Forming what has been called the world’s biggest open-air spa, the amazing DEAD SEA (al-Bahr al-Mayit in Arabic) is a major highlight of a visit to the Middle East. Swimming in it is a memorable experience, quite unlike anything else on the planet.
The lake occupies the Great Rift Valley, a geological cleft which can be traced from Turkey all the way into East Africa. Its shoreline – at 400m below sea level – marks the lowest point on Earth, and, as such, is stiflingly hot for much of the year.
The Dead Sea got its name in antiquity due to its uniquely salty water, which kills off virtually all marine life: seawater is about three or four percent salt, but Dead Sea water is over thirty percent. It is fed mainly by the River Jordan, flowing south from Galilee, but due to the geological upheavals it has no outflow; instead, water evaporates off the surface at the rate of millions of litres a day, leading to continuous precipitation of salt onto the beach and a thick atmospheric haze overhead which dampens sound down to almost nothing – there’s little to hear but lapping water anyway. The haze also filters out harmful UVB sunrays, handily allowing tanning but not burning.
Many people come for therapeutic tourism: Dead Sea water (and mud) have medically proven benefits, putting severe skin diseases and joint problems into long-term remission. Beneficial calcium, magnesium, bromine, sulphur and bitumen are found in extremely high concentrations, and, in addition, the air is unusually highly oxygenated. Dead Sea skin-care products are a popular souvenir. All the big hotels have medical centres, which are often booked solid for months ahead.Read More
What to expect
What to expect
The major reason for a visit is that the lake’s high salinity makes the water so buoyant that it’s literally impossible to sink; Olympic swimmers and hopeless paddlers alike become bobbing corks. As you walk in (bring flip-flops: beaches tend to be gravelly), you’ll feel your feet being forced up from under you – you couldn’t touch the bottom if you tried, and if you lie back you’ll find the water supports you like a cradle. You ride too high in the water to swim: should you attempt a few strokes you’ll probably just splash ineffectually – and may also get water in your eyes, which is a very unpleasant experience. The salty water will also make you very aware of every cut and blemish: avoid shaving for 24 hours before a dip. Nonetheless, the sensation of floating unaided and silent on a flat, hot sea surrounded by hazy mountains is worth the discomfort.
Other diversions include covering yourself in the hot, sulphurous black mud that collects in pools on the beach; letting it dry in the sun before washing it off will leave you with tingling muscles and baby-soft skin.
Scorching heat (well over 40°C in summer) and exceptionally low humidity make dehydration a danger: while you’re out in the open you should be drinking twice or three times as much water as normal to compensate.
The Dead Sea is a popular spot for a weekend outing: roads, hotels and facilities can get crowded on Fridays and holidays. Bikinis and regular swimwear are fine at the private (paid) beaches, but elsewhere a T-shirt and long shorts are a minimum. One thing to bear in mind, if you’re planning a dip but want to avoid the big hotels, is that you should make sure you have access to a freshwater shower: Dead Sea brine is thick and oily, and leaves an uncomfortable layer of salt on your skin that you’ll want to wash off before dressing. Lastly, expect flies – lots of them.
The Dead Sea beaches
The Dead Sea beaches
Emerging from the hills after the steep descent from the capital, the Amman–Dead Sea highway passes a busy little intersection before meeting a T-junction: the highway bends left towards the Dead Sea hotels, while a minor road cuts right to the Baptism Site. The old road to Jerusalem formerly led straight on at this junction, but the King Abdullah Bridge which carried it over the river was bombed in the 1967 war and never rebuilt; it has now been superseded by the King Hussein Bridge 8km upstream.
Although you’ll pass one or two hotels near the T-junction – as well as turnoffs to Sweimeh village nearby – the Dead Sea’s main hotel zone lies about 8km south, past the mammoth King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Centre (w hiltonkinghusseincentre.com) and the Al-Wadi Resort water park (w alwadiresort.com). The hotel zone comprises a cluster of four- and five-star properties complete with pools, spas, showers, bathtubs, flushing toilets and a fairly extensive acreage of irrigated and hand-watered gardens, planted in what is naturally barren, salty soil. Almost all the fresh water for this hotel strip is piped from Wadi Mujib, which remains severely depleted. In such a desperately water-poor country, it’s a moot point whether luxury development in this particularly arid spot is entirely a good thing.
This area at the lake’s northeastern corner includes almost the only developed beaches on the Jordanian shore, the remainder of which is mostly lined with jagged, salt-encrusted rocks. Hotels usually allow beach access to non-guests – expect a fee over JD25 per person for a day visit, including towels, showers and access to hotel pools – but they may turn you away if they’re particularly busy: phone ahead wherever possible. Otherwise there are two options for beach access.
Some 2km south of the hotel zone is the AMMAN BEACH resort. Don’t be fooled by the name: Amman is about an hour away (and over 1200m up in the hills). This is the most easily accessible low-budget option for Dead Sea beach-bumming – not least because the car park serves as the terminus for public buses from Amman and elsewhere. It’s a well-run place with trees and plenty of shade.
There are two separate areas, both with access to the Dead Sea – the beach is a bit gravelly, but it’s OK – and both with freshwater showers, little play areas for children and café/restaurants offering simple meals (JD12–15 or so). The main beach area is a basic affair, with no pool and slightly scruffy facilities; women here might attract less attention covered up with a T-shirt and long shorts. The other area – entry is to the right of the main entrance – has a swimming pool and better facilities: women can feel comfortable wearing a bikini, there are lots of loungers (free), you can hire towels and the lockers are usable.
About 2km south of Amman Beach, O BEACH is a super-swanky day resort, with immaculate sandy beaches and contemporary urban styling throughout – think minimalist design, infinity pools, cushioned lounges, pool bars, luxury spa, four restaurants. Visit during the day midweek and you could have the place to yourself. Weekends – especially Thursday and Friday evenings – are busier, but despite the boutique hotel ambience, there’s nowhere to sleep: at some point you’ll have to peel yourself off the two-person lounge beds and away from the chill-out beats to drive away. You can even rent one of twelve private tented cabanas (from JD350), enough for ten people, with butler service and personal Jacuzzi – but, again, management will call time on the party eventually. Service is generally attentive and standards are high, but you pay for the privilege.
South of O Beach, the road continues along the Dead Sea shoreline towards Aqaba, roughly 275km away. We cover the route later in this chapter (see South along the Dead Sea road).
The Dead Sea Panorama
On the main road 5km south of Amman Beach, a marked turn-off climbs into the mountains: follow it up 9km of steep switchbacks to reach the DEAD SEA PANORAMA complex. This sensitively designed building – managed by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) – perches on a cliff-edge with spectacular views over the Dead Sea: footpaths lead away from the parking area to viewpoints, and there’s a short walking trail that covers a circular route around the site.
Within the main building, the excellent Dead Sea Museum covers four themes in fascinating detail: the geological origins of the Dead Sea, the ecology of the region, its archeology and history, and issues surrounding future conservation. The museum is spacious, modern and air-conditioned: the exhibits and accompanying videos make for an absorbing visit. Next door is an RSCN nature shop, selling handmade crafts and jewellery.
From a T-junction above the Panorama, a turn-off heads down 2km to the luxury Six Senses spa resort at Hammamat Ma’in. The main road leads up to the plateau, passing through Ma’in village and ending after about 30km at Madaba.
South along the Dead Sea road
South along the Dead Sea road
South of the Dead Sea hotels and beaches, the shoreside road continues all the way to Aqaba, roughly 275km away. This is a reasonably fast, mostly empty driving route, offering spectacular scenery that shifts from the deep blue of the Dead Sea to the sandy deserts of the Wadi Araba – though don’t get carried away: mobile police speed traps are common.
From Amman Beach, it’s roughly 12km south to a series of thermal springs at Zara, lying downstream from the hot waterfalls of Hammamat Ma’in. Zara is a very popular Friday outing spot, with cars lined up along the highway, and people alternating between dipping in the Dead Sea and washing the salt off in the warm spring water. Men can splash around freely but even in the secluded valleys women would do best to venture in fully clothed. A few hundred metres south of Zara are the remains of King Herod’s baths and Dead Sea port at Callirhoë, although there’s little left to see other than a handful of column drums and the remnants of a harbour wall.
Mujib Biosphere Reserve
Beside cliffs on the Dead Sea shore road, 27km south of Amman Beach, the Mujib Bridge forms a graceful 140m span across the outflow of the River Mujib; on the lake side of the bridge you can splash around in the refreshing river water. The Mujib valley system, which extends high into the mountains, is the centrepiece of the MUJIB BIOSPHERE RESERVE, run by Wild Jordan, the ecotourism arm of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). Below the bridge, on the cliff side of the road, is the visitor centre. Staff here have maps, brochures and light refreshments, and can advise on walking routes, though you should always book in advance directly or through the RSCN’s Wild Jordan centre in Amman.
The easy but dramatic Siq Trail (April–Oct only; JD13/person self-guided, JD40 extra with guide; 2hr 30min) heads into the Mujib gorge, leading you between towering sandstone cliffs to the base of a waterfall before returning; you may be wading or even swimming some sections. A tougher alternative is the dry Ibex Trail (year-round; JD21/person including compulsory guide; 4hr), which heads from the Mujib Bridge south to a steep access route up into the mountains, traversing a number of valleys on the way to a ranger station: you may spot ibex roaming wild here.
Longer routes include the wet Malaqi Trail (April–Oct only; JD56/person including compulsory guide; 6hr), a classic canyoning route, graded difficult, which initially follows the Ibex Trail before descending into the Mujib gorge and heading upstream to the confluence with the Wadi Hidan, then returning – via a 20m waterfall abseil – to the Mujib Bridge.
More options, and other walks that start from the reserve’s eastern highland entrance at Faqua, are outlined on the website. All routes are closed during Ramadan. For detailed trail reports, see w walkingjordan.com and Tony Howard’s fine book on Jordan walks.
Beyond Mujib the Dead Sea road continues south, hugging the salt-spattered shore below rocky cliffs. Some 24km south is MAZRA’A, a small town on what was the Lisan Peninsula – now a belt of dry land across the lake. Exploring the peninsula isn’t encouraged by the Arab Potash Company, whose massive factory complex stands nearby, but it’s still possible to turn off at the company’s sign, drive out a little way and then venture into the soft white sand on foot. You might stumble upon one of the old Byzantine monasteries that lie ruined here, unexcavated, in an eerie landscape forever sultry and thick with haze.
Ghor Mazra’a (ghor, meaning “depression”, refers to the agricultural lands around the village) and neighbouring Ghor Haditha are the location for an experiment in “exchange tourism” run by the Zikra Initiative.
About 1km south of Mazra’a is a turn-off leading up into the hills to Karak. Take this road for about 1km and you’ll come to the Bronze Age tell (archeological mound) of Bab adh-Dhraa, rising on your left. It’s a sparse site, offering a thick city wall and a handful of foundations – but the attraction is in relating the place to a name. Bab adh-Dhraa is the site of a large town which flourished around 2600 BC – some graves in the huge necropolis across the road date from as early as the fourth millennium – and is the leading candidate for biblical Sodom, location of so much depravity that God felt compelled to raze the city and kill its inhabitants. Standing on the tell today, amid barren rocks on the hazy shores of a salt lake, you can only wonder what on earth the poor Sodomites must have been up to in these rooms to deserve such a fate.
Lot’s Sanctuary and Museum
Near Safi village, 22km south of the Karak turning on the Dead Sea road at Ghor Safi, a sign points left to Lot’s Sanctuary – a rich archeological site that has thrown up evidence of Early and Middle Bronze Age habitation, as well as Nabatean pottery, Byzantine mosaics and the earliest example of carved wood yet discovered intact in Jordan: a door that dates from the seventh-century Umayyad period. The location – not to mention the notion of standing in Lot’s sandalprints – is dramatic enough to warrant a visit.
The Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth
About 1km along the turn-off from the Dead Sea road, you’ll spot The Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth, a grand, semicircular building designed to showcase the historical heritage of the southern Dead Sea area. It opened in summer 2012 – and seems set to become a major attraction.
Highlights within the modern, well-lit galleries include finds from the Lot’s Sanctuary site, including a complete mosaic pavement. There are also some extremely rare Greco-Roman textiles discovered at Khirbet Qayzun on the Dead Sea shore – felt hats and women’s wool-fringed head veils – as well as early Christian tombstones from Zoara (Safi’s biblical name). One display section explains the area’s importance as a sugar-processing centre during the Mamluke period (twelfth to fifteenth centuries), when dozens of mills processed sugar cane in industrial quantities for export to Europe: Zoara, then known as Zughar, may have given its name to the product.
The museum also has a small shop and café run by the local women’s cooperative, selling their handmade crafts (w saficrafts.blogspot.co.uk – also search Safi Crafts on Facebook).
The sanctuary, cave and ruins
From the museum, a track continues steeply up the hill to a parking area. The guardian will then accompany you up to the sanctuary site, which involves a tiring climb of almost 300 steps.
The first area you come to is a court, part of which has slipped down the hill, but which originally supported the floor of the church above. The main apse has seating for the bishop and is slightly raised. Five mosaics – one dated April 606, another May 691 – have been renovated, and may be uncovered for viewing once a site shelter is in place. The narthex was originally entered from the right, via a doorway from the court below; this ingenious piece of design enabled visiting Jewish and Muslim pilgrims to avoid stepping inside the church and instead head straight for the holy cave, the entrance to which is to the left of the apse. A beautifully carved lintel over the cave entrance, marked with crosses, presages an interior mosaic which mimics the round stones embedded in the roof. All around the church was spread a monastery: the remains of six or seven cells are dotted around the parched hillside. The views over the Dead Sea and the nearby town of Safi are stunning.
Safi and beyond
SAFI, at the southern tip of the Dead Sea, is the phosphate capital of Jordan, although – under the name Zoar – it also has a history as one of the five biblical “cities of the plain”, along with Sodom and Gomorrah. The southernmost portion of the Dead Sea has been corralled into huge evaporation pans for Jordan’s phosphate and chemical industries and, with its neighbour, the lush farming village of FIFA a bit further south, Safi shares a natural hothouse that is one of the most intensively farmed areas of Jordan, with bananas, tomatoes and other fruits as staple irrigated crops.
Just beyond Fifa, a scenic turn-off climbs to Tafileh, while continuing south brings you into the long Wadi Araba, with drifting sand and wandering camels all the way south to Aqaba.
The dying Dead Sea
The dying Dead Sea
The future of the Dead Sea is in doubt. In the 1950s, the lake’s surface area was about a thousand square kilometres; today, it’s less than seven hundred and still falling. The water level has already dropped by a startling 30m, and is continuing to fall by a metre a year. The problem is that greater and greater inroads have been made into the lake’s freshwater sources: today, far more water evaporates from the lake than flows into it. There are several dams across the River Jordan (as well as across its tributary, the Yarmouk), and – as part of its national water-conservation programme – Jordan has dammed all the major rivers in its territory that formerly flowed directly into the Dead Sea, including the Zarqa Ma’in, the Mujib and the Hasa. In addition, both Israel and Jordan have developed major mineral and potash industries at the southern end of the lake which depend on large-scale evaporation for production.
Since the 1970s, Lynch’s Strait, a channel of water that formerly connected the northern and southern parts of the lake, has dried out, turning the Lisan peninsula into a landbridge. Dangerous sinkholes are opening up in the soft ground on both shores. If things continue as they are, some estimates say the Dead Sea will dry up completely in fifty years.
In 2002, the Israeli and Jordanian governments called for concerted action to save the Dead Sea. They launched a plan – with the Palestinian Authority – to build the so-called Red-Dead Canal, to bring seawater 250km from the Red Sea at Aqaba to replenish the Dead Sea. The 400m drop in altitude would mean that large quantities of hydroelectric power could be generated, and there would also be shared desalination plants creating up to 850 million cubic metres a year of potable water by reverse osmosis, thus substantially easing the region’s critical shortage of water. The brine residue left after desalination would then be pumped into the Dead Sea to restore its natural water level. At the time of writing results of a World Bank feasibility study on the canal project had not yet been made public.
However, not everyone is happy. Friends of the Earth Middle East (w foeme.org), a coalition of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental groups, has voiced several concerns – not least that it would take ten years to implement the Red-Dead plan whereas the Dead Sea needs immediate action. In addition, as it currently stands, the Red-Dead scheme allows the unplanned exploitation of the Dead Sea’s resources to continue, with no bar on the numbers of hotels being built, and no imperative for sustainable development. There have, as yet, also been no detailed environmental studies on how the addition of huge quantities of seawater might affect the Dead Sea’s delicate ecological balance – or on the possible impact of a pipeline breach in the open desert. Time will tell whether the Red-Dead Canal is the answer.
Sodom and Gomorrah
Sodom and Gomorrah
The tale in Genesis of how God punished the depravity of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and how Lot and his wife escaped, is one of the best-known biblical stories. After arriving in Canaan (Palestine), Lot and his uncle Abraham began to bicker over grazing grounds. They separated, and Lot pitched his tents at the southeastern corner of the Dead Sea near Sodom, one of the five “cities of the plain” (the others were Gomorrah, Zoar, Admah and Zeboyim). “But,” as Genesis warns, “the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly.” One evening, Lot was visited by two angels, come to warn him of the city’s impending divine destruction. Lot, his wife and two daughters fled and “the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire.” Every one of the five cities was destroyed, and every person killed. As they were fleeing, Lot’s wife disobeyed a divine order not to look back at the destruction, and was turned into a pillar of salt.
Seemingly the last people left alive in the world, Lot and his daughters sought refuge in a cave in the mountains. Calculating that, with all potential mates vaporized, they were likely to die childless, the daughters hatched a plan to get their father so drunk he wouldn’t be able to tell who they were, whereupon they would seduce him and thus preserve the family. Everything worked to plan and both daughters gave birth to sons; the elder named her child Moab, and the younger Ben-Ammi, or “father of Ammon”.
The last of these bizarre biblical episodes has been commemorated for centuries, and possibly millennia, at a cave-and-church complex in the hills above Safi. Ruins within Safi itself, as well as at four other scanty Early Bronze Age sites nearby (Bab adh-Dhraa, Numayra, Fifa and Khanazir), show evidence of destruction by fire. At Numayra, archeologists also found the skeletons of three men whose bones were crushed by falling masonry. These five could possibly be the “cities of the plain”. The only fly in the ointment is that they were razed around 2350 BC, several hundred years before the generally accepted era of Abraham and Lot, although archeologists are still debating the precise timescales involved.