Israel’s Dead Sea Lives: Desert Critters, 4-Wheel Drives, and Beautiful Mud
By Ed Wetschler
Jerusalem may pull up the sidewalks for Shabbat, but the Dead Sea, about a one-hour drive to the east, stays open seven days a week (how could you close it)? And so do several other strange places in that neighborhood, at least one of which would be my Yiddishe grandfather's worst nightmare.
What follows is the best of the Dead Sea region, the best of the Judean Desert. Great stuff, but with one caveat: Don't try to see or do all this in one day.
JEEP TO THE MOON
If it feels weird to be 200 feet below sea level in Death Valley, CA, try -1,300 feet on the shores of the Dead Sea. If Death Valley seems quite dead enough, the Dead Sea Depression (an extension of the Great Rift of Africa) feels even deader. Albeit in a good way.
I joined a two-car "ATV" caravan (Israelis often say "ATV" when they really mean Jeep or Land Rover) through the starkest, driest landscape this desert fan has ever seen. No cacti or sagebrush here; we drove through gullies of chalk-and-limestone rock formations with nary a trace of green. The stones evoked fingers, faces, animals–shapes so bewitching that a sculptor might, upon seeing them, put those chisels up on eBay and get a job selling insurance.
Hey, insurance wouldn't be a bad thing around here, because people can and sometimes do get into trouble on this moonscape. After all, not everyone explores it with a guide and Jeep, as I did; some go driving, hiking, mountain biking, and camping on their own. Which explains why Gil Shkedi, our longhaired, reggae-playing driver, gets a fair bit of action as a member of the volunteer rescue squad. I picture him arriving at accident scenes with water, a first-aid kit, and a Bob Marley CD.
Near sundown, we drove up a little ridge and gazed out upon the Dead Sea. Beyond the sea, which is 11 miles wide, lay Jordan, a wall of mountains that the setting sun turned pink. A magnificent view, yet I couldn't resist asking him if he felt insecure about Jordan's border being so close.
"Not at all," said Gil. "Remember, we have been at peace with Jordan since 1967."
Point well taken. That 42 years is twice the time that passed between World Wars I and II.
(For more information on Jeep-touring and camping, visit Shkedig.)
THE DEAD SEA
Okay, you float. Now what? You could use this opportunity to take stock of the dings on your skin that you didn't even know you had. You can do this because these neglible scrapes and scratches are suddenly crimson; I, for one, once emerged from the Dead Sea looking like Mr. Measles. This is what happens when you swim in water that is 33% salt.
What's really great about the Dead Sea is the opportunity to follow your swim with a special mineral mud treatment. At the Crowne Plaza, one of several hotels clustered near the Dead Sea, you enter a treatment room wearing a bathrobe. You remove the bathrobe, sit up on a massage table covered with plastic, and an attendant/therapist fetches a tub full of warm, almost hot, Dead Sea mud.
He or she slathers the heavy mud on your back. You lower yourself so you're lying on the squishy stuff, and the attendant then covers your front half with hot mud; the idea, I think, is to look like a chocolate Easter bunny after the kids have eaten the ears.
The attendant then pulls the plastic hanging over the sides of the massage table up and around you, which keeps the mud from cooling. Then you're left alone in the room to bake.
Boring? No way. Lying there with no music, nothing to look at, no conversation — no stimulus except umpteen pounds of warm and heavy mud — I recently fell into the deepest, most delicious nap I've had since I was two.
And now I have beautiful skin. FYI, the Crowne Plaza sits on a beach, which is something not all the hotels here can claim.
I used to envision this UNESCO site as a fortress wall on a mountaintop. Which it is, but it's more than that. Herod the Great, the king of Judea who sired the Herod in the Gospels, built much of what you see there not as a bulwark against Rome, but to protect himself from his own subjects. Mr. Popularity, he was not.
Cable car to Masada. Credit: Ed Wetschler
Herod constructed his fortress — an entire city, really — atop a mesa that soars 1,500 feet above the Dead Sea. And he built it in a surprisingly Roman style. So after disembarking from the tram that leads to the summit, a visitor strolls past Corinthian columns, Roman baths, frescoes and mosaics by Italian artists, storerooms for grains and wines (also from Italy) …. Where are we? All this seems about as Jewish as Pompei.
But keep walking around the windswept citadel, and you encounter the remains of a synagogue — one of the world's oldest — and even a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath). Turns out that when the Great Revolt against Rome broke out in 66 A.D., a band of rebels who took their Judaism more seriously than Herods pere and fils seized Masada, and it was they who added these religious structures.
The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, but it took eight years for 8,000 Roman troops to overcome Masada. Just to reach its high walls they had to construct an earthen ramp – a man-made ridge – to one of the gates, and that massive ridge is still there.
As you may know, when the Roman troops finally did breach the wall, they encountered a sight that even they found sobering: Masada's inhabitants had, essentially, committed mass suicide rather than surrender. Visit Masada.
EN GEDI NATIONAL PARK
Maybe I shouldn't call this my late grandfather's worst nightmare; surely it takes second place to the clubs of Tel Aviv. Still, it's up there.
En Gedi (aka Ein Gedi) is a bona fide oasis right next to the Dead Sea. Unlike the oases of New Yorker cartoons, however, this one features springs whose waters have cut deep wadis (canyons) walled in by sheer cliffs. Peer up at the cliffs and you may well see Nubian ibex, with their great ram-like horns.
The park's several trails lead to the mosaic floor of a fourth-century synagogue, expanses of stark desert, wetlands, and waterfalls. Like little Israel itself, this nine-square-mile park packs a lot of variety. Its trees–yes, trees–include the intriguingly named Sodom apple and the Christ-thorn jujube of biblical fame. But for me, the star of En Gedi is a critter that's smaller than any ibex or tree: the rock hyrax.
A pair of rock hyrax. Credit Ed Wetschler.
Known as a cony, the rock hyrax looks like the love child of a guinea pig and a capybara, yet it's not a rodent at all. Improbable though it may seem, this cute little thing is a long-lost relative of the elephant. You'll spot conies all over the park, and you'll go cross-eyed trying to detect some resemblance to those behemoths at the circus.
If you take the Lower Wadi David trail from the visitors center, you'll also spot David's Waterfall, which plunges into an idyllic swimming hole popular with young Israelis. There I came upon a dozen or so Israeli teenagers and twentysomethings splashing, joking, flirting, and strutting around in swimsuits.
On Shabbat, no less.
Shameful, Grandpa, I know.
En Gedi's visitors center offers excellent trail maps with information about the park's wildlife, topography, and history; visit
email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 972.2.5006261.
For further information on Israel, visit Go Israel.