblical accounts dating to the time of Abraham (first of the Hebrew patriarchs) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (the two cities along the lake, according to the Hebrew Bible, that were destroyed by fire from heaven because of their wickedness). The desolate wilderness beside the lake offered refuge to David (king of ancient Israel) and later to Herod I (the Great; king of Judaea), who at the time of the siege of Jerusalem by the Parthians in 40 BCE barricaded himself in a fortress at Masada, Israel, just west of Al-Lisān. Masada was the scene of a two-year siege that culminated in the mass suicide of its Jewish Zealot defenders and the occupation of the fortress by the Romans in 73 CE. The Jewish sect that left the biblical manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls took shelter in caves at Qumrān, just northwest of the lake.
The Dead Sea constitutes an enormous salt reserve. Rock salt deposits also occur in Mount Sedom along the southwestern shore. The salt has been exploited on a small scale since antiquity. In 1929 a potash factory was opened near the mouth of the Jordan. Subsidiary installations were later built in the south at Sedom, but the original factory was destroyed during the 1948–49 Arab-Israeli war. A factory producing potash, magnesium, and calcium chloride was opened in Sedom in 1955. Another plant produces bromine and other chemical products. There are also chemical-processing facilities on the Jordanian side of the southern basin. Water for the extensive array of evaporation pools in the south, from which those minerals are extracted, is supplied by artificial canals from the northern basin.
Facts About the Dead Sea
Check out our collection of unique and interesting Dead Sea facts below.
The Dead Sea makes up one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world.
It’s currently ranked seventh, with an estimated 337 grams of salt for every kilogram of water in the sea. This actually makes the Dead Sea about 10 times as salty as the ocean and gives it a density of 1.24 kilograms for every liter. That density means people and animals don’t even need to exert any effort to float when swimming in the Dead Sea. They’ll just float by default from how dense the salt makes the water.
It used to be a part of the Mediterranean Sea.
Though already established as a lake, it used to be a part of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s all thanks to the African and Arabian tectonic plates movement that created the wondrous Dead Sea 3 million years ago. The lands surrounding the saltwater lake are Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank.
The amount of salt in the water varies with depth.
The upper 35 meters of the sea actually have a salinity level of 30%, which steadily rises the deeper the water becomes. At the lowest levels of the Dead Sea, the water becomes completely saturated with salt. So much so, that it actually crystallizes on the seabed, forming sheets and blocks of salt on top of the rock.
The Dead Sea is divided into two parts: the Northern Basin and the Southern Basin.
The Dead Sea’s graben, an elongated fault block, is composed of two basins. The Northern Basin is a major part of the lake where tourists flock and is 300 meters deep. Meanwhile, the Southern Basin was “formed during the first stage of the formation of the Dead Sea fault.”
The Dead Sea continues to shrink today.
A map by Springer Nature shows how the Northern Basin is shrinking and the former nonexistent Southern Basin is growing in size. The BBC reported that the Dead Sea’s surface level is “shrinking at an alarming rate… dropping more than a meter a year.” Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry senior director Galit Cohen believes it’s a geopolitical problem.
The geography surrounding it is becoming more dangerous.
On average, the Dead Sea loses one meter of water every year which affects the sea’s surrounding geography. In particular, sinkholes have opened up along the western shoreline after freshwater in the water table fills spaces once filled by the Dead Sea. The freshwater dissolves salt deposits in the ground, leaving unstable open spaces behind which then collapse into sinkholes.
The Dead Sea has several names.
The name Dead Sea only actually came into use in modern times, with ancient literature such as the Bible never actually using it. The Hebrews have many names for the sea, such as the Sea of Salt, the Sea of the Arabah, and the Eastern Sea. That said, they also provided the root for the sea’s modern name, Sea of Death, in works of prose. This eventually led the Arabs to start calling it by its modern name, but they also had their own names for the sea. One of those includes the Sea of Zo’ar, after an abandoned town that once stood on its shores in ancient times.
The surrounding area has a harsh climate.
The Dead Sea and its surrounding lands usually have clear skies, low humidity, and low rainfall all year round. In fact, on average, barely 2 inches of rainfall take place, while the average temperatures never drop below 32°C in the summer. Temperatures do fall in winter, though, down to a minimum of 20°C. The low elevation of the region also makes for a thicker atmosphere, which actually reduces the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the ground. It also allows for a higher percentage of oxygen – up to 5%, which is more than the atmosphere’s usual average oxygen content.
High concentration of chloride and bromide can be found in the Dead Sea.
The abundance of beneficial minerals in its waters made the Dead Sea nature’s ultimate spa. While the lake is 32% salt minerals, a high concentration of electrolytes, such as chloride and bromide, can be found out of the 26 beneficial minerals in its waters. Chloride keeps the cells in the body balanced, whereas bromide is a natural sedative.
Life can sometimes develop in the Dead Sea.
Normally the amount of salt in the Dead Sea means no life can survive in its waters, not just plants or animals, but even bacteria. In the rare times that the region experiences heavy rainfall, the sea’s salt levels can drop below 30%. This allows life to actually thrive in the sea. For example, the wet winter of 1980 allowed red algae to bloom in the Dead Sea’s waters. So much so that they actually turned the entire sea into red from the sheer amount of algae present. However, moments like these don’t usually last very long because the water in it evaporates and salt levels rise again. And as they rise, whatever life that managed to briefly flourish in the Dead Sea, dies.
Life thrives on lands surrounding the Dead Sea, though.
Despite the harsh desert conditions, many different animal species live in the lands surrounding the Dead Sea. Common sights include foxes, hyraxes, ibexes, jackals, rabbits, and even leopards among others. Hundreds of bird species also live in the surrounding area, all of which have led both Jordan and Israel to establish nature reserves around the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea features in several Biblical events.
Even before the Israelites left Egypt in the Exodus, the Bible recorded people living in caves around the Dead Sea. Jericho also lies just northwest of the Dead Sea, while the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorra traditionally stood on its southeastern shores. Meanwhile, King Saul of Israel once managed to avoid getting captured by his enemies by hiding in the nearby oasis of Ein Gedi.
It remained important during Greco-Roman times.
Ships regularly crossed its waters in Greco-Roman times, with the Dead Sea forming a crossroads of trade routes across the region. Salt made up the primary commodity traded around the sea, along with agricultural goods from farms along the Jordan River.
Herod the Great of Judea built many palaces on the Dead Sea’s western shore, along with several fortresses. One of them, Masada, even went down in history as the place where the Jewish zealots made their last stand during the Great Jewish Revolt of the 1st Century AD. Trapped by the Roman Army, the zealots chose to commit mass suicide in the face of defeat.
Cleopatra VII used to bathe at the Dead Sea.
Cleopatra VII had Roman generals for lovers, therefore, sparing no expense in making sure she stays on top of fashion and beauty. This included a trip to the world’s most natural spa. She willingly traveled for more than 400 miles just to exfoliate, bathe, and rejuvenate in its mineral-rich waters and highly beneficial black mud. Some even say that through Marc Antony, she secured “exclusive rights over the Dead Sea region.”
Archaeologists discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in the region during the early 20th century.
Bedouin shepherds found the first seven scrolls stored in jars at Qumran in 1946, which their tribe kept for a time. Eventually, they sold them to an antiquities dealer at Bethlehem, which brought them to academic attention in 1947. Proper excavations at Qumran began in 1948, and continued until 1956, finding additional relics in 11 different caves. The discovery of a twelfth cave in 2017 led to a new excavation, which was cut short after they discovered the cave looted by robbers. However, a 2021 excavation found new relics, including a child’s grave from 6000 years ago and even a hoard of coins.
The Dead Sea Scrolls make up the second-oldest Biblical manuscripts in the world.
In fact, only 40% of the Dead Sea scrolls’ texts went on to become part of the Bible as we know it. Another 30% include what historians call apocryphal texts, such as the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Tobit, and the Wisdom of Sirach.
The scrolls also include four new psalms previously unknown to Biblical scholars. Other contents of the scrolls include scholarly research on various Jewish teachings. These include the Community Rule, the Habakkuk Commentary, the Rule of the Blessing, and the War Scroll.
The origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls remains in question to this day.
The main theory attributes the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Essenes, a Jewish sect similar to the Pharisees, which dates back to the 2nd century BC. Another theory attributes the scrolls to an unknown Jewish sect. Either way, supporters of both theories think the scholars hid the scrolls away during the Great Jewish Revolt to prevent the Romans from destroying them.
Another theory that goes back to Jesuit scholars in the 1960s attributes the scrolls to early Christians. Jewish scholars contest this theory, but archaeologists concede the possibility exists. In particular, they point out how, at the time, little difference existed between Judaism and Christianity. In fact, the Romans treated Jews and Christians equally, and many early Christians started out as Jews. Not just Jesus and His apostles, but even Saint Paul among others.
Pockets of freshwater were found at the Dead Sea.
Though the biblical prophet Ezekiel didn’t specifically mention which body of water, people believe that the passage meant the Dead Sea. It reads, “This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed.” The Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel released a 2011 study wherein freshwater springs and micro-organisms were found at the Dead Sea. The prophecy may soon be coming to fruition.
The world’s lowest roads run along the Dead Sea.
There’s Israel’s Highway 90, running along the western shores of the Dead Sea. It starts out further north at Metula, along the border with Lebanon, and passes along the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. It then runs through the Jordan Valley before passing by the Dead Sea, then south to the Egyptian border, making up a total distance of 480 km. There’s also Jordan’s Highway 65, running parallel to the eastern shores of the Dead Sea. It starts out further south, at Aqaba on the Gulf of Aqaba, then past the Dead Sea and through the Jordan River before ending at Irbid.
Tourism flourishes around the Dead Sea.
Israel alone has 15 hotels on the western shores of the Dead Sea, the oldest of which go back to the 1960s. Jordan has nine other hotels on the eastern shores of the Dead Sea, along with the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center.
Health tourists especially flock to the Dead Sea.
The tradition goes back to ancient times, with people visiting the Dead Sea for therapeutic relief for various ailments. Today, psoriasis patients regularly visit the Dead Sea, and swim in its salty waters to give some sort of relief to their skin. Rhinosinusitis patients also visit the Dead Sea to treat and irrigate purulent secretions from the nasal cavity.
Herod the Great built a spa on its shores.
Masada National Park is located at the edge of the Judean desert in Israel. The UNESCO World Heritage Site we know today used to be a fortress built by King Herod. The king loved staying at the winter palace complex he built which had the Roman-style public bath called caldarium.
The black mud is highly beneficial to the skin and body.
Although it’s the minerals in the waters that greatly relieve arthritis and soothe back pain, the mud from the Dead Sea is highly beneficial too! Skincare connoisseurs, look no further than the black mud. This Dead Sea exclusive can exfoliate, detoxify, and nourish the skin. A black mud facial can also help tighten pores, treat acne, reduce skin impurities, and improve psoriasis. Best of all, it’s free!
A cosmetic company sells soap made from black mud.
It’s not strange to see tourists on the shore rubbing black mud all over their bodies since the Dead Sea site is nature’s free spa, after all. For less than $150, you can purchase black mud soap, black mud shampoo, and black mud body wrap. To people who can’t travel yet, KEDMA Cosmetics makes it accessible to experience the full black mud experience without paying for the airfare.
Oil leaks from under the Dead Sea.
This takes the form of asphalt which solidifies in the water to form loose pebbles or solid blocks on the seabed. Mining these asphalt deposits goes back to ancient times, leading the Greeks to give the Dead Sea the name of Lake Asphaltites.
Potash mining makes up the Dead Sea’s biggest industry.
Scientists first discovered the economic potential of the lake’s rich potassium chloride reserves in 1911. The British colonial government gave permission to develop them in 1929 with commercial operations beginning in 1931. In fact, fully half of Britain’s potash imports in WWII came from the Dead Sea area. After the war, both Israel and Jordan maintained the industry and even expanded them through the 1950s.
Both Israel and Jordan operate other chemical industries on the Dead Sea.
Starting in the 1950s, both Israel and Jordan expanded their operations to include harvesting salt from the Dead Sea. Other shared mineral harvests include bromide, while Israel also produces caustic soda and even magnesium from the Dead Sea.
Palestinians struggle to access the economic potential of the Dead Sea.
Technically, the West Bank gives Palestine an estimated 40 km of Dead Sea shoreline of their own. However, the Israeli occupation of the region has allowed the Israelis to deny Palestinians in the west to develop their part of the Dead Sea. In particular, the Israeli authorities block construction permits for tourism developments in the West Bank. A lack of foreign investment, in general, has also blocked Palestinian efforts to develop it.
Jordan and Israel both agree on the need to preserve the Dead Sea.
As early as 2009, both countries agreed to support a plan to pump seawater from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Part of the water would undergo desalination along the way, providing freshwater to Jordanian and Israeli communities nearby. The remaining saltwater would go into the Dead Sea and replenish it. Environmentalists have criticized the plan as ignorant of possible environmental effects on the Dead Sea. They instead suggest reducing the development of its shores and instead increase the water flow in the Jordan River.
Mark Twain didn’t like the lake.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer author didn’t particularly enjoy his trip to the Dead Sea. In his travel book, Innocents Abroad, he described in Chapter 55 how dreary the lake seemed. Although Twain mentioned the phrase “scene that is depressing to the spirits” to describe the place, he still praised how the “waters are very clear.