Friday, May 19, 2017

Mare Mortuum, the Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is the lowest place on the non-oceanic face of the earth: a hypersaline lake today bordered by Israel, Jordan and Palestine. The Dead Sea is mentioned in various books of the Bible; but never under its current designation referring to a dead body of water or a lake of lifelessness and death. The Hebrew texts of the Bible mention Yam Ha-Melah (or Yam Hamelah), with “yam” meaning sea and “melah” meaning salt [1]. The Bible also contains names for the Dead Sea meaning Primordial Sea, Sea of the Plain and Eastern Sea [2,3].

There are many more names for the Dead Sea, related to the Dead Sea's geography, nature as well as human and religious history. I value Barbara Kreiger's introduction to the Dead Sea and her summary of name origins [4]:
Given the long history that has been enacted on its shores by many nations, it is not surprising that the Dead Sea has had various names. Its oldes is Yam Ha-Melah, the Salt Sea, that name first appearing in the Bible in the books of Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, where it usually serves as a geographical landmark. To the Greeks it was Lake Asphaltites because of the lumps of asphalt that were periodically thrown up from its depths, and that name persisted in the texts of medieval writers. Christians of the Middle Ages also knew it as the Devil's Sea, and their Arab contemporaries referred occasionally to the Stinking Lake, presumably because of the smell of sulphur emitted from several places along the shore. But the names that appear most frequently in Arab texts are commemorative of the cataclysm that engulfed Sodom and Gomorrah. They called it simply The Overwhelmed, “from the cities of Lot that were overwhelmed in its depths,” or the Sea of Zughar (i.e., Zoar), after the town that had escaped destruction and fluorished in the Middle Ages. Likewise the Jews, who sometimes referred to it as the East Sea, to distinguish it from the Mediterranean, or the Sea of the Aravah, referring to the valley in which it lies, but more often called it the Sea of Sodom. Except for the little used Arab name Al Buhairah al Miyyatah, the Dead Lake, the notion of lifelessness is not reflected in Arab and Jewish names, though Mare Mortuum, the Dead Sea, had appeared in early Roman texts. (In Tacitus' History we also find it called the Jewish Sea.) Today the Arabs call it Bahr el-Lut, the Sea of Lot. To Jews it is still Yam Ha-Melah.

In the term Al Buhairah al Miyyatah, also Al-bahr Al-mayyit, “al Miyyatah” refers to the deceased in Islam. Germans call the Dead Sea “Totes Meer” and most modern languages now use terms associated with the dead-sea meaning—whether in relation to human mortality or natural, supposedly life-threatening phenomena experienced around the lake.

Keywords: geographic names, etymology, notion of lifelessness, culture, religion, human history.

References and more to explore

[1] Abarim Publications: The name Yam-hamelah in the Bible [].
[2] The Dead Sea in the Bible [].
[3] Bible Study Tools: Dead Sea, The [].
[4] Barbara Kreiger: The Dead Sea and the Jordan River. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2016.

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