Salt of the Earth

Spa Magazine – February 2007

It was still early and already searing hot when we left Aqaba along Jordan’s Red Sea coast and drove into the desert – a landscape of layered mountains and crumbling canyons, a never-ending sequence of beige on beige. Ibrahim, my 32-year-old guide and companion for the next 10 days, steered us through the sands between the Petra Mountains and a military zone that flanks the Israeli border. In the distance Puddles of heat shimmered on the asphalt, two camels limped among the rocks, and a shepherd in long dusty robes and headdress tended a flock of wooly, black sheep. We had been driving for over an hour when, without warning, the road wound down a steep escarpment. With every kilometer the surroundings became gradually greener. My ears popped. Ibrahim slalomed, dangerously but deftly, between rainbow colored open-bed cargo trucks that shuddered down into the Jordan Valley, where they would be loaded with fresh watermelon, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, potatoes, citrus, and bananas by young Arabian boys who sorted the colorful produce along the roadside. An hour later, we dropped down again, and a pale blue magnificence loomed. This was it – the famous landlocked sea depicted in the Bible, the one that lured the powerful and beautiful Cleopatra from Egypt to soak in its healing waters and get slathered in its mineral rich mud before her dates with Mark Antony. Here was the source of millions of dollars worth of bath and beauty products distributed around the world, and one of the world’s great spa destinations. It was majestic. On hazy days like this the water merges seamlessly with the sky and looks as if it could stretch into forever. Ibrahim broke the silence. “Welcome to the Dead Sea,” he said.

We were just outside the ancient city of Zoar. “This is where Abraham and his brother Lott split up after their long journey from Mesopotamia [present day Iran and Iraq],” said Ibrahim. “Abraham went to Egypt and Lott stayed here with his two daughters, Sodom and Gomorra.” Ibrahim takes spiritual tourists to Moses’ grave, Jesus’ baptismal site on the River Jordan, and, of course, to these shores – where the famed Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and where Lott’s wife was reputed to have been turned into a pillar of salt. Still, I was a little surprised at his biblical proficiency, but that was due to my own ignorance of Islam. “You’re not a good Muslim if you don’t believe in Christianity and Judaism,” he said. “God’s message to us began with Moses and Jesus and ended with Muhammad in the 7th century.” Given the common ground, I became even more confused about the festering acrimony in the Middle East. “I don’t get it either,” he said.

Jordan’s Dead Sea resort district is confined to a few hundred meters of shore where a cluster of large-scale spa properties huddle on the cliffs. Ibrahim pulled into the Movenpick, a Swiss franchise owned by Amman hoteliers and sandwiched between the Marriott and the Dead Sea Spa, the first of its kind. My room was on the top level of a beautiful Byzantine style complex – hearkening back to old Orthodox Christian settlements that once dotted the country. My room was both earthy and elegant with thick sandstone walls, hardwood floors, a marble bath and incredible Dead Sea vistas.

Sea views were ubiquitous at the Movenpick. After dropping my bags, I followed a sinuous path downhill toward the pool and spa, and never lost sight of it. There were butterfly gardens and fountains, a plaza with four restaurants, and a pool area that was buzzing with Jordanian, Lebanese and Saudi families and young singles. This resort was absolutely enormous and it was packed.

I ditched the crowds and continued down to the beach; at 1,335 feet below sea level this was the lowest point on earth. There were a few small groups; mostly older European couples caked in the raw, chocolaty sludge that they scooped from tall, terracotta vats by the shore. I headed for the sea. When the water was up to my knees I laid back and felt like I had been lifted onto a cloud. I wasn’t floating in the water. I floated on top of it. No need to stroke or paddle to avoid sinking, in the Dead Sea the salt content does all the work. For experiment’s sake I turned over and tried to swim freestyle, but I was undermined by density and involuntarily flipped over after a few seconds. Then I kept my body perfectly perpendicular, and though the water was easily 15 feet deep, my entire torso remained above the surface. It’s a kind of counterintuitive buoyancy that makes you laugh out loud at the sheer physics of it.

From there it was off to the Zara Spa, another impressive Byzantine-inspired structure. With 22 treatment rooms, four mudrooms, four hydro flotation rooms, and a series of hot, mineral pools, it’s got it all. I was met by my therapist, Na’el [pronounced Nile], and was destined for Zara’s signature mud wrap. It began with 15 minutes in a mosaic steam room then I plopped down on the treatment table in the raw and Na’el scrubbed me down with Rivage Dead Sea salt, harvested straight from the source and refined in Amman. After another steam, it was finally time for the mud.

As an ethereal flute drifted from the speakers in the dimly lit room, Na’el, slathered mud, another Rivage product, over my legs and arms, and piled it on my chest. “This have many minerals,” he said smiling as he wrapped me in plastic. “Better mud not to dry so your skin absorb it.” He then covered me with a heavy wool blanket and abruptly left the room.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Na’el’s accommodating smile was hiding something. He knew perfectly well that the bioactive, mineral rich Dead Sea mud works because it conducts mind-bending, soul stirring heat. And it didn’t take long before I began to cook. I progressed rapidly from warm to warmer to uncomfortably hot. Streams of sweat worked their way through the mud. My earth-laden chest seemed to get heavier and heavier. I itched like mad. My mind raced, and it hadn’t even been five minutes. I had never run screaming out of a spa treatment room, but for the first time I was tempted to escape. Until the extreme heat finally produced the hormones that screamed, “ENOUGH! RELAX!” The itching stopped. I breathed easier, my muscles surrendered and unwound and my mind settled. By the time Na’el returned, I had fallen into a deep sleep.

After the treatment I toured the facility and wound up on the top deck, with an infinity pool and a view that the London Times tagged as the 8th best on earth. I could see why. It was sunset and a misty orange haze gathered over the pale blue sea. The faint, glowing lights of Jerusalem gradually became visible among the far-off hills. I sat and watched them glimmer, my brain blissfully blank. I hadn’t felt this relaxed in six months.

This was no coincidence according to Dr. Mohammad Kana’an, the 52-year-old resident physician at the Movenpick, who is a big believer in the Dead Sea’s healing powers. His clinic, located on the property and owned by the resort, attracts patients suffering from psoriasis, neurodermititis, loss of pigment, rheumatism and arthritis who arrive from the Middle East, Europe and Latin America and stay as hotel guests for weeks at a time. Although, he occasionally prescribes meds, his chief tools are the local climate, seawater, and mud.

“Our climate is unique. We are 400 meters below sea-level, it is warm and sunny all year, but the natural evaporation of the sea creates a film in the atmosphere that filters out the harmful UV-b rays and allows the beneficial UV-a rays to penetrate and help clear the skin,” said Dr. Kana’an. “The air is oxygen rich, which is good for asthma patients, and the abundance of magnesium and calcium is beneficial for those with allergies or lung problems. It’s also bromide rich, which induces relaxation and normalizes blood pressure. Our guests often say, ‘I’m sleeping so much here.’”

He then explained how the seawater is ideal for those suffering from skin problems because of the 34% salt content – three times the Great Salt Lake. The sea minerals penetrate the skin and also act as joint supplements. Dead Sea mud has a similar effect, but with the added value of heat and pressure which spurs lymph drainage, reduces swelling and allows an abundance of calcium and magnesium to become absorbed by the system – all of which ease joint pain and improves mobility. I told him about my experience in the Zara spa and he laughed, “Clinical treatments are much more intense, with more and heavier mud, not just a light film.”

Kana’an conducts all mud treatments in his clinic and his patients can sunbathe nude in a private solarium. He also prescribes long periods of bathing in the Dead Sea. Between appointments he recommends self-applied mud treatments on the beach.

The clinic is so popular that the hotel is building a new, state-of-the-art facility scheduled to be complete in May 2007. I toured the place with the dapper silver-haired doctor in his Armani suit. Along the way he gracefully diffused a heated argument between young construction toughs and got a pinch on the touché from a middle-aged Italian beauty, while he continued to extol the virtues of natural healing, unfazed.

“In Europe they treat psoriasis with aggressive drugs and medicated creams, but often it is related to psychological issues and stress. Patients come here and after three weeks 85% have great improvement, and if they are treated naturally, they will have a longer period between outbreaks.”

Kana’an has similar success with his rheumatism and arthritis patients. He points to studies he has conducted with Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society to support his assertions and he says, “The Israeli side has also studied the issue since 1970.” I ask if he collaborates with Israeli doctors. He replies, “No, because the conflict. In the future… we hope.”

But in the Middle East the future is more uncertain than hopeful. And though the expansive Dead Sea may look like an infinite resource from the Zara spa deck, the truth is, that in 50 years the Dead Sea, as we know it, may no longer exist. Environmentalists say the Dead Sea is dying.

“It’s dropping in depth by one meter per year,” says Chris Johnson, the British born spokesperson for Wild Jordan, en environmental NGO based in Amman. If the trend continues the sea will fragment into smaller pools like those of the smaller industrialized section where Potash, and the raw materials for spa products (salt and mud) are harvested. Evaporation is natural. The problem is that the Jordan River has been dammed and diverted, and there is no longer a free flow of replenishing fresh water into the sea.

Later in the week, Ibrahim took me to the once rushing river where Jesus was said to be baptized nearly 2000 years before. It was a sad, dry ditch. For decades the state of Israel has been lauded for “making the desert bloom.” Well, they did it by draining this river at its source – the Sea of Galilee. Dive deeper into the issue and you get to the root of regional instability. Ariel Sharon was once quoted as calling the battle for diversion of the Jordan River in 1964, “the spark that led to the Six Day War.” That was the war in 1967 in which Israel took the Golan Heights – a territorial issue that has been at the heart of Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Syria conflicts ever since.

Driving away from the sea towards Amman, I saw road signs pointing to borders with Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Jordan also borders the West Bank. “We live in a tough neighborhood,” reasoned Ibrahim sadly. Still, if there is hope for the Middle East, Jordan embodies it. The benevolent and beloved King is the latest in a family lineage of great diplomats. Its parliamentary democracy, launched in the 1920s, is one of the world’s oldest, and it’s education system, by most measures, is better than our own. Amman itself is in the midst of an economic boom. Saudi and Iraqi oil money is flooding in, and a new generation of professionals weaned on MTV and the Internet, have sparked the country’s economic surge. It stands to reason, then, that the peaceful Jordanians are looking at creative, bilateral solutions to the Dead Sea problem.

For instance, the King has recently enlisted the services of famed British architect, Lord Norman Foster, designer of the Chep Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong and the Millennium Bridge in London, to create and construct a canal that cuts through the Sinai Desert from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The Red-Dead Canal would include desalination plants along the way, to provide the dry nations with fresh water for drinking and irrigation and ultimately replenish the Dead Sea. It’s a $3 billion dollar scheme, currently undergoing an environmental impact study, and King Abdullah has already enlisted commitments from Israel’s Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. Yet environmentalists, like Johnson, aren’t satisfied. “We’re against it because it would change the composition of the Dead Sea,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the Dead Sea anymore.” Meaning some of its healing properties could be lost. Their solution is to change the dam function to allow 20% of the Jordan River to flow back into the sea. “Of course, this would pressure agribusiness to reduce water consumption.” Not a likely scenario in the desert.

Ultimately it remains to be seen how the project affects the Dead Sea and the region as a whole. Will Jordan’s remarkable stability finally rub off on its neighbors, or will the reverse happen? It’s no secret that Jordan has had its brushes with terrorism, and Amman luxury hotels are now guarded by humvees and armed soldiers.

Before I left America for Jordan I received the typical alarmist warnings from less traveled family and friends, and part of me was a little nervous, but what I found was a culturally rich, hospitable and safe country with astounding sites like the ruins of Petra, the vast and tranquil Sinai Desert and the nurturing Dead Sea. Now that I was back on a plane, heading home, I realized it was the people that impressed me most. Un-official diplomats like the suave and intelligent Dr. Kana’an, the humble and gifted Na’el, and my best Jordanian friend, Ibrahim, who remains optimistic and open despite the turmoil. As my plane lurched toward the sky, I left the Middle East relaxed, rejuvenated and remineralized by my Dead Sea treatments, and with hope.

Address Book

Moevenpick Resort, Zara Spa & Therapy Center
Sweimeh, Dead Sea Road
P.O. Box 815538
11180 Amman
Phone +962 5 3561111