Dead Sea mud treatment, Jordan River baptism site, and Petra at Night
Early in the morning, with the sun yet to climb above the mountains to the east, Donnette and I were down on the shore of the Dead Sea slathering black mud onto each other. Dead Sea mud, and the highly concentrated salts and minerals in the sea water, are said to help relieve arthritis and allergic skin conditions, as well as slow the effects of aging by reducing wrinkling and cellulite.
The mud was cool, and very slippery and slimy; it was a little weird to be spreading it all over ourselves – but also fun, and sensual. Here we were, outdoors in the sunlight, coating ourselves with mud. The sun was still weak, but we knew the water was warm, having tested it the night before.
When we tested the water, we also did a taste test. The water looked so clean and clear, we wanted to compare it to the Arabian Gulf, which seems very salty, especially in hot weather when there is a lot of evaporation. Knowing this was probably a mistake, Donnette and I both took the tiniest of tongue tips to our fingers and … YECCCHHH! SPIT! It burned and tasted awful!
The salt content of the Dead Sea is 33.7%, compared to 3.5% average in the ocean and 4% to 5% in the Arabian Gulf – although with the desalinization plants releasing brine, Gulf salinity is increasing. The Great Salt Lake in Utah, USA, ranges from 5% to 27% depending on location and lake level.
As we waited for the mud to dry, we walked up and down the little private beach belonging to the Marriott. On either side, the shoreline was lined with glistening, salt-coated rocks. How did the Dead Sea get so salty? I knew there was no outlet – we have similar bodies of water in Nevada, called terminal lakes, where water evaporates and leaves behind minerals. The Great Salt Lake is a remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville, which covers part of Nevada. .
But those were freshwater lakes, remnants of the ice age. The Dead Sea is different, in that it was formed by tectonic forces – the moving plates of Earth’s crust. As I understand it, the Dead Sea is part of a greater rift formed by the African and Arabian plates moving apart. Almost 4 million years ago, the rift was flooded with Mediterranean Sea water. For the next 2 million years, similar floods came and went until, through tectonic forces, the surrounding land was uplifted enough to prevent further inundation by the Mediterranean.
Now the Dead Sea continues to sink as the rift grows and the surrounding plates rise, making it the lowest place on Earth. Because there are few water sources (the Jordan River being the main one,) very little rainfall, and no outlet other than evaporation, the salt and minerals in the Dead Sea are concentrated and the water level continues to drop.
We were running out of interesting rocks to look at, the mud began to crack and itch, and we couldn’t stand it any more. It was time to rinse off in the sea. Donnette reminded me not to get any of the water in my eyes, but the first thing that happened was I accidentally splashed a drop – just one drop – into one of my eyes. Oh, the pain! Unable to stop myself, I tried to wipe it out, getting water into the other eye as well. Thus, I was blinded until Donnette came to rescue me with a towel wetted with fresh water.Then I remembered that I’d brought two pairs of swim goggles. Better late than never.
The Dead Sea is famous for being so salty that you float effortlessly. If you can relax, and not worry about getting water in your eyes or mouth, it’s like floating on an inflatable mattress.
As we floated, we noticed a woman on the shore, methodically spreading mud from the pot onto herself . Donnette tried to strike up a conversation, but she wasn’t interested. Either she didn’t speak English, or she was too focused on the business at hand – probably both. She covered herself with mud and then proceeded to scrub, and scrub, and scrub. It looked like this was something she did on a regular basis. I wonder how many hundreds of generations of local women have used this beauty treatment, a favorite of Cleopatra, over the millennia?
A couple of hours later, we checked out of the hotel and headed north. Petra was south, but we were taking a last-minute detour to the site on the Jordan River where Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptist. I was raised Catholic, which means that I don’t remember my baptism because I was a baby. But Donnette, being Southern Baptist, clearly remembers her baptism at the age of 15, and going there would have a special meaning for her.
It did for me, too. Neither of us, a few years ago, imagined visiting the Holy Land. Sometimes, visiting a place is as much an internal pilgrimage as it is a sightseeing tour. As a Catholic, I think about what I learned and remember from the stories of the Bible. What meaning did I take from them? What did they teach me? How did they help to form my character?
These days, my thoughts and feelings about faith, religion, and spirituality are something that I don’t like to talk about. For me, it’s private and personal. Live and let live – and believe. But with or without an abiding faith, whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, just being there, visiting the places where events in the Bible happened, had a profound effect – one that I can’t articulate.
The authenticated baptism site was identified by comparing its description in the Bible and other ancient records with features on the ground; it has been recognized by all major Christian churches. During the first several hundred years AD (or CE), churches were built near the site to memorialize the event, and believers made and recorded pilgrimages. Over the centuries, it was forgotten.
The discovery in 1897 of the Madaba map depicting the Holy Land led to a renewed interest in its location, but conflicts throughout the 20th century – two World Wars and the fall of the Ottoman Empire – prevented archaeological activity until after the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. A very good synopsis of the history and rediscovery is at this link on the Baptism Site of Jesus Christ website.
The actual baptism site is on a dry floodplain several meters away from the river. The sinuous Jordan was long ago dammed upstream, so it’s no mystery that the floodplain is dry.
This place is, really, out in the middle of nowhere. From the Visitor Center, which is just a small, plain building which serves as an office, a shuttle bus drove us out onto the floodplain, past an armed guard station, to a plateau where we viewed new memorial churches that were built on distant ridges after the rediscovery, and the place where Pope John Paul II said Catholic mass in 2000.
Our first view of the storied river was unimpressive; it was just a muddy looking creek, not even as wide as the Carson River, in Nevada. The Jordan River forms the border between Jordan and Israel; it was hard to believe that this was it - we could literally have crossed over in just a few steps!
From the baptism site, we walked along a path which took us to St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. Here the river was wider, and flowing, and we could see people on the Israeli side.
Our attention was caught by a couple across the river, dressed in white shifts, who were getting ready to enter the water. They were with a guide, who was giving them information and instructions while an armed guard hovered nearby. It was an odd scene. As they waded in, the woman began to gasp at the cold water and then she seemed to lose her footing and almost floated off downstream.
She regained her foothold and composure and, after a couple of minutes, she and her partner climbed out of the river, crossing themselves several times. As they emerged we realized that, of course, they were wearing nothing under their thin cotton shifts, which were now clinging wetly to their skin! Thinking of the modesty that we are now used to in the Middle East, it was a bit of a shock.
The Baptism Site only took a couple of hours from our day, and then we were on our way to Petra. We decided to take the Dead Sea Highway – which Mark’s Jordanian colleague, Muhammad Alshawakfeh, had counseled against – too mountainous. Too mountainous!? There is no such thing!
But first, we needed fuel. We had just under a half tank and I didn’t know what the prospects were for gas on the road ahead. So now …
The Parable of Petrol Pricing.
Two lovely, intelligent, experienced American women rented a car in a foreign country and didn’t do their homework regarding the price of fuel or the size of their vehicle’s fuel tank. They pulled into a lonely petrol station near the Dead Sea, where the Attendant directed them, indicating that they should pull forward, and yet more forward, until they could no longer see the display on the pump. The Driver, who sometimes doesn’t think things through until later, requested: “Fill, with regular.” The Attendant started the pump, which stopped within a few seconds, and then he came to the window saying, “15JD (Jordanian dinar, about $21 US.) Driver handed over the money but, when she started the engine she saw that the tank was not full. So the Attendant put in more, until the tank was full. Then he returned to the window, requesting another 25JD ($35.) The Navigator, who was wise, said “No! That’s too much!” They were, after all, in the Middle East where they were used to gas prices that were cheaper than in the US. But they didn’t exactly know what the price should be, and the Attendant knew this because they were obviously tourists, and rich. After some haggling and accusation, head shaking, and arguing in two incompatible languages, another 10JD was accepted by the Attendant and they drove off.
We were sure that we’d been cheated, but we didn’t know just how much. (Muhammad has since told Mark that the gas stations in Jordan are all run by Egyptians – and they, unlike Jordanians, are cheats.) Moral of the story: Know the price of fuel, how much your vehicle holds, and specify how much money’s worth to put in – not just “fill.” Also – be sure you can see the pump.
Shake it off! It was time to hit the road, and we were feeling like Thelma and Louise (only older, and with more money.) Donnette had brought the music and we sang along to the Eagles (have I mentioned that we both graduated from high school in 1975?) driving along the Dead Sea until we made a left-hand turn into the mountains. But not before stopping for pics of the receding shoreline.
It was supposed to be a drive of about 3-1/2 hours, and we went up, up, up, to dizzyingly beautiful heights. Donnette was a little freaked out, I could tell, but I was reminded of so many other drives: California, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Oman, Sri Lanka … mountains, villages, black Bedouin tents, curvy roads, up and down. The hardest part was that Carmen, the Garmin, didn’t know the latest road changes and once or twice she led us down a rabbit hole.
I was really glad we’d stopped for gas, cheated or not. The sun was getting low, there wasn’t a good place to pull over for photos, and there was no place to stop and pee. We were on a mission to find our hotel, and soon!!
We reached the Marriott in Petra just as the sun set, around 5:30 p.m., in time to check in and grab dinner before heading out to Petra at Night. Our hotel was way at the top of the ridge above Petra, with great views of the mountains we had just crossed on one side and the town below on the other. They brought us a bottle of wine – again, the Marriott Gold advantage – but with no time to drink it, we were on our way back downhill to the Visitor Center. We had two nights and wanted to do Petra at Night first, and then a full next day exploring.
We arrived at the Petra visitor center at 8:00 p.m. and joined the procession along the path to the legendary Siq, or entrance to Petra. The Siq is a passageway to Petra through impossibly high rock faces, carved by thousands of years of flash flooding.
The entire pathway, which which begins well before the entrance to the Siq, was much longer than I thought it would be and was lit by hundreds of luminerias– paper bags containing lit candles. All along the path were lit caves and carved “djinn blocks,” which the Nabataeans believed were the homes of invisible, human-like beings – essentially, genies.
The Nabataeans were an incredibly gifted and skilled people from the Arabian peninsula who established their capital in Petra some 2200 years ago. They were successful traders who lived in caves and drew upon Greek, Hashemite and Roman traditions to develop their own architectural style, carving unbelievably complex facades into the stone cliffs, most of which are thought to be tombs.
And then suddenly, magically, there it was, and there we were, looking at the Treasury, which was never a treasury at all, but was given the name, like all the other misleading names in Petra, by archaeologists.
Petra at Night is not a nighttime tour of the city, but just a walk through the Siq to the Treasury to hear a program, and then the long trek back out. We sat on the ground in rows with all of the other guests, were served the traditional Bedouin sweet tea …
… listened to traditional Bedouin music played on a rebab, then and poetic singing …
Then we heard taped sounds of donkeys braying, horses galloping and carriages clattering while the Treasury façade lit up in colors. I had my camera set up on a tripod and was able to get some night shots including one “selfie” of Donnette and me.
Afterwards, as we were getting ready to make the trek out, a young man stopped us and asked how we liked the program. I said the taped sounds seemed too loud to me – little did I know that, in the Siq, they really are that loud as they bounce off of the walls! – and I was surprised at the light show because I’d read reviews that said the Treasury was not well lit. He told us that they had just started the light show about two weeks before, and they were working to add more elements to the program.
I enjoyed the walk out as much as anything that night. Donnette was very patient while I kept stopping and trying shots.
Next: a very full day in Petra.
Thanks for reading!