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America's Forgotten Mission to the Dead Sea

Publication August 18, 2011
Feature Excerpt,
History Magazine
June/July 2011
History Book Club Selection
Military Book Club Selection
+ Ebook Publication 2012 +

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The year 1848 saw the end of the War with Mexico, the discovery of gold in California, and the Seneca Falls women’s convention. To this pioneering year let us add a most unexpected image—the Stars and the Stripes raised across the storied reaches of the Holy Land—across the placid Sea of Galilee, carried down the torrents of the River Jordan, and onto the implacable Dead Sea. In a fascinating episode of American history, a small band of naval officers and sailors engaged in a scientific and geographical mission that would make headlines worldwide—all forgotten, until now.
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At the story’s center is Navy Lieutenant William Francis Lynch, who in midlife—his naval career stalled, his marriage in tatters, a daughter suddenly dead in an epidemic—seized on a bold scheme to achieve a lifelong dream and win renown for his country. Lynch and his team resolved to answer an ancient puzzle that had baffled scientists, mapmakers, and biblical geographers. What was the true character of the Dead Sea, of dark superstitions and Biblical notoriety for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? What about its source—the River Jordan, hallowed in Old and New Testaments—and its mysterious, plunging course south of the Sea of Galilee?

The American explorers set off into unknown lands, contending with Turkish Ottoman forces and often hostile Bedouin tribesmen. After the team’s triumphal return—bearing maps and charts, and findings that hold up today—Lynch’s memoirs on their adventures became an international bestseller, translated into several languages.
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Bitter Waters is also the story of the new breed of scientists standing behind the endeavor – notably Lynch’s friend Matthew F. Maury –  who ushered in a new era of world scientific exploration carried out by the U.S. Navy in the years leading up to the Civil War—an era that tragically came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of conflict. Acclaimed author David Haward Bain sheds light on a fascinating moment in American history, full of unforgettable characters and surprising turns.

Hardcover – 384 pgs – 42 B & W Images


“Wonderfully realized, Bain’s account will enthrall seekers of history off the beaten path.”

“Like the expedition itself, a work of stringent epistemological curiosity and research.”

Bitter Waters illuminates this daring 19th-century exploration of the Holy Land. David Haward Bain, author of Empire Express, paints a vivid picture of the ambitious, visionary seafarers and their bold adventure . . . Bitter Waters captures this fascinating moment in American history. –– HISTORY BOOK CLUB (official selection)

“Admirable work. It details one of most hazardous, yet by now almost forgotten, attempts to roll back the veil of mystery and legend and reveal scientific truths. It’s a tale that deserves to be told, as an example of indomitable courage and plucky resourcefulness in the face of adversity. Read it and cheer.” – Roanoke (VA) Times

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Photo credits for video stills (photos, paintings) not featured in book: Library of Congress.

Music: Dor L'Dor ("Not Your Father's Klezmer Band). CDs:
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