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.
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, 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.
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.
Prices at Jordan’s RSCN-run nature reserves are high. The RSCN makes no apologies for this: it says that the reason it exists is to protect Jordan’s natural environment, and that it has built lodges and developed tourism as a tool for generating funds to help conservation and support rural communities. You may or may not agree with their pricing policy – but this kind of responsible tourism is virtually unknown in the Middle East, and the RSCN are pioneers. For now, until tourism schemes emerge that are truly community-owned, paying extra to visit the RSCN reserves is a good way to ensure that your money goes to benefit rural people and habitats.
Mazra’a and its village neighbours are home to some of the poorest people in Jordan, isolated until relatively recently and often subject to discrimination for their dark skin colour. In 2007, Amman entrepreneur Rabee Zureikat began working with the community to find ways to alleviate their poverty. Instead of the usual forms of charity and giving, flowing in one direction from city to countryside – and often demeaning both parties in the process – he hit upon the idea of exchange tourism. Both sides can give, and both receive: urbanites provide money and resources, while villagers show creative skills handling natural materials, cooking using traditional techniques and recounting life experiences. It’s a resourceful attempt to bridge a gap of memory, to show both parties that knowledge and outlooks carried from previous generations can still benefit “modern” life.
On that basis Zureikat founded the Zikra Initiative (zikra means “memory”), establishing active projects of exchange between Amman and Mazra’a: Ammanis (and tourists) pay a relatively modest sum (around JD30–35) for a day in Mazra’a being invited into people’s homes, learning how to weave, bake bread, cook local food – and listening to stories from this otherwise marginalised community (with everything translated for non-Arabic speakers). There may also be the chance to hike in the surrounding hills, or help out picking tomatoes on village farms. It’s a fabulous idea, executed with dignity and charm – and the project, as well as Zureikat himself, has won numerous global awards. Make contact well in advance to find out what’s possible and book a date.
In 2012, Zikra announced new programmes with the Bani Hamida community at Mukawir. Check zikrainitiative.org or search on Facebook or Twitter for more info.