Coming alive at the Dead Sea

Swimming in the Dead Sea is a unique experience like nowhere else on Earth.

A view from the highway of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the planet (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
A view from the highway of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the planet
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
Living in Jerusalem on the top of a mountain and on the edge of the Judean desert is an exciting prospect. For one thing, the climate here is somewhat different to the rest of Israel. The summers are hot and dry and the winters delightfully cool, interspersed with chilly nights, rain and many sunny days. Toward the middle of December, when the cold wet weather really seeps into your soul, there is always a way out.
You can jump into your car and head south toward the Negev desert and the Dead Sea. My wife, Annie, and I have been doing this for years. From where we live it takes less than 15 minutes to begin the descent to the landlocked lake shared by Israel and Jordan, which, with all the excavations and mineral extractions has now reached a depth of about 430 meters below sea level. This makes it one of the lowest bodies of water on the surface of the earth. The drive takes in the city’s magnificent landmarks, including the walls of the Old City and the Mount of Olives, followed by a steep decline south along the recently completed double highway toward the desert.
On a clear day you can see the mountains of Moab and Jordan in the distance. For anyone interested in the Bible, you get to pass through terrain that is filled with iconic sites going as far back as the Book of Genesis – where the origins of this weird and wonderful landscape are first mentioned in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities destroyed by God because of the evils that were perpetrated there. We are told that once the land was “well watered like the garden of God,” green and fertile, a place on which Abraham’s nephew Lot set his sights. For most of the year the land lies parched and desolate under scorching heat.
When winter arrives, often without warning, sudden downpours cause flash flooding and turn the area into a raging torrent of muddy rivers that cascade through the treacherous ravines and onto the road below. Route 90, the main access road that gets to you to the popular resort of Ein Bokek and beyond, can be one of the most hazardous roads in Israel. It is especially dangerous in the winter when unexpected flash floods may render the road impassable. Nevertheless, undaunted adventurous Israelis flock to the area to witness this spectacle from “safe” viewing points along the way. For a short while in early spring, the desert literally blooms and changes color with carpets of green interspersed with exotic wild flowers that cover the mountainside.
Annie and I prefer to visit the area either in winter or early spring. We were there a few weeks ago, when the morning temperature in Jerusalem hovered at around 8 degrees Celsius.
Less than half an hour later, as we turned right onto Route 90, the gauge in my vehicle shot up to a comfortable 21 degrees. It was at that moment that we were able to take off our jackets, put on our sunglasses and experience the uplifting feeling of leaving the winter behind us.
From then on the road meanders through even more Biblical terrain, including the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. My wife, who guides at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, is a great aficionado on the subject and tells me that a large majority of overseas visitors come to see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Shrine of the Book.
As we approach the signs pointing to Qumran, my New Yorker wife surveys the crevices hidden among the rocky cliffs that tower above the road and points up toward Cave 4, where many of the Scrolls were found: “How the hell did they get up there?”
The next amazing site en route to Ein Bokek (our intended destination) is Ein Gedi. It is mentioned several times in the Bible: in Genesis, Joshua, Ezekiel, Chronicles, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs and, most famously, in the book of Samuel, when the young David flees from King Saul.
A favorite on the tourist trail is David’s Spring in the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, with its sweet-water oasis buried deep inside the ravine. Even in winter it is well worth trekking along the path to see the spectacular waterfall that thunders down from the cliffs above into the rock pool where many visitors brave the cold water and take a dip.
The ensuing stop along the route is the ancient fortress of Masada, towering nearly 1,500 feet above the plains with magnificent views of the Dead Sea. From here one can climb the Snake Path or take the cable car to explore the ruins of Herod the Great’s palace, which was built in 30 BCE. There is now an impressive museum at the foot of Masada that explains the tragic history of the location, going back to the first Jewish-Roman War.
Our next port of call is our intended destination, the spa resort town of Ein Bokek, which, going at average speeds and without stopping, is a one-and-a-half hour drive. The town has its own archaeological history in the form of Metzad Bokek, a fortress dating back to the Roman era where the remains of a partly rebuilt perfume and medicine factory were found.
This is very much in keeping with the modern town’s spa reputation, where visitors come from all over to “take the waters” and be cured of all sorts of ailments. The waters of the Dead Sea and some of the nearby springs are rich in sulfur and other curative minerals, which are beneficial for arthritic, muscular and skin conditions. Established in the early 1960s with the building of the first hotels, Ein Bokek has really come of age and entered the 21st century with its chic new Duty Free Dead Sea Mall and first class hotels. Today there are more than 16 hotels along the main road of the town offering everything from five-star comfort to more affordable options. Fortunately the resort has preserved its quiet backwater recuperative reputation rather than morphing into a vulgar mini “Las Vegas in the desert.”
A mark of the town’s recent progressive development is the construction of a stunning promenade. The impressive hiking and biking trail is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. It extends for more than seven miles along the shore and can readily be seen from the main road as one approaches Ein Bokek. The project was built for recreational purposes but also for protecting the adjacent hotels from any potential flooding that might occur in the future.
One of the problems the area faces is the shrinking effect of the excavation works, which have caused unwanted geological changes. So what attracts tourists from so many parts of the world to this strangely remote and low-lying place? The answer lies in the healing properties of its natural resources. Containing up to eight times more minerals than most seawater, the Dead Sea is made up of 33% salt and 21 minerals, including magnesium, calcium, bromine, potassium and bitumen.
These substances are known to cure skin disorders like psoriasis and vitiligo through strengthening tissues and maintaining the chemical balance of the skin, while stimulating blood circulation and expelling toxins. The extremely low positioning of the area on the earth’s surface also means that the sun’s damaging UV rays are filtered out. That is why almost all hotels are built with their own segregated solaria on the roofs so that men and women suffering from psoriasis and vitiligo can expose their skin to the healing light. The recommended hours for sunbathing by doctors are between 8:00 and 11:00 a.m. and between 2:30 and 6:00 p.m.
It is also claimed that the Dead Sea minerals help to relieve arthritic conditions. This is because the warmth and buoyancy of the water reduce the release of prostaglandins in the body.
Most of the hotels at the Dead Sea specifically cater to people wanting to “take the waters” and provide heated indoor Dead Sea water bathing facilities. They also offer a range of treatments, including full-body mud wraps, massage, facials and sulfur baths. There is also a medical center in the heart of the resort, which has been treating patients from all over the world for the past 20 years under the supervision of Prof. Michael Rivkin. Patients from several European countries, including Germany and Austria, avail themselves of treatments subsidized by the national health services of their home countries. Ein Bokek also provides visitors with access to the solarium beach with its own treatment center. The International Climatology Center for Dermatology provides a number of facilities, including segregated bathing for men and women, changing rooms, showers as well as sun beds and mattresses.
For those not specifically visiting the Dead Sea for medical reasons, there is much to do in the way of recreation, local touring, sports and relaxation. During the day guests can venture out on jeep tours to the Ein Bokek Spring, Wadi Sdom and Mt. Sdom, where you pass by the legendary Lot’s wife rock formation. There are also longer excursions to the ancient copper mines of Timna, Sde Boker and the Ramon Crater, which competes favorably with the Grand Canyon for its vistas of sheer desert beauty.
For those who simply want to chill out in the warmth, there is always the option of relaxing at the beach. Most of the hotels have their own designated bathing areas with sun beds, chairs, umbrellas, vats of black mud and freshwater showers.
Guests can either float in the water or cover themselves and their loved ones in therapeutic black Dead Sea mud. The idea is to lie in the sun and wait until the mud cakes and dries, ready to be washed off under nearby showers. It’s always advisable to wear plastic footwear when wading into the water with its strange greasy consistency. In some places the salt forms crystals that can be quite sharp underfoot.
Swimming in the Dead Sea is a unique experience like nowhere else on Earth. Bathers are reminded to float on their backs rather than try and swim crawl or breaststroke or immerse their heads in the water. The salt is so concentrated that it can sting and burn. Getting some of it in the eyes is a most unpleasant experience and would probably require medical attention in some cases. Nevertheless, despite all the cautionary advice, there is nothing more calming than the sensation of buoyancy as you float weightlessly on your back, staring up at the sky, surrounded by the expanse of sea and the tranquility of the desert. The Dead Sea is truly a place where body and soul come alive.