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.

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