Strabo on the Dead Sea
" Lake Sirbonis* is very large. Some have said it is 1000 stadia in circumference. It extends along the sea-coast, having a length a little bit more than 200 stadia. It is deep, and has extremely heavy water, so that one doesn't need to swim [to stay afloat]—rather, when someone wades into it, even just up to the waist, he is immediately buoyed up. [The lake] is full of asphalt. At random times, it rises up with bubbles like boiling water from the middle of its depths. The surface [of the lake] bulges and has the appearance of a ridge. A great amount of soot is also carried up [with the asphalt], which is smoky but invisible to the eye. Copper, silver, and anything shiny--even gold--is tarnished by it. From the tarnishing of their utensils, the inhabitants know that the asphalt is beginning to rise up, and they prepare for collecting it by making rafts of reeds. Asphalt is lumps of earth which are liquefied by heat, blown upwards [to the surface] and dispersed, then changed again into a hard mass by cold water (such as the water in this lake), so that it needs to be cut and chopped. It then floats on the surface because of the nature of the water, in which, as we said, one does not need to swim [to stay afloat], nor does anyone who wades into it sink, but is buoyed up to the surface. Those who sail out to the asphalt on rafts cut up and carry back as much as each of them is able [to carry].
" That’s what actually happens. Posidonius, however, says the locals, who are sorcerers, pretend to harden the asphalt with incantations, urine and other foul-smelling liquids, which they pour over and then squeeze out of it; next, they cut it up. Perhaps, however, there is in fact some such property in urine, since chrysocolla is formed in the bladders of those with kidney stones and from children’s urine. It’s reasonable that this affection occurs in the middle of the lake, because the source of fire is in the middle, as is the majority of the asphalt. The rising up is random because the movement of fire, as with the other pneumata, has no obvious order. Such things also [happen] in Apollonia in Epirus.
" They offer many other proofs that the country is fiery. For instance, they point out that some ragged rocks around Masada have been scorched; that there are caves everywhere; that the soil is ashy; that drops of pitch fall from the cliffs and that rivers boil with a far-reaching stench; and that there are scattered dwellings in ruins. Thus, we believe the rumours spread by the local inhabitants, that there were once thirteen cities situated here, one of which was the metropolis, Sodom: an area around [Sodom] of about 60 stadia was saved; but, earthquakes and eruptions of fire and hot water filled with asphalt and sulphur caused the lake to burst its banks and the rocks to be seized by fire; and of the cities, some were swallowed by the earthquake, others were abandoned by those who were able to flee. Eratosthenes, however, claims the opposite—that the country was a lake, but most of it was uncovered by a flood, as in Thessaly."
*From Falconer's notes: "Strabo here commits the singular error of confounding the Lake Asphaltites, or the Dead Sea, with the Lake Sirbonis. Letronne attempts to explain the origin of the error. According to Josephus, the Peræa, or that part of Judæa which is on the eastern side of the Jordan, between the lake of Tiberias and the Dead Sea, contained a district (the exact position of which is not well known, but which, according to Josephus, could not be far from the Lake Asphaltites) called Silbonitis. The resemblance of this name to Sirbonis probably misled our author."
Ἡ δὲ Σιρβωνὶς λίμνη πολλὴ μέν ἐστι· καὶ γὰρ χιλίων σταδίων εἰρήκασί τινες τὸν κύκλον· τῇ μέντοι παραλίᾳ παρεκτέταται μικρῷ τι πλέον τῶν διακοσίων σταδίων μῆκος ἐπιλαμβάνουσα, ἀγχιβαθής, βαρύτατον ἔχουσα ὕδωρ, ὥστε μὴ δεῖν κολύμβου, ἀλλὰ τὸν ἐμβάντα καὶ μέχρι ὀμφαλοῦ εὐθὺς ἐξαίρεσθαι· μεστὴ δ' ἐστὶν ἀσφάλτου· αὕτη δὲ ἀναφυσᾶται κατὰ καιροὺς ἀτάκτους ἐκ μέσου τοῦ βάθους μετὰ πομφολύγων ὡς ἂν ζέοντος ὕδατος· κυρτουμένη δ' ἡ ἐπιφάνεια λόφου φαντασίαν παρέχει· συναναφέρεται δὲ καὶ ἄσβολος πολλή, καπνώδης μὲν πρὸς δὲ τὴν ὄψιν ἄδηλος, ὑφ' ἧς κατιοῦται καὶ χαλκὸς καὶ ἄργυρος καὶ πᾶν τὸ στιλπνὸν μέχρι καὶ χρυσοῦ· ἀπὸ δὲ τοῦ κατιοῦσθαι τὰ σκεύη γνωρίζουσιν οἱ περιοικοῦντες ἀρχομένην τὴν ἀναβολὴν τοῦ ἀσφάλτου, καὶ παρασκευάζονται πρὸς τὴν μεταλλείαν αὐτοῦ, ποιησάμενοι σχεδίας καλαμίνας. ἔστι δ' ἡ ἄσφαλτος γῆς βῶλος, ὑγραινομένη μὲν ὑπὸ θερμοῦ καὶ ἀναφυσωμένη καὶ διαχεομένη, πάλιν δὲ μεταβάλλουσα εἰς πάγον ἰσχυρὸν ὑπὸ τοῦ ψυχροῦ ὕδατος, οἷόν ἐστι τὸ τῆς λίμνης ὕδωρ, ὥστε τομῆς καὶ κοπῆς δεῖσθαι· εἶτ' ἐπιπολάζουσα διὰ τὴν φύσιν τοῦ ὕδατος, καθ' ἣν ἔφαμεν μηδὲ κολύμβου δεῖσθαι, μηδὲ βαπτίζεσθαι τὸν ἐμβάντα ἀλλ' ἐξαίρεσθαι· προσπλεύσαντες δὲ ταῖς σχεδίαις κόπτουσι καὶ φέρονται τῆς ἀσφάλτου ὅσον ἕκαστος δύναται.
Τὸ μὲν οὖν συμβαῖνον τοιοῦτον· γόητας δὲ ὄντας σκήπτεσθαί φησιν ἐπῳδὰς ὁ Ποσειδώνιος τοὺς ἀνθρώπους καὶ οὖρα καὶ ἄλλα δυσώδη ὑγρά, ἃ περικαταχέαντας καὶ ἐκπιάσαντας πήττειν τὴν ἄσφαλτον, εἶτα τέμνειν· εἰ μή τίς ἐστιν ἐπιτηδειότης τῶν οὔρων τοιαύτη, καθάπερ καὶ ἐν ταῖς κύστεσι τῶν λιθιώντων, καὶ ἐκ τῶν παιδικῶν οὔρων ἡ χρυσόκολλα συνίσταται· ἐν μέσῃ δὲ τῇ λίμνῃ τὸ πάθος συμβαίνειν εὔλογον, ὅτι καὶ ἡ πηγὴ τοῦ πυρὸς καὶ τῆς ἀσφάλτου κατὰ μέσον ἐστὶ καὶ τὸ πλῆθος· ἄτακτος δὲ ἡ ἀναφύσησις, ὅτι καὶ ἡ τοῦ πυρὸς κίνησις οὐκ ἔχει τάξιν ἡμῖν φανεράν, ὥσπερ καὶ ἄλλων πνευμάτων πολλῶν. τοιαῦτα δὲ καὶ τὰ ἐν Ἀπολλωνίᾳ τῇ Ἠπειρώτιδι.
Τοῦ δ' ἔμπυρον τὴν χώραν εἶναι καὶ ἄλλα τεκμήρια φέρουσι πολλά· καὶ γὰρ πέτρας τινὰς ἐπικεκαυμένας δεικνύουσι τραχείας περὶ Μοασάδα καὶ σήραγγας πολλαχοῦ καὶ γῆν τεφρώδη, σταγόνας τε πίττης ἐκ λισσάδων λειβομένας καὶ δυσώδεις πόρρωθεν ποταμοὺς ζέοντας, κατοικίας τε ἀνατετραμμένας σποράδην· ὥστε πιστεύειν τοῖς θρυλουμένοις ὑπὸ τῶν ἐγχωρίων, ὡς ἄρα ᾠκοῦντό ποτε τρισκαίδεκα πόλεις ἐνταῦθα, ὧν τῆς μητροπόλεως Σοδόμων σώζοιτο κύκλος ἑξήκοντά που σταδίων· ὑπὸ δὲ σεισμῶν καὶ ἀναφυσημάτων πυρὸς καὶ θερμῶν ὑδάτων ἀσφαλτωδῶν τε καὶ θειωδῶν ἡ λίμνη προπέσοι καὶ [αἱ] πέτραι πυρίληπτοι γένοιντο, αἵ τε πόλεις αἳ μὲν καταποθεῖεν, ἃς δ' ἐκλίποιεν οἱ δυνάμενοι φυγεῖν. Ἐρατοσθένης δέ φησι τἀναντία, λιμναζούσης τῆς χώρας ἐκρήγμασιν ἀνακαλυφθῆναι τὴν πλείστην, καθάπερ τὴν Θετταλίαν.
Galen on the Dead Sea
"[When you taste] the water of the lake in Syrian Palestine—which some call the Dead Sea, others the Asphalt Lake—it is possible to taste not only saltiness, but even bitterness."
τὸ δὲ τῆς ἐν Παλαιστίνῃ Συρίᾳ λίμνης ὕδωρ, ἣν ὀνομάζουσιν οἱ μὲν θάλασσαν νεκρὰν, οἱ δὲ λίμνην ἀσφαλτῖτιν, ἔστι μὲν καὶ γευομένοις οὐχ ἁλυκὸν μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ πικρόν.
"If you thoroughly heat something salty, you will have something bitter. Thus, the water of the Asphalt Lake becomes bitter, since it is surrounded by a place that is hollow and hot [i.e., a valley] and is roasted by the sun. For this reason, too, it is more bitter in the summer than the winter. And when you draw some water from it, if you were to put it in a hollow vessel in sunny place, like we also did during the summer time, it is immediately obvious to you that it becomes much more bitter than it [was]. All these things are sufficient evidence for what was said a little earlier about the generation of the bitter. But I have not yet said everything about why my discussion has turned to the Asphalt Lake. For it is clear that there isn’t any animal or plant that grows in that water; but also, while both of the rivers which empty into it have many large fish, especially the one near Jericho which they call Jordan, not one of the fish goes beyond the mouths of the rivers. And if anyone who caught them were to throw them into the lake, he would see they quickly die. Thus, the strictly bitter is hostile to all plants and animals, and it is arid and dry and its nature is like thick smoke produced during roasting. In fact, the water from that lake is not strictly bitter, since the salts are not the same, but they call them Sodomite [salts] after the hills called Sodom which surround the lake; and many of the inhabitants use them for just as many things as we use other kinds of salt. Not only is their capacity to dry greater than the other salts, but also [their capacity] to attenuate, for which reason they violently heat [things] more thoroughly than the other salts. For all the other salts also have a kind of faint astringency, through which they firm up and compress preserved meats, most especially when [the salts] are granules and hard to break."
ὅ τι γὰρ ἂν ἁλυκὸν ἐπὶ πλέον ἐκθερμήνῃς, ἔσται σοι πικρόν. οὕτω γοῦν καὶ αὐτὸ τὸ τῆς ἀσφαλτίτιδος λίμνης ὕδωρ ἐν κοίλῳ καὶ θερμῷ χωρίῳ περιεχόμενον ἐξοπτώμενόν θ' ὑπὸ τοῦ ἡλίου γίγνεται πικρόν. διὰ τοῦτό γέ τοι καὶ τοῦ θέρους μᾶλλον ἢ χειμῶνός ἐστι πικρόν. καὶ εἰ ἀρυοάμενος αὐτοῦ τι καταθείης ἐν ἀγγείῳ κοίλῳ καὶ προσηλίῳ χωρίῳ, καθάπερ καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐποιήσαμεν ὥρᾳ θέρους, αὐτίκα μάλα πικρότερον αὐτοῦ φαίνεταί σοι γεγονός. ἀλλὰ ταῦτα μὲν ἅπαντα τοῖς ὀλίγον ἔμπροσθεν ὑπὲρ τῆς τοῦ πικροῦ γενέσεως εἰρημένοις ἱκανῶς μαρτυρεῖ. οὗ δ' ἕνεκεν ὁ λόγος ἐπὶ τὴν ἀσφαλτῖτιν ἐξετράπετο λίμνην, οὔπω μοι πᾶν λέλεκται. φαίνεται γὰρ ἐν ἐκείνῳ τῷ ὕδατι μήτε ζῶον ἐγγιγνόμενόν τι μήτε φυτὸν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῶν εἰς αὐτὴν ἐμβαλόντων ποταμῶν ἀμφοτέρων, μεγίστους καὶ πλείστους ἐχόντων ἰχθύας, καὶ μάλιστα τοῦ πλησίον Ἰεριχοῦντος, ὃν Ἰορδάνην ὀνομάζουσιν, οὐδ' εἷς τῶν ἰχθύων ὑπερβαίνει τὰ στόματα τῶν ποταμῶν. κἂν εἰ συλλαβὼν δέ τις αὐτοὺς ἐμβάλοι τῇ λίμνῃ, διαφθειρομένους ὄψεται ταχέως· οὕτως τ' ἀκριβῶς πικρὸν ἅπασίν ἐστι καὶ ζώοις καὶ φυτοῖς πολέμιον, αὐχμῶδές τε καὶ ξηρὸν καὶ τὴν φύσιν οἷόν περ αἴθαλος ὑπὸ τῆς κατοπτήσεως γεγενημένον. καίτοι γε οὐδὲ τὸ τῆς λίμνης ἐκείνης ὕδωρ ἀκριβῶς ἐστι πικρὸν, ὅτι μηδ' οἱ ἅλες αὐτοὶ, προσαγορεύουσι δ' αὐτοὺς Σοδομηνοὺς ἀπὸ τῶν περιεχόντων τὴν λίμνην ὀρῶν ἃ καλεῖται Σόδομα, καὶ χρῶνται πολλοὶ τῶν περιοίκων εἰς ὅσα περ ἡμεῖς τοῖς ἄλλοις ἁλσί. δύναμις δ' αὐτῶν οὐ ξηραντικὴ μόνον ἐπὶ μᾶλλόν ἐστι τῶν ἄλλων ἁλῶν, ἀλλὰ καὶ λεπτυντικὴ, διότι μᾶλλον τῶν ἄλλων ἐξώπτηνται. πᾶσι μὲν γὰρ τοῖς ἁλσὶν ὑπάρχει τι καὶ στυπτικὸν ἀμυδρὸν, ᾧ δὴ καὶ σφίγγουσι καὶ πιλοῦσι τὰ ταριχευόμενα τῶν κρεῶν καὶ μάλισθ' ὅταν ὦσι χόνδροι τε καὶ δύσθραυστοι.