As you travel eastwards along Israel's Highway 1, past Jerusalem’s iconic limestone buildings, enclosed within that austere grey concrete wall, the road begins to plunge through the semi-arid landscape. This infamous city of one million people sits roughly 2,500ft above sea level, and a series of markers begins indicating our rapid descent. A few ear-popping miles along, a special vantage point allows passing visitors to get out and have their photo taken with one such marker informing them they have now reached ‘sea level’. And yet, the road keeps descending. Eventually, at over 1,300ft below that point it finally levels off and, in the distance, the world famous Dead Sea shimmers and sparkles in the bright Middle Eastern sunshine. We’ve arrived at the world’s lowest point on land.
‘Welcome to the wilderness of Judea!’ smiles Marion Bleiberg, my local guide. ‘It’s not only defined as desert; it’s defined as extreme desert.’ The bleak slopes on either side of the road are rugged and dusty, and present a formidable challenge to human survival, let alone habitation. Yet we passed plenty of ramshackle housing – all ragged canvases and corrugated metal sheets – belonging to the semi-nomadic Bedouin people, on our way down from Jerusalem. A lone shepherd boy on a donkey sits atop a looming hillside, watching our air conditioned vehicle cruise past on the sleek modern motorway, a momentary meeting of two worlds.
This part of the world overflows with ancient history. From the peculiar fashion by which the exposed rocky landscape is repeatedly layered upon itself – evidence of the long-term impact of the region’s occasional and yet formidable flash floods – to the extraordinary artefacts which have been uncovered from within these hills.
Stopping by an unremarkable clearing along the northwestern shore, we step out into the intense heat – approaching 40°C by this point – and Marion points emphatically towards the slopes in front of us. ‘See that cave up there?’ she asks, directing my attention to an almost invisible cavity in the rock. This generic-looking location, known as the Qumran caves, was where, in 1947, local goat-herders stumbled upon an almost complete collection of the Old Testament, written on papyrus and other parchment, and lost for over two millennia. They later became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Now housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, in a special complex known as the Shrine of the Book, they are recognised as one of the most important archeological finds in history, among the oldest collections of historical texts ever found.
As I’m absorbing all this, a 4x4 roars past us on the other side of the road, and silence falls again as it disappears into the distance, the clicking of my camera the only sound echoing around the surrounding sandstone cliffs, the juxtaposition of old and new giving me pause for thought.
‘Everything you see here that is green is because of irrigation,’ explains Marion, as we begin driving past row after row of date plantations. Water has become an immensely important resource in this region, despite our proximity to a basin with 600sq km of it sloshing around in it. The level of ‘saltiness’ of the Dead Sea is hard to fathom; evaporating a glass of water leaves behind one third ‘salt’ – in reality a mixture of magnesium chloride, sodium chloride, and calcium chloride, unlike the simple sodium chloride which forms our common table salt. This toxic mix makes life here extremely difficult indeed. ‘No flora, no fauna,’ comments Marion. ‘It’s too salty.’
And it’s getting even worse; the Dead Sea is currently shrinking by approximately one metre per year. Some beachside spas built in the 1970s, for people who wished to come and bathe in the sea’s ‘healing’ water, now find themselves stranded far from the water’s edge. It requires a shuttle bus service to get tourists down to the sea nowadays. Climate change is undoubtedly partially the reason, however the principle finger of blame can be pointed towards the siphoning off of water for agriculture from the River Jordan, which flows from the northern Golan Heights on the Syrian border, and ultimately feeds the Dead Sea. It’s an immensely strategically important waterway. ‘Whoever controls the Golan Heights controls all the water into Israel,’ says Marion, a measured look of concern crossing her face. While it is hoped that desalination technology may soon help the country supply fresh water for farmers without the need to keep over-extracting from the river, or that an ambitious and environmentally-questionable canal could one day be built to connect the Dead Sea with the Red Sea, 180km away, for now there is nothing to be done except watch the waterline gradually creep further and further away, exposing more and more highly precarious sinkholes in the underlying beaches it leaves behind.
“Masada is described by UNESCO as ‘a symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty’”
We journey on through the former checkpoint demarcating the ‘Green Line’ of the Palestinian territories, and past the Kibbutz Ein Gedi botanical garden, where incense, balsam, myrrh and henna are grown in small scale operations amid an oasis-like spring and nature reserve. Onwards heading south, we soon reach the spot, in this harsh and unforgiving landscape, which the infamous King Herod thought would be the perfect place to build his mountaintop fortress in the middle of the Judaean Desert. The result, Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a truly incredible creation. What from afar looks like a random assortment of ruins, after a cable car ride up to the summit (rising in height by over 2,000ft, taking us comfortably back above sea level), is soon unveiled as a quite unbelievable work of engineering. Remnants of Herod’s vast architectural marvel litter the summit, including a highly sophisticated water collection system, and the pièce de résistance, his glorious palace, protrudes proudly from the northern side, an historical tribute to his ambition and, to use Marion’s term, his ‘megalomania’.
Masada also acts as a monument to one of Israel’s biggest and most famous stories – the besiegement of roughly 900 Jewish rebels by the unstoppable Roman forces in the year 73AD. After desperately holding off thousands of Roman troops attempting to burn down the gates and even constructing an enormous ramp to take them up to the peak, their defences were eventually breached and night set in with the rebels facing an inevitable defeat in the morning. Facing the prospect of lifetimes of slavery ahead, they instead chose to die as free people, and committed mass suicide. When the sun rose, the Romans marched upon the site expecting a final bloody battle, to instead find hundreds of corpses. The site has special meaning to the Jewish people and is described by UNESCO as ‘a symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty’.
Enormous cliffs loom down on us as we drive further south, making the vehicle feel very small indeed, while pairs of raptors circle ominously overhead. We eventually arrive at Ein Bokek, and the Isrotel Hotel, our accommodation for the night. A quick change, and as evening approaches I find myself strolling down to the beach, awaiting my first dip in the famous Dead Sea. The haze which has lingered above the sea all day is finally fading as the air cools and as the sun slips away, the silhouetted Jordanian mountains on the far side across the water turn a faint pink complexion.
With staff scurrying around to collect the plastic furniture scattered across the beach, I join the last few swimmers for the day, and tentatively take my first steps into the water. The intense heat of the evening sun, casting long shadows across the orange sandy beach, is topped only by that emanating from the giant, salty bath I’m wading into. A digital temperature gauge sits stubbornly at 39°C. Warm air rushing down from the hills nearly knocks me off my feet and I finally take the plunge, launching myself into the water, yet desperately trying to keep my head above the surface as advised to avoid my nose and ears filling with salty liquid. Immediately I bob back to the surface, as though invisible hands are holding me up, preventing me from sinking as normal. I twist my body left and right, trying to find my balance, before finally reaching a comfortable equilibrium, and slowly lean backwards, reclining into nothing more than a watery abyss. Around me, small groups of tourists wade and float around, clutching newspapers and float devices for their photo ops. Ever the obliging tourist, I smile and wave accordingly whenever cameras turn towards my direction.
The future for this part of the world is still unclear, with environmental and geopolitical instabilities leaving question marks over the coming years. However, paying a visit to the lowest point on Earth undoubtedly remains a unique and remarkable journey.