ar'-a-ba, a-ra'-ba ha-`arabhah, ("the Arabah"):
This word indicates in general a barren district, but is specifically applied in whole or in part to the depression of the Jordan valley, extending from Mount Hermon to the Gulf of Akabah. In the King James Version it is transliterated only once (Joshua 18:18) describing the border of Benjamin. Elsewhere it is rendered "plain." But in the Revised Version (British and American) it is everywhere transliterated. South of the Dead Sea the name is still retained in Wady el-Arabah. In Deuteronomy 1:1; 2:8 (the King James Version "plain") the southern portion is referred to; in Deuteronomy 3:17; 4:49; Joshua 3:16; 11:2; 12:3 and 2 Kings 14:25 the name is closely connected with the Dead Sea and the Sea of Chinnereth (Gennesaret). The allusions to the Arabah in Deuteronomy 11:30; Joshua 8:14; 12:1; 18:18; 2 Samuel 2:29; 4:7; 2 Kings 25:4; Jeremiah 39:4; 52:7 indicate that the word was generally used in its most extended sense, while in Joshua 11:16, and 12:8 it is represented as one of the great natural divisions of the country.
The southern portion, which still retains the name of Arabah, is included in the wilderness of Zin (Numbers 34:3). According to the survey of Lord Kitchener and George Armstrong made in 1883, under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund, its length from the head of the Gulf of Akabah to the Dead Sea is 112 miles. The lowest point of the watershed is 45 miles from Akabah, and 660 feet above tide (1,952 above the Dead Sea). The average width of the valley up to this point is about 6 miles, but here a series of low limestone ridges (called Er Risheh) rising 150 feet above the plain runs obliquely across it for a distance of 10 miles, narrowing it up to a breadth of about one-half mile. North of this point, opposite Mount Hor, the valley widens out to 13 miles and then gradually narrows to 6 miles at the south end of the Dead Sea. At Ain Abu Werideh, 29 miles north of the watershed, the valley is at the sea-level--1,292 feet above that of the Dead Sea. North of the watershed, the main line of drainage is the Wady el-Jeib, which everywhere keeps pretty close to the west side of the valley.
At Ain Abu Werideh it is joined by numerous wadies descending from the Edomite mountains on the east, which altogether water an oasis of considerable extent, covered with a thicket of young palms, tamarisks, willows and reeds. Twenty-four miles farther north the Arabah breaks down suddenly into the valley of the Dead Sea, or the Ghor, as it is technically called. Lord Kitchener's report is here so vivid as to be worthy of literal reproduction. "The descent to the Ghor was down a sandy slope of 300 feet, and the change of climate was most marked, from the sandy desert to masses of tangled vegetation with streams of water running in all directions, birds fluttering from every tree, the whole country alive with life; nowhere have I seen so great and sudden a contrast" (Mount Seir, 214). The descent here described was on the eastern side of the semicircular line of cliffs formed of sand, gravel, and marl which enclose the Ghor at the south end, and which are probably what are referred to in Joshua 15:3 as the "ascent of Akrabbim." The ordinary route, however, leading to the plain of the Arabah from the Dead Sea is up the trough worn by the Wady el-Jeib along the west side of the valley. But this route would be impracticable during the rainy season after the cloudbursts which occasionally visit this region, when torrents of water pour down it, sufficient to roll boulders of considerable size and to transport an immense amount of coarse sediment.
South of the Dead Sea a muddy plain, known as the Sebkah, extends 6 miles, filling about one-half of the width of the Ghor. During most of the year the mud over this area is so thin and deep that it is impossible to cross it near its northern end. This whole area between the "ascent of Akrabbim" and the Dead Sea has evidently been greatly transformed by the sedimentary deposits which have been brought in by the numerous tributary wadies during the last 4,000 years, the coarser material having encroached upon it from either side, and the fine material having been deposited over the middle portion, furnishing the clay which is so embarrassing to travelers. (For further considerations upon this point see DEAD SEA; CITIES OF THE PLAIN.)
1. Geology of the Region:
The Arabah in its whole extent occupies a portion of the great geological fault or crevasse in the earth's crust which extends from Antioch near the mouth of the Orontes southward between the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains to the valley of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, and onward to the Gulf of Akabah, whence it can be traced with considerable probability through the Red Sea and the interior lakes of Africa. The most remarkable portion of this phenomenal crevasse is that which extends from the Waters of Merom to the springs of Ain Abu Werideh; for through this entire distance the Arabah is below sea-level, the depression at the Dead Sea being approximately 1,292 feet. See DEAD SEA. Throughout the entire distance from the Waters of Merom to the watershed, 45 miles from Akabah, the western side of the Arabah is bordered by strata of Cretaceous (chalk) limestone rising pretty continuously to a height of from 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea-level, no older rocks appearing upon that side. But upon the eastern side older sandstones (Nubian and lower Carboniferous) and granitic rocks border the plain, supporting, however, at a height of 2,000 or 3,000 feet Cretaceous limestones corresponding to those which descend to the level of the gorge on the western side.
Throughout this entire distance, therefore, the strata have either slipped down upon the western side or risen upon the eastern side, or there has been a movement in both directions. The origin of this crevasse dates from the latter part of the Cretaceous or the early part of the Tertiary period.
But in post-Tertiary times an expanded lake filled the region, extending from the Waters of Merom to Ain Abu Werideh, a distance of about 200 miles, rising to an elevation of about 1,400 feet above the present level of the Dead Sea, but not sufficiently high to secure connection with the ocean either through the Arabah proper or across the valley of Esdraelon. This body of water was, on the average, 30 miles wide and over the northern part of the Dead Sea had an extreme depth of 2,700 feet. The most distinct evidence of the existence of this enlargement of the lake is to be found at Ain Abu Werideh, where Hull reports "banks of horizontally stratified materials .... sometimes of coarse material, such as gravel; at other times consisting of fine sand, loam, or white marl, with very even stratification, and containing blanched semi-fossil shells of at least two kinds of univalves, which Professor Haddon has determined to be Melania tuberculata Mull, and Melanopsis Saulcyi, Bourg" (Mount Seir, 99, 100).
These are shells which are now found, according to Tristram, in great numbers in semi-fossil condition in the marl deposits of the Dead Sea, and both of these genera are found in the fluvio-marine beds formed in the brackish or salt water of the Isle of Wight. The existence of the shells indicates the extent to which the saline waters of the Dead Sea were diluted at that time. It should be added, however, that species somewhat similar still exist around the borders of the Dead Sea in lagoons where fresh water is mingled in large quantities with that of the Dead Sea. This is especially true in eddies near the mouth of the Jordan. (See Merrill, East of the Jordan.) Huntington in 1909 confirms the fact that these high-level shore lines are found on both sides of the Dead Sea, though for some reason the have not been traced farther north.
At lower levels, especially at that which is 650 feet above the Dead Sea, there is, however, a very persistent terrace of gravel, sand and clay marking a shore line all the way from the south end of the Dead Sea to Lake Galilee. This can be seen running up into all the wadies on either side, being very prominent opposite their mouths, but much eroded since its deposition. On the shores of the lake between the wadies the line is marked by a slight accumulation of coarse material. Below the 650-foot line there are several other minor strands marking periods when the subsiding waters were for a short time stationary.
This period of enlargement of the waters in the Arabah is now, with abundant reason, correlated with the Glacial epoch whose influence was so generally distributed over the northern hemisphere in early post-Tertiary times. There were, however, no living glaciers within the limits of the Arabah Valley--Mount Hermon not being sufficiently large to support any extensive ice-sheet. The nearest glacier of any extent was on the west side of the Lebanon Mountains, 40 to 50 miles north of Beirut, where according to my own observations one descended from the summit of the mountains (10,000 feet high) 12 miles down the valley of the Kadesha River to a level 5,500 feet above the sea, where it built up an immense terminal moraine several miles across the valley, and 5 miles up it from its front, upon which is now growing the celebrated grove of the Cedars of Lebanon. (See Records of the Past, Am. series, V, 195-204.) The existence of the moraine, however, had been noted by Sir Joseph Hooker forty years before. (See Nat. Hist. Rev., January, 1862.)
But while there were no glaciers in the Arabah Valley itself, there, as elsewhere, semi-glacial conditions extended beyond the glacial limits a considerable distance into the lower latitudes, securing the increased precipitation and the diminished evaporation which would account for the enlargement of the bodies of water occupying enclosed basins within reach of these influences. The basin of Great Salt Lake in Utah presents conditions almost precisely like those of the Arabah, as do the Caspian and Aral seas, and lakes Urumiah, Van, and various others in central Asia. During the Glacial epoch the water level of Great Salt Lake rose more than 1,000 feet higher than now and covered ten times its present area. At the same time the Aral Sea discharged into the Caspian Sea through an outlet as large as Niagara. When the conditions of the Glacial epoch passed away the evaporation again prevailed, until the water areas of these enclosed basins were reduced to the existing dimensions and the present equilibrium was established between the precipitation and the evaporation.
While it is susceptible of proof that the close of this epoch was geologically recent, probably not more than 10,000 years ago (see Wright, Ice Age in North America, 5th edition, chapter xx),the present conditions had become established approximately long before the time of Abraham and the development of civilization in Babylonia and Egypt.
East of the Arabah between the Dead Sea and Akabah numerous mountain peaks rise to the height of more than 4,000 feet above tide level, the highest being Mount Hor, though back of it there is a limestone range reaching 5,000 feet. This mountainous region contains numerous fertile areas and furnishes through its numerous wadies a considerable amount of water to favor vegetation. The limestone floor of the Arabah south of the Dead Sea is deeply covered with sand and gravel, washed in from the granitic areas from the east. This greatly favors the accumulation of sediment at the mouths of the wadies emptying into the south end of the Ghor.
At present the Egyptian government maintains a fort and harbor at Akabah, but its authority does not extend into the interior. The Arabah has, however, from time immemorial furnished a caravan route between northern Arabia and the Sinaitic Peninsula. It was this which supported the great emporium of Petra. The Israelites traversed its southern portion both on their way from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea and on their return, when the king of Edom refused passage through his land (Numbers 20:21; Deuteronomy 2:3). This opposition compelled them to turn up the forbidding Wady el-Ithem, which opens into the Arabah a few miles north of Akabah and leads to the Pilgrim route between Damascus and Mecca. The terrors of this passage are referred to in Numbers 21:4, where it is said "the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way." Around Akabah itself there are still groves of palms, the existence of which, at the time of the Exodus, is indicated by the name Elath (Deuteronomy 2:8), "a grove of trees."
Burchkhardt, Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, 1822; De Laborde, Voyage en Orient, 1828; Hull, Mount Seir, Sinai, and Western Palestine, 1889; "The Physical Geol. and Geog. of Arabia Petrea," etc., in PEF, 1886; Lartet, Voyage d'exploration de la Mer Morte, t. 3me, 1880; Robinson, BR, 1855; Stanley, Sinai and Pal5, 1860; Blankenkorn, "Entstehung u. Gesch. des Todten Meeres," in ZDPV, 1896; Ritter, "Comp. Geog. of Palestine and the Sinaitic Peninsula," 1866, translation by Wm. L. Gage; Huntington, Palestine and Its Transformation, 1911.
George Frederick Wright
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