Low Point

08 May 2004

At 400 meters below Sea Level, the Dead Sea has the distinction of being the lowest point on earth.  It also has the distinction of being the most saline body of water on earth; four times saltier than regular seawater.  Up close, you can actually see the translucent salt swirling around in it.  Had a candid camera been around at the time, it would have been funny to watch the first human dive into the Dead Sea.  Emerging from the arid mountains to the east or west, the site of a spectacularly blue body of water must have been very appealing to the tired and dusty traveler.  Head-first with a splash, the appeal immediately ended as the salt entered the swimmer’s eyes, causing him to feel as if they’d just been lit on fire.  Whatever the Neanderthal equivalent of “Oh my God! Oh my God!” was, was surely heard by amused wild goats, camels, and snakes taking it all in from the shore.  I learned this lesson the hard way on my first visit to the Dead Sea.  A word of advice to my fellow travelers:  Don’t get the water in your eyes, and don’t shave any part of your body 24 hours before going in.

If these two rules are observed, a dip in the Dead Sea is an amazing experience.  The high salinity means that you simply can’t sink.  There is no need to tread water, as one’s body naturally floats high above the water line.  One can literally sit up and read a book, file their nails, or type out a story for the Castle Rock Daily Star (if there were such a thing as a waterproof laptop).

A 40 minute drive from Amman, the Dead Sea feels to me like the heart of Jordan.  The Jordan River flows into it from the north.  Most of the popular beaches are only about a 15 minute drive south of the Baptism site.  Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land, looks down on the Dead Sea from the northeast.  Herod’s castle views it from due east.  Lot’s wife has been unblinkingly gazing upon the water from the southeast for a few thousand years now.  And the southern most port city of Aqaba is connected to the Dead Sea by the aptly named Dead Sea highway; a desert road running through the valley that stretches between Jordan and Israel. 

The beaches attract tourists from all parts of the globe.  Floating around under a brilliant sun one recent Saturday afternoon, I spied a Japanese girl with her camera, a Hungarian woman in a thong bikini, and an Arab Muslim woman covered from head to ankle in an abaya, all smiling and relaxing on the shore.  In what looked like some bizarre Al Jolson tribute, all of them had the mineral-rich black mud that makes up the squishy bottom smeared across their exposed skin.  (The Hungarian needed a lot more mud than the Arab.)    

Sadly, the Dead Sea is shrinking.  Dams built by both the Jordanians and the Israelis have cut the flow from the Jordan, causing, by some estimates, an 18% reduction in size over the past 30 years.  Both governments are looking into fixing this problem.  The Israelis are considering building a pipeline from the Mediterranean and the Jordanians are studying the feasibility of building a canal from the Red Sea (sea level) to the Dead Sea (400m lower).