I found this empty phial in an assemblage of ancient souvenirs in a drawer in a junk shop. Someone had died. These things had meant a lot to that person, but evidently not to those charged with dealing with the post mortem remnants of a life. They were, in fact, a tawdry and sad collection, but I felt that to regard them as of no account would be the final negation of their collector’s existence, so I bought them. They didn’t cost much.
The collection included matchbooks from a couple of North American hotels in the 30s, a souvenir wooden comb, some cowrie shells, broken pieces of polished agate… And this tiny phial, all dried up.
Touchingly, someone has at some point thought this worth cataloguing, and has labelled it C6. The water had long since evaporated, the cork having failed no doubt, but still they kept it. I put it to you that even though dry now, there was still evidence that this had been water from the Dead Sea, so it was still worth keeping as a memento of someone’s visit there. And what would that evidence be, now? Why, the milky residue coating the inside of the phial. No tap water, no Balinese Temple water, not even very holy water from some spring revered by Catholics would leave such a residue.
What do we know about the Dead Sea? We have, all of us, in our minds, a recollection of pictures from science books and encyclopaedias showing us how easy it is to keep afloat in the Dead Sea on account of how salty it is.
We have all seen pictures like this one, haven’t we. Here is this chap, doing his best to sink, but getting nowhere. And, tormented by the sun, he holds up his umbrella, even though this does nothing to prove how buoyant the water is. A whole village of locals make their living entirely from renting out umbrellas to people who wish to spend time floating on the Dead Sea and trying to sink. The village next to the umbrella one rents out books, or used to, because it became de rigeur to be photographed reading.
This was all started by a theological archaeologist who was taking a dip, or trying to, when someone handed him some old scrolls lying around the beach and he happened to be looking these over when the encyclopaedia photographer chappie caught him. This image caused such a sensation worldwide that thereafter everyone snapped in the Dead Sea had to be reading.
In this widely used picture we see a young Bud Flanagan studying a book about Arches and Other Load-Bearing Structures. Unable to swim, Flanagan had to pushed to the shore, where he came upon an itinerant Arab tinker seeking business amongst the umbrella-rental people in case any had been damaged by the tourists. The sight was one that preoccupied his mind for many years.
Owing perhaps to the influence of the Surrealist movement, visitors to the Dead Sea did not long succumb to the book-and-umbrella cliche, though it is said the Gene Kelly was struck by the sight of so many salt-encrusted umbrellas during his stay here, that he made up a song, later put to good use. Here we see the prominent literary figure T. S. Eliot in an unusual moment of joie de vivre despite his wife’s having prodded him several times with the shaft of her umbrella to try to poke him under. So many books were extravagantly thrown into the sea that the book-rental villagers fell into poverty, failing to restore their fortunes by trying to sell floats and water wings in the seaside cafe.
The swimmer with his arms raised here is French film-director Jacques Demy who went on to make a famous film only slightly deviating from his original title “Les Parapluies d’Ein Bokek”. We end with a picture from the Western USA illustrating a similar attitude there towards old-fashioned reading-while-floating. Note also that there is not a single umbrella to be seen.