In the December 3 edition of the Toronto Star, freelance writer Linda Gradstein describes how tourists walk in Jesus’ footsteps at the Dead Sea and enjoy its therapeutic remedies due its high salt water content:
Bila and Pini Yatzkan can’t wait to get down to the salty water and slather gobs of goopy black mud onto their bodies.
"This is the best place in the world and it’s so good for your health," says Bila, a 52-year-old educator, who frequently visits the Dead Sea beaches. "Every time I come here, I leave feeling better."
The Dead Sea, shared by Israel and Jordan, is the lowest place in the world at 423 metres below sea level. It’s also one of the saltiest – the water is than eight times as salty as the ocean. Anyone can float in the Dead Sea, even if they don’t know how to swim, and read a newspaper while doing it.
An estimated 2.8 million tourists visit the Dead Sea each year, according to the tourism ministry’s Uri Steinberg, making it one of Israel’s major tourist attractions.
The sea was in the running to be named one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but it lost out last month.
A week later, the Israeli cabinet rejected a bill that would have toughened up environmental safeguards for the sensitive ecosystem.
On a recent Friday, the first day of the Israeli weekend, the parking lot was packed with tour buses and private cars. A group of 40 Korean tourists were leaving after taking a dip, while a group of Americans on a Christian pilgrimage tour scooped some mud into bottles to take home.
"When you first step in it’s a little cool and then it feels great," said Eugenie Simon. "This whole trip has been wonderful. I feel like I’m walking where Jesus walked and Peter preached. I wish everyone could come here."
Many of the guests are Palestinians, who can now access the site from a new road that connects to Ramallah. One man, his face and body entirely covered with mud, smoked a nargila, or water pipe, as he waited for the mud to dry.
The mud is packed with magnesium and silicate compounds that soften skin and stimulate blood circulation. People with psoriasis frequently visit the Dead Sea because the low altitude filters out most of the harmful UV rays and they can stay in the sun for longer periods of time.
There are seven beaches along the Dead Sea. The northern ones, about a 40-minute drive from Jerusalem offer little more than plastic chairs and simple showers. Farther south, there are fancier facilities with heated sulphur pools and massages.
"Most of the tourists I bring are from Korea and they go crazy buying everything in sight," said tour guide Rami Li-on, looking at his watch. "But I want to get moving. We still have to eat, visit Qumran and do a tour of Jerusalem."