Dead Sea Walking

“Why are you here?” the Jordanian army officer asked. It was a good question. Why had two American backpackers gone to one of the poorest and least-visited parts of Jordan, and then walked through an absolutely uninteresting agricultural area south of the Dead Sea, and proceeded to make their way straight to the front entrance of a military base whose location was not shown on any maps, and which guarded the approach to the Israeli border?

“I’m writing a book,” I said. “We’re trying to walk all the way around the Dead Sea. I know we can’t cross the border here. We were just hoping to use this road to get close to the border, and then we’ll drive down to Aqaba and continue our walk on the other side.”

I looked around at the group of soldiers holding their rifles, at the officers watching us over the wall of the base, and at my walking companion Julian Bender. The officer kept thumbing through our passports, taking note, no doubt, of all the Israeli stamps and visa stickers. 

“But I see now that we can’t get any closer to the border here,” I continued. “I know this is the end.”

The officer closed our passports and looked straight at me. “Oh, no,” he said. “This is not the end. It is only the beginning… of your problems.”

The Dead Sea has been an object of wonder since ancient times. It sits at the lowest exposed point on the surface of the earth, and its waters are ten times saltier than the ocean. Almost nothing can live in it, though, famously, people can float in it. For centuries, its association with the biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah caused Western visitors to eye the Dead Sea with superstition. Even nineteenth-century military men who were commissioned to sound and survey the Dead Sea wondered whether their voyages on the cursed lake might, in the end, prove fatal.

The Jewish youth movement hikers who explored British Mandatory Palestine in the early twentieth century were more rational, but no less fascinated. Having trekked across much of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, they turned their gaze eastward to the mountains and gorges of Transjordan, the lands once known as Moab and Edom, which some Zionists viewed as part of the Land of Israel. In 1934, defying the prohibitions of their Haganah commanders, a group of twelve young men set out to circle the Dead Sea on foot.

Armed with illegal guns and a limited knowledge of Arabic, the group crossed the Jordan River in the dark, skirted the mud flats along the northeastern shore, and began walking south. At Wadi Mujib they nearly fell from cliffs and died of thirst; at Mizra’a they were almost arrested by Arab policemen. At one point, they robbed Bedouins of their water at gunpoint; at another, they attempted a similar robbery and failed. During their twelve-day trek, they walked nearly two hundred kilometers and each of them lost more than twenty pounds. When they returned to Jerusalem, they were treated as heroes.

As far as the 1934 hikers knew, they were the first people—in recorded history, at least—to walk all the way around the Dead Sea. Amid the violence of 1936, the British closed the area around the Dead Sea to Jewish hikers. After 1948, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Jordan made cross-border travel impossible.

Homemade Star of David at an Israeli shoreline encampment in the West Bank. (Photo by Shay Rabineau.)

By the time Israel and Jordan made peace in 1994, any would-be circumambulators faced challenges old and new. The border was still militarized and lined with minefields. Overuse of fresh water from the Jordan River and other tributaries caused the Dead Sea to lose far more water every year than it gained. Mineral processing factories in Israel and Jordan also consumed huge amounts of water. As the water level dropped, thousands of sinkholes formed along the receding shoreline. Tourist spas went out of business, infrastructure was swallowed up, and lives were lost. All of these processes are ongoing, and there is no end in sight.

The Dead Sea, in short, is not what it used to be. As I thought about trying to circle the Dead Sea today, I realized that there was a lot less Dead Sea to walk around. It has always been more of a lake than a sea. Today, the once-shallow southern basin has been entirely depleted, and has been converted into a series of man-made evaporation pools, artificially filled by pumping stations pulling water up from the still-deep northern basin. The remaining northern basin is less than thirty miles long, and it gets smaller every year.

So I called my friend Julian, with whom I had once walked across the Sinai Peninsula, and pitched him the idea. We would try to walk around the historic shoreline of the Dead Sea in an unbroken circle, navigating the obstacles as best we could. Along the way, we would see it all for ourselves, meet people, and in the end, I’d write a book and he would supply the photos and maps. On the Jordanian side, we’d have to walk along the highway near the shore and camp in canyons at night. On the Israeli side, we could use trails, but we would have to carry heavy loads of water and cover huge distances every day, often with steep elevation gains.

On the northern and southern ends, where there were no border crossings, we would do our best to touch the border, commute to legal crossing points, and then return to the border on the exact opposite side and continue the walk. It was likely that the border areas were closed military zones, patrolled by the Israel Defense Forces and the Royal Jordanian Army.

Julian is a sensible person who values his life, so he had questions. Yes, I said, there appeared to be minefields along the border. No, I told him, I didn’t yet know the exact points where we would make our approach. Yes, I did have some university funding to carry out the project. No, it wasn’t a large budget.

“I can only get two weeks off of work,” Julian told me, “so we might have to walk fairly quickly.”

That was how we ended up on the southern end of the Dead Sea, at the point we now remember as “the beginning of our problems.” Really, though, it was a continuation of our problems, because the northern and southern border zones were the biggest difficulties in what otherwise would have been a straightforward, if quixotic, endeavor: to walk around a medium-sized lake between two countries that shared a peace agreement.

Just north of the Dead Sea, one can find the traditional site of Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River. Old churches on both banks of the river mark the spot, which is known on the Israeli-controlled side as Qasr al-Yahud and on the Jordanian side as al-Maghtas. It is the only place where one can get right into the water and almost touch the international border, which follows the centerline of the river. Our plan was to begin in Jordan at al-Maghtas, walk clockwise around the sea, and finish the trek at Qasr al-Yahud.

There were two problems, actually, at al-Maghtas. The first was that the Jordanian military closely monitored the area for smugglers and required visitors to ride shuttle buses to and from the site. Since our goal was to walk around the Dead Sea on foot, we didn’t want to ride a shuttle bus. During an advance planning call, one of our Jordanian contacts suggested that once we got there on the bus, we might try detaching ourselves from our mandatory guide and see if we could get away with just walking eastward through the military zone. “They don’t really care who’s leaving the site,” he told us. “They only care about who’s coming in.” We decided to wing it.

The other problem was that once we finally arrived on the edge of the Jordan River with our mandatory tour group, we couldn’t just get in the water. Julian was willing to fudge it and say that we’d missed the actual border by just a few meters, but I wanted to really do it. Over on the Israeli side, scores of tourists from all over the world were singing songs and being immersed. No one was getting into the water on our side. Our guide told everyone that they could fill bottles with Jordan River water if they wanted.

“What if we want to get in?” I asked.

“Sorry, you have to be wearing a white robe if you want to be baptized.”

“Can’t I just get in the water in my normal clothes? I don’t mind.”

“No. It is a rule from the Jordanian army that you must wear a white robe.”

“Where I can get one?”

Bedouin guide Nasser Kaabneh leads the way to Qumran. (Photo by Julian Bender.)

The guide sighed, annoyed. “At the chapel we passed earlier, you can buy a white robe for sixteen Jordanian dinars. Hurry.” I ran back up to the chapel. Sure enough, a guy inside the door had a stack of packaged white robes. I forked over the money—the equivalent of about twenty-five dollars—for a sheer polyester robe with a picture of Jesus on the front underneath some Greek writing. “Everybody is waiting,” the guide said, when I returned wearing the robe.

Julian held the camera and documented my rushed baptism (which, since I’ve been a Christian all my life, did not change my religious identity). “Yow, it’s cold,” I said as water the color of chocolate milk went up past my waist. I went under and tried not to think about the fact that these days, the river was little more than a drainage ditch full of sewage and agricultural effluent. Someone felt that applause was appropriate, and then sheepishly stopped clapping.

“Let’s go,” the guide said.

“Wait, can’t I change back into my dry clothes?” The guide looked me up and down. The sheer white robe, now soaked through, left little to the imagination. What kind of holy site was this? I wondered. “No, there’s no time,” he said.

“Julian, we have to get away from this guy,” I said as we approached the parking lot. “Let’s hide behind this concession stand and see if the bus will leave without us. Besides, they have chips.”

Now that I was the most conspicuous visitor on this side of the Jordan River, even the concession stand didn’t keep the guide from noticing that we were ditching them. The bus pulled up to the stand and the guide got out. “You have to get into the bus,” he said.

“Look, we really need to walk all the way around the Dead Sea, including through the military zone,” I said. “Can’t the group go without us? We can go alone from here.”

 “We have to stop again at the military checkpoint,” he said. “When we leave the military zone, we need the same number of people on the bus as we had when we came in. Please get on the bus.”

We did, of course. I was disappointed that our plan to walk around the Dead Sea in an unbroken line had already failed. But as Julian and I disembarked from the shuttle bus and started walking east, I consoled myself with the memory that the 1934 trekkers had experienced problems of their own. Their difficulties had occurred on the southern end as they tried to cross back into Palestine from Transjordan. The mud flats along the southern shore proved impassable, so they hailed a boat from the Dead Sea Works factory at nearby Sodom. If they were allowed to ride ten kilometers on a boat, maybe Julian and I could be forgiven for riding two kilometers on a shuttle bus.

Few boats ply the waters of the Dead Sea these days. If anyone tried to sail across the Dead Sea now, it would trigger an international incident. But it wasn’t always that way. At different points along the historic shoreline, one can find rusted hulks, rotting wooden frames, and ancient boat anchors that testify to the Dead Sea’s history as a trade corridor. The famous sixth-century Madaba mosaic map depicts heavy ships on the sea, sails billowing, laden with cargos of grain and salt. The entire surrounding valley was once circled with caravan routes.

Julian and I arrived in Ghor al-Safi, the oasis on the sea’s southern end, having trekked more than a hundred kilometers along the Dead Sea Highway, avoiding road hazards by day and sleeping in canyons by night. Along the way, we saw the destruction wrought by overuse of Jordan River water for agriculture and overpumping of Dead Sea water for mineral processing: falling water levels, sinkholes, destroyed roadways, collapsed bridges, abandoned farms.

But Ghor al-Safi was as green as it ever had been, its farms and fields nourished by the stream mentioned in the Bible as the ancient boundary between Moab and Edom. We camped above the plain in Wadi al-Hasa, where the stream emerged from the mountains.

We had reached the trickiest part of the trek. What had once been the shallow southern basin of the Dead Sea was now a series of evaporation pools maintained by mining corporations. Far away, on the Israeli side, we could see the place once known as Sodom, now taken over by the Dead Sea Works mineral-processing complex. Walking the historic shoreline would involve crossing the agricultural area of Ghor al-Safi and then slogging through three kilometers of mud before reaching the Israeli-Jordanian border. Every map I could find labeled the area “impassable.”

When the 1934 hikers passed through, they camped here as well, and the Sodom works were just being built by Palestine Potash Limited, the company built by the Zionist engineer Moshe Novomeysky under a British Mandate mineral concession. To the Jewish hikers, who were low on supplies and had just avoided arrest, the mineral factory in Palestine—little more than a dock and a few wooden shacks—must have looked like a beautiful oasis. They made a beeline for it and got stuck in the mud—hence the boat ride.

But they had missed something. I discovered it by accident while browsing a Hebrew-language geological map that showed an anomaly on the border south of Ghor al-Safi: a strange shape labeled “Salt pool—disused.” I went back to an old British Mandate map, and it showed the same shape: an evaporation pool that had been built in the 1930s on the mud flats on both sides of the border. Along the edge of that pool, an access road ran all the way from Ghor al-Safi in Transjordan to Sodom in Palestine. I found satellite images of the area and zoomed in—and sure enough, there it still was, running westward from the plantations near Ghor al-Safi and then crossing the muddy wastes near the border. It looked washed-out in a few places but much more navigable than the surrounding morass. My main concern was an unlabeled complex of buildings situated on the line where the vegetation disappeared and the mud began.

In the morning we loaded our packs and descended to the plains. We passed through the outskirts of the town, saw children playing outside concrete-block homes, and stopped at the ruins of an Ottoman sugar mill. At the Dead Sea Highway we bought a watermelon from a roadside market and ate it while Arab Potash Company trucks blasted toward Aqaba under clouds of diesel smoke. Then we crossed the road and everything got quiet.

This was the main agricultural area of the town: sloping green fields punctuated by irrigation ditches, windbreaks of tamarisk trees, and unpaved roads. In the distance, through the humid air, we could see people working in the morning sun. They paid no attention to us. Chained dogs barked at us from equipment huts alongside the road. We stopped talking and our footsteps made a rhythm on the gravel as we walked straight west.

On either side of us, the farms and fields gave way to scrubland and brush, and up ahead the gravel road jogged to the left. I still couldn’t see much beyond the wall of tamarisk trees that flanked the road, but above them I could see an enormous Jordanian flag waving in the breeze. As we rounded the bend, we saw a white pickup truck and a big sign with a photograph of the king of Jordan in a military uniform, giving a salute.

As we continued past the sign, everything came into view: water-filled plastic barriers along the sides of the road; the big Jordanian flag we had glimpsed from afar; a low concrete wall with a gate, above which some white buildings and a guard tower were visible. Outside the gate was a small guard shack where one uniformed soldier was painting a metal pole, and another sat in a chair in the shade with a rifle across his lap.

We rounded the bend fully and stood on the open road, about fifty meters from the guard shack. Now that everything was in view, I was nervous. I knew where we were on the map. On the other side of the gated compound, the trees opened up and there was nothing ahead but mud flats and minefields. Whatever privilege our American passports afforded us elsewhere wouldn’t matter much here on the border, where we were ultimately subject to the guy with the gun in front of us. We waited for him to notice us. The two soldiers were engrossed in a conversation, and we didn’t want to do anything sudden that might surprise them.

“Feels weird, just standing here,” Julian said.

“Should we say something?” I asked. I cleared my throat a couple of times. Finally the guy with the gun looked up.

He stood up, yelled, beckoned for us to approach, put both hands on his rifle, and walked quickly toward us. Over the wall of the compound, we saw people moving around. A crowd of soldiers quickly gathered around us. We produced our passports. In the background, a young man in a white T-shirt, green sweatpants, and flip-flops listened intently.

“How’s it going, guys,” he said slowly and quietly. Everyone fell silent, and the circle of soldiers opened to include him. Maybe it was the way he stretched out the word “guys,” or maybe it was the way he stared at us with his unusually green eyes, or maybe it was just the overall stress of the situation, but the question didn’t sound friendly.

“Oh,” I said. “You speak English.”

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

After I explained, and he informed us that this was not the end of our journey in Jordan, but “only the beginning of your problems,” he asked us where we had been two days earlier, and told us that he had been sent pictures of us. We could only assume he was some sort of intelligence officer who had been in contact with the other military bases we had passed.

He said he needed to make some phone calls and then left Julian and me standing with the soldiers. One of them took our empty water bottles and went to fill them up. The officer came back, still holding the phone to his ear, and asked follow-up questions about the book I had written on the history of Israeli hiking and the courses I taught. Obviously, someone on the other end of the line was doing an online search.

The officer seemed a bit exasperated when he came back. “Look, here’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “You guys didn’t see any signs telling you not to come here, right?”

“No,” we said.

“So you walked down the road and you came here by accident.” We nodded. “And you have everything you need now, right? You have water?” We nodded again. “And you know the way back to where you came from?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Good,” he said. “Don’t come back here again.”

Two days later, we were in Israel, standing on the opposite side of the border, at the very gate where Novomeysky’s old road began its straight shot to Ghor al-Safi. The actual border was right in front of us, and at the end of the road, we could see the white buildings of the border post where we had been stopped by the Jordanian soldiers. We waved.

This was the farthest edge of Israeli territory. Back in 1934, this would have been the very center of the mud flats on the Dead Sea’s southern edge. Now it was the eastern side of the Dead Sea Works industrial zone. Over the decades, engineers transformed the sea’s shallow southern basin into a series of artificial pools where water from the northern basin was dried in the sun to create a concentrated slurry that could be pumped to a factory for processing. Today, as the slurry is refined and the pools dry out, they are refilled with more water from the northern basin.

The factories and evaporation pools that now exist in both Israel and Jordan are responsible for about 40 percent of the Dead Sea’s annual decline. The companies that manage the factories profit enormously from the sale of potassium, magnesium, and bromine products. Israel Chemicals Limited (ICL), which manages the Dead Sea Works, is owned by one of Israel’s richest men, and it has done its best to avoid paying the state even the extremely low rate it negotiated for the water it uses.

One cannot walk anywhere near the southern basin of the sea without permission from ICL, so I had arranged a tour in advance. On our first morning in Israel, an employee of the company picked us up and drove us through the refinery area out to the edge of the evaporation pools. From there, we were allowed to walk along the dikes between pools while the employee followed us in a vehicle.

As we approached the end of the industrial zone, we reached the old wooden dock where the 1934 group had disembarked. I could only imagine what those trekkers would think if they were here now, in a fenced area essentially inaccessible to the public, knowing that the remaining natural basin of the Dead Sea was now almost thirty kilometers away. As we left the evaporation-pool zone, we said goodbye to our ICL guide, and he locked the gate behind us.

Over the next several days, we used hiking trails to pass through Ein Bokek, Masada, and Ein Gedi, and then we crossed the Green Line into the West Bank. In the highlands above the sea we met Rashaida and Ka’abneh Bedouins, who renewed our supplies and walked with us down to Qumran. And then we were on the homestretch: a final encampment near Kalia on the northern shore, and the walk to the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site the next morning.

Like al-Maghtas on the Jordanian side, the baptismal site was surrounded by monasteries and chapels. It had suffered from decades of conflict and only recently been restored as a tourist destination. Minefields around the old churches had been cleared, and civilian vehicles were free to come in and out. As cars and tour buses passed us, we expected to be able to walk all the way to the Jordan River and the border without any difficulty.

We were still a couple of kilometers from the river when we saw the small Israel National Parks Authority gatehouse. The window wasn’t designed for pedestrians, so we came right up to the opening and made room for cars to pass on the road. I greeted the young man inside in Hebrew.

“You can’t walk from here,” he said flatly.

“Why not?” I asked.

“You have to go in a car. You can’t walk along the road.”

I told him I understood, but we were completing a walk around the Dead Sea that had begun two weeks earlier, right over there on the other side of the river, and we just needed to walk this last bit.

“No, it’s not possible,” he said. “It’s not safe.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because there are still land mines on both sides of the road.”

“We’ll stay on the road, then.” I told him. “We won’t enter the minefields.”

“No, it’s not possible,” he repeated. “You have to go with a vehicle.” He was getting impatient; meanwhile, cars were lining up behind us.

“OK,” I said, “What if we get someone to drive slowly, and we’ll walk just behind their car? That way, we can go with a car, but we can still finish our walk.”

“No, it’s not possible.” He got up, leaned past me, and started waving vehicles through. “Look,” I said, “in 1934, a group of hikers from Ha-Machanot ha-Olim—”

“Yes, I know the story,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes, they were the first to walk around the Dead Sea.”

“And we will be the second, almost a century later,” I said. “Please just let us walk the rest of the way.”

“Listen,” he said, switching to thickly-accented English. “Where do you think you are? The United States?” He gestured out the window, to the barren hills that tilted down from Jericho to the military zone along the Jordan River. “This is the Middle East. You can’t just walk wherever you want to.” He nodded to the people in the car behind me. “Maybe they can give you a ride.”

“Let’s not fight about it,” Julian said. “Let’s get in the car.”

The Israeli couple in the car were from up north. They were bewildered by what had just transpired, but kindly agreed to give us a ride. As we drove the two or three kilometers from the gate to the parking lot, they also agreed that the real obstacle was not a minefield; it was Israeli bureaucracy.

At the baptismal site, I changed back into the thin white robe I’d carried all the way around the Dead Sea. I walked in my sandals under the shaded canopies and down the limestone steps where knots of Christian pilgrims from all over the world prayed and sang songs.

The author in a baptismal robe at Qasr al-Yahud, after
completing the trek. (Photo by Julian Bender.)

Nothing was happening on the Jordanian side. Rather unceremoniously, I pushed my way past a group of women who were in the throes of an ecstatic religious experience and reached the area on the steps exactly opposite the place where I’d immersed myself the first time.

I descended the steps until I felt mud around my feet. I was chest-deep and the water was very cold. I looked up for a second and saw the Jordanian flag up on the pavilion to the east, the Israeli flag flying over the pavilion to the west, the reeds and the tamarisks and their shadows moving on the water, the sheet-metal barrier that prevented people from going up or down the riverbank, a Jordanian soldier pacing, and all the Christian pilgrims who felt the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.

I plunged my head under the water and came back up. “Glory,” I heard a far-off pilgrim yell. I gave Julian the thumbs-up and climbed back up the steps.


Suggested Reading

Purity and Obscurity

Shai Secunda

When contemporary Jews of priestly lineage avoid cemeteries, when ordinary Jews wash their hands before eating, or immerse themselves in ritual baths, they are acting according to the dictates of an ancient system.