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Geography of Israel: The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at about 1,300 feet (400 m.) below sea level, lies at the southern end of the Jordan Valley. Its waters, with the highest level of salinity and density in the world, are rich in potash, magnesium and bromine, as well as in table and industrial salts. The Dead Sea's natural pace of recession has been accelerated in recent years due to a very high rate of evaporation (5 feet-1.6 m. annually) and large-scale diversion projects undertaken by Israel and Jordan for their water needs, causing a 75 percent reduction in the incoming flow of water. As a result, the surface level of the Dead Sea has dropped some 35 feet (10.6 m.) since 1960. This drying of the sea causes a variety of issues, the worst being the large and dangerous sinkholes that can have profound consequences on tourism and the local economies. The emergence of large sinkholes has caused many beaches to close over the years, and has cost the government millions of Shekels in repair costs for roads and bridges damaged or closed due to the sinkholes. The wildlife residing near the Dead Sea are also impacted by these sinkholes, as humans build more roads that take up their habitat.

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.

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!

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry