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The AAPG/Datapages Combined Publications Database

AAPG Bulletin


Volume: 62 (1978)

Issue: 5. (May)

First Page: 837

Last Page: 844

Title: Dead Sea Asphalts--Historical Aspects

Author(s): Arie Nissenbaum (2)


Asphalts are present in the Dead Sea basin in three forms: (1) huge blocks, up to 100 tons in weight, composed of extremely pure (>99.99%) solid asphalt occasionally found floating on the lake, (2) veins, seepages, and cavity and fissure fillings in Lower Cretaceous to Holocene rocks, and (3) ozocerite veins on the eastern shore of the lake. Dead Sea asphalts probably have been documented over a longer period of time than any other hydrocarbon deposit--from antiquity to the 19th century. Major uses of asphalt from the Dead Sea have been as an ingredient in the embalming process, for medicinal purposes, for fumigation, and for agriculture. The first known war for control of a hydrocarbon deposit was in the Dead Sea area in 312 B.C. between the Seleucid Syrians and the N batean Arabs who lived around the lake.

Surface manifestations of asphalt are linked closely to tectonic activity. In the lake itself, the asphalt is associated with diapirs. During certain historic periods, tectonic and diapiric activity caused frequent liberation to the Dead Sea surface of semiliquid asphalt associated with large amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas. When the tectonic activity was attenuated, as in the 19th and 20th centuries, the rate of asphalt seepage to the bottom sediments of the Dead Sea was much slower and the asphalt solidified on the lake bottom. The release of asphalt to the surface became much more sporadic, and may have resulted in part from earthquakes. Thus, future asphalt prospecting in the Dead Sea area should be conducted along the boundaries of diapirs or their associated faults.



The Bible refers to the use of bitumen several times. Various names are given to different types of hydrocarbon, such as zephet, kofer, and heimar. Although the exact classification of the hydrocarbons is not known, there is little doubt that at least the word heimar refers to asphalt. The earliest reference in the Bible to asphalt is its use as a mortar in the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:3). This reference agrees with historical and archaeologic evidence on the widespread use of asphalt in ancient Mesopotamia for building purposes (Abraham, 1960; Forbes, 1964).

Dead Sea asphalts (FOOTNOTE 3) are explicitly referred to in the Bible in the story of the war between the kings of the five cities near the Dead Sea (which included Sodom and Gomorrah) and the invading kings of the north (Genesis 14:10). The war ended by the total rout of defenders who fled into the Vale of Siddim (="which is the Dead Sea," Genesis 14:11), where they fell into the "slime pits" of the valley. "Slime pits" is the translation Martin Luther used for the Hebrew word heimar. Because heimar probably refers to asphalt, a more correct rendition of the original text should be "pits of asphalt."

Since Biblical times the asphalt of the Dead Sea has been an important commodity for trade in the region, and a source of numerous stories and legends (Nissenbaum, 1977).

This study is an attempt to review the history of the use of this interesting hydrocarbon deposit, which has been referred to for over 2,000 years. For an extended period of time the asphalt had an important economic role in the regional geopolitics, and the problem of its ownership led to several wars. More recently, its occurrence has been considered an indicator of the possible presence of crude oil in the Dead Sea basin.

Descriptions of various aspects of the Dead Sea asphalts have been given by Clapp (1936), Picard (1954), Abraham (1960), Bentor and Vroman (1960), Langotzky (1963), and Forbes (1964). Some of these reports suffer from inaccuracies, and Longatzky's 1963 work is not readily available. This report therefore summarizes and updates the historical information, and attempts to reevaluate it in the framework of current geologic and geochemical information.

FOOTNOTE 3. The term "asphalt" is used herein to describe brown to black solid and semisolid bituminous substances. This follows the definition given by the Dictionary of Geological Terms (Am. Geol. Inst., 1962). Ozocerite is used to describe a natural mixture of high molecular weight paraffinic hydrocarbons.

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Solid and semisolid hydrocarbons are present in the Dead Sea basin in three major forms: (1) as asphalt blocks floating in the water; (2) in veins, seeps, and as cavity fillings in Paleozoic to recent rocks; and (3) as ozocerite veins on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.

Type 1. Asphalt Blocks

Blocks of asphalt floating on the lake surface are the most dramatic occurrence, and therefore have attracted most attention. The blocks are of various sizes, some weighing more than 100 tons (90 MT). They may float on the lake surface or, more commonly, are cast up on the shore (Figs. 1, 2). The asphalt is very pure, has an ash content of less than 0.1%, and is characterized by high sulfur content (±10%; Table 1). The blocks are pitch-black, with very high luster on fresh surfaces, and commonly have vesicular structures as well as broad surface striations. The specific gravity of the asphalt is 1.115, and it floats easily in the Dead Sea, whose waters today have a density of 1.230. The exact source of this asphalt is unknown. Surface exposures of asphalts are too small or too im ure to provide the observed quantities of floating blocks so, presumably, the asphalt originates from the bottom sediment of the lake, somewhere between Ein Gedi and the River Arnon (Fig. 1).

Type 2. Veins, Seeps, and Fillings

A second type of asphalt occurs in veins, impregnations, cavity fillings, and seepages (Fig. 2) on the east- and west-central sectors of the lake, particularly between Metzada and Tamar in the west, and south of Ein Humar in the east (Fig. 1). Its host rocks are Nubian sandstones in the east. In the west it is present in rocks ranging from Lower Cretaceous dolomites and limestones to recent wadi gravels. This type of asphalt is more viscous than type 1, and during the hot summer months when ground temperatures reach 50 to 60°C, the asphalt drips from the rock fissures (Fig. 2). Chemical analyses of this type of asphalt show large variations, and some samples are markedly depleted in sulfur compared with type 1.

Type 3. Ozocerite

On the eastern coast of the Dead Sea between the River Arnon and the Lisan Peninsula, deposits of the mineral wax, ozocerite (Nissenbaum and Aizenshtat, 1975), are found in association with asphalt and heavy oil (Picard, 1933). The ozocerite is yellow-brown, rather soft, and occurs as vein fillings. The chemical (Table 1) and gas chromatographic analyses indicate that it is composed almost wholly of straight-chain paraffins between C24 and C45, and possibly up to the C50S (Nissenbaum and Aizenshtat, 1975).

Chemical and isotopic data on solid hydrocarbons are given in Table 1.

In addition to asphalt on the surface most of the boreholes in the central and southern sectors of the Dead Sea have encountered asphalt at various depths.

The source rock for the Dead Sea asphalts is unknown. For many years, it was assumed to be the surface manifestation of buried petroleum, which migrated upward along fissures and faults; however, all holes drilled for oil in the Dead Sea area have been barren. More recent hypotheses relate the asphalt to Upper Cretaceous oil shales on the western shores of the Dead Sea. It is probably relevant that asphalt deposits also are present near Hasbeya in southern Lebanon. The Hasbeya deposit is composed of veins, several feet across, in Upper Cretaceous oil shales, of the same type as near the Dead Sea.

Fig. 1. Asphalt locations in Dead Sea basin.

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Click to view image in GIF format. Fig. 2. [Grey Scale] Asphalts from Dead Sea basin. 1, Floating asphalt blocks cast on Dead Sea shore. 2, Asphalt seeping from recent wadi gravels (N. Heimar). 3, Asphalt seep from Upper Cretaceous dolomite (N. Heimar). 4, Asphalt "dike" in upper Pleistocene carbonate rock near Metzada. 5, Asphalt filling cavity in Upper Cretaceous limestone (N. Heimar). Photographs 3, 4, and 5 by B. Ashley.

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Ancient World

The earliest historical record of the asphalt from the Dead Sea is in the description by Diodorus Siculus (ca. 50 A.D.; translated 1947) of an attempt, in the year 312 B.C. by Antigonus, king of Syria, to wrest control of the trade in Dead Sea asphalt from the Nabatean Arabs who, at that time, were engaged actively in trading with his enemy, Ptolemy, king of Egypt. A Syrian general, the well-known historian Hieronimus of Cardia, had orders to prepare boats and to collect all the available asphalt. However, he was defeated in a naval battle on the lake. One wonders whether this early war over hydrocarbons was but a foreboding of things to happen in the Middle East 2,300 years later. Internal problems caused the Syrians to give up attempts to control this source of revenue. The importan e of Dead Sea asphalt also was described by Avi-Yona (1974) who stated that the wars of Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea, with the Nabateans in 99 to 95 B.C., were due in part to an attempt by Alexander to control the Dead Sea trade in asphalt. Many authors (e.g., Hammond, 1959) also have suggested that the conflicts among Queen Cleopatra, King Herod, and the Nabateans were due in large measure to attempts to dominate the Dead Sea and its asphalt. Although this makes sense from the geopolitical point of view, the hypothesis is not corroborated by ancient historians.

The descriptions of Dead Sea asphalts by the ancient historians show remarkable consistency. Diodorus Siculus (ca. 50 A.D.) wrote: "And from its center each year, it sends forth a mass of solid asphalt^hellip When the asphalt is floating on the sea, its surface seems to those who see it from the distance just like an island. It appears that the ejection of the asphalt is indicated twenty days in advance ^hellip the odor of the asphalt spreads with noisome exhalation, and all the silver, gold and bronze in the region lose their proper colour ^hellip" This asphalt was collected by the inhabitants by making a large bundle of reeds on which three people sat. Two were involved in collecting the asphalt while the third was armed with a bow to repel anybody who might interfere with the gathe ing. The asphalt block was cut in situ and loaded on the reed raft. The asphalt then was exported to Egypt.

Strabo (63 B.C. to 20 A.D.) discussed the asphalt in detail. He wrote that the Dead Sea was full of asphalt, which was blown to the surface at irregular intervals from the "middle of the deep." The appearance of asphalt was accompanied by invisible "soot" which tarnished copper, silver, and even gold. The appearance of this "soot," which was probably hydrogen sulfide, preceded the rising of the asphalt to the lake surface. The asphalt then was collected by use of rafts made of reeds. Strabo wrote that the asphalt is "a clod of earth, which is first liquefied by heat, and is blown to the surface and spreads out; then, again by reason of the cold water, ^hellip it changes to a firm, solidified substance."

Josephus (37 to 95 A.D.) wrote: "Moreover in many places it (the Dead Sea) throws up black lumps of asphalt. These, as they float, are in shape and size like headless bulls: The lakeside workers row to the spot, seize the lumps one by one and haul them into the boats^hellip" He wrote further that the asphalt, while fresh, is highly sticky.

Tacitus (55 to 117 A.D.) gave a similar description, that the asphalt is highly viscous, and is

Table 1. Chemical and Isotopic Data on Solid Hydrocarbons from Dead Sea Basin, Utah, and Trinidad

End_Page 840------------------------------

hardened by exposure to air and heat or by wetting with vinegar.

Although these are the most detailed descriptions, other authors have referred to the Dead Sea asphalt in a cursory way. Among them were Pliny the Elder (23 to 79 A.D.) and Vitruvius (ca. 50 A.D.). A somewhat exaggerated report by Pompeius Trogus (2d century A.D., in Braslavsky, 1943) stated that the Dead Sea was so heavily covered with asphalt that the wind could not raise any waves on its surface.

Middle Ages

Almost no new information was available on the asphalt during the Middle Ages. The collapse of the pagan Kingdom of Egypt led to cessation of embalming (to be discussed later) and this probably led to a decrease in the economic value of the asphalt. Arab historians mentioned the Dead Sea asphalt infrequently and reported that its major use was in agriculture and medicine (Braslavsky, 1943). During this period the asphalt acquired the name "Bitumen of Judea," and Jews from Alexandria were very involved in its trade in the early Middle Ages.

During the period of the Crusades, asphalt was mentioned by the crusader monk Burchard of Mt. Sion (1280). He stated that its main use was for medicine. The fact that the asphalt was of economic value is indicated by the monopoly granted by Fulk, king of Jerusalem, in 1138, to the inhabitants of the village of Tekoa, for the collection of asphalt from the Dead Sea. Other than that, the information during the Middle Ages is very scant. During the Middle Ages, the Dead Sea was reputed to be related to the devil and hell, and the asphalt was associated strongly with such beliefs (Nissenbaum, 1977). Nevertheless, hints in the literature indicate that the asphalt still was collected and exported to Syria, Egypt, and even Europe, although on a smaller scale than before.

Renaissance to Recent Times

From the Renaissance until the 19th century, there was very little mention of Dead Sea asphalt, which continued to be exported in small quantities to Europe to be used as medicine and as "ground" material for making etchings. The first organized scientific investigation of Palestine was in about 1807 by Seetzen (Ben-Arieh, 1970), who explored the east side of the Dead Sea and reported that the source of the asphalt was said to be somewhere on the east shore but that he was not able to verify this. Russeger (1838, in Ritter, 1866) discussed the Dead Sea asphalt and distinguished two types: the pure hard bitumen which oozes out of the rocks on the east shore of the lake opposite Ein Gedi, and bitumen which is mixed with clay and chalk. The first kind undoubtedly refers to the asphalt an ozocerite in Ein Humar described by Picard (1933) and Nissenbaum and Aizenshtat (1975), and the second type probably refers to Upper Cretaceous bituminous limestone in the Dead Sea area. Since then the asphalt has been described by nearly every traveler to the Dead Sea. Of special interest are the descriptions by the German explorer Rothe in 1874 (in Braslavsky, 1943) of small potholes, about 20 cm in diameter, near Ein Humar and from which heavy oil exuded. Robinson (1841) and Hitchcock (1842) reported the appearance of large quantities of asphalt on the lake surface in 1834 and 1837, each associated with severe earthquakes. In 1834 a large quantity of asphalt floated to the south end of the lake (Robinson, 1841). The Jehalin Bedouins, who inhabited this area, sold about 3,000 kg of th s material in Damascus. In 1837, another large mass appeared, on which 70 people could stand. It was cut up and sold for $3,500, a very considerable sum at the time. Both writers stated that the Sheikh of the Jehalin did not know of any other appearance of bitumen on the lake, and had not heard about similar phenomena from his predecessors.

With the increasing interest in oil exploration just prior to World War I, the Dead Sea asphalt was suggested as a possible indicator of buried oil fields. Blanckenhorn (1903, 1912) conducted the first modern geologic survey of asphalt in the Dead Sea basin. Since then, seepages of asphalt in the area have been cited frequently as indicating good prospects for oil (Ball and Ball, 1953; Picard, 1954). However, all the holes drilled in the Dead Sea area have been dry. In the 1950s there were plans to utilize the asphalt itself, and several shallow exploratory drillings were made south of Mt. Sdom (Langotzky, 1963), but the project was abandoned for economic reasons.


Several reasons for the economic importance of the Dead Sea asphalt can be discerned despite the fact that most of the historical records, although agreeing as to the economic importance, failed to discuss the reason. From the data in the literature several major uses can be distinguished.


Asphalt and heavy crude oil were used widely in the ancient world, and one of the most important applications of Dead Sea asphalt was for medicinal purposes. The list of bodily illnesses which were supposed to be cured by asphalt is very impressive,

End_Page 841------------------------------

and covers the gamut from arthritis, epilepsy, gout, and headaches to eye diseases, rheumatism, and toothache. Specific references to the Dead Sea asphalt are few. Josephus (37 to 95 A.D.) wrote that it was included in many medical prescriptions. Dioscorides (2d century A.D.; 1968), author of the most authoritative textbook on pharmacology in the ancient world, wrote that "Judaicum Bitumen is better than others." In the Arab medicine of the Middle Ages, the asphalt from the Dead Sea played a particularly important role and acquired almost magic properties. Asphaltic material which was scraped from wrappings of mummies was highly prized, and was given the name "mumia." This particular source of asphalt had been mentioned by Pliny (23 to 79 A.D.) and Dioscorides (2d century A.D.) as a p nacea for almost all diseases. The alleged beneficial properties were ascribed to its ability to preserve the dead for many centuries. Asphalt was used extensively by Arab physicians for treatment of contusions and wounds, and among the crusaders also asphalt was considered to be an important medicinal commodity. The monopoly for the collection of asphalt, granted to the inhabitants of the village of Tekoa by King Fulk of Jerusalem in the 12th century, specifically mentioned its use as a medicine. This use continued to the end of the 17th century, as mentioned by Kampfer (1651 to 1716, in Abraham, 1960).

The medicinal use for asphalt from the Dead Sea was revived in the 1930s by the late A. Dostrovsky, at the Hadassa Medical School of the Hebrew University, who showed that a preparation based on asphalt is highly effective in curing certain skin diseases. This preparation is in wide use today.


The principal use of Dead Sea asphalt during antiquity may have been in embalming, for which it was exported to Egypt. This was stated explicitly by Diodorus Siculus (ca. 50 A.D.), "The Barbarians who enjoy this source of income take the asphalt to Egypt and sell it for the embalming of the dead." The reuse of asphalt from mummies was mentioned previously. Several of the authorities on the use of materials in ancient Egypt have denied that asphalt was used in embalming (Hammond, 1959). With modern analytic techniques it should be possible to resolve this controversy.


Asphalts have been used extensively in the Middle East for agricultural purposes (Forbes, 1964). Specific references to the use of Dead Sea asphalt are rare, yet it is quite possible that agriculture has been a major use. The high content of sulfur would make it an excellent fumigant, owing to the large amounts of sulfur dioxide produced by its burning. In other parts of the Middle East, sulfur was mixed with asphalt for this purpose. It is interesting to note that during the disastrous Phylloxera plague, which devastated the French vineyards in the late 19th century, it was suggested that Dead Sea asphalt could be used as an insecticide, and several kilograms of asphalt were sent to France for testing (Delachanal, 1883).

Miscellaneous Uses

It is difficult to determine from the published literature other uses for Dead Sea asphalt. The major use of asphalt in the ancient world was for building purposes and in warfare ("Greek fire"; Forbes, 1964). However, no reference for this particular use exists for the Dead Sea material. Prawer (1975), in discussing the use of weapons during the Crusades, mentioned that "Greek fire" (the equivalent of modern napalm firebombs) did contain asphalt as one of its secret ingredients. Whether Dead Sea material was used for this purpose is unknown. Asphalt mastic was used as mortar in the brick walls of Jericho during 2500 to 2100 B.C. (Abraham, 1960), and this asphalt may have been collected near the Dead Sea. No other similar use for Dead Sea asphalt has been reported. A rather peculiar ap lication of Dead Sea asphalt was the discovery by J. N. Niepce, a pioneer of photography, in the 1820s that this material had the appropriate light sensitivity for use in preparing early photographs or "heliographs" (Spielmann, 1925). According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1968), asphalt from the Dead Sea was used widely as a ground in etching. According to Josephus (37 to 95 A.D.), the Dead Sea asphalt also was used for caulking boats.


The archaeology of asphalt in ancient Palestine is very poorly known. Abraham (1960) mentioned that asphalts were found in mortar from walls of Jericho dated at 2500 to 2100 B.C. Kelso and Powell (1944) described asphalt in a broken vessel from Tell Beit Mirsim (the Biblical Kiryat-Sepher), and suggested that it was used for making paints or varnishes. Forbes (1964) quoted Albright who said that bitumen can be found in various archaeologic sites such as in Canaanite Jerusalem, dating to 3,000 years B.C. Discussions with Israeli archaeologists indicate that a black material, which could be asphalt, occasionally is found

End_Page 842------------------------------

in diggings. However, no scientific investigation has been made of the nature of this material.


Inspection of the historical descriptions given in this report raises several questions that are relevant to the present interest in Dead Sea asphalts.

The source of the asphalt is unknown. There seems to be an agreement of all ancient writers that the source of the asphalt must be in the deep part of the lake and not on shore. A recent geophysical survey of the Dead Sea (Neev and Hall, 1976) indicated the presence of many diapiric structures under the Dead Sea. Some of the diapirs are probably still active, and it is possible that the asphalt may move to the bottom of the lake in association with those salt bodies. As the softening point of the asphalt is rather low (60 to 80°C), the geothermal heat may be sufficient to liquefy and hence mobilize it efficiently. The description by Strabo (63 B.C. to 20 A.D.) of the asphalt being "a clod of earth which is liquefied by heat" is quite appropriate.

A closely related problem is the question of the regularity of appearances of asphalt on the lake surface. The impression obtained from the writings of the ancient historians is that asphalt used to appear much more frequently than it has in recent times. It otherwise would be difficult to envisage how asphalt could be the base for a stable economy. In the 19th century, the inhabitants of the Dead Sea area claimed that the appearance of asphalt was very sporadic. The same is true for the 20th century. For example, so far as is known, the last large-scale appearance of asphalt occurred 20 years ago.

The ancient writers also mentioned two attributes of the asphalt which do not agree with the modern examples. The first is the association of asphalt appearances with large-scale exudation of hydrogen sulfide. The second is the consistency of the asphalt. The asphalt known from the 19th and 20th centuries is a solid, unmalleable substance, whereas the ancient descriptions are of semifluid, viscous substances which could be solidified by using vinegar or by exposure to air.

The picture which emerges by comparing ancient and modern data is as follows: the appearance of asphalt on the Dead Sea surface is closely associated with tectonic movements, possibly of diapirs which are present under the lake. During certain periods, for example, about 2,000 years ago, enhanced tectonic and/or diapiric activity caused the liberation to the surface of semiliquefied asphalt, which moved upward to the lake bottom in association with the salt bodies. The asphalt was accompanied by large volumes of gas, which contained hydrogen sulfide. This gas may have been instrumental in the upward mobilization of the asphalt. At other times, such as in the 19th and 20th centuries, relaxation of tectonic activity caused the asphalt to move more slowly. Accumulation of asphalt at the ake bottom was slow enough to allow the asphalt to harden. Under such conditions the release of asphalt to the surface is much more sporadic, and may be triggered by earthquakes.

The implication for future prospecting in the Dead Sea is that the search for asphalt should be conducted along the boundaries of mapped diapirs or their associated faults.


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American Geological Institute, 1962, Dictionary of geological terms: Garden City, N.J., Dolphin Reference Books, Doubleday, 545 p.

Avi-Yona, M., 1974, The period of the 2nd Temple, the Mishna and the Talmud, in Carta's atlas of the Bible, 2d ed.: Jerusalem, Carta Pub., 163 p. (in Hebrew).

Ball, M. W., and D. Ball, 1953, Oil prospects of Israel: AAPG Bull., v. 37, p. 1-113.

Ben-Arieh, Y., 1970, The rediscovery of the Holy Land in the 19th century: Jerusalem, Carta Pub., 235 p. (in Hebrew).

Bentor, Y. K., and A. Vroman, 1960, The geological map of Israel (1:100,000); sheet 16, Mt. Sdom: Israel Geol. Survey, 117 p.

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Delachanal, B. M., 1883, Sur la composition de l'asphalte ou bitume de Judee: Acad. Sci. Comptes Rendus, v. 97, p. 491-494.

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Hammond, P., 1959, The Nabatean bitumen industry of

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the Dead Sea: Biblical Archeologist, v. 12, p. 40-48.

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(2) Geoscience Group, Isotope Department, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel.

The manuscript was improved greatly by the constructive suggestions of D. Samuel and S. Weiner, Weizmann Institute of Science. A. Silberberg and his colleagues at the Wix Library, Weizmann Institute of Science, were of much help in collecting material for this study. Partial financial support was granted by the National Geographic Society.

Copyright 1997 American Association of Petroleum Geologists

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