Sailors in the Holy Land: The 1848 American Expedition to the Dead Sea and the Search for Sodom and Gomorrah
Ordered to fix the exact elevation of the Dead Sea, this colorful expedition was the Navy's first and last to the storied salt lake.
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A navy is expensive to build and expensive to maintain. Even in peacetime it needs a force in readiness, such as the US Mediterranean fleet today. In 1848, not too long after the Barbary pirates were beaten in the Mediterranean, it already had a forerunner squadron.
In such circumstances it is useful for the navy to support peacetime projects visible by the public's eye. Now these include a science base in Antarctica, the retrieval of astronauts, also refugee relief following war, typhoon or tsunami. In the middle 1800s the US navy supported Wilkes' expedition to the edge of Antarctica, Perry's famous expedition to Japan, as well as a smaller expedition down the river Jordan to the Dead Sea, commanded by Lt. William Lynch.
It was not an easy ride. The metal boats which carried the explorers down the river were manufactured in sections using the novel hydraulic press of Joseph Francis in New York, a forerunner of presses now making car bodies. The sections, with pleats for strength, were readily transported and riveted together, and Lt. Lynch chose them because he rightly suspected that a sheet-metal boat would merely dent where a wooden one might break. Not sure of the material, he had one boat made of iron sheets and the other of copper.
Transporting these boats and crew fell to the USSS (United States Supply Ship) Supply, a 547-ton sailing vessel of the US Mediterranean squadron. To save costs (the budget on land was about $5000), Supply was to bring Lynch and his people to Acre in early spring, unload the boats and provisions, then circulate around the Mediterranean to serve US navy vessels, and in mid-summer pick everyone up again. The fact the ship was rather behind schedule on the return trip caused Lynch and his men much trouble and anguish.
But first it had to stop in Istanbul, capital of Turkey which also ruled Acre, Jerusalem and the valley of the Jordan and the Dead Sea. Lynch was granted an audience with sultan Abdul Mejid and received a firman, a letter asking Turkish authorities to provide free passage, help and protection. This was a diplomatic necessity, though a firman offered little protection against "the jealousy, rapacity and evil propensities of the wandering hordes who inhabit the deserts in the vicinity of the Dead Sea" (words of the New York Courier). The party of Lt. Thomas Molyneaux of the Royal Navy, who explored the Dear Sea in a wooden boat a year before Lynch, was attacked by Bedouins while coming down the Jordan, and its members were robbed of everything, even their clothes.
Molyneaux was well armed, but he was on horseback out of sight when the attack happened. Lynch took no chances and his (larger) party was well armed, down to a blunderbuss to blast any massed rush; it may indeed have discouraged an attack by a large group of Bedouins. He also hired escorts from local tribes, and some Turkish soldiers helped protect him.
The book tells its story in great detail. The expedition predictably became an ordeal: the shores of the Dead Sea lie deeper than Death Valley, and even in springtime get dangerously hot. An Irish divinity student and earlier explorer, Christopher Costigan, died in 1835 soon after being rescued from his boat on the Dead Sea, probably victim of sunstroke. Lynch wisely equipped his boats with awnings.
But it was a scientific success, and the expertise of navy personnel in mapping, surveying and navigation was put to good use. The expedition provided accurate maps of the lake, also depth soundings which established the difference between the deep northern basin and the shallow southern one (nowadays reduced to evaporation ponds). After the final landing, Lt. John Dale and helping sailors carefully surveyed a traverse of the land, from the lake to the Mediterranean sea, to establish the depth of the lake below sea level. With a leveled scope and measuring rods, they measured elevation changes step by step to Jerusalem, then continued on the downhill leg to the seashore. Dale also
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