A short journey east from Jerusalem, in the Jordan Rift Valley, is the Dead Sea. To its west are the Judean mountains and to the east the Moab mountains of Jordan – the Israel-Jordan border runs down its center. The surrounding scenery is rugged and inhospitable. It is hot, dry, and as the name suggests, nothing lives in the water. But this place is special. It is unique. And it has been attracting visitors for centuries.

To start with, the Dead Sea, or in Hebrew and the bible the Salt Sea, is the lowest place on earth at 429 meters below sea level. It is fed, at its northern end, by the Jordan River and along it edges by perennial springs, but it has no outflow. No flow and high evaporation cause the sea (actually a lake) to have a high a concentration of minerals. It is almost ten times saltier than the ocean with salinity of 34%. This makes the water dense and results in its most famous feature  – humans float. Whether you can swim or not, in the Dead Sea you float effortlessly, just like a cork.

Natural health spa

The area has long been associated with many health benefits. The air is almost pollen and allergen free and has higher amounts of oxygen than at higher altitudes. Because of the evaporation there are greater concentrations of other elements in the air too. One of these is bromine which is found at levels 20 times that of nearby Jerusalem. Bromine has a natural tranquillizing effect, so this really is a place to come and relax. At the lower altitude more of the sun’s harmful rays are filtered out allowing you to enjoy the year round sunshine without many of the negative affects. Even today Israeli doctors prescribe regular trips to the Dead Sea for treating some skin ailments. Of course, one of the most sought-after treatments is the mineral-rich Dead Sea mud. At the beaches on the Dead Sea you will find people covered from head to toe with the black mud. In other places this mud is an expensive spa treatment, but here it is freely available and enjoyed by many. Posing covered in mud is almost an obligatory photo in Israel.

It is not only tourists that enjoy the Dead Sea. The Zionist, and first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, spent rest and recuperation time at the Dead Sea. He was there on 29 November 1947 when the United Nations announced the vote on the historic partition plan for Palestine. Needless to say his rest and relaxation ended and he quickly made his way to Tel Aviv.

Almost 50 years later, on 20 July 1994 Shimon Peres, another famous Israeli leader, also visited the Dead Sea. He took a short twenty-minute flight from Jerusalem to a Dead Sea Spa on the Jordanian side. He was not there to enjoy the facilities, but to meet with King Hussein to discuss an end to hostilities between the two countries. Maybe the bromine in the air helped. The talks were successful and resulted in a peace treaty being signed later that year. Since then the relationship between Israel and Jordan has been the best of any of its neighbours.

Floating asphalt and biblical tar pits

Asphalt (bitumen) occurs naturally in the region, so much so that the Romans called the Dead Sea the Asphalt Lake. Josephus, the famous first-century Jewish-Roman historian, wrote “in many places it (the sea) sends up black lumps of asphalt: these as they float are in shape and size like headless bulls”.  These lumps of asphalt would be gathered from the surface of the sea and used for boat repairs, embalming and medicinal purposes. The substance also features in the biblical story of Lot. Genesis 14 tells of a battle between four kings and five kings from around the Dead Sea. Verse ten describes the end of two of these kings, “Now the Valley of Sidim (at the southern end of the Dead Sea) was full of tar pits, and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled and fell there; but those who survived fled to the hill country.” Gen. 14:10.

Today there are also pits along the shores of the Dead Sea, though without tar. Over the last 30 years the Dead Sea has been shrinking at a rapid rate. This has caused many sinkholes to appear. A sinkhole is when fresh water dissolves the minerals underground creating a cavity which then collapses to form a hole. These holes can range in size up to 20 meters across and 5-10 meters deep. Eli Raz a local geologist from Ein Gedi has spent a lot of time studying this phenomenon and once had a close encounter of his own. One morning he went alone to look at a newly formed sinkhole in a particularly prone area. He planned to be gone for an hour, but ended up spending 12 hours at the bottom of a sinkhole that formed under his feet. Fearing he may not make it out alive he took a pen and a roll of toilet paper and began to write his last will and testament. When he finished he threw it out of the pit. Eli was eventually rescued and still researches sinkholes today.

The Dead Sea is a unique and fascinating place. Along its shores the Herodian fortress of Massada, the springs of Ein Gedi where David hid from Saul and the caves of Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered all have their stories to tell. But the lake is the dominant feature and a must-experience for any visitor to Israel.