The Living Dead Sea

by Wendy Elliman

Twenty-five kilometers east of Jerusalem and 84 kilometers east of Tel Aviv, across a landscape of stony mountains and steep canyons, stretches a body of water unlike any other on earth.

More than 400 meters below sea level and with waters ten times saltier than those of the ocean, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth and the most saline of all natural lakes. Not only are its waters unique, but so is the very atmosphere above it: there is an atmospheric pressure high enough to filter the sun’s harmful UV rays, more oxygen than at sea level, and more calming bromine in the air around the Dead Sea than anywhere else on earth.

What makes the Dead Sea so different? No fish can live in its salty waters. It is fed by the Jordan River and by mineral springs whose waters resemble those of Evian and Karlsbad. But, surrounded by mountains, these waters have nowhere to go other than up into the air. And so they evaporate into the hot dry desert air, where the sun shines 330 full days a year, enriching its atmosphere with the natural chemicals they carry – and leaving behind a lake with 320 grams of salts and minerals in every liter, and a lining of viscous black cosmetic mineral mud saturated with health-giving minerals.

A Dead Sea Vacation

The Dead Sea area offers unique touring opportunities. Take sunglasses, sunscreen, a broad-brimmed hat, comfortable shoes and a bottle of water, and explore the region’s breathtaking landscape, its delicate eco-system and its long, long history. Stroll along the Dead Sea shore, or speed off inland on jeep safaris, rappel down ancient cliff faces or hike among the wadis, visit Masada or explore Qumran, and catch a glimpse of eagles, ibex and rock badgers.

Qumran lies at the northern tip of the Dead Sea. You can’t climb into the caves where the famous scrolls and scroll fragments known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were found 50 years ago, but you can visit the ruins where the prophetic-messianic sect who concealed the scrolls once lived. They were probably Essenes, who, some 2,000 years ago, fled the corruption of the city for the purity of the desert. Their fortified gateway, magnificent water system, dining hall and scriptorium can still be seen. Kibbutz Almog nearby has replicas of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a sound-and-light show entitled Nine Thousand Years of Settlement in the Northern Dead Sea Region.

Further south are three beautiful oases which are preserved as nature reserves – Ein Gedi, Nahal Arugot and Nahal David. They climb steadily upward, their paths embracing fresh water pools and waterfalls, lavish tropical vegetation and, for the sharp-eyed, desert ibex and rock badgers or hyrax, distant relatives of the elephants that roamed the area in pre-historic times. These oases are popular hiking routes, starting out with a gentle incline before getting higher and steeper. They are administered by Israel’s Nature Reserves Authority.

Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which grows dates and mangoes and raises turkeys, has branched out into the tourist industry. It runs a resort hotel with a cactus garden and a mini-zoo, and, across the highway, a restaurant and a large spa fed by natural hot springs. Those who prefer their mud in a five-star setting will do better to go further south to the health and spa resort at Ein Bokek. There, in a dozen hotels, are indoor pools of Dead Sea water, thermo-mineral Jacuzzi pools and dry sauna or steam rooms, as well as a large variety of spa treatments, including heated mud wraps, facial treatments, massages, hydrotherapy inhalations and many others.

Off to the right of the road between the Ein Gedi and Ein Bokek spas, towers the mountain fortress of Masada built by Herod the Great. The last Jewish stronghold against the Romans, it fell in the year 74 CE, ending Jewish independence until 1948. Its defenders chose death over capture, and the two-year siege of the ancient citadel ended with a mass Jewish suicide. A sound-and-light show tells the story. Masada can be climbed either along its winding ‘serpentine path’ or up the Roman siege ramp; for the less energetic, there is a cable car.

Back on the road, head south once more – this time to the southern tip of the Dead Sea. On the sea shore to the left of the road, appear the evaporation pans and then the buildings of the Dead Sea Works. The Dead Sea is a treasure trove of potassium and bromine, and the Dead Sea Works, founded in 1952
to mine and market these minerals, have expanded into a major industrial concern.

On the other side of the road rises Mount Sodom, an 11-mile range of pure salt. On top of it stands the block of salt known as Lot’s wife – a weathered formation that, without too much imagination, resembles a woman – turning back to see God’s fury unleashed against the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Next to where Lot’s unfortunate wife stands forever, a track leads inland for about two miles. At the end is an easy circular walk along a deep dry stream fissure. The walls are of swirling multi-colored layers of gypsum and salt and lead into the Flour Cave. Take a torch – and if you’ve any questions about the cave’s name, take a look at your clothes when you come out the other end!

Health-Giving Elements

Herod the Great soothed away cares of state in the health-giving waters of the Dead Sea. Today we have scientific evidence for what he sensed: that the Dead Sea waters have remarkable health-giving properties, and that, together with the area’s mud and thermo-mineral springs, its climate, its relatively filtered sunlight and its enriched atmosphere, it is a natural health spa second to none.

Today, tens of thousands of people come to the Dead Sea from all over the world to rejuvenate, recover, rest and relax. They come to enjoy the spa and discover the desert. Other are seeking and finding relief from unsightly and incurable skin diseases, from arthritis and rheumatism, and most recently from respiratory problems. How does the Dead Sea spa help them?

Sunlight. The sun shines at the Dead Sea almost every day of the year. But it shines through an extra atmospheric layer – because the area lies far below sea level – and through a natural sunscreen of evaporating water and chemicals from the body of water as well as a thick ozone layer. This weakens the harsh and dangerous ultraviolet B (UV-B) rays chiefly responsible for sunburn and greatly increases the amount of safe sun-exposure time. This makes the region ideal for helio- (sunlight) therapy. Patients can safely spend three to six hours a day under the sun’s healing rays to relieve disorders ranging from skin conditions to joint diseases.

Mineral-rich atmosphere. With no outlet for its inflowing waters other than the air above, the evaporating Dead Sea waters leave behind them a unique array of chloride salts – magnesium, sodium, potassium, calcium and bromine. One of these, bromine, well-known for its calming effect, is found in air around the Dead Sea in concentrations 20 times greater than anywhere else on earth.

Thermo-mineral waters, the hot springs that feed the Dead Sea, contain high concentrations of salt and hydrogen sulfide. They have made the area world-famous for its quality of balneotherapy. The high saline and mineral content carry the body’s weight and enable everyone to float.

Dead Sea mud or pelloid is a mineral-rich alluvial sediment. Saturated with sulfide compounds and minerals, it holds heat well, and can be smeared on the body to cleanse the skin and to relieve arthritic and rheumatic pain.

Temperature and humidity. The Dead Sea area’s warm dry air, with rather constant high temperatures and low rainfall, are particularly helpful to arthritis sufferers. Between April and September, average humidity is less than 33 percent and, although summer temperatures range between 32° and 40° C, heat stress is very low.

High barometric pressure. Lying more than 400 meters below sea level, the Dead Sea has the highest recorded barometric pressure (800 mm Hg) on earth. The oxygen-rich air here has up to 8 percent more oxygen molecules per cubic meter than ordinary air at sea level; this eases breathing in general and particularly helps those suffering from lung disease.

Low pollen. Because the climate here is dry and vegetation is sparse, allergen content in the air is very low, which helps people with certain asthmas.

Dead Sea Therapies

Climatotherapy for Skin Diseases

Psoriasis patients were the first to be successfully treated at the Dead Sea by climatotherapy. That was in 1958, and they are still heavily represented among those seeking relief in the region’s spas. Psoriasis affects some 3 percent of the world population, covering its victims with unsightly and uncomfortable red scaly patches. At present, there is no cure. Corticosteroids and other chemicals used to control the disorder do not always succeed and usually have undesirable side effects.

Climatotherapy has virtually no side effects and a high rate of success. It combines gradually increasing exposure to sunlight with bathing in the Dead Sea’s mineral-rich waters. Solar radiation is believed either to act directly on the skin or indirectly on the immune system; because harmful UV rays are weakened above the Dead Sea, patients can tolerate greater exposure to the sun here, without harmful effects. Bathing in the Dead Sea waters, rich in magnesium, potassium, calcium, chloride and bromine, enhances the therapeutic effect of the sunlight. The high bromine and oxygen content in the Dead Sea air and the stress-free peace and beauty of the place are also important factors. Dead Sea psoriasis treatment shows improvement rates of 75 to 90 percent, and less severe recurrence of the disorder.

This striking success with psoriasis patients encouraged physicians to apply Dead Sea climatotherapy to other intractable skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis, and eczema. While the severe itching of atopic dermatitis takes longer to respond to climatotherapy than psoriasis (six weeks rather than four), 97 percent of dermatitis patients improve as a result of Dead Sea treatment – over 70 percent of them dramatically. With suitable modifications, climatotherapy has also been found to be an effective weapon against eczema’s itchy red lumps.

Balneotherapy: Dead Sea Mud Packs And Sulfide Baths for Arthritic Disorders

The cause of most of the more than 100 different types of arthritic disease (inflammatory, inherited and acquired) is unknown and conventional treatments are ineffective. At the Dead Sea, a supervised treatment program for arthritis sufferers has a record of easing and even eliminating stiffness and pain.

Dead Sea treatment of arthritic disease combines three different ways of applying heat and minerals to the joints, thus speeding blood circulation. The first is mud pack therapy – or pelotherapy – in which patients are packed in heated Dead Sea mineral mud for up to 20 minutes a day: the heat (which the mud holds very well), the concentration of salts on the skin and the enforced relaxation begin the healing process. The second treatment method is thermo-mineral baths (balneology): arthritis sufferers take one or two 15-minute baths a day in thermo-mineral waters, enriched with sulfides. Third is daily bathing in the Dead Sea water itself (thalassotherapy).

Clinical studies have shown that balneotherapy has an important place in treating patients with inflammatory and non-inflammatory joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis (especially of the knees, hips and spine), psoriatic arthritis and active rheumatoid arthritis. While this treatment does not heal, it significantly reduces suffering for weeks, sometimes months, as well as reducing the amount of drugs needed.

Respiratory Ailments in the Dead Sea’s Oxygen-Enriched Atmosphere

Another group who converge on the Dead Sea are those with respiratory ailments. Because of the high barometric pressure, the air around the Dead Sea is up to eight percent richer in oxygen than that at sea level.

This clean, dry, oxygen-rich and allergen-free air makes the area a haven for patients with lung disease – both hypoxic (chronic obstructive pulmonary cholase) and end-stage (chronic hypoxemia, emphysema and cystic fibrosis). Many patients who normally depend on an artificial oxygen supplement in order to breathe respire independently at the Dead Sea, both by day and by night. Most important of all, oxygen levels in their blood become significantly higher.

Asthmatic Conditions

Many asthma sufferers do well in the dry oxygen-enriched air of the Dead Sea, an atmosphere enhanced by the virtual absence of industrial pollution and pollen.

Heart Function and the Cardiovascular System

The warm, low-altitude, high-oxygen atmosphere of the Dead Sea area has also been shown to help heart-surgery patients. During coronary artery bypass, the blood supply to the heart muscle is first severely decreased – and then increases again. This can adversely impact the heart rate. In heart patients who spent up to three weeks at the Dead Sea in the relatively warm winter prior to their bypass surgery, there was no change in heart rate after surgery. In similar patients, who were not at the Dead Sea before their heart operations, there was increased diastolic stiffness and worsening diastolic dysfunction after surgery.


Blood pressure (both diastolic and systolic) dropped in hypertensive and normal patients after a two-day stay at the Dead Sea. This recent finding suggests that high blood pressure is not a contraindication for treatment at the Dead Sea.

Rest, Relaxation and Beauty

If the sun and water, air and mud in the Dead Sea region can do so much for the sick, what of the merely tense and tired? Nervous, stressed or just fatigued, they come here in their thousands to relax in the warm thermo-mineral pools and float effortlessly on the Dead Sea’s buoyant waters. They wallow in rich black Dead Sea mud that stimulates their blood circulation and moisturizes their skin, they sunbathe relatively safe from harmful UV rays and they gulp down the oxygen-enriched air by the lungful. And in the Dead Sea’s hotels and spas, they supplement all this with a large variety of in-house spa facilities and spa treatments.

Dead Sea laboratories, modern-day successors to the production of costly balsam for cosmetic uses along the Dead Sea in ancient times, use its minerals to produce facial mud masks, bath salts, shampoos, cleansers, nourishing creams, moisturizers, hand creams, make-up removers, skin toners, astringents, face washes, bath and shower gels, soaps and sun protection creams. They even package purified mineral mud. With all these products, visitors can luxuriate in the Dead Sea health package even after they arrive home.

Source: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs