Measuring the Dead Sea The new book Sailors in the Holy Land focuses on one of the more obscure, but significant, voyages in U.S. naval history. Science and religion were at the heart of the journey to the Dead Sea.
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Measuring the Dead Sea

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Measuring the Dead Sea

Measuring the Dead Sea

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Next, to religion and exploration. In the mid-19th century, William Lynch, a US naval officer, took off for the Dead Sea for scientific and religious purposes. Andrew Jampoler is a retired naval aviator and author of a book about his experience called "Sailors in the Holy Land." And he's with us here in Studio 3A.

Nice of you to come in today.

Mr. ANDREW JAMPOLER (Author, "Sailors in the Holy Land"): Happy to be here.

CONAN: This is a little-known voyage in US naval history. What made it important enough for you to go back and spend the time to resurrect the story of "Sailors in the Holy Land"?

Mr. JAMPOLER: My first notice of the story, I decided it couldn't be true. There was just no reason at all for something like this to happen. The Dead Sea was, in mid-19th century, the least strategically important body of water in the world, salt water in the world, I thought. So I started reading about it and discovered a number of reasons that it fascinated me. It was a fascinating history; Lynch's pilgrimage was interesting in its own right as a religious journey.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JAMPOLER: Beyond that, the scientific questions that he answered and the success with which he did that were interesting. 1848 was a fabulous year in any case: a plague, a revolution, riot and upset, the issue of "The Communist Manifesto"--all of these things came together in what seemed to be a very, very interesting story.

CONAN: And you describe it as happening in an America in a transition point from the certainties of maybe 1900 and leading all the way towards, by the end of the era, people reading the Bible considerably differently than they did in 1900. This is at a midpoint. And it has to be said that Lieutenant Lynch was going to the Middle East in part to find verification for the Bible.

Mr. JAMPOLER: Very much so. The United States, in the 19th century, in mid-19th century, was still a very frankly Christian nation, not at all self-conscious about that. And the idea that the Navy was sending an expedition/pilgrimage--that didn't discomfort too many people. But it was a unique period of change. The Bible was being looked at in different ways; history was being looked at in different ways. Science, specifically naval science and steam propulsion, came into the picture around this period, too. So there was a great deal of fermenting.

And in the midst of this, in the midst of the centuries-long collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Lynch took his American volunteers from Muncie onto the Jordan River and into the Dead Sea.

CONAN: Well, I could see his motivations for doing it. What was the Navy's motivation for sending him?

Mr. JAMPOLER: Secretary Mason's motivation would be familiar to any modern secretary of the Navy. He wanted to get some press for the United States Navy. The Mexican-American War going on 1847, 1848--it attracted a lot of favorable publicity for the Army. It would soon produce a president, a general president. Nothing much had happened for the Navy, and Mason thought that this would be good, that it would contribute to the Navy's reputation in a time when it had been neglected.

CONAN: Hmm. And that was the secretary of the Navy at the time, Mason. Yeah. When this voyage actually gets under way--I mean, it's replete with all sorts of logistical nightmares of hauling these little metal boats in which they proposed not navigate the rapids of the Jordan River and down from the Sea of Galilee all down to Jordan and into the Dead Sea, stories of hauling them overland by camel. Some interesting descriptions of the beast, the camel, provided in your book,n as well. But when Lynch actually gets to the Jordan River and navigates it, he gets it wrong. The length of the river--he's off by a lot.

Mr. JAMPOLER: He's off by about a quarter. It's a huge error and one of the very few that he commits during a year when he did almost everything right. But in fact, yes, at the time, the Jordan was viewed as a bright, straight, glorious stream running from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. It was, in fact, a narrow, tortured passage. And during the course of making it down the rapids and down the river, Lynch errs badly and he concludes the river is substantially longer than it really is.

CONAN: His associate, though, following him along on the land bank--and there's all sorts of fascinating complications involving the various bedouin tribes who have to be placated or not along the way--but he's the one who finally nails the evelation--the height of the Dead Sea and finds it's about a quarter of a mile. It's astonishing to--some people at least believed it was higher than sea level at the time.

Mr. JAMPOLER: There was a great question as to what the elevation of the Dead Sea was. And Lieutenant Dale, the second in command you're speaking of, who incidentally had been an explorer in the famous expedition of exploration conducted by Wilkes some 20 years before...

CONAN: The Ex. Ex., yeah.

Mr. JAMPOLER: The Ex. Ex. Dale gets it exactly right. It ends up being 1,316.7 feet below sea level, and that's the first time, or really the second time, that anybody is close to accurate. It was a very carefully conducted survey. And this was the scientific purpose of the expedition, establishing the level of the Dead Sea as compared to the Mediterranean.

CONAN: Fascinating story. Andrew Jampoler, thanks very much for joining us today.

Mr. JAMPOLER: Thanks for your time and attention.

CONAN: The book is called "Sailors in the Holy Land." Andrew Jampoler is a retired naval aviator, and he joined us here in Studio 3A.

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