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The Arabah in Jordan, on the road to Petra.
“Solomon's Pillars” (which have nothing to do with Solomon) in the Timnah Valley in the Arabah.

ARABAH ăr’ ə bə (הָֽעֲרָבָ֖ה LXX ἡ ̓Άραβα; the waste land, the Arabah). When the word is used with the definite article, as it most frequently is, it refers to the great rift valley running S from the Sea of Galilee including the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea and extending all the way to the Gulf of Aqabah. As such, it forms a major geographical area of the land of the Bible and certainly the most important feature of the relief of the land. In the KJV, the region occurs only twice as “Arabah” (Josh 18:18), but frequently as “desert,” “plain” or “wilderness.” The RSV transliterates more frequently as “Arabah.”


The Arabah as a whole is over 200 m. in length and falls naturally into three geographical regions, namely the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea region and the area S of the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqabah.

The Arabah is well below sea level for much of its distance. Beginning at about 686 ft. below sea level at the Sea of Galilee it slopes down to about 1292 ft. below sea level at the Dead Sea. This is then the lowest spot on the face of the globe. The northern half of this part of the Arabah is about twelve m. wide, forming a fairly fertile and well-watered plain, the water being provided by a number of small streams, tributaries to the Jordan. The valley narrows for about five m. just S of the halfway mark and for this stretch is infertile. From here the valley widens again, descending between steep scarps which, at Jericho, are about twelve m. apart. Then it gradually narrows again to a width of about six m. at the N end of the Dead Sea. A number of fairly large streams contribute to the Jordan below the arid constriction, and it courses through fairly dense jungle at the bottom of a deep cut. The surrounding land is again very fertile and Pliny mentions that besides many other products, more than forty-nine varieties of figs grow there.

The Dead Sea region of the Arabah is some fifty m. in length and about ten m. wide. There is just sufficient room for a road on each side of the Sea directly below the steep escarpments. The famous sites of Khirbet Qumran and Masada are found on the W scarp, Qumran to the N and Masada some thirty m. S opposite the peninsula of salt which extends into the Sea. (See Dead Sea.)

The region to the S of the Dead Sea occupies a length of about 110 m. For six to eight m. immediately S of the Sea there are large mud flats deposited by a number of streams cutting their way down the steep slope from the S. The plain of mud is known as the “Sebkah” while the slope itself is prob. that referred to as the “ascent of Akrabbim” (Josh 15:3). The streams are esp. erosive during the rainy season, though considerable amounts of vegetation still flourish there. The floor of the valley continues to rise beyond the ascent of Akrabbim, reaching sea level at about thirty-eight m. from the Dead Sea. The highest point of the entire Arabah is reached about eighteen m. further to the S near the same latitude as that of the famous site of Petra to the E. By this time the valley has broadened considerably being twenty-five m. wide in some places. As the floor of the valley descends again toward Ezion-geber, its width also decreases averaging perhaps six m. A kind of funnel effect is thereby created for the winds which blow down the valley and were used in the blast furnaces of the copper smelters at the head of the gulf. This long southern slope is generally very arid with only an occasional oasis, but in Nabatean times it was partially irrigated and some agriculture was practiced there.


Geologically, the Arabah is but a portion of an enormous fault in the crust of the earth which extends from northern Syria southward between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains, through the Red Sea and to the southeastern coast of Africa. For the portion of the Arabah which is below sea level, the western side is bordered more or less continuously with limestone cliffs rising 2,000 or 3,000 ft. above sea level. On the eastern side, however, sandstone and granite rocks border the valley to a height of 2,000 or 3,000 ft. and are then capped with limestone corresponding to that on the western side. Thus, a shift of from 2,000 to 3,000 ft. has occurred between the geological strata on opposite sides of the Arabah for this distance. (For more on the Geology of the Arabah, see G. F. Wright, “Arabah” ISBE, I [1939], 212, 213.)

Trade and commerce.

The portion of the Arabah N of the Dead Sea was crossed by a number of roads, esp. in the N half where the tribe of Manasseh held territory on both sides of the Jordan. The N-S roads in this area tend to run on the hills above the Arabah rather than in the valley itself. South of the Dead Sea, the Arabah was important commercially chiefly because of its port city, Eziongeber. This was the main entrance to the land of Canaan and allowed trade with Arabia, India and Africa. The road went N from Eziongeber and had branches to the main highways of Canaan as well as to the King’s Highway to the E.

While, as already noted, several parts of the Arabah did have some agricultural potential, its main economic asset was the presence of iron and copper, the only such deposits in all of Canaan. (For the locations, see Y. Aharoni and M. Avi-Yonah, The MacMillan Bible Atlas [1968], 18, 19.) It must have been the Arabah which the writer had more particularly in mind when he spoke of “a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper” (Deut 8:9). F. Frank and N. Glueck have discovered the ruins of a number of mines and refineries in the Arabah S of the Dead Sea. Many of the slag heaps are still discernible. While the refineries are impressive for the advanced engineering which they display, the majority of the work was done by slave labor for at least part of the time. The mines were evidently operational as early as the time of Abraham though their real wealth seems not to have been exploited until Solomon’s time. The copper smelter and manufacturing center built by Solomon at Ezion-geber is the largest so far discovered.


While the geographical features of the Arabah would seem to make it a natural border it did not ever serve as a genuine social or political boundary. The territory of Edom stretched across the Arabah into the area S of the Negeb proper and was the scene of constant conflict with Israel, most prob. because of the wealthy mines. In later times (i.e. after 3rd cent. b.c.), the Nabateans controlled both sides of the Arabah. Rome’s Palestina Tertia included Areopolis, Rabbath-moab and Petra to the E and Beorsaba (Beersheba) and Elusa to the W.

The southern Arabah figures largely in the accounts of Israel’s wanderings before entering the Promised Land. The Israelites seem to have journeyed from Kadesh-barnea down to Ezion-geber through a considerable portion of the Arabah and then turned N again to skirt the holdings of Moab and Edom (Deut 2:8), having been refused passage through these domains (Num 20:14ff.; Judg 11:17). On the other hand, the list of desert stations given in Numbers 33:37-49 refers to a direct route right through Edom and Moab and the implication is that the Israelites crossed the Arabah some twenty m. S of the Dead Sea. This may possibly refer to an earlier route.

The Arabah N of the Dead Sea included Abel-shittim, the place of Israel’s harlotry with the daughters of Moab (Num 25). In this area also, Moses did his final work (Deut 1:1; Num 32-36) and Joshua crossed the Jordan and set up the first Israelite sanctuary in Canaan at Gilgal, a town in the Arabah.

In later times too, Abner fled through the Arabah N of the Dead Sea to Mahanaim (2 Sam 2:29); the murderers of Ishbosheth went by way of the Arabah to bring the victim’s head to David at Hebron (2 Sam 4:7); and when Zedekiah was taken by the Babylonians, he was fleeing toward the Arabah from Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:4; Jer 39:4).

The Arabah also figures somewhat in the promises of the prophets. Thus Ezekiel (47:1-12) declares that a stream will flow from the temple E and S and will make both the Dead Sea and the Arabah fresh and highly productive (cf. Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8).


N. Glueck, The Other Side of the Jordan (1940), 50-88; D. Baly, Geography of the Bible (1957), 198-216; N. Glueck, Rivers in the Desert: A History of the Negev (1959), 153-163 and passim.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The southern portion, which still retains the name of Arabah, is included in the wilderness of Zin (Nu 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 Jos 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.

2. History: 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 (Nu 20:21; De 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 Nu 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 (De 2:8), "a grove of trees."

LITERATURE. 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.

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