NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore shot a series of amazing photos of Israel from on board the International Space Station as it passed over the region on a crystal-clear Christmas morning 10 days ago. They were posted on the International Space Station’s Facebook page.
They are not color-enhanced. This is what it actually looks like from up there.
The first shot, above, looks north from above the Gulf of Aqaba. You can see the Mediterranean coastline from the Nile Delta at lower left all the way across the Sinai Peninsula, up the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian coasts to Turkey. Just south of Turkey, partly obscured by clouds, is the island of Cyprus. The vertical blue oblong surrounded by brown desert near the center of the photo is the Dead Sea.
One of the most strikingly unexpected aspects of these photos is the clarity with which you can see the Green Line, the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. It’s clearest in the next photo, which is shot from over the Kingdom of Jordan, looking west (north is to the right, south to the left). You can see the West Bank as two brown oblong shapes in the middle of the photo, with the smaller Judean region to the left and the much larger Samaria to the right. They’re separated by the dark green finger of the old Jerusalem Corridor stretching down eastward from the coastal plain.
The most visible feature in the photo is Jordan River system, running from the arrowhead-shaped Lake Kinneret (a.k.a. Sea of Galilee) at the northern end (upper right) end to the Dead Sea at the south. Directly above the Dead Sea is the pale buff-colored stripe of the Judean Desert. The Judean Hills and Mount Hebron are just above that. Samaria is to the right, directly above (that is, west of) the Jordan River itself. It’s bordered on the right (the north) by the black expanse of the Jezreel Valley. Below the Jordan River, overlooking it from the east, are the hills of Moab in the Kingdom of Jordan.
Many Israelis are under the impression that they have erased the pre-1967 lines. Looking down from the heavens it doesn’t look that way.
The reason for the sharp distinction between the Jerusalem Corridor, which is technically part of the Judean Hills, and the West Bank to its north and south, is the forestation program carried out between 1949 and 1967 by the Jewish National Fund.
Visible as a white area on the Mediterranean coast is the urban sprawl of metropolitan Tel Aviv. It’s due west of the Dead Sea’s northern end. Up the coast to the right is Haifa, with its suburbs curving northward around Haifa Bay toward Akko.
The next photo looks toward the southwest from above Syria. The Mediterranean coast stretches southward from the right side of the photo (the southern coast of Turkey is just visible beneath the space station’s solar panels), turns westward across the Sinai Peninsula, across the Suez Canal and the Nile Delta and then disappears toward Libya.
The heavy blue line at the lower right, snaking southward and then cutting east, is the Euphrates River on its way to Iraq.
The next photo is a close-up look at the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Kinneret and Lake Tiberias), again looking westward from over Syria. The white spot on the western shore is the city of Tiberias (Tveriya in Hebrew). To the west are the hills of Galilee. Stretching southward is the Jordan Valley. The green area to the east and northeast is the Golan Heights, reaching toward the white peak of Mount Hermon (elevation 9,232 feet) at the lower right-hand corner.
The shape of the lake, seen from above, makes it easy to understand how the Kinneret got its name, from the Hebrew word kinor, or harp.
Finally, the Dead Sea, or what’s left of it. The earth’s lowest spot on dry land (1,407 feet below sea level), it’s one of the wonders of the world. It’s also in trouble.
The odd-looking blue-green streaks at the southern end are the evaporation ponds of the Dead Sea Works, which extracts potash and other chemicals from the sea’s famously salty waters. That area used to be the southern half of the Dead Sea, but the sea has been shrinking for the last 50 years, due to the massive diversion of water upstream, mostly from Lake Kinneret, to support the population.
In 1930, before the diversion began, the Dead Sea’s surface area was 405 square miles, and it was 1,280 feet below sea level. Today it’s about 231 square miles in area and has fallen to 1407 feet below sea level.
Below are photos (color-enhanced) from NASA that show the Dead Sea in 1972, 1989 and 2011.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).