A Little History About the Dead Sea

By Sarah Mann | Published on 5/20/2021

Less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem and surrounded by the breathtaking scenery of the Judean desert, lies the Dead Sea (‘Yam ha Melach’ in Hebrew). Landlocked between Israel and Jordan, it has the lowest elevation (423 metres below seal level) on earth and is an extraordinary natural wonder due to the high saline (salt) levels it contains. The result of this salty water? Not only is it impossible to dive there (and it’s deep), it’s impossible even to swim! However, with its warm, arid temperatures and endless blue skies, it's also one of Israels’ most popular attractions, not just for tourists but for its citizens, who flock there to relax, hike, or indulge in ‘therapeutic treatments’ such as sulphur baths and mud packs, or simply soak up the sun’s rays, which are excellent for skin ailments such as eczema and psoriasis.  

The Dead Sea view

The Dead Sea. Photo credit: © Shutterstock 

Why is the Dead Sea Unique?

Apart from the fact that its salt content is so high, and that it’s situated at the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea is unique because it’s actually full of life. Not life as we’d consider it - no fish or animal can survive there - but life in the form of minerals that aid and heal the body.  The evidence is indisputable - in fact, both King Herod and Cleopatra visited the area to indulge in its healing properties. 

Today, it is still recommended by doctors worldwide as an excellent destination for the treatment of skin ailments, arthritis, and high blood pressure. And because of its desert location, there is very little rainfall, making it a popular year-round attraction. Whether you’re looking for a stone massage, an aromatic salt exfoliation body scrub, or a rejuvenating mud scalp treatment, you’ll be able to find it here.

Mineral-rich Dead Sea mud mask

Mineral-rich Dead Sea mud mask. Photo credit: © Shutterstock 

Geology of the Dead Sea

About 2 million years ago, the land between the Sedom Lagoon (which connected to the Mediterranean through the Jezreel Valley) rose incredibly high, leading to the creation of this landlocked lake. As tectonic plates shifted, the floor of the valley shifted accordingly; at the same time, the arid desert climate led to the lake evaporating. As the years passed, the lake shrank and about 7,000 years ago, this resulted in what we know today.

More recently, water from the Jordan River flowed into the Dead Sea but today, with water diverted from the Galilee, its only source of water is from flash floods and sulfur springs.  Since water is continually evaporating (due to the desert climate) this means that the Dead Sea is actually shrinking, leaving behind crusty salt crystals which end up ‘snowing down’ up to 10cm worth on the seafloor each year. No wonder it’s impossible to swim here - the water concentration is so dense that your body automatically becomes lighter, leaving you floating to the surface!

Amazingly though, at the same time, the Dead Sea still helps support a complex ecosystem.  How? Freshwater springs and oases along the shore are home to many indigenous species of fish, plants, and mammals - including ibex and leopards. There are also over 300 species of birds in the area, including eagles, kestrels, and honey buzzards (all of which pass over, on their migration from Europe to Africa).

A salt flat on the shores of the Dead Sea

A salt flat on the shores of the Dead Sea. Photo credit: © Shutterstock 

The Dead Sea in Ancient Times

There are many references in the Bible to the Dead Sea, with it called by other names, including the ‘Salt Sea’, the ‘Stinking Sea’, and the ‘Eastern Sea’. Historically, it has been regarded as more of a territorial boundary than a ‘destination’ - nevertheless, many important biblical settlements, including Ein Gedi, Qumran, and the ancient fortress of Masada were positioned there.

Archaeologists also believe that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (referred to in Genesis as two notoriously sinful cities, and subsequently destroyed by God) happened in this area. The famous Old Testament story of Lot’s wife - who disobeyed God’s command not to look back and was then turned into a pillar of salt - is also believed to have taken place here. Fun fact: strange formations of salt, which resemble pillars, can be seen in the south-eastern corner of the sea, and have been nicknamed ‘Lot’s Wife’  by tour guides!

The Qumran Caves near the Dead Sea

The Qumran Caves near the Dead Sea. Photo credit: © Shutterstock 

The Qumran Caves and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Qumran, nearby, is also home to the spot at which an astonishing discovery was made in 1949, when a shepherd boy (looking for a lost member of his flock) wandered into a cave and stumbled upon what, today, is named the Dead Sea Scrolls. Approximately 2,000 years old, and dating back to 3 BCE, these documents (made of animal skin, papyrus, and even forged copper) give us extraordinary and valuable insights into the Essenes, a community who had fled Jerusalem for this remote area, so as to continue with its unique way of life.

Today, the Dead Sea Scrolls are a highlight of any visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Housed in an astonishing building named ‘The Shrine of the Book’ visitors enter this stunning white dome (an architectural masterpiece, designed to represent the lid of the jars in which the scrolls were found) to view these ancient Biblical manuscripts (also known as the Aleppo Codex). For any history lover, a private tour of the museum is highly recommended.

The Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jerusalem. Photo credit: © Shutterstock 

The Dead Sea Today - Shrinkage and Sinkholes

Today, there’s no point in pretending that isn’t a crisis on the horizon - the Dead Sea has a fraction of what it used to gain from its original water flow from the Jordan River. On top of that, the tiny amounts that remain are being diverted for other purposes - industry, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. To maintain its current size, it would need an infusion of 150 billion gallons of water annually and it receives about 10% of that. Time-lapse photography by Noam Bedein shows the alarming and dramatic changes that have occurred even in the last few years, as this landlocked lake literally dries up.

And as if this were not problematic enough, there’s another problem with which to contend - sinkholes.  As the Dead Sea shrinks, the freshwater aquifers along its perimeter recede; the water diffuses into salt deposits beneath the surface then slowly dissolves until the earth suddenly collapses (usually with no advance warning). In the last 15 years, over 1,000 sinkholes have arisen, swallowing up date palms, parts of the road, and even some buildings. More than one beach has even had to close, as a result. Scientists even fear that if things continue, the nearby springs that feed oases in the Judean desert will die too, leaving a vibrant ecosystem at great risk.

A gazebo on the Dead seashore

A gazebo on the Dead seashore. Photo credit: © Shutterstock 

Social Activism and Environmental Projects

Luckily, it’s not all bad news.  As more and more scientists and environmentalists speak out, highlighting the threat posed to the area, an increasing number of social activism projects are being set up, to counter this dangerous trend, Friends of the Earth Middle East, for instance, is part of a coalition of 21 environmental groups which have developed proposals to encourage individuals to conserve household water use. 

Moreover, the Dead Sea-Red Sea project is planning on opening a desalination facility in the area and, using advanced technology, aims to provide clean drinking water for millions of people in the region. Scientists are also trying to persuade local farmers in the area to plant different kinds of crops from those that exist now - olives, dates, and certain flowers, for instance, don’t require fresh water.

And perhaps the most well-known venture is the Dead Sea Revival Project, which aims to become a leading NGO for environmental education and activism. Producing films, multimedia presentations, and photographic exhibitions, they aim to raise awareness not just amongst tourists and Israeli citizens but on a global level. Their fascinating ‘Virtual Museum’ allows you to tour the Dead Sea from your electronic device, and see for yourself the beauty of the place, as well as get involved in projects and enter competitions, all designed to highlight awareness of the challenges faced in preserving the area.

Ibexes in Ein Gedi Nature Reserve

Ibexes in Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. Photo credit: © Shutterstock 

Sites and Activities in the Surrounding Area

For any visitor to Israel, a day trip to the Dead Sea may well be one of the great highlights. But it’s not just the salty water itself that will leave people speechless, but also a large number of additional sites to explore and activities to join, all in the immediate area. For those, not a fan floating in salty water, or slathering themselves in black mud, a simple stroll along the promenade (from which Jordan is clearly visible) is highly recommended.  All along are different beaches, with kiosks, cafes, showers, and sun loungers for rent. At some, it’s also possible to pop into hotels and enjoy their spa treatments. 

For the more adventurous, why not join a jeep safari? These four-hour adventures will take you inland, across rugged terrain, and let you see the beauty of the Judean desert up close and personal. These tours usually pass Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and also the ancient Murbaat caves. You’ll have the chance to experience some local Bedouin hospitality along the way, in the form of hot tea inside a large tent.

A jeep safari in the Judean desert

A jeep safari in the Judean desert. Photo credit: © Shutterstock 

For those who crave an adrenaline rush, there’s the possibility of rappelling down cliff faces in Wadi Qumran or skydiving off the face of the magnificent Masada fortress. If you’re looking for outdoor activity, but something not too extreme, then the hiking opportunities in the area are endless - Metsuke Dragot, David’s Waterfall, Einot Tzukim, Dodim’s Cave, and the Ein Gedi hot springs are all incredibly beautiful. The trails range in difficulty but there are 10 classed as ‘moderate’ which most people can manage. (Look out for the picnic areas, if you need a rest, and stop to look at the mountain goats on the slopes!)

Another possibility, especially if you want someone else to do the hard work, is to take an organized Masada and Dead Sea tour, or combine Masada at sunrise, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea?  Or, if you want a little culture thrown in, mix Jerusalem with a trip to the Dead Sea?  For nature and history lovers, it might be worth taking a private guide to explore Qumran and Ein Gedi, who will know the best spots for you to spy ibex, eagles, and rock badgers. Or if you’re simply in the mood to kick back, then book the Dead Sea Relaxation Tour - it will revive every pore in your body!

Qasr al Yahud, the baptismal site on the Jordan River

Qasr al Yahud, the baptismal site on the Jordan River. Photo credit: © Shutterstock 

The Dead Sea is also very close to Jericho and the Jordan River, which give you the opportunity of visiting not just this small but ancient town but also the ancient baptismal site of Qasr al Yahud, where John baptized Jesus and where pilgrims still visit today, to dip themselves in the water.  Sitting there, in the desert, by the Jordan, you truly feel you are in the wilderness. (Fun fact: historically, Christian pilgrims who traveled here from Jerusalem would be transported on camels - the journey took some days!)

The fact is that the Dead Sea and its surrounding environment have something for everyone - and especially with a guided group tour or a private excursion, with all the logistics dealt with for you, you’ll have time to take it all in. With its breathtaking hilltop fortress of Masada, a must-see for any tourist in the region, delicate ecosystem, and unique history, it’s the perfect destination for first-time and returning visitors. All you need to do is pack a broad-brimmed hat, comfortable shoes, sunglasses, and sunscreen and arm yourself with a bottle of water. Then start exploring - we don’t think you’ll ever forget what you see!

Camel riding near the Dead Sea

Camel riding near the Dead Sea. Photo credit: © Shutterstock