BITTER WATERS by David Haward Bain


America's Forgotten Naval Mission to the Dead Sea
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An intriguing, thorough study of a little-known scientific expedition to the Dead Sea by a mid-19th-century U.S. Navy lieutenant.

Bain (Literature/Middlebury Coll.; The Old Iron Road: An Epic of Rails, Roads, and the Urge to Go West, 2004, etc.) unearths the facts of this 1848 expedition to the Holy Land, made big news at the time before being eclipsed by buzz of the Gold Rush. Only a handful of Westerners had actually explored the Dead Sea region—most to unfortunate outcomes—before Lt. William Francis Lynch set off. Lynch, a seasoned sea salt from Virginia, was steeped in bestselling travel memoirs of the Levantine regions by John Lloyd Stephens and Edward Robinson, and proposed to the Secretary of the Navy an expedition to the Dead Sea. The purpose was to take its measurements and thereby “advance the cause of science and gratify the whole Christian world.” Added to the Dead Sea’s elusiveness was its grim biblical associations as the place that had swallowed up in sulphur and smoke the five cities of the Vale of Siddim smote by Jehovah—namely Admah, Zeboiim, Zoar, Sodom and Gomorrah. (“Lot’s wife looked back as they fled to Zoar and became a pillar of salt.”) Vastly salty, prohibiting anything from growing in it, the sea marked the lowest point on earth, without an outlet but fed by the Jordan River from the Sea of Galilee. Down the river careened the small expedition in two lifeboats, including Lynch, draftsman John B. Dale, several “young, muscular, native-born Americans” and invaluable Arab helpers; they passed ruins of Crusader fortresses and Bedouin villages, and were occasionally accosted by pilgrims. Bain amply extracts from Lynch’s journal, depicting this mysterious, desolate, intensely moving place. Also included are Dale’s drawings, which hold an eerie, fanciful charm.

Like the expedition itself, a work of stringent epistemological curiosity and research.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59020-352-1
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Overlook
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2011


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