The spectre of King Herod and legendary lovers Anthony and Cleopatra seemed to hover over Israel’s Judean Desert as we drove from Jerusalem towards our destination — the Dead Sea. Stark, sterile with the magic of a moonscape, slashed by canyons and cliffs and canopied by wide skies, the endless desert had a hypnotic quality. Indeed the seemingly unending sandy stretch was a dramatic prelude to the slash of silvery-white — the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.
Herod and the Roman General Anthony and Egyptian queen Cleopatra were good friends and often wallowed in the Dead Sea, as its mineral-rich waters were known to have therapeutic qualities even back then. Indeed, wily Cleopatra once asked Anthony (who ruled the Middle East after the death of the Roman emperor Julius Caesar) to gift the mineral-rich Dead Sea region to her to prove his love. Anthony declined saying that it was not his to give as it belonged to Herod, his friend.
Herod so loved the Dead Sea that he built the hilltop fortress of Masada (accessed today by cable car), overlooking the briny sea. Herod was also insecure and paranoid and built Masada as an inviolable refuge for himself and his family. Even today, the natural rock fortress has an air of lonely magnificence, with its hanging palaces and the fragments of mosaics, frescoes, water systems and baths, which are a tribute to Herod’s grand style. Only a great builder like him and a man whose mental faculties were greatly impaired by the time he died could have conceived of and built such an architectural masterpiece and then decided never to occupy it!
The Dead Sea region is a charmed space and sacred, too. For at the southern end of these shores, according to the Bible, the Lord rained fire and brimstone on the sinning people of Sodom and Gomorrah even as he warned the only good man (Lot) who lived in those cities to leave with his wife and never look back. However, his wife looked back at the burning towns, and God turned her into a pillar of salt. Our Indian-origin guide Roly pointed out a rocky pillar which, legend has it, is Lot’s wife.
And stirred with dollops of legend, biblical fables and mystery, there is salt aplenty! When we stepped into the Dead Sea, in actual fact the most saline of any natural lake, and saltier than any ocean, we found ourselves floating. And as we did so, we could see the salt-caked bed through the clear waters, and nothing else. We were cautious and only floated on our backs to avoid swallowing the potent liquid, for a warning sign on the beach warned that if by chance anyone inadvertently swallowed the water, he or she should contact the hotel staff and get immediate medical attention.
Soon we felt the rigours of the journey slip away and revelled in a sea that since Biblical times has been viewed as a place for miraculous cures. Awash in a sense of peace and quietude, we felt enfolded in a separate silence. We were out soon as doctors recommend that one spends only 15 minutes at a time in these waters.
The Dead Sea’s salt content (six times denser than the Mediterranean), high mineral content (bromine, which has a calming effect on the nervous system), oxygen-rich atmosphere and viscous black mud — all were sought out, since biblical times, for their curative and beautifying properties. The heady cocktail of sunshine, Dead Sea water and mineral-rich mud works wonders on arthritis, rheumatism, skin disease like psoriasis etc. Since it is located at the lowest point on earth (1,300 feet below sea level) the Dead Sea is blanketed with extra layers of ozone-rich air that filters out the harmful rays of the sun.
Our hotel was located on a private beach in the Ein Bokek area with its cluster of impressive hotels. On the beach, guests stretched out on loungers and tanned. A haze that floats over the sea filters out the sun’s rays so you can tan in a more healthy way. Later we floated some more in the hotel’s indoor heated pool, filled with the richness of Dead Sea water, letting the healing waves of salt and minerals wash over bodies. The ambience was convivial and we spoke to other guests who floated around like inert bodies. They quizzed us about Bollywood actors and music and even broke into some popular Indian film songs — Ichaka daana beechaka dana being the hot favourites!
The hotel’s spa area has a jacuzzi, Turkish bath, sulphur pool, sauna, hydrotherapy, solarium etc, and a Dead Sea mud wrap is considered de rigueur there. On an earlier visit, we had experienced this unique therapy where hot slimy black mud was slapped on our bodies and then we were swaddled in a plastic sheet and towels, and left to simmer in the concoction. We lay supine, hovering between sleep and wakefulness and lulled by soft piped music.
It felt like eternity, but in actual fact it was just for 20 minutes that we lay there before being unwrapped, photographed in the mud pack and then hosed down with a hand-held shower!
That evening at the hotel, they packed a wallop — a sumptuous dinner and toe-tapping music. Later we strolled along the deserted beach; the waters were calm and serene, a molten moon hung like a stranded kite in the sky and trickled silvery beams in our open palms. The next morning, as we travelled to our next destination, we looked back at the hot dry ridges, the shimmering calm of the Dead Sea, the lush oases... we felt mellow and at peace.
El Al flies direct from India to Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, which is a 45-minute drive from Jerusalem and 20-minute drive from Tel Aviv. Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul, a very convenient connection.
With hotels to suit most budgets, the Dead Sea region has a modern pulsating side to it. There are lively bars and restaurants where you can unwind after a day in the sun.
The Dead Sea can also figure as a day’s excursion from Jerusalem; the tour will take in Masada as well as a ‘kibbutz en route’. The region has a number of outlets that sellDead Sea beauty products.