by George Medovoy
George Medovoy is a travel-and-wine columnist. His articles have been featured in newspapers in the United States as well as the American Wine Society Journal.
DEAD SEA, ISRAEL -- A voyage to the bottom of the earth may conjure up visions of a trek through uncharted territory, but in my case it was as easy as flying away on a comfortable EL AL 747 and waking up the next morning in a land that has been on the tourist map since ancient times.
My final destination - 1,286 feet below sea level, the lowest spot on earth - was Israel's Dead Sea, which is hardly "dead" at all. If anything, it is a thriving oasis - a source of life-giving minerals for the treatment of crippling arthritis and psoriasis, a place of incredible, pristine beauty colored by lush vegetation and vast panoramas, the scene of biblical history you can almost reach out and touch.
The sea is called by its common name because no form of life can live in its salty home. But the ancient Hebrews, who knew the water's innermost secrets, called it by a more accurate name: the Sea of Salt. It still bears this name to this day on any current Israeli map.
The view of the sea, as we descended into the valley along the highway, was awesome. There it was, the world's deepest lake, repository of 43 billion metric tons of salts, covered by a strange overhanging mist, the result of the area's very high rate of evaporation.
The Dead Sea is located about 25 kilometers east of Jerusalem along the border with Jordan. In fact, about half of it is in Jordanian territory. The salt-laden sea is about 55 kilometers long and about 18 kilometers wide. At its deepest point, it is 1300 feet below sea level.
Amazing geometric formations of bright, white salt - bold reminders of the sea's high concentration of salinity, 10 times greater than in the open seas - decorated the water's edge. The scene was framed on both east and west by eons of Biblical history - to the east, the Mountains of Moab in what was once the Biblical kingdom of Edom (now the Kingdom of Jordan), and to the west, rising up into a typically cloudless, pollution-free sky, the Mountains of Judea.
This, after all, was where God rained fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, and where, according to Biblical account, Lot's wife, the poor soul, was turned into a pillar of salt.
One of the most amazing things about the Dead Sea is that it actually makes your skin smoother after only a brief dip, the result of magnesium content 15 times greater than in the world's oceans.
The oily film on the surface of the waster is from the magnesium. The other thing you feel is relaxed - due, they say, from the high content of bromine, a tranquilizer, in the water, as much as 50 times more than in the open seas.
Since the time of the ancients, the Dead Sea has been known as a source of healing. Two thousand years ago, the historian Josephus Flavius wrote that "one should praise the Dead Sea…this salt brings healing to the human body."
Today, the Dead Sea attracts a large number of tourists interested in combining health treatments with sightseeing. The psoriasis clinics here have treated thousands of sufferers of psoriasis naturally with sun bathing and dips in the mineral-laden waters. In recent years, many first-class hotels have sprung up along the Dead Sea, including the magnificent Hyatt Hotel, which even features an indoor pool of Dead Sea mineral water.
The location of the sea combines with the heavy concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere to prevent a great deal of harmful solar rays from getting through, I was told. There are more than 300 cloudless days here a year. The temperature during our visit was hot, but the air was typically dry. From September to April, the temperature is generally in the mid-80's; from May to August, it gets as high as 104. But it is dry heat.
The sun is the great healer for many of the psoriasis patients who flock here. One of these, Brian P., a 23-year-old student from Toronto, Canada, was a case in point. "I came here last year with 85 percent of my skin covered by the disease," he told me on the beach. "I had been undergoing treatment in a Toronto hospital with creams and UV lights, and it wasn't helping. At the Dead Sea, my upper body cleared up in two weeks, and it had never been that clear…the third and fourth week it's unbelievable. I had six to seven months' remission. I came back this year with only 40 percent of my body covered. Maybe it will be less every year."
When you visit the Dead Sea, you must also try some of the wonderful therapeutic black mud! The mud contains large amounts of rich organic substances and Dead Sea salts. Although the mud is heated to 117 degrees, it is not as hot as one would think because it releases its heat slowly.
People suffering from arthritis apply the warm mud and wait 15 minutes for the heat to be absorbed by the body. Large vats of the stuff are visible on the beaches - along with visitors happily smearing it allover their bodies and taking pictures of themselves.
Whether it is combining health treatments with tourism or just traveling to see the sights, there really is plenty to see near the Dead Sea. A good starting point is at the northern basin. Here you can stop at Qumran National Park, where you can walk through the remains of a First- and Second-Century Essene community. The Essenes sought refuge at the Dead Sea.
Their religious texts, known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls, were discovered in caves near the water. The texts are now housed in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, but at Qumran you can walk through the remains of the Essene commune - public building, ritual bathhouse, pottery workshops, and a water system. The park also includes a cafeteria and gift shop.
Near the Dead Sea is Kibbutz Ein Gedi, founded in 1953 by pioneers from Israel, North Africa and North America. The kibbutz grows and markets dates, mangoes, pomegranates and houseplants. A major source of its income is its guesthouse, located in a setting of manicured lawns and colorful trees.
One of Israel's most amazing sights is nearby, the Nahal David Nature Reserve, with freshwater springs that feed cool waterfalls and refreshing pools. This is a hiker's paradise. All around is lush tropical vegetation, including wildflowers and the famous Apple of Sodom, a green fruit that is not edible.
Visitors can wade into the water at David's Waterfall. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can catch a glimpse of a horned ibex, native to this region, peering down at your from a ridge.
The one experience everyone associates with the Dead Sea, of course, is a dip in the water because of the fact that you can float effortlessly. The salt content is so high that it is quite impossible to sink. But you have to be careful not to swim or splash around because the salt content will seriously burn your eyes.
This is why an adult when in the water must supervise children. Another note of caution: even a small amount of Dead Sea water, whose main ingredient is magnesium chloride, will cake up your respiratory system and kill you.
Hovering high above this desert setting, slightly to the northwest, is a symbol and a reminder of early Jewish history, which visitors should not miss - it is Masada, the mighty mountain fortress built by Herod where a band of Jewish zealots held out for three years against the Romans.
When the Romans finally succeeded in storming Masada, they found that the 960 men, women and children had chosen to take their own lives rather than surrender to certain slavery. The fortress can be reached by footpath or by a cable car.
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