The River Jordan features many times in the Old Testament. The Israelites led by Joshua crossed the Jordan as they entered the 'promised land' of Canaan (Joshua 3:1-17); King David fled across the river during Absalom's rebellion (2 Samuel:17:22); and Naaman, the Syrian army commander, was cured of leprosy by washing in the Jordan (2 KIngs 5:10-14).
The river is a remarkable source of life-giving water, running for about 100 miles / 160 km through an otherwise barren, inhospitable desert landscape. It is one of the very few rivers in Palestine that flows all the year round. This is because its headwaters are fed during the dry spring and summer months with meltwater from the winter snows that have fallen on the slopes of the mountains to the north of the region.
The source of the River Jordan is near Dan, where a series of springs issues from the limestone foothills of Mount Hermon. At the Jordan springs at Banias (the site of the Roman temples of Caesarea Philippi), the ice-cold water can be seen gushing from beneath the sheer limestone cliffs. From here, the Jordan flows south along the floor of a steep-sided valley to the Dead Sea (Salt Sea) 1280 ft / 385 m below sea level – the lowest place on the earth’s surface. This was the location of Sodom and Gomorrah and the setting for the story of Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:23-29).
The River Jordan flows from these springs at Banias
The Dead Sea is long and narrow, extending for about 60 miles / 95 km, but mostly less than 10 miles / 16 km wide. South of the Dead Sea, the steep-sided valley (called the Arabah or Arava) continues for a further 100 miles / 160 km before reaching the Gulf of Aquaba at Elat.
The Jordan Rift Valley was formed millions of years ago by movements of the earth’s crustal plates. This resulted in a series of parallel fault lines, between which the land dropped by up to 4600 feet / 1400 metres to form a deep trough floored by a wide, flat plain about 10 miles / 17 km across (see Fig. 9).
Fig. 9 Formation of the Jordan Rift Valley
For most of the year, apart from during the spring floods, the River Jordan is not much more than a large stream that winds slowly across its flat valley floor. But water from the river is vital for agriculture across the region, and the drastic reduction in the size of the Dead Sea in recent years shows that more water is now being extracted from the river than ever before.