Alive with salts

Alive with salts

Eccentric fun

Alive with salts

Popular jaunt: Tourists throng the Dead Sea. Photo by authors

To start with, it isn’t. It’s neither dead nor a sea. It is a saltwater lake. And it is far from dead. Apart from a whole host of harmless bacteria, it is alive with tourists who revel in the many strange things about this wonderful place. For one thing it’s the lowest body of water on earth. Its surface is 395 meters below sea level so there is a great deal more air above you than in any other lake on earth.

We had driven all the way from Amman, the capital of Jordan, through patches of lush farmland, past groves of succulent figs and gnarled old olive trees and into landscapes that looked increasingly as if they had been teleported from the moon. They were bare and eroded, filled width bizarre outcrops of rocks, wreathed with legends from the Old Testament of the Bible, the common heritage of Jews, Christians and Muslims. 

John the Baptist, had walked here, living on wild beans and honey. He could have been a member of the austere Essene Sect. Their beliefs, written on papyrus and leather, were found hidden in caves in this barren land and are called The Dead Sea Scrolls. We personally see an odd similarity between them and the beliefs of Jains and Buddhists. But that is another story. 

We drove on, deeper and deeper into this arid land, plunging into the fabled past of our faith. Our guide stopped our car. “You see that rock, thrusting out of the barren mountainside? They call it Lot’s Wife.” The Biblical tale welled up, out of our childhood.

The wicked Cities on the Plains, Sodom and Gomorrah, were destroyed in a deluge of fire and brimstone, with only the righteous family of Lot permitted to escape.

 But Lot’s wife, defying divine decree, looked back and was petrified into a pillar of salt. We didn’t scramble up the scree of the slope to taste the salinity of the pillar but we did ask, “What happened to the cursed cities?” Our guide looked grave: “They were swallowed up by what we Arabs call Buhayrat Lut, The Sea of Lot, or al-Bahr al-Mayyitt, the Sea of Death. Behold, it is there…”

We stepped across and looked down. The stretch of water spreading between the bare mountains of Jordan and Israel looked as cold and uninviting as the Arctic Ocean. And that, in spite of the fact that the temperature outside was 30 degrees. But when we checked into our hotel, the Movenpic, built like a Greek village with paved paths, stone walls and shading trees, we felt much happier. A marmalade cat purred on our patio and, in the day, a breeze riffled the leaves of the trees, blowing off the sea; at night it reversed direction keeping temperatures to a balmy mediterranean level. We were there in August but, we were told, it gets much hotter in summer.  

Floating away

We walked down to the private beach, past two fresh-water pools, left our towels and cameras on a beach-chair under an umbrella, strode across a gangway laid on the edge of the beach, and stepped into the sea. It was comfortably warm.

Other visitors were either standing in it up to their chests, or floating effortlessly on their backs, no one was splashing, no one was swimming. “In this water, our bodies do not sink deep enough to swim,” said a fellow bather named Marcos. “Look at that person, she even has a hat on so she will not dip her head in the water.” One of us did plunge under the surface and regretted it. The water tasted like liquid alum! But the buoyancy was reassuring.

So was the fact that every stretch of beach had its two vigilant life-guards; and yellow buoys, linked by yellow ropes, demarcated the safe zone for swimmers. Beyond that, the sea deepens and extends to the forbidden shores of Israel. 

We discovered that the best way to enjoy the Dead Sea was to lie on our backs, with our legs and arms apart to provide the greatest floatation area, and propel ourselves gently with our hands like a leaf drifting on the water. Swimmers accustomed to fresh water will probably find that the texture of the water in the Dead Sea leaves a slight film on the skin. This is because of the heavy concentrations of salts and minerals dissolved in it. In fact there is a thriving trade in the sale of Dead Sea salts — very popular as Bath Salts.

But the true Dead Sea fans go further. Not content with letting the salts dry on their bodies, after floating on the Sea, they dip their hands into large urns placed on the beach. These contain Dead Sea sand. They scoop out handfuls of this black stuff and spread it on their bodies till they look like variations of the creature from the black gagoon! Strangely, while women seemed to delight in using this unusual ‘body  lotion’, men appeared to shun it like the plague. Probably none of the men who shared the beach with us had, as yet, opted for the metro-sexual smooth look.

To find out what makes the bottom-ooze of the Dead Sea so appealing, we visited the Dead Sea Museum, about a half-hour drive away. There we learnt that this unique sea is what it is today because, while it receives the waters of the Jordan River, it has no outlet. Deep, underground, hot-springs also pump up ‘unusual concentrations of minerals related to petroleum or volcanic rocks’.

But in spite of these sources adding water to the lake, the only way it loses water is by evaporation. This results in greater and greater concentrations of salts and minerals every year. Centuries ago, tar from the bottom of the sea used to float to the surface and be sold to the Pharaonic people of Egypt to embalm their dead, and to the Mesopotamians to waterproof their ships. Later, the Arabs used its sulphur-stone and tar to make hand-grenades and bombs. 

The scientific reference to ‘sulphur-stone and tar’ made the hairs on our arms and the napes of our necks rise. This had, once, been a region of considerable volcanic activity. Fire and brimstone had belched out of the earth as the ground trembled and opened in great fissures, swallowing settlements and farmlands deep into the fiery depths, and the waters of the sea had then rolled in, covering it all. 

In which case, possibly, the concentrated, overactive, hormones of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah could account for the rejuvenating mud of the delightfully deceptive Dead Sea.

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