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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Descent to the Land of the Dead
January 22, 2000

Click image for larger view
Taking a cruise on the Dead Sea
Green hills slowly give way to dry, rocky mountains. The bus I'm on, headed east out of Jerusalem, winds its way down, down and farther down. We pass encampments of Bedouins who still live in tents and herd sheep. There are a few newer settlements of simple concrete houses, used either by Bedouins or by recent immigrants to Israel (mostly Russians) who cannot find housing elsewhere. But mostly we just pass hills, dirt and rocks.

On the side of a cliff, there's a sign that says "Sea Level". Rounding the next bend in the road, I see more mountains beyond and below me! I can't believe I'm looking down on the tops of hills from "up here" at sea level! After about another half an hour of going down, we pass the city of Jericho. This may or may not be the oldest city in the world, but at 250 meters below sea level, it is definitely the lowest. I take off my jacket as the bus continues its spiraling down. Jerusalem had been cool and cloudy, but down here it's warm and sunny.

Finally, at 386 meters below sea level, we hit "rock bottom". Or should I say, a "dead end"? We are now at the lowest point on earth that is not covered by water! We take a right and head south along the big lake. This lake is an odd, almost unnatural shade of light blue. Yet all around, the hilly, barren Judean Desert looms. A few small date palm orchards are the only sign of life. You'd expect a huge lake in the middle of the desert to be surrounded by settlements and agriculture, wouldn't you? But nothing grows along the rugged shoreline here, among the white, crystal-like rocks.


bedouin - nomad; wanderer
kebbutz - communal farm or settlement in Israel
saline - salty, saltlike
tectonic - the forces or conditions within the earth that cause movement of the crust: earthquakes, faults, folds, or the like
This lake is special because nothing visible to the naked eye lives in it -- no fish, no plankton, no algae. The only living things are some 11 species of newly discovered bacteria that can stand the high salt and mineral concentrations. That's why it's called the Dead Sea! Even before Aristotle wrote about it this water was praised for its healing properties -- for everything from skin problems to arthritis. It has a thirty percent saline content (compare that to the four percent saline content of most ocean water) and high levels of the minerals potash, bromide and magnesium. But be careful! The curative powers are only for bathing! If you were to drink even a few mouthfuls of this sticky brine you would die of instant stomach ulcers! YUCK!

But I didn't come here to be cured -- I came here to float! Growing up, I could never float on my back in the pool like other kids -- I always sunk to the bottom. But not here! This place is a like a huge chemistry experiment where we can prove that humans, whose water content is around the same salinity as ocean water, can float. I sank as a kid because I am saltier -- and therefore denser -- than the water in the pool, right? OK, I've got my hypothesis, now it's time to check it out!

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Abeja and her mom getting dirty
After another half an hour in the bus, we reach a little kibbutz-run resort known as Ein Gedi. The first thing you have to do, of course, is cover yourself in mud. In stores they sell little cosmetic bottles of "Healing Dead Sea Mud Masque" for ridiculous amounts of money. But for those of us who are not shy, we can cover ourselves for free, in public, with the black goo, and wait for it to dry in the sun. The mud is full of minerals -- including sulfur -- so it stinks! "It's good for you!" I remind myself, as I giggle and draw a peace sign on my white stomach.

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A view near the edge of the Dead Sea.
As the mud dries, we walk down the long path towards the sea. This resort used to be on the shore of the Dead Sea, but now it's far away. You see, most of the water that enters the Dead Sea comes from the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee to the north. Today, both Israel and Jordan pump their water from that area, so at least 600 cubic meters of water is lost per year to drinking and irrigation and swimming pools. What that means is that the Dead Sea is slowly disappearing! It is now 25 meters shallower than it was when they started pumping water, and is still shrinking at the rate of one meter per year. Today it is 65 km long and 18 km across at widest point, but it has shrunk so much that now it is actually divided into two parts, with an exposed sand bar (or salt bar?) that goes all the way from Israel to Jordan on the other side.

The Rift Valley

The Dead Sea is in one small part of the longest valley in the world! Known as the Syrian-African Rift, this valley stretches from East Africa all the way up to Southern Turkey. It formed because it is along a fault line, a place where two tectonic plates are moving against one another. Coming up from the Red Sea, the rift valley is called the Arava Valley, then it becomes the Dead Sea, then the Jordan Valley, and then the Sea of Galilee. From there, it separates the hills of Galilee from the Golan Heights and is called the Hula Valley. This is some of the best agricultural land in the area!

So now, the moment of truth! I pass over the rocks, which are encrusted in crystallized salt and minerals, and walking backwards so as not to splash my mouth, I sit down on the water. Hands in the air, feet in the air, I'm floating on my butt! See, I'm not so dense after all, guys! I laugh and wave at the people on the shore! As I'm playing around with my friends and trying to rinse the mud off in the soft, sticky water, I accidentally splash some water onto my lips. YUCK! That is the most disgusting experience! I'm glad I didn't get it in my eyes! Every tiny scratch on my body is stinging as though someone squeezed lemons on it.

After I get out, I take a freshwater shower to rinse off the salt and the last of the mud, and then walk back to the spa to soak for a while in the hot sulfur spring baths. Ahhhhh!

"In the '67 War," an Israeli tour guide told me, "we brought our battle ships here to protect our border with Jordan. They floated so high up on the water that the propellers didn't reach the water -- they couldn't move!"

"But what makes the Dead Sea water so salty and full of minerals?" you ask. "I thought you said the water came from the Jordan River, which is fresh water!"

I'm glad you're paying attention! You see, the water does enter the Dead Sea from the Jordan River and some underground springs, but then it has nowhere to go! It doesn't continue south to the Red Sea, it just sits here and evaporates in the hot sun. So as the water evaporates away, all the salt and minerals that were dissolved in the water stay and become super-concentrated! After many, many millennia, voila: The Dead Sea!

Sounds like a great idea for a science fair project... create a Dead Sea in your own backyard! Don't tell your mom that it was my idea, OK?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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Team - Exercise Your Right and Write

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