Discovering the Jordan River
Geographers were long fascinated by the nature of the Jordan River, as they were by the Dead Sea, its terminus. There was, particularly, a certain phenomenon that couldn’t be accounted for: The linear distance from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, along with the difference between the elevation of the two lakes and the belief that the Jordan was a more or less straight river, created a striking improbability that commanded the attention of geographical societies.
See Also: The Dead Sea and the Jordan River (Indiana University Press, 2016).
By Barbara Kreiger
Imagine a river, modest in proportions when compared to the earth’s grandest waterways, 220 miles long and hardly more than a stone’s throw from bank to bank, but with an associated human history perhaps unrivaled by any body of water on earth. Imagine it once wending its way through a verdant plain, home to a vast array of flora and fauna, which spread for miles before yielding to a network of thinly layered mesas.
The human history associated with the Jordan River, one of the most sacred rivers in the world, goes back to the story of Abraham, the father of the Jewish and Arab peoples, who left his home in Mesopotamia and journeyed with his nephew Lot to the Dead Sea region, where Lot settled in Sodom. In Genesis 13:10 we read of the beauty of the Jordan Valley: “And Lot lifted up his eyes and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere…like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt….” For Jews, the Jordan is a major signpost in the historical narrative, marking the end of Moses’ epic journey and the start of Joshua’s. In Deuteronomy 34:1-3, before Joshua crosses the river with the Israelites, we read of the death of Moses: “And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land…all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, and the Negev, and the Plain, even the valley of Jericho the city of palm trees….” In 2 Kings 5:9-14 we hear the story of Naaman, a Syrian commander, who appealed to the prophet Elisha to heal his leprosy: “So Naaman came with his horses and his chariots and stood at the door of the house of Elisha. And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will come back to thee, and thou shalt be clean….Then he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh came back like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”
The Jordan is obviously paramount in Christianity. Jesus was baptized there by John, and centuries ago churches and monasteries were built on the riverbanks to commemorate the event. The river also has a role in the chronicle of Islam, as tradition has it that Mohammed crossed the Jordan on his journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, and several of his companions are said to be buried on the banks. This shared connection to the Jordan River is not just a matter of nostalgia but one of birthright.
The Jordan River is the progeny of three major sources. The Hasbani River in Lebanon and the springs of Banias in the Golan Heights each contributes about a quarter of the influx, and the Dan River in Israel the other half. On its course to the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), it’s further nourished by runoff from Mount Hermon, the dominant mountain of the Golan Heights. From the river’s exit at the southern tip of the lake, the waterway is known as the Lower Jordan River. Its major additional tributary is the Yarmuk River, which joins the journey a little further south as the Jordan rolls to the Dead Sea. As part of the ecological junction of three continents, the Lower Jordan encompasses diverse biological and zoological regions and is home to a striking array of habitats in a very compressed area, making it unequivocally one of the earth’s truly unique natural sites. Flora and fauna vary significantly depending on the specific location, as climate, elevation, water, and salinity vary widely. Furthermore, the region is one of the world’s most dramatic avian migration intersections, with several hundred million birds passing biannually through this section of the Great Rift Valley.
As I narrate in my book, The Dead Sea and the Jordan River, geographers were long fascinated by the nature of the Jordan River, as they were by the Dead Sea, its terminus. There was, particularly, a certain phenomenon that couldn’t be accounted for: The linear distance from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, along with the difference between the elevation of the two lakes and the belief that the Jordan was a more or less straight river, created a striking improbability that commanded the attention of geographical societies.
By around 1840, the depression of the Dead Sea had been established as roughly minus 1300 feet, but the figure given for the Sea of Galilee was only around half of what it actually was, namely minus 330 feet instead of nearly twice that. Intrigued by the implications of these findings, a senior officer of the Royal Geographic Society implored geographers to turn their attention to the next pressing question: how to account for the apparent 1,000 foot drop from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, a difference that means the Jordan River, “not being a meandering stream,” falls more than sixteen feet every mile of its course.
Drawn into the exchange was one of the most eminent explorers of the Holy Land, the American Edward Robinson, whose 1841 Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai, and Arabia Petrae is regarded as a cornerstone of Biblical geography and as one of the nineteenth-century’s most significant works on Palestine.
Robinson's paper stands as a marvelous document of incredulity, and reflects the persisting misconception about the river. It was almost universally agreed that the Jordan's course was straight, with perhaps a curve here or there. Pliny had described it as “a delightful stream, and, so far as the situation of the localities will allow of, winds along its course and lingers among the dwellers upon its banks,” but a nineteenthcentury editor contradicted him in a patient footnote: “On the contrary... the Jordan runs in a straight line almost into the Dead Sea.” Oddly enough, earlier explorers had acknowledged what one called the “little turns” of the river, but for some reason, by the 1830s it had come to be taken for granted that the river was more or less straight.
As noted above, Robinson recalled that since the lineal distance from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea was sixty miles, and the difference in depth between the two lakes had been given as roughly 1,000 feet, the river dropped sixteen feet every mile. It has, he continued, neither cataracts nor rapids, and he doubted that any would be discovered in the uncharted sections. "Yet in the 984 feet of its descent in 60 geographical miles, there is room for THREE CATARACTS, each equal in height to NIAGARA, and still to leave to the river an average fall equal to the swiftest portion of the Rhine.” Pronouncing such a rate to be “a very remarkable phenomenon,” he went on to chastise “scholars and learned societies” of western Europe, that the Holy Land was but a few days journey and no effort had been made to arrive at a solution to this impossible problem since attention had been drawn to it four years earlier.
With all due respect, he wondered if the officer responsible for the measurements might not have erred, for the information was inadequate to account for the depression of the Dead Sea, and, further, did little to shed light on “the great descent of the Jordan.” Recapping the method, he doubted its reliability and suggested that the task of checking the figures would be a worthy one. It would be quite a small thing, he concluded, for England, France, or Prussia to send out an expedition to address the problem, “and it may be hoped that the Geographic Societies, which adorn the capitals of those countries, will not let the matter rest until it shall be fully accomplished. “Such fervor would not go unnoticed. Picking up the gauntlet that Robinson in his zeal had flung on the floor of the Royal Geographic Society, the now little known Augustus Petermann, reading his own paper before the assembly three months later, advised Robinson, in not so many words, to calm down. He himself was unruffled by the accepted figure for the Sea of Galilee and simply assumed that the generally reliable trigonometrical procedure had failed. He also questioned Robinson's calculations and suggested that the rate of fall was not as great as his colleague determined, while also assuring him that such a phenomenon was not the anomaly Robinson took it to be anyway, even if the Jordan were shown to have no cataracts. Petermann agreed that the river was straight, except for a few bends; but those bends, he suggested, were sufficient to lengthen its course from sixty to eighty miles, thus reducing the rate of fall. And he insightfully added that he had no doubt that once the course was more fully explored, the rate of fall would be found to be even less.
The drama was fast approaching a climax. Even as Robinson and Petermann were going at it in London, an English sailor named Thomas Molyneux had already flushed out the river’s great secret (though his findings had not yet been made public). Molyneux, whose name has come to be associated with the perils of the Dead Sea valley, was serving aboard a ship docked at Beirut and in the summer of 1847 volunteered to head a small mission to the Dead Sea with the purpose of examining the course of the Jordan and the valley through which it runs. Taking with him three seamen and a dinghy, Molyneux sailed to Acre, where they acquired four good camels for boat and baggage and set out the last week in August. Two days later, from Tiberias, they entered the Jordan River.
At first they found the river to be about a hundred feet across and four or five feet deep, but the water soon became so shallow they were unable to keep the dinghy afloat, and from that point their difficulties multiplied. Nevertheless, Molyneux's account of the journey, though often preoccupied with details of their troubles, is filled with careful observations about the Jordan River Valley. We read that the river in many places was subdivided into a number of small streams, each one unnavigable; that the valley is actually quite hilly, and can only properly be called a valley when compared with the mountains that enclose it; that the river usually passes between cliffs, but when the valley widens, the plain becomes two miles broad and is “so full of the most rank and luxuriant vegetation, like a jungle, that in a few spots only can anything approach its banks.”
And in the observation that was most pertinent to the day’s wranglings, Molyneux described the river as winding in the most tortuous manner, adding: “It would be quite impossible to give any account of the various turnings of the Jordan in its way from the Lake of Tiberias to the Dead Sea.” (Mark Twain would describe the Jordan’s course more than thirty years later as “so crooked that a man does not know which side of it he is on half the time.”)
Before long, though, the river became impassable, looking “like a giant serpent twisting down the valley,” and the boat could no longer bear the punishment of being flung over rocks. The men abandoned it, temporarily they hoped, and went overland for help. There’s no need here to delineate the crew’s travails. Molyneux himself had suffered irremediably since leaving Tiberias just three weeks before, and he soon exhibited symptoms of the dreaded fever. He died, either in Tripoli or Beirut, in November of 1847.
Though Molyneux is remembered as one of the early and important explorers of the Dead Sea, his most distinct contribution was to the solution of the mystery of the Jordan River. His observations about its meandering course, which would be confirmed and elaborated on just a year later, were a fulfillment of Petermann’s expectations: that the rate of fall of the Jordan would be reduced considerably once its course was fully explored. We now know that the Jordan River, between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, covers a linear distance of about sixty-five miles, but winds through more than 130 to do so. This doubling of its length occurs while it is dropping precipitously, but not the 1,000 feet the earlier figures suggested. For the Sea of Galilee is not 330 feet below sea level but twice that; hence the Jordan falls from minus 660 feet to minus 1,300 feet at the Dead Sea. What Robinson figured to be a fall of over 980 feet in sixty miles is actually one of about 640 feet in130 miles, that is, approximately five feet per mile, not sixteen. All the confusion meant, however, that there was still a need for an expedition whose results could be taken as definitive. Circumstance and force of personality created a small place in history for William Francis Lynch, the American who would spend a full year providing the world with those conclusions.
Adapted from Barbara Kreiger's The Dead Sea and the Jordan River with permission from Indiana University Press (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).