1. Physical Peculiarities:
As more fully detailed elsewhere (see Arabah; Dead Sea; GEOLOGY OF PALESTINE), the Jordan valley in its lower portion occupies a remarkable depression in the earth’s surface, reaching its greatest depth in the Dead Sea, the surface of which is 1,300 ft., the bottom 2,600 ft. below tide level, the portion of the basin below the level of the sea being about 100 miles in length and from 10 to 15 miles in breadth at base, and from two to three times that distance between the bordering summits of the mountains and plateaus on either side. In the early prehistoric period, corresponding with the Glacial epoch, this depression was filled with water to a height of 1,400 ft. (see references above) which gradually disappeared by evaporation as present climatic conditions came on. At an elevation of approximately 650 ft. above the Dead Sea, very extensive sedimentary deposits were made, which, while appearing only in fragments along the shores of the Dead Sea, are continuous over the bottom of the valley (the so-called Ghor), farther North. These deposits are from 100 to 200 ft. thick, consisting of material which was brought down into the valley by the tributary mountain streams descending from each side, while the water stood at this higher level. Naturally these deposits slope gradually from the sides of the valley toward the center, the coarser material of the deposits being nearer the sides, and the amount of sediment being much increased opposite the mouths of the larger streams. The deposit was at first continuous over the entire Ghor, or valley, but has since been much dissected by the Jordan river and its tributaries. The Jordan itself has eroded a channel through the soft sediment, 100 ft. more or less deep, from Lake Galilee to the Dead Sea, a distance in a straight line of about 70 miles. At first this channel was narrow, but it has been constantly enlarged by the stream as it has meandered from side to side, undercutting the banks so that they cave into the river and are washed down to fill up the Dead Sea, a process which is especially familiar to residents upon the banks of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. This narrow gorge is called the Zor, and will hereafter be referred to under this name. The Zor at present averages about 1/2 mile wide, the most of which is occupied by a flood plain extending from the banks of the river to the foot of the sedimentary bluffs on either side. This flood plain is so overgrown with brush and reeds that it is practically impenetrable, except by wild beasts, which, according to Scriptural references, have infested it from earliest times, among which may be mentioned the lion, the tiger, the wild boar. During the spring months, when the snows are melting from Mt. Hermon and cloudbursts are sending sudden torrents of water down the river courses from the plateau of Gilead and the mountains of Samaria, the Jordan "overflows all its banks," i.e. covers this flood plain and drives out the beasts to infest the neighborhood for a short time.
The surface of this old lake bed has also been much dissected by the tributary streams which come in from either side, they having cut channels across the Ghor down to a depth corresponding to that of the Zor. As a consequence the roads leading up the valley find it necessary to hug the base of the mountains on either side to avoid the abrupt descent into the channels of the tributary streams, which are deepest near their mouths. Another natural consequence of these physical peculiarities is that agriculture cannot be carried on except as water to irrigate the level surfaces of the Ghor is carried out from the higher levels of the perennial streams. There are many remains of such aqueducts for irrigation constructed in early times. These are now almost all in ruins and unused. Merrill, however, estimates that 200 square miles of the Jordan valley, over which the surface is as level as a prairie, and as free from stones, could be irrigated at the present time and made as fruitful as the valley of the Nile. But from time immemorial settled agriculture in the Ghor has been rendered precarious by the incursions of the nomadic tribes, who periodically come down from the desert regions on the East.
Two descriptions (the first from my own journal) of the general views obtained of the Jordan valley from adjoining elevated points will give vividness to our conceptions of this remarkable depression.
"It was the middle of December when, after wading all day across the southern flanks of Mt. Hermon, through snow knee-deep for our horses, we descended below the clouds and the snow to the brink of the eastern mountain wall overlooking the upper valley of the Jordan. It was a sight ever to be remembered, with the glistering peak of Mt. Hermon to our right, and the jagged walls of the borders of Naphtali stretching across the horizon on the West, only a few miles away, while between and at our feet were the green fields of the upper Jordan valley, through which ran the silver thread of the river, broadening out into the expanded waters of Lake Merom. Over the plain could dimly be seen the black tents of the Arabs, and the husbandmen plowing the fields for an early harvest. No wonder the spies were impressed with the attractiveness and fertility of the region." This of the upper Jordan valley.
Dr. Merrill gives the following description of the view of the lower Jordan valley from the summit of Kurn Surtabeh, March 23: "Jebel esh Sheikh (Mt. Hermon) was covered with snow, and so was the Lebanon range farther to the West and North. Lake Merom and the volcanic peaks on the plain to the East of it and South of Hermon were distinctly seen, likewise the, the hills about Safed, the hills West of Tiberias and the slope from their summit, which inclines toward Mt. Tabor; also Gamala and Gadara, all the range of Jebel `Ajlun or hills of Gilead, Kulat er Rubad, Jebel Meisera and Jebel Osha, the mountains of Moab, and the Dead Sea. But the mere naming of different points that can be seen gives no adequate idea of the extent and magnificence of the prospect which one enjoys from the top of this strange landmark. Hills to the West obstruct the view in that direction, and to the East nothing can be seen beyond the highest part of the Moab and Gilead ranges, but it is the north-and-south sweep which makes the prospect a glorious one. No language can picture correctly the Jordan valley, the winding stream, the jungles on its banks, the strange Ghor with its white, ragged sides, the vast plain of the valley, through and in the middle of which the lower Ghor (the Zor) is sunk, the dense green oases formed here and there by some mountain stream, and the still, lifeless sea, as bright and motionless as molten lead, lying far to the South, ending the great valley and touching the mountains on either side! This is an outline merely, but I cannot summon to my aid words which will describe it more accurately. The Jordan valley or Ghor, in front of Surtabeh, is about 8 miles wide, and looks like a vast plain. The lower Ghor (Zor) is the ragged channel cut down along the middle of the large one. This distinction of the upper and lower Ghor is by no means so strikingly defined above the mouth of the Zerka as it is below that point, and all the way thence to the Dead Sea."
3. Division into Eight Sections:
Considered in detail the valley may be divided, as Conder suggests, into 8 sections. "First the portion between Banias and the Huleh, where it is some 5 miles broad, with steep cliffs some 2,000 ft. high on either side and a broad marsh between. Secondly, from the Huleh to the Sea of Galilee, where the stream runs close to the eastern hills, and about 4 miles from the base of those on the West, which rise toward the high Safed mountains, more than 3,500 ft. above the lake. Thirdly, for 13 miles from the South end of the Sea of Galilee to the neighborhood of Beisan. Here the valley is only 1 1/2 miles broad West of the river, and about 3 on the East, the steep cliffs of the plateau of Kaukab el Hawa on the West reaching an altitude of 1,800 ft. above the stream.
"South of Beisan is the 4th district, with a plain West of Jordan, 12 miles long and 6 miles broad, the line of hills on the East being straight, and the foot of the mountains on this side about 2 miles from the river. In the neighborhood of Beisan, the cross-section of the plain shows 3 levels: that of the shelf on which Beisan stands, about 300 ft. below sea-level; that of the Ghor itself, some 400 ft. lower, reached by an almost precipitous descent; and that of the Zor, or narrow trench, from a half to a quarter of a mile wide, and about 150 ft. lower still. The higher shelf extends westward to the foot of Gilboa; it dies away on the South, but on the North it gradually rises into the plateau of Kaukab and to the western table-land above the sea of Galilee, 1,800 ft. above Jordan.
"After leaving the Beisan plain, the river passes through a narrow valley 12 miles long and 2 or 3 miles wide, with a raised table-land to the West, having a level averaging about 500 ft. above the sea. The Beisan plain is full of springs of fresh water, some of which are thermal, but a large current of salt warm water flows down Wady Maleh, at the northern extremity of this 5th district.
"In the 6th district, the Damieh region, the valley again opens to a width of about 3 miles on the West, and 5 on the East of J. The great block of the Kurn Surtubeh here stands out like a bastion, on the West, 2,400 ft. above the river. Passing this mountain, the 7th district is entered--a broad valley extending from near Fusail to `Osh el Ghurab, North of Jericho. In this region the Ghor itself is 5 miles broad, West of the river, and rather more on the East. The lower trench or Zor is also wider here and more distinctly separated from the Ghor. A curious geographical feature of this region was also discovered by the Survey party. The great affluents of the Far’ah and `Aujeh do not flow straight to Jordan, but turn South about a mile West of it, and each runs, for about 6 miles, nearly parallel with the river; thus the mouth of the Far’ah is actually to be found just where that of the next valley is shown on most maps.
"The 8th and last district is that of the plain of Jericho, which, with the corresponding basin (Ghor-es-Seiseban) East of Jordan, measures over 8 miles North and South, and more than 14 across, with Jordan about in the middle. The Zor is here about a mile wide, and some 200 ft. below the broad plain of the Ghor."
4. Climate Fauna and Flora:
Owing to its depression below sea-level the climate of the lower Jordan valley is even more than tropical. In the summer months thermometer scarcely falls below 100 degrees F., even in the night; but during the winter months, though the days are hot, thermometer frequently goes down to 40 degrees in the night time.
The fauna of this part of the Jordan valley and about the Dead Sea is said by Tristram (SWP, "Fauna and Flora") to be identical with that now existing in Ethiopia. Of the mammalia characteristic of this general region, 34 are Ethiopian and 16 Indian, though there is now no possible connection with either Ethiopia or India. The fish of the Jordan show close affinity to many species of the Nile and of the lakes and rivers of tropical Africa. Many species of birds, also, now confined to the lower basin and the Dead Sea, are related to Ethiopian and Indian species.
The flora is equally interesting. Out of 162 species of plants found at the Southwest corner of the Dead Sea, 135 species are African in their affinity. In the marshes of Lake Huleh, many acres are covered with the papyrus plant, which became extinct in Egypt long ago, and is now found in Africa only in the Upper Nile beyond the 7th degree of North latitude. The most common trees and plants of the Jordan valley are the castor-oil plant and the oleander, flourishing especially about Jericho, several varieties of the acacia tree, the caper plant, the Dead Sea apple (Solanum Sodomaeum) the oser tree of the Arabs, tamarisks, Agnus casti (a flowering bamboo), Balanites Aegyptiaca (supposed to be the balm of Gilead), Populus Euphratica (a plant found all over Central Asia but not West of the Jordan), and many tropical plants, among which may be mentioned Zygophyllum coccineum, Boerhavia, Indigofera, several Astragali, Cassias, Gymnocarpum, and Nitraria.