Asphalt Springs since Biblical Times


We are in Nahal Hemar, that is Hemar brook. You are probably asking yourself what Hemar brook to do with historical sites? Excellent question, and the answer in the next few minutes.

Despite the harsh environmental conditions in the desert, throughout history there were famous settlements here: Sodom and Gomorrah not far from here, Jericho, Ein Gedi mentioned in the book of Joshua as one of the six desert cities of the tribe of Judah, Ein Bokek from the Roman period, Masada of course and other settlements. So how did they exist here, what was their income sources, what motivated them to stay in this hot desert place?

We know about Ein Gedi, Ein Bokek, Jericho and the cultivation of the Afarsimon (and please don’t confuse it with the persimmon fruit), for producing perfumes, but it turns out that there was an extensive industry here around the name of the stream; Hemar, which in English means – Asphalt.

Let’s use the opportunity and clarify several terms: Hemar, Asphalt, Tar or Pitch, & Bitumen

Asphalt is a foreign word meaning in Hebrew – Hemar, so Hemar = Asphalt: it is a viscous liquid that occurs naturally in crude oil – which can be hardened by reacting with oxygen.

Tar or Pitch is a material which in ancient times was artificially created by heating an organic material such as wood without the presence of oxygen – heating to a high temperature that causes it to decompose, for example: you can place a piece of wood in a jug and fill it with sand & heat it.

Bitumen – Both Asphalt and Tar are classified as “Bitumen” – a classification that includes all soluble substances in carbon disulfide.

The use of Asphalt has been around for thousands of years, and a major reason is the ease of use that stems from several reasons: It can be collected by hand without the need for complicated equipment. Its chemical and physical properties, such as softening and liquefaction at a low temperature, about 50 degrees Celsius, make it easy to process.

The Asphalt appears on the surface in the Dead Sea area in two forms: The first form – lumps of semi-solid Asphalt, sometimes the lumps float on the sea surface and are transported to the shore by waves and winds. I will not explain here how the Asphalt was formed in the depths of the earth, miles below the bottom of the sea, yet the Asphalt that rose from the depths, became as solid as jelly when it reached the bottom of the Dead Sea, from there it was released as a result of earthquakes, rising and floating on the water because its specific gravity is 1.1 compare to 23.1 of the Dead Sea’ water. A second form is through springs, for example here in Hemar brook.

Yosef ben Matityahu describes in detail the appearance of the Asphalt on the surface of the lake in the first century. According to his description it was difficult to separate the Asphalt collected into the boats from the one floating in the water due to the stickiness of the material, and for separation, they used blood or urine. The presence of Hemar or Asphalt in the Dead Sea gave the sea the nickname – Hemar Sea.

Now we can address the connection to History

In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Asphalt was considered one of the most important export products of Israel, along with salt and Afarsimon’s products. The Asphalt was used to coat ships, to embalm, worship and cure, among other things: epilepsy, coughs, asthma, dysentery, pain in the waist, toothaches, and snake bites. The way the Asphalt was used was mainly through drinking with wine, smoking it and using bandages. The great value of Asphalt was one of the temptations that caused countries and empires to struggle for control of this area in ancient times.

Taxes – There are descriptions of the taxes levied on the Asphalt in the Roman period after the Asphalt was collected by boats.Asphalt has been used in the ancient world as a medicine since the Assyrian period, and it included the creation of medicines for the healing of wounds or pus, leprosy, rheumatism, & eczema. Scribonius Largus, a physician of the Roman emperor Claudius, described in the middle of the first century the Asphalt as an important component in the dressing used for open wounds, for example, treating gladiators.

In Arabic literature, the Asphalt is called Kofer Elihud – in a direct translation – the Jewish Asphalt. Two types of Asphalt were described by Al-Tmimi in the 10th century, the first and finest type, the Asphalt currently found in Hemar brook, exactly where we are. Al-Tamimi described in detail how farmers in the Syrian region used to smear the vines with this type of Asphalt to protect them from the worms.

It also served against leeches in water and as a medical substance against gynecological diseases, chronic coughs, colds and more.

Notice that as you will get closer to the Asphalt springs, the surface becomes dark. Also, the pebbles here, are connected to each other by the Asphalt.

And to conclude, as usual a question – two occasions appear in the Bible where carrying vessels were covered with Asphalt or similar material, what are the 2 occasions – for the answer, please view the last 30 seconds of the video.

How to get there?

When descending from Arad on Road 31 to the Dead Sea, at the junction with Road 90, turn right on Road 90 going south. After about 400m, there is a dirt road on the right. The dirt road is in the middle of the way between the junction of roads 31/90 and the gas station that you will see in front of you on the left side of the road. Turn right onto the dirt road. After 500m, the path curves to the right, and after another 500m, on the left, there is an overnight camp where you will leave your vehicle. Walk west on the creek channel for another 500m towards west and you will reach the area of the asphalt springs that will be on the southern side of the creek channel.

On rainy days or days when there is a risk of flooding, do not visit the springs.

Hemar brook is the southernmost stream of the Judean Desert and is about 37 km long. The canyon of Hemar brook, which is stretched over 10km, is the longest canyon in the streams of the Judean Desert. In the brook there are two large waterfalls, the highest is over a hundred meters, it is better to reach it from road 258.

Information Sources

  1. Book: Israel and Syria According to the description of Al-Tamimi: A 10th century Jerusalem physician, Publisher: Bar Ilan University
  2. Article: Medical uses of Dead Sea asphalt, Author: Arie Nissenbaum

Mention in the Bible

  1. Genesis chapter 6 verse 14
  2. Genesis chapter 11 verse 3
  3. Genesis chapter 14 verse 10
  4. Exodus chapter 2 verse 3

Related Sites