Just a half-hour drive from Jerusalem, the Dead Sea is actually a large lake, 48 miles in length and 11 miles across. It is the lowest point of the Great Rift Valley that runs for 4,000 miles from East Africa to southern Turkey. With water that is ten times saltier than sea water, it is the saltiest body of water in the world. It is also the lowest spot on earth, 1290 feet below sea level. While you tend to breathe a bit harder while mountain climbing because of the lesser concentration of oxygen, at the Dead Sea you may well feel energized because of the greater concentration of oxygen. In recent years, the Dead Sea has shrunk in size because of over-use of the waters that feed it, but it’s still a must-see on any trip to Israel.
If you’re in the area, you must put on a bathing suit and go into the water. Nowhere else on earth can you have the experience of bobbing like a cork in the oily, mineral-and-salt dense liquid (it’s impossible to sink because of the density of the water). Just don’t drink any of the liquid—because of its high levels of magnesium, you’d die within a half hour of ingesting just a single glass. It hardly sounds like a hospitable place to take a dip, but after a brief soak your skin will feel amazingly soft and supple.
The minerals and salts of the Dead Sea are used for industrial purposes, but the area is also a center for medical treatments. People flock to the area for its nutrient-rich black mud, which is believed to heal maladies ranging from arthritis to skin disorders.
The Dead Sea borders the stark hills and cliffs of the Judean desert, which with just two inches of rain a year is one of the most extreme deserts in the world. According to the Gospels, it was here the Jesus wandered for 40 days and was tempted by the Devil.
On the drive south to Masada, you’ll pass by a set of cliffs where in 1947, two Bedouin boys found seven earthenware jars containing biblical manuscripts hidden 2,000 years ago by an ascetic community known as the Essenes. The Qumran manuscripts are the oldest Biblical texts ever found.