The Dead Sea & Masada, Israel
A typical tourist excursion in Israel
(and Jordania) which also has its rather dark sides. Why? Come on – the name "Dead Sea
" alone couldn't have a much darker ring to it. Throw in the fact that Sodom and Gomorrah were located here! Moreover, the Dead Sea's shores represent the deepest depression on Earth that you can reach on dry land! But you won't need to take any Prozac along when going there (only lots of drinking water!). It's merely geographically the lowest point on the planet, some 1300 feet (400 metres) below sea level, in fact the northern end of what extends all the way down to South Africa
as the Great Rift Valley with all its volcanoes and earthquakes (cf. Nyiragongo
The Dead Sea is in fact not a sea at all but a salt lake, at 42 miles (67 km) long and 11 miles (18 km) wide it's not the world's largest by any means, yet it is one of the saltiest (cf. Garabogazköl
). Because of its high salt levels, it is quite literally dead – it supports no life whatsoever, no plants, no fish, no nothing. Except for a small bit in the north where fresh water from the Jordan river flows into the lake. In this section some fish manage to live – on a knife edge, as it were …
And then of course there are humans, such as the many tourists who come for a quick dip in these dead waters. It's said to be very good for the skin too, just like the black mud that people smear themselves with by the shore … The main thing, however, is the bizarre sensation of simply floating on the waters without any effort. The water's saline density has such a buoyancy that you can lie on you back and read a paper while gently bobbing on the water's surface.
But apart from the name, religious mythology, biology and the symbolism of its geography and its physical bizarreness, there are more concrete reasons why the Dead Sea is a dark tourism destination.
For one thing, the Dead Sea is also the site of an ongoing environmental disaster
– like the Aral Sea
, it's drying out and shrinking (though not quite on a similarly disastrous scale). And the reasons for this are comparable too – both Israel
and neighbouring Jordan simply take too much water out of the Jordan river, which feeds the Dead Sea, for irrigation purposes to support water-intensive farming.
For that reason the level of the Dead Sea has been falling by about one metre per year for decades. In some places, such as the famous spa at Ein Gedi, today's shoreline is miles away from where it used to be – so that you have to take a little tourist train (or march the whole distance in the blazing sun) to get to the water for the obligatory bobbing dip in the salty waters.
The drop in the level of water in the Dead Sea is accompanied by a drop in groundwater levels. Along the western shores this drop in aquifers, causing crysalization of the formally dissolved salts, has made the ground dangerously unstable. Many large sinkholes have already appeared and warning signs admonish tourists not to stray off the designated paths. Do take these signs seriously!
Other warning signs concern the actual water in the Dead Sea: its extreme salinity of around 33% that gives it its phenomenal buoyancy also makes the waters quite toxic – if you swallow any, you'll need immediate medical attention. For that reason, actual swimming is prohibited. Instead you simply "sit down" in the water – and indeed, you won't sink.
The Dead Sea is now in fact two seas, or lakes rather, the southern part has been separated from the main northern part for a while. The southern part is also much shallower and is indeed now just a large expanse of salt pans which are mined for minerals. It's the northern, much deeper part that is the touristy bit.
Towards the southern end of the northern Dead Sea's western shores you get to Masada – the ruins of a huge fortress at the top of a rock plateau some 1300 feet (400 metres) high overlooking the Dead Sea and the surrounding desert. This is the site of a historic tragedy: in 72 AD the Romans, in their campaign to stamp out the last Jewish resistance against their rule, laid siege to the fortress for a year and eventually built a huge ramp in order to conquer it in 73 AD. When they finally entered the fortress they found that all its inhabitants had committed mass suicide. Rather than being captured and most likely enslaved by the Romans they preferred to take their own lives.
The place of this drama is of great symbolic importance to modern-day Israel and has been extensively developed for tourism. There is now a cable car making the ascent to the top a breeze for today's visitors – unless you insist on doing it the hard way, either via the Roman ramp from the western side, or up the endless steps on the eastern side. A brief visit to Masada (by cable car) is usually part of day trip packages to the Dead Sea from Jerusalem
or Tel Aviv.
Such day trips are offered by various agencies and typically do in fact last a whole day. They usually cost around 100 USD per person (in group tours). You can also visit Masada and the Dead Sea independently, of course, by (hire) car. But note that you may need to pass through military checkpoints as you'll drive through the contested West Bank (Palestinian territory occupied by Israel) – in a way, though, this also adds yet another dark tourism element to the whole package …
The Dead Sea stretches north-south along the eastern border of Israel
/the West Bank of Palestine; with the kingdom of Jordan lying on the eastern shores of the lake.
Masada is located a few miles inland from shores of the bottom of the northern part of the Dead Sea.
- Dead Sea and Masada
- Dead Sea at Ein Gedi
- Dead Sea bathers floating like corks
- Dead Sea salt deposits on the shore
- Dead Sea toxic waters warning signs
- Dead Sea view from Masada
- Judean desert canyon at Masada
- Masada ruins
- Roman ramp at Masada