Abigail Klein Leichman
July 11, 2011, Updated September 12, 2012
Floating on the Dead Sea

Photo by Rafael Ben Ari/Chameleons Eye
Floating comes easy in the salty waters of the Dead Sea.

Where else can you go to enjoy a healing mud bath, spectacular desert vistas, a world-class opera, ancient artifacts from a brave battle against the mighty Roman Empire – and even an artistic nude photo shoot? Only Israel’s Dead Sea, the lowest spot on Earth and one of the most beloved for its magical milieu since biblical times.

“This is the place where I can rest and go through a ‘rebirthing,’ where I feel the strongest spiritual connection, where I feel purified and cleansed,” said Israeli choreographer-dancer Ido Tadmor when he recently filmed a new dance piece on the shores of the sea.

The Dead Sea and environs – including Masada National Park, Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and the caves of Qumran — constitute the third most popular tourist site in Israel.

According to Oren Drori of the Israeli Tourism Ministry, the ministry has invested millions of dollars in developing the Dead Sea and its surroundings into a world-class destination. It is a major resort on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the water.

Sitting in the heart of the Great Syrian-African Rift Valley, the Dead Sea is flanked by the Judean Mountains on the west, Jordan and the mountains of Moab on the east, the Jordan Valley and Sea of Galilee to the north and the Negev Desert and Red Sea to the south.

History, hiking and healing

More than a million domestic and foreign tourists to Israel visit this area every year. Masada, a symbolic ancient fortification and UNESCO World Heritage Site overlooking the sea, was the most popular Israeli pay-to-enter tourist locale in 2010. A four-year-old museum there showcases rare archeological finds, and a sound-and-light show dramatizes the story of 967 Jewish men, women and children who eventually committed group suicide at Masada rather than be thrown on the mercy of the thousands-strong Roman Legion.

Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, a history-soaked wildlife and hikers’ paradise located close by the shores of the sea, came in fifth on the most-popular list.

Dead Sea from Masada

Photo courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism
View of the Dead Sea from Masada National Park, an ancient fortress on top of a cliff, and Israel’s most visited tourist site.

In the nearby caves of Qumran, a 1940s Bedouin shepherd discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of 972 ancient texts from the Jewish Scriptures. They have since been traveling the world on exhibitions – most recently, in Chicago — and are permanently housed in the Shrine of the Book on the Israel Museum campus.

But nothing beats the sea itself for novelty. Sitting approximately 417 meters (1,368 feet) below sea level along the Jordan Rift Valley, the 42-mile-long Dead Sea earned its name from its extreme salinity. Though a variety of desert animals roam the region, creatures cannot survive in the warm, mineral-rich waters, which are 10 times more salty than the water in the Mediterranean Sea. Its Hebrew name, Yam Hamelach, means “Salt Sea.”

The high salt concentration is the secret behind the ability to bob on the surface effortlessly. And its rich minerals and mud baths provide a unique skin salve, leading to the Dead Sea’s reputation as a healing vacation spot and the source of ingredients in cosmetics sold internationally. Dead Sea mud contains 21 minerals, 12 of which are found nowhere else on the planet.
Visitors include opera fans and Chilean miners

Dead Sea salt

Photo courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism
Salt has been building up in the Dead Sea since prehistoric times.

These unique characteristics, combined with the sheer beauty of the setting and its wildlife, earned the Dead Sea a nomination on the New Seven Wonders ballot, a popular vote to be decided on 11/11/11 (November 11, 2011). In 2009, Drori’s staff launched a multi-pronged marketing and publicity campaign to get out the vote, backed by the infusion of four million shekels per year, or almost $1 million.

Regardless of the contest, the Dead Sea has long been a main anchor for Israeli tourism along with Eilat, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Drori tells ISRAEL21c. But the hype and extra infusion of cash will, he hopes, “raise awareness of the Dead Sea and Israel as a whole that will give people a notion to think about coming.”

Dead Sea Ido Tadmor

Photo by Inbal Marmari
Choreographer Ido Tadmor dancing at the Dead Sea.

Lately, there have been more reasons than ever to visit the Dead Sea, as opera fans worldwide found out over the past two summers. A specially constructed stage and outdoor arena at Masada provided the old-new backdrop for full-scale performances of the Verdi opera “Nabucco” in 2010 and “Aida” at this June’s well-attended Israel Opera Festival.

The Dead Sea was one of the stops in a government-sponsored tour of Israel for the rescued Chilean miners earlier this year. The delighted visitors slathered themselves with the healing mud that forms the basis of Ahava cosmetics and other skin products.

The miners were devout Christians, a segment of world tourism that’s a growing focus for the Tourism Ministry and its 17 international branch offices. The ministry has placed promotional radio spots through the National Religious Broadcasters, which reaches a vast evangelical Christian audience in the United States and elsewhere.

But the religious market is only at one end of a spectrum of Dead Sea fans. An unusual boost for the sea came earlier this year when American art photographer Spencer Tunick launched a successful campaign to raise $70,000 from private sponsors to pull off his “Naked Sea” project, which will depict a crowd of about 3,000 unclothed people at the site this fall.

Drilling up the past, looking to the future

Tunick’s idea is not merely a publicity stunt around the Seven Wonders of the World Contest. His project is aimed at bringing attention to the diminishing waters of the Dead Sea. For years now, scientists have been floating solutions to the sea’s mostly manmade ecological problems, which have caused the water level to fall each year since 1950.

“The sadness of seeing the Dead Sea retreat and the fact that we could lose this body of water is quite a visual tragedy,” Tunick said in May.

That same month, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan presented an integrated plan to preserve the Dead Sea with an investment of NIS 750 million ($172 million).

Dead Sea mud

Photo courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism
The mineral-rich mud of the sea is a healing skin salve.

One main aspect of the plan is dredging and relocating about 20 million tons of salt from the southern to the northern portion of the sea because it is feared that this concentration will – ironically, given the diminishing overall level of the sea — cause flooding at the resort hotels clustered at the southern tip.

This unnatural phenomenon was caused by years of intensive harvesting and pumping operations by the Dead Sea Works, the world’s seventh largest producer and supplier of potash products, as well as chemical products, bath salts, table salt and raw materials for the cosmetic industry. The company is expected to foot much of the bill for the five-year project.

Nir Papay, vice president of environmental and nature preservation of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, lauded Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov for his “courageous, just and very environmental decision … that will provide the Dead Sea area with the only long-range solution, which will bring an optimal balance between the three dominant elements – environment, tourism and industry – in the southern basin.”

In the meantime, researchers from Israel, Jordan and the World Bank are conducting a $14 million study into the feasibility of replenishing the Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea.

Whether or not this happens, the sea is of great interest for the history that lies beneath its always-warm surface.

At the end of 2010, 40 scientists from six countries came for a historic drilling project to extract a continuous core sample from hundreds of feet below the surface of the Dead Sea, extending back to four ice ages ago. The samples are now being studied for clues to phenomena from earthquakes and climate change to prehistoric human migration and cultural evolution.

There’s also a new initiative within the Ministry of Education to get schoolchildren learning more about the Dead Sea and its long recorded history. In the Bible, the Dead Sea — called the Eastern Sea or Sea of the Arava — was a prominent landmark in the infamous Sodom and Gomorra episode. King David, King Herod, Jesus and John the Baptist all are linked with the Dead Sea and its surroundings, and even the philosopher Aristotle wrote about the remarkable waters.

As recorded in the book of Samuel, Ein Gedi’s caves served as the biblical David’s refuge from the wrathful King Saul. Today, David would have more than 4,000 hotel rooms to choose from for his hideout, ranging from kibbutz resorts and a youth hostel to luxury hotels and Bedouin-style accommodations.

The Dead Sea, says the Tourism Ministry’s Drori, “is a location that combines quality, tranquility and history.”

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