The Dead Sea fills the deepest depression known on the surface of the earth, and is sunk, like a monstrous cauldron, between mountains three and four thousand feet in height.
It is nearly four thousand feet below the city of Jerusalem, which is only twenty miles away, and thirteen hundred feet below the level of the Mediterranean. We found its atmosphere even in midwinter extremely sultry; and in summer, after long months of exposure to the full power of the sun, it must be almost unendurable. Of course, we tried a bath in its waters. It was a singular experience. To go beyond one's depth one must wade out to a great distance. In doing so, however, there is no danger, as it is impossible for a person to sink, so saline is the water. We found it even hard to swim, owing to the difficulty of keeping our feet under water. At every stroke we found that we were merely kicking the air. It might be possible to dive, but we preferred that some one else should make the experiment, for the salty ingredients are disagreeable enough upon the skin, without allowing them to enter one's eyes, nose and mouth. On coming out from the bath, our sensations can best be described by saying that we felt as if we had been immersed in mucilage.
The Dead Sea is the Greek, and comparatively modern, epithet applied to this vast lake. The Hebrews called it the Salt Sea. As is well-known, it has no outlet, and all the water which it receives from the Jordan and other streams is carried off by evaporation. This alone might not explain its extraordinary saltness, which is nearly seven times greater than that of the ocean; but to this there is added another reason, in the fact that at one end of it is a salt deposit, several miles long. Great as is the depression of the surface, its own depth is also enormous, being in one place no less than thirteen hundred feet.
From the Dead Sea our route led upward through the wilderness of Judaea. Neither words nor views can adequately represent the desolation of this frightful area, seamed with a thousand sterile gorges. Even the Sahara is less dreary. The African desert has a certain beauty in its boundless sweep of sand, now level as the surface of a tranquil sea, now rising into gently rolling waves. But the Judaean wilderness is a series of absolutely barren and appalling mountains, divided from each other by great chasms, flanked with frowning precipices, as if the country had been gashed and scarred by demons. It would be like a horrible nightmare to think of being lost in these Judaean canons, where every drop of water is drained away, every vestige of vegetation has vanished, and nothing is visible but yellow, burning sand and rocks. Birds, beasts and men shun the region, as if smitten of God. It was in this wilderness that Jesus is supposed to have fasted forty day and it is difficult to imagine any one, human or divine, doing anything else in such a place. From the earliest centuries of Christianity ascetics and anchorites have resorted to this wilderness for fasting and prayer, and one old monastery still remains, clinging, as it has done for ages, to the barren rocks. It is the monastery of Mar Saba. From the precipitous cliff, on which it hangs like a wasp's nest, one can drop a stone more than a thousand feet into the sombre depths of a chasm. Here, in the fourth century after Christ, the monk, Saint Saba, came to live in solitude and spend his days in prayer. Eventually hundreds followed him, and made for themselves homes in the recesses of this frightful gorge. At last, for mutual preservation from starvation and protection from the Bedouins, this monastery rose, strong as a fortress, and almost as substantial as the cliffs themselves. Sentinels are always on duty at its iron gate, through which alone an entrance can be gained. We were admitted only when our dragoman had satisfied those within as to who we were. Never can I forget the night spent at Mar Saba. The rock-hewn rooms in which we lodged, the bell that called the monks to midnight prayer and rang out weirdly on the desert air, and the pity inspired by the lonely ascetic life of these poor monks, - made the few hours passed in this Judaean monastery among the most impressive of my life.