Since ancient times people have recognised the powers of the Dead Sea. Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba was the first to have faith in its healing forces, Aristotle backed her up and, later, Cleopatra travelled from Egypt and built the world’s first spa on its shore.
Today thousands of visitors from all over the world are drawn to the Dead Sea, which forms part of the border between Israel and Jordan, to treat skin disorders, muscle ailments and emotional maladies.
About nine large hotels and spas have sprung up on its banks, providing treatments and easy access to the life-enhancing water less than one hour from Jerusalem and two from Tel Aviv.
The sea is made up of 30 per cent salt and minerals, which accounts for the buoyancy. Yes, you really do float. Swimming in the water is like bobbing in a hot bath. The temperature varies between 20C in February and 30C in August, though swimming in it at anytime is not in the least bit refreshing or particularly pleasant.
Any scrapes and cuts sting in the water and when you leave it an oily residue coats your body. This is from the high concentration of minerals. But once swimmers feel the airy happiness and glowing skin that the waters mysteriously bestow, small physical discomforts are quickly forgotten.
Formed when a major earthquake created a rift valley from Syria all the way to Africa, and now at 400 metres below sea level, the Dead Sea is fed by the Jordan River and surrounding mineral springs that spout pure drinking water. Encircled by mountains, these waters have nowhere to go but up. They evaporate into the hot, dry, desert air enriching the atmosphere with natural chemicals, and concentrating the mineral content of the remaining water.
The water contains 21 minerals, including magnesium, calcium, bromine and potassium. Twelve of these are found in no other sea or ocean on earth. These minerals are proven to help skin diseases such as psoriasis and dermatitis. In recent years it has also been found that the area is beneficial for people with arthritis and asthma, and it is also said to be helpful to patients recovering from heart surgery.
Twenty years ago doctors weren’t sure what in the Dead Sea environment was so conducive to curing – whether it was the water, the warm sun, the black mud, the air or a combination of them all.
Today, Dr Marco Harari, clinical manager of the DMZ Medical Center at the Lot Spa Hotel, says they know exactly which factors are important for soothing each ailment. Harari says the sun is the most important climatic factor for the treatment of skin diseases at the Dead Sea. Going against the present medical advice about the sun in Australia, Harari says: “If you go out in the Dead Sea sun for 15 minutes you should not burn.” He notes that it’s not just the fact that the intensity is weaker at the Dead Sea, he also says that the area has more of the “good” UV-B rays than the bad UV-A rays.
For people with lung diseases the density of oxygen is the single most important factor. If you climbed a mountain 1000 metres high, you would feel out of breath and perhaps suffer from slight altitude sickness. In the Dead Sea area there is 4 to 6 per cent more oxygen. The average person would not feel this difference but, Harari says, for a person with chronic lung disease this increases dramatically their capacity to exercise and breathe freely. Such patients generally spend at least a month at the spas.
But if you are healthy and visiting the spas just for pampering, the optimum way to spend your day, Harari suggests, is two hours in the sun (one in the morning and one in the afternoon); two 20-minute sessions bobbing in the sea and coating yourself in mud after emerging; and two 40-minute walks (making sure to protect yourself from sun exposure).
Nearly all the hotels have in-house spas with a selection of heated sulphuric thermo-mineral pools, treatment rooms and access to the fresh black mud. Not all, however, have direct access to the sea. If this is an important factor to you, check before booking your hotel. Lot Hotel, Hod Hotel and Le Meridian have waterfront access. The Royal Hotel does not have a private beach but there is a public beach in front.
At the Lot Spa I choose the basic Dead Sea mud wrap in one of its seven mud rooms. A Russian woman covered me in warm black mud, wrapped me in plastic and then covered me with four layers of woollen blankets. Feeling like a mummy, slightly overheated and a little high on the sulphur in the air, I was left to cook for 20 minutes. After the treatment my skin had a very healthy glow. The black mud, which is very high in salt and magnesium, is said to help joint diseases, reduce the swelling and alleviate pain.
The Mineralia Spa inside the Le Meridian Hotel definitely has the nicest mineral pools, with floor-to-ceiling windows and Romanesque pillars. Bobbing in the heated water is gentler than facing the elements in the sea.
If you stay at one hotel for a few days it’s a good idea to visit the other spas, where you pay a small fee to enter as a day visitor. The Ein Bokek area, where the large hotels jut from the harsh desert landscape, feels like an attractive version of Las Vegas. The landscape is gorgeous: the golden-hued mountains against the blue of a Dead Sea framed by palms dripping with sweet dates.
Want to get closer to nature? Then there is the Ein Gedi Kibbutz (an Israeli collective community), an oasis on the western shore. Kibbutz members run the attached hotel, spa and nature reserve. There are several accommodation options ranging from dormitory-style accommodation to plush air-conditioned cabins with views into the Judean desert.
At Ein Gedi spa my routine consists of arriving mid-morning, lazing in one of the thermo pools for about 15 minutes, drinking as much water as possible and then heading down for the mud. I cake myself heavily and, as it dries, watch the other tourists as they, too, turn into black mud monsters. Then I rinse off in one of the showers spurting Dead Sea water and finally head down to bob around in the sea itself for 15 minutes.
On some days a swim in the refreshing sweet-water pool is just too tempting to pass up. Taking a walk through the Ein Gedi reserve is also as therapeutic as the spas.