More than a decade ago, I traveled both the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the Dead Sea. Nothing truly prepares you for the feeling of floating higher in the water than seems naturally possible. But certainly that’s not the first surprise of traveling there.
For a place that has “sea” in its name, few places seem more distant from Earth’s deep blue than this desert-like basin. Here I was surrounded by baked hills of pale dirt and glaring stone painful to look at without sunglasses. At a roadside in Israel, we stopped the car next to a sign with a single black line across its center: “Sea Level.” This is one of those moments that demanded acknowledgement, like crossing the Equator or a continental divide. We took our photo op and continued our descent to the lowest point on dry land.
The land is uninviting and it’s hard to imagine not just the elevation but also its historical depths as a center of civilization, an unforgiving landscape that nevertheless has been fought over for thousands of years. But even as I thought this, we rounded a hill and an unlikely stretch of water stretches across the horizon, a haze blending sea and sky, blurring reality and suggesting a mirage.
Ruins and Romans
Like an oasis, a kibbutz palm plantation appeared, and nearby I came upon the first historical landmark on my route: Qumran National Park. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd didn’t stumble upon, but rather stumbled into a cave up in the mountains. His fortuitous accident revealed a system of 11 caves protecting a hoard of more than 900 ancient texts written on papyrus and parchment now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Careful examination and preservation made it possible to read apocryphal manuscripts from the Second Temple Period of Judaism, some of the oldest surviving copies of Old Testament texts, and descriptions of daily life and religious customs.
Qumran was a settlement founded about 2,100 years ago but two centuries later was destroyed by the Romans. While there is disagreement among archaeologists, most of them believe the Essenes, a Jewish sect that lived a communal life of chosen poverty. The Dead Sea Scrolls are what is left of their library. The sun beat brutally on my head as I stepped into a bath area. The Essenes took daily, spiritually cleansing baths, which no doubt also brought some relief in such a hot and dry climate. Somehow they managed to collect enough of the meager annual rainfall to keep this up throughout the year. A visitor center shows a film for visitors, but to see the actual scrolls, however, requires a trip back to Jerusalem and the Shrine of the Book.
Back in the 1980s, I remember a mini-series called Masada, and as I continued south along the highway, I came to the tragic site itself. A high plateau, a perfect natural location for such a fortress, still revealed the ruins of Masada. Jewish King Herod I ruled Judea but answered to the Roman Empire. Fearful of threats to his rule—he executed some family members—he built Masada as a refuge should his people ever rise up against him. Herod kept the fortress well-stocked and cisterns kept a good supply of drinking water. But Herod was decades gone when Masada became infamous for a last stand of a group of Jews against a Roman siege soon after that empire destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.
A cable car took me to the top where one can imagine how impossible it would be to attack this strategic perch. The Romans were nothing if not patient and methodical. They sat here in the desert more than two months before finally building a massive ramp to the top. But no battle awaited; the group had committed suicide rather than be captured.
As a counterpoint to the somber history, farther south along the highway is Ein Gedi kibbutz and its oasis-like 24-acre botanical gardens, home to more than 900 species of plants. Founded in 1953, the kibbutz invites travelers to stay and experience the communal life. I stopped for a tour and refreshments, noting that travelers can rent rooms there to experience a bit of the communal life in the Judean desert.
Fountain of Youth
My gradual descent into the earth ended at 1,388 feet below sea level, the lowest land point, right at the edge of the water, where, unsurprisingly, I found a strip of resorts along the beach. I checked into a seaside Isrotel Hotel, a national brand. Unable to contain my excitement, I rushed to the beach, shed my sandals, and stepped along an underwater mat over the stony bottom until it gave way to mud and sand.
A guidebook will tell you it is salty, but the 33.7 percent salinity burns the lips and shocks the tongue as much as a spoonful of table salt. Needless to say, you do not want to get it in your eyes or an open scratch. I moved in until the water was past my waist and already I could feel my weight lifting. I let myself go but my body wouldn’t descend even to my shoulders.
I lay back, lifting my feet up out of the water and still the water didn’t come to my chin. I put my hands behind my head, ankles crossed, like lying in a hammock. I could have read a book, to be honest. Sitting up then, legs crossed, I played the genie out of the bottle. But as much as I tried, swimming was impossible as I struggled to make strokes while a force like a flotation device pushed me skyward.
The Dead Sea has some fountain of youth effects: it’s nearly impossible not to giggle like a child as you test the preternatural limits of newfound buoyancy. But travelers specifically come to be rejuvenated. It may seem absurd, but the sun’s rays are inhibited by an extra atmospheric layer, so those with skin ailments spend longer periods taking in rays. The salts and minerals have been worked into skincare products. When I saw other bathers dabbing themselves with mud, I followed suit, allowing it to dry in the sun like a shell before returning to the sea to wash it all off.
The voyage to the sea, the history, the severe landscape, and finally the saline waters is an experience worth repeating. The next morning, I watched the sun rise over the sea and the mountains beyond, and before the heat got up, I packed the car and continued my journey, turning north toward the sweet waters of Galilee.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com.