“Listen up people. For the last time, remember; never enter the Dead Sea as you would in a pool or a regular body of water. Always go in with your back,” advised Mohammed Khdeer, the Jordanian tour guide attached to the group of Nigerian media personnel on a tour of Jordan. We had just arrived at the Dead Sea Spa hotel; it was late in the evening and he would be leaving to come pick us in the morning. In the meantime, it was important to educate the uninitiated on uniqueness of the lake barely two minutes by foot from the hotel’s lobby.
“Remember, go in gently with your back and lie on the water. You will float. Do not try to swim. If the water splashes in your eyes, it will hurt so bad,” he continued. Always keep a distance of at least two metres from the person swimming next to you.
“If you have any cuts or bruises, please don’t go in. It will sting like hell. If you have just shaved recently then don’t…” I wondered if this was going to be as exciting as I expected as the tour guide continued reeling out instructions. “…Try and catch the sunrise from the Dead Sea,” the voice trailed back. “I’m sure you’ll have a good time. See you in the morning,” he concluded.
The Dead Sea is a salt lake bordering Jordan to the east, and Palestine and Israel to the west. Its surface and shores are 427 metres below sea level, Earth’s lowest elevation on land. It is 9.6 times as salty as the ocean. This salinity makes for a harsh environment in which animals cannot flourish, hence its name. It lies in the Jordan Rift Valley, and the River Jordan is the only major water source flowing into it. Getting to the Dead Sea is an experience in itself; the topography in this part of the world means where we were is not only the lowest point in the world, it also has one of the steepest drops in altitude you would experience on land.
For example, about 15 minutes from the Dead Sea area is Mount Nebo, the place where God showed Moses the Promised Land he wouldn’t get to enter. However, Nebo stands at 1,000 metres above sea level. The difference in altitude over a short distance makes your ears pop, the same experience you get in a plane.
Due to the high salt content of the Dead Sea, one can float with ease. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to sink, especially if you follow instructions. A popular fad by visitors is to have their picture taken while reading a newspaper and floating on the surface of the water. I floated on my back, without the newspaper and attempted to swim, just for the fun of it. A few drops of water swiftly cut the experiment short. The mud along the shores of the Dead Sea contains many minerals and is believed to have medicinal and therapeutic benefits. It is not uncommon for visitors to cover their bodies with the dark mud. Yes, that includes me.
Natural Spa, Health Benefits
The Dead Sea has attracted visitors from around the Mediterranean for thousands of years. It is supposedly the place where King David sought refuge from King Saul, where Abraham fought a war, where Ezekiel had prophecies and was one of the world’s first health resorts for Herod the Great. Just north of the Dead Sea is Jericho. Somewhere in the vicinity surely, were the cities mentioned in the Book of Genesis which were said to have been destroyed in the time of Abraham: Sodom and Gomorrah. Pillar of salt; no wonder! The Dead Sea has been a supplier for a wide variety of products, from balms for Egyptian mummification to potash for fertilizers. Many have also used the salt and the minerals from the Dead Sea to create cosmetics and herbal sachets.
The Dead Sea area has become a major center for health research and treatment for several reasons. The mineral content of the water, the very low content of pollens and other allergens in the atmosphere, the reduced ultraviolet component of solar radiation, and the higher atmospheric pressure at this great depth each have specific health effects. For example, persons experiencing reduced respiratory function from diseases benefit from the increased atmospheric pressure. Although the Dead Sea is very sunny, the low altitude and extra atmosphere makes the sunlight weaker. This quality of the Dead Sea sunlight is the real secret behind its mythological curing ability for several diseases, especially skin diseases. This is, in fact, natural phototherapy.
Due to the popularity of the sea’s therapeutic and healing properties, several companies are involved in the manufacture and supply of Dead Sea salts and mud as raw materials for body and skin care products. According to Wikipedia, the Jordanian Dead Sea mineral industries generated about $1.2 billion in sales (equivalent to 4 per cent of Jordan’s GDP) while the Jordanian shore has five hotels that are classified as either 5-star or 4-star, generating total revenues of $128 million in 2012.
Killing the Dead
Due to the man-made reduction of the Jordan River (the river waters are 70-90 per cent used for human purposes) and the high evaporation rate of the Dead Sea, the sea is shrinking. All the shallow waters of the southern end of the sea have been drained and are now salt flats. It has been projected that these industrial activities on both sides of the Dead Sea mean its water level is dropping by around a metre a year. At this rate, it will be gone within about 40 years. One more reason to float while you can.