1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Jordan
JORDAN (the down-comer; Arab. esh-Sheri’a, the watering-place), the only river of Palestine and one of the most remarkable in the world. It flows from north to south in a deep trough-like valley, the Aulon of the Greeks and Ghōr of the Arabs, which is usually believed to follow the line of a fault or fracture of the earth’s crust. Most geologists hold that the valley is part of an old sea-bed, traces of which remain in numerous shingle-banks and beach-levels. This, they say, once extended to the Red Sea and even over N.E. Africa. Shrinkage caused the pelagic limestone bottom to be upheaved in two ridges, between which occurred a long fracture, which can now be traced from Coelesyria down the Wadi Araba to the Gulf of Akaba. The Jordan valley in its lower part keeps about the old level of the sea-bottom and is therefore a remnant of the Miocene world. This theory, however, is not universally accepted, some authorities preferring to assume a succession of more strictly local elevations and depressions, connected with the recent volcanic activity of the Jaulan and Lija districts on the east bank, which brought the contours finally to their actual form. In any case the number of distinct sea-beaches seems to imply a succession of convulsive changes, more recent than the great Miocene upheaval, which are responsible for the shrinkage of the water into the three isolated pans now found. For more than two-thirds of its course the Jordan lies below the level of the sea. It has never been navigable, no important town has ever been built on its banks, and it runs into an inland sea which has no port and is destitute of aquatic life. Throughout history it has exerted a separatist influence, roughly dividing the settled from the nomadic populations; and the crossing of Jordan, one way or the other, was always an event in the history of Israel. In Hebrew times its valley was regarded as a “wilderness” and, except in the Roman era, seems always to have been as sparsely inhabited as now. From its sources to the Dead Sea it rushes down a continuous inclined plane, broken here and there by rapids and small falls; between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea its sinuosity is so great that in a direct distance of 65 m. it traverses at least 200 m. The mean fall is about 9 ft. in the mile. The Jordan has two great sources, one in Tell el-Kadi (Dan) whence springs the Nahr Leddan, a stream 12 ft. broad at its birth; the other at Banias (anc. Paneas, Caesarea-Philippi), some 4 m. N., where the Nahr Banias issues from a cave, about 30 ft. broad. But two longer streams with less water contest their claim, the Nahr Barrighit from Coelesyria, which rises near the springs of the Litany, and the Nahr Hasbany from Hermon. The four streams unite below the fortress of Banias, which once held the gate of the valley, and flow into a marshy tract now called Huleh (Semechonitis, and perhaps Merom of Joshua). There the Jordan begins to fall below sea-level, rushing down 680 ft. in 9 m. to a delta, which opens into the Sea of Galilee. Thereafter it follows a valley which is usually not above 4 m. broad, but opens out twice into the small plains of Bethshan and Jericho. The river actually flows in a depression, the Zor, from a quarter to 2 m. wide, which it has hollowed out for itself in the bed of the Ghor. During the rainy season (January and February), when the Jordan overflows its banks, the Zor is flooded, but when the water falls it produces rich crops. The floor of the Ghor falls gently to the Zor, and is intersected by deep channels, which have been cut by the small streams and winter torrents that traverse it on their way to the Jordan. As far south as Kurn Surtabeh most of the valley is fertile, and even between that point and the Dead Sea there are several well-watered oases. In summer the heat in the Ghor is intense, 110° F. in the shade, but in winter the temperature falls to 40°, and sometimes to 32° at night. During the seasons of rain and melting snow the river is very full, and liable to freshets. After twelve hours’ rain it has been known to rise from 4 to 5 ft., and to fall as rapidly. In 1257 the Jordan was dammed up for several hours by a landslip, probably due to heavy rain. On leaving the Sea of Galilee the water is quite clear, but it soon assumes a tawny colour from the soft marl which it washes away from its banks and deposits in the Dead Sea. On the whole it is an unpleasant foul stream running between poisonous banks, and as such it seems to have been regarded by the Jews and other Syrians. The Hebrew poets did not sing its praises, and others compared it unfavourably with the clear rivers of Damascus. The clay of the valley was used for brickmaking, and Solomon established brass foundries there. From crusading times to this day it has grown sugar-cane. In Roman times it had extensive palm-groves and some small towns (e.g. Livias or Julias opposite Jericho) and villages. The Jordan is crossed by two stone bridges—one north of Lake Huleh, the other between that lake and the Sea of Galilee—and by a wooden bridge on the road from Jerusalem to Gilead and Moab. During the Roman period, and almost to the end of the Arab supremacy, there were bridges on all the great lines of communication between eastern and western Palestine, and ferries at other places. The depth of water varies greatly with the season. When not in flood the river is often fordable, and between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea there are then more than fifty fords—some of them of historic interest. The only difficulty is occasioned by the erratic zigzag current. The natural products of the Jordan valley—a tropical oasis sunk in the temperate zone, and overhung by Alpine Hermon—are unique. Papyrus grows in Lake Huleh, and rice and cereals thrive on its shores, whilst below the Sea of Galilee the vegetation is almost tropical. The flora and fauna present a large infusion of Ethiopian types; and the fish, with which the river is abundantly stocked, have a great affinity with those of the rivers and lakes of east Africa. Ere the Jordan enters the Dead Sea, its valley has become very barren and forbidding. It reaches the lake at a minus level of 1290 ft., the depression continuing downwards to twice that depth in the bed of the Dead Sea. It receives two affluents, with perennial waters, on the left, the Yarmuk (Hieromax) which flows in from the volcanic Jaulan a little south of the Sea of Galilee, and the Zerka (Jabbok) which comes from the Belka district to a point more than half-way down the lower course. On the right the Jalud descends from the plain of Esdraelon to near Beisan, and the Far’a from near Nablus. Various salt springs rise in the lower valley. The rest of the tributaries are wadis, dry except after rains.
Such human life as may be found in the valley now is mainly migratory. The Samaritan villagers use it in winter as pasture-ground, and, with the Circassians and Arabs of the east bank, cultivate plots here and there. They retire on the approach of summer. Jericho is the only considerable settlement in the lower valley, and it lies some distance west of the stream on the lower slopes of the Judaean heights.
See W. F. Lynch, Narrative of the U.S. Expedition, &c. (1849); H. B. Tristram, Land of Israel (1865); J. Macgregor, Rob Roy on the Jordan (1870); A. Neubauer, La Géographie du Talmud (1868); E. Robinson, Physical Geography of the Holy Land (1865); E. Hull, Mount Seir, &c. (1885), and Memoir on the Geology of Arabia Petraea, &c. (1886); G. A. Smith, Hist. Geography of the Holy Land (1894); W. Libbey and F. E. Hoskins, The Jordan Valley, &c. (1905). See also Palestine.