Bahamut, or the Salt of the Earth

14 January, 2021
The ancient pre-Islam­ic myth­i­cal sea crea­ture Bahamut (باهاموت) or behe­moth (art cour­tesy of Adri­an Sroka)


Farah Abdessamed


“There was a fish, which car­ried an ox. And the ox car­ried a pre­cious slab of stone, which also car­ried an angel, and guess what? The angel car­ried the world.” I recall the sto­ry and my father’s thrill the first time he tried mea­sur­ing the size of a big fish with his arms spread out in front of me. The fish is called Bahamut. I was think­ing about this mon­ster a lot, along with oth­er sea crea­tures, look­ing at the still, eerie and inde­ci­pher­able for­sak­en waters of the Dead Sea in Jordan.

Bahamut is said to be a pow­er­ful world-fish crea­ture, a fish or even a whale accord­ing to dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions. It can cause hav­oc, and chiefly earth­quakes. The fish is so big that all “the seas of the world, placed in one of the fish’s nos­trils, would be like a mus­tard seed laid in the desert.” Al Qazwi­ni, an influ­en­tial schol­ar from the 13th cen­tu­ry CE and author of Won­ders of Cre­ation, sug­gest­ed a mod­i­fied cos­mol­o­gy to the sto­ry my father had told me. At the bot­tom of his scheme of the uni­verse, an angel holds Bahamut, and at the top the earth or cos­mos crowned with the reliefs of Mount Qaf sits on a bull above Bahamut. No mat­ter the sequence and the var­i­ous lay­ers pro­posed, Bahamut is a foun­da­tion with­out a base, and this frag­ile assem­bly depicts a bal­ance nec­es­sary to the sta­bil­i­ty of the world, from under­ground (or under­sea) to the skies, hell to heav­en. “From the moon to the fish,” a Per­sian say­ing goes.

Bahamut is said to be a pow­er­ful world-fish crea­ture, a fish or even a whale accord­ing to dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions. It can cause hav­oc, and chiefly earthquakes.

I’ve been lucky to vis­it the Dead Sea sev­er­al times, espe­cial­ly when I lived between Amman and Yemen cir­ca 2015–2017. Often, the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion in Yemen or visa runs required me to stay in Jor­dan, a coun­try which became a sec­ond home dur­ing these years. The Dead Sea was a rou­tine rit­u­al. There was always an occa­sion for it as Amman was an easy hub to meet fam­i­ly, friends and acquain­tances. An “acces­si­ble” cor­ner of an unruly Mid­dle East. While Yemen was gen­er­al­ly burst­ing with vital­i­ty despite hard­ships, I was­n’t accus­tomed to a such sight of soli­tude. Each vis­it brought greater odd­i­ty and unfa­mil­iar­i­ty. I’ve con­clud­ed in my mind that the Dead Sea is an abnor­mal­i­ty, a prob­lem. To under­stand why, I went back to the past, to myths and recollections.

I’ve always dread­ed enter­ing its waters. They awak­ened a super­sti­tion and I became con­vinced that they held a mag­i­cal pow­er of some sort. When I was a kid, I usu­al­ly spent a week or two dur­ing the sum­mer hol­i­days by the beach, either in France or Tunisia where my fam­i­ly is from. I grew up with a (jus­ti­fied) fear of jel­ly­fish, shriek­ing when I felt some­thing I could­n’t see slith­er­ing by my legs. I remem­ber see­ing trag­ic jel­ly­fish car­cass­es lit­ter­ing the beach in late August cre­pus­cu­lar after­noons as both a form of col­lec­tive sui­cide, and the irrefutable proof that oceans con­tain crea­tures one should­n’t speak of out loud.

An illus­tra­tion of Qazwini’s cos­mol­o­gy, and Bahamut

Faced with this infer­tile mass in Jor­dan, I had no choice but to con­sid­er all the Bahamuts of cre­ation and imag­i­na­tion a pos­si­bil­i­ty. That Arab Bahamut is a like­ly mash-up of Old Tes­ta­ment fig­ures (a pos­si­ble mélange of dag gadol, Behe­moth and Leviathan) is of sec­ondary impor­tance. It shows that beliefs inter­twine, and reli­gions are large­ly syn­cret­ic. “From a hip­popota­mus or ele­phant [Arabs] turned it into a fish afloat in a fath­om­less sea,” writes Jorge Luis Borges. I had no inten­tion of swim­ming towards a hor­rif­ic fish-ele­phant, a fish-hip­popota­mus, or a fish-any­thing at all.

Years before my last vis­it to the Dead Sea in Spring 2018, rem­i­nisc­ing about sea mon­sters and com­ing to terms with its oth­er­world­ly fea­tures, I faced the try­ing heat of a July week­end with a friend. There was a lan­guor, a pres­sure, at the low alti­tude point below sea lev­el, com­pound­ed by the fact that it was very much sum­mer and over 100˚F (above 37˚C). Even though I was­n’t well acquaint­ed with the sur­round­ings (a third vis­it maybe?), I con­sid­ered the strange­ness of the place. No boats float, and no life survives—save for its imper­cep­ti­ble traces, such as fun­gi, bac­te­ria and plank­ton, which must par­ty hard under the slight­est and ever-scarce rain­fall (less than four inch­es per year).

“It looks like a cof­fin,” I said to my friend who entered the Dead Sea. We nick­named it a “soup” dur­ing the hot months. One sweats, even dipped in water. The dried mud on her body dis­solved with a few gen­tle scrubs.

It was so hot; it quick­ly became unbear­able. In myth­i­cal Bib­li­cal tales, the inhos­pitable Dead Sea cov­ers the ash­es of Sodom and Gomor­rah, a sto­ry recalled in Gen­e­sis. The two cities are told to have per­ished by divine fire in pun­ish­ment of their “deca­dent” ways. The Dead Sea swal­lowed them. The lake remind­ed me of a vol­canic caldera. It’s sur­round­ed by two moun­tain ranges, between a for­mer­ly dis­put­ed bor­der and along a fault line which runs from the Sinai Penin­su­la to Ana­to­lia. The tec­ton­ic soup was a cal­dron, and we were dish­es to be served.

The Dead Sea “soup” (Pho­to cour­tesy Farah Abdessamad, 2015)

I was always bored at the Dead Sea, so I let my mind wan­der. What could real­ly sur­vive there, I asked myself, then my friend who looked at me with puz­zled eyes. Since my first vis­it I’d imme­di­ate­ly dis­liked the water’s vis­cos­i­ty, how its den­si­ty slow­ly pet­ri­fied my limbs and move­ment. Its lack of waves had dis­ori­en­tat­ed me, and forced me to always stay close to shore, some­times so close that I’d been more com­fort­able sim­ply kneel­ing. The cor­ro­sive liq­uid inevitably burned my skin with­in min­utes. I’d felt trapped and attacked, caught in a spi­der web under a curse.

The oily lay­er which swims above the water’s sur­face and clings on to the skin, is asphalt, or bitu­men. In Antiq­ui­ty, the Dead Sea used to be known as the Asphalt Lake. Greek and Roman writ­ers tell us that Ancient Egyp­tians trad­ed with the Nabateans (a nomadic tribe who found­ed the desert city of Petra) for its extrac­tion. Bitu­men from the Dead Sea was pre­cious and used dur­ing the mum­mi­fi­ca­tion process of dead bod­ies, mixed with oth­er aro­mat­ics. Mark Antony even offered the lake to Queen Cleopa­tra when his Roman legions cap­tured it from the Nabateans. Despite its sacred use in reli­gious rit­u­als, these ancient sources were most­ly shocked by the nox­ious surroundings:

“I still think that it is the exha­la­tions from the lake that infect the ground and poi­son the atmos­phere about this dis­trict, and that this is the rea­son that crops and fruits decay, since both soil and cli­mate are dele­te­ri­ous.”— Tac­i­tus, His­to­ries, Book V. 

Hard­ly invit­ing and, unlike our days and the pres­ence of lux­u­ry spas, not a place that would rival Roman baths.

Geo­graph­i­cal­ly, the Riv­er Jor­dan is the Dead Sea’s trib­u­tary. The Riv­er Jor­dan is sur­round­ed by a lush val­ley and is the leg­endary site of Jesus’ bap­tism. It is locat­ed north­west of today’s Mad­a­ba, close to the Allen­by Bridge. It gives (spir­i­tu­al) life, and nour­ish­es. By con­trast, the two places could­n’t be more dif­fer­ent though the Riv­er Jor­dan is now a shad­ow of its for­mer self, mod­est and brack­ish. Yet the dis­tinc­tion led many observers through his­to­ry to view the Dead Sea’s steril­i­ty as both a sin­is­ter omen, since life dies upon reach­ing it, and an oxymoron.

From Amman to the Dead Sea (Pho­to cour­tesy of Farah Abdessamad, 2017)

Dur­ing my last vis­it to the Dead Sea, I drove from Amman pass­ing by road­side shops sell­ing var­i­ous inflat­able ducks and swans I had nev­er seen any­one buy­ing nor using. The road down below sea-lev­el made my ears pop, as we descend­ed 4,000 feet in 30 mins (a short com­mute by most stan­dards). I spot­ted the north­ern tip of the lake first, its deep­est point among the largest body of water in water-stressed Jor­dan. Hid­den behind moun­tains: Jerusalem.

The lake’s sur­face has shrunk by a third since the 1970s, lost over a fourth of its depth, and con­tin­ues to recede by an aver­age of three feet per year. One can see mark­ings with var­i­ous dates engraved by its shores, a token of res­ig­na­tion as the sed­i­ments dis­close a rapid decline. At a time when glob­al warm­ing caus­es sea lev­els to rise else­where, the Dead Sea is dis­ap­pear­ing before our eyes, in a fate shared with the Aral Sea and Lake Chad. This is due to sig­nif­i­cant diver­sions from the Jor­dan and Yarmouk Rivers, to irri­gate agri­cul­tur­al lands, and as a result of over­ex­ploit­ing its salt, and, iron­i­cal­ly, potash (a fertilizer).

That day, I reached the lake by late after­noon. Sun­set gave way to a gaseous vista. Col­ors and thick fog blend­ed in mys­te­ri­ous tones evok­ing one of those abstract paint­ed land­scapes from Jonathan Speed I’ve come to love. Its west­ern shore turned blur­ry, more so than usu­al. Water evap­o­rat­ed against the Mar­t­ian-like can­vas, and the lake sunk, and con­tin­ued shrink­ing away. The dif­frac­tion rein­forced the dis­so­nance of wit­ness­ing the death of some­thing already “dead”. It was already a ruin, a no-space, a fleet­ing con­cept, a wreck.

French writer Chateaubriand, who had been to the Dead Sea on his way from Paris to Jerusalem, report­ed that local tribes used to col­lect small fish. His pre­de­ces­sors even picked up (live) sea snails on its shores. I could­n’t see any, only the reg­u­lar bitu­men slime and sed­i­ments of salt crust crys­tal­iz­ing while I took my first walk out of the car to stretch my legs along the peb­ble-rid­den beach. The stones, car­ry­ing a lap­idary dig­ni­ty, betrayed that the lake did dry out once, many, many years ago.

The ambi­tious Dead Sea to Red Sea canal project, a pipeline designed to pump addi­tion­al water into the Dead Sea and reverse its extinc­tion, has­n’t come to light despite over 15 years of nego­ti­a­tions. It remains tan­gled in region­al dynam­ics and ten­sions. Though the mod­ern alchemist exper­i­ment may even­tu­al­ly mate­ri­al­ize, for the time being, the sink­holes mul­ti­ply (from 40 in the 1980s to over 4,000 today), pre­sent­ing an exis­ten­tial threat to a frag­ile ecosys­tem, and the Sea sighs relent­less­ly under longer exhales. Jor­dan already los­es such a quan­ti­ty of water every year over­all, that its loss amounts to sat­is­fy­ing the basic needs of a third of its population.

The Dead Sea (“salt sea” in Hebrew) is famous for con­tain­ing near­ly ten times more salt than reg­u­lar oceans. Salt, an essen­tial condi­ment to food taste and preser­va­tion, is linked to sur­vival. Men can be good, like the “salt of the earth.” Could they? I doubt­ed that. I had just returned from Yemen, with its air strikes, dai­ly What­sApp pho­tos of civil­ian deaths, ema­ci­at­ed chil­dren and oth­er abject depri­va­tions. Ahead of night­mares sure to come, I won­dered about this loss and an inex­orable feel­ing of empti­ness at night when the air final­ly turned res­pirable. A fee­ble moon­light rever­ber­at­ed gen­tly on its dor­mant sur­face (“ennui, that incur­able convalescence…”).

“Dream­scape” by Jonathan Speed, 2020 (oil on can­vas, 60 x 60 cm)

From moon to fish then, I won­dered what a deplet­ed basin would reveal. What would hap­pen once the hyper­saline water ful­ly evap­o­rates from its caul­dron? “Real­i­ty is a cre­ation of our excess­es, of our dis­pro­por­tions and derange­ments,” said E.M. Cio­ran. It was an archa­ic hyper­re­al­i­ty in my case. Amid a naked seabed, the sham­bles of damned cities, maybe the fish bones of giant Bahamut, and why not an entrance to a deep­er sub­ter­ranean world, I thought. I remem­bered that in the Ara­bi­an Nights tale, which I had read the first time I vis­it­ed Tunisia and my father’s home­land, below Bahamut is a sea, and beneath the sea is air. Beneath the air is fire, and beneath the fire is a crea­ture, sea-ser­pent, called Falak. The mouth of Falak breathes the fires of hell—quite fit­ting for the caldera-shaped Dead Sea. On Falak rests cre­ation, and below is unknown to men. So what, then? A mir­ror of futil­i­ty, or rather, a dizzy­ing scaf­fold­ing of infi­nite regress, where in the end, one needs to car­ry and be car­ried for a sense of har­mo­ny to sustain.

To con­jure the spook­i­ness, I took a peb­ble and threw it in the water in a mut­ed thump. Though I don’t believe in jinns, I wait­ed for a reply. No wrath came my way, only the deaf­en­ing silence of a lim­i­nal agony. I car­ried the illu­sion of befriend­ing ghosts.

One can choose to view the Dead Sea as an anec­do­tal spa des­ti­na­tion to col­lect ins­ta-wor­thy pho­tographs. I opt­ed for its sub-nau­ti­cal realm, as the cos­mic ocean of Bahamut and Falak from the sto­ries I cher­ish. Less tran­scen­den­tal­ly, I accept­ed it as the grave­yard of our col­lec­tive care­less­ness. Behind the veil of des­o­la­tion, is not a divine dis­as­ter, or an essence of cre­ation, but a very human envi­ron­men­tal tragedy of deca­dent scale—entirely avoidable.



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