Jordan's Dead Sea

One of the most unusual places in the world is the Dead Sea, a place packed with history and paradox. Though it’s called the Dead Sea, it has historically teemed with life as the heart of the area that gave birth to the world’s three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Its shores are believed to be the site of five lost cities of the Bible: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar (or Bela).

The Dead Sea sits on what is considered the lowest point of dry land on earth, about 1,378 feet below sea level. It earns its name from the fact that the water is so salty it does not support life that normally lives in large bodies of water, such as fish, water plants or microorganism, though there are trace amounts of bacteria and microbial fungi in the water. But though it’s not healthy for fish, the water and the surrounding environment are considered uncommonly healthy for human beings.

The Dead Sea is really a huge salt lake similar to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It’s the second saltiest body of water on earth after Lake Asal in Djibouti. Its level of salinity is about 30 percent, many times greater than that of the Mediterranean Sea, for example, which is about 3.5 percent. The high salt content makes human bodies very buoyant in the water, practically bouncing to the surface with such force that it makes it difficult to even maintain the vertical position of treading water. The chemical composition of the salt in the Dead Sea is also very different from the salt in most oceans, with a rich composition of minerals, many of them considered to be healthy and therapeutic.

The chemical composition of the Dead Sea’s water has such a reputation for being good for health that mud from its shores is marketed around the world as an ingredient in high-priced cosmetics and therapeutic treatments. The bromides in the air around the Dead Sea are said to be healthy to breathe, and the dry, desert air is largely free of pollens and pollutants. The reduced ultraviolet component in the sunlight and the higher atmospheric pressure that result from its low altitude are also seen to be beneficial to health. People with breathing disorders like cystic fibrosis are said to benefit from the increased atmospheric pressure. People with psoriasis are able to gain more benefit from the sun than in higher elevations because lower levels of ultraviolet light make it possible to sit longer in the sun.

Like the rest of Jordan and the surrounding region, the Dead Sea has a rich and varied history. The Greeks called it Asphaltities because of the chunks of asphalt that surface naturally in the water. After an earthquake, the sea has produced chunks of asphalt as big as houses. Aristotle wrote of the remarkable qualities of the water of the Dead Sea. The Nabateans, who were the creators of Petra with its sophisticated water engineering, learned how to extract the bitumen from the water to sell to the Egyptians for use in their embalming process.

The infamous King Herod, known for the slaughter of the innocents told in the New Testament Book of Matthew, built several fortresses on the West Bank of the Dead Sea. The Qumran Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, is about a mile west of the Dead Sea. There are monasteries in the area that are pilgrimage points for traveling Christians. The area is part of Islamic history as the home of the prophet Lut. And Bedouin tribes have also lived continuously in the area.

Jordan shares the Dead Sea with Israel, Jordan on the east bank and Israel on the west. The Jordan side is just becoming developed. In recent years a new convention center, the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center, was completed and three luxury hotels that have been developed in recent years to provide accommodations for the conventions and to develop the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea for tourism. The three hotels near the convention center are all very high end hotels, offering all the top amenities, beach and pool facilities, spa and exercise facilities, Internet access, conference accommodations and fine restaurants.

-- David Cogswell

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