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“There is nothing, absolutely nothing alive in this sea; neither fish nor algae nor molluscs, only rocks and salt, candid saline formations that rise from the water like ghostly coral.”

So states Bonechi and Steimatsky’s guide to Masada and the Dead Sea. I like the bit about the ghostly coral. That’s just what the Dead Sea salt formations resemble — complex, exquisite, phantom.

Still, the guidebook was rash to emphasize the deadness of this uncanny 1,000-sq.-km lake. Several recently discovered species of microorganisms are alive and thriving in its deadly water; leopard, antelope and striped hyena prowl its shores, and for millennia humanity has been knee deep in its dense mineral riches: meditating, mining, developing major monotheistic religions and healing the scars that result from disputes over doctrine.

The Dead Sea, which at 400 meters below sea level is the lowest point on the Earth’s surface, occupies part of the 6,000-km Afro-Syrian rift that runs from Turkey to Mozambique.

The water (if that’s the word for it) is roughly 25 percent solid matter due to evaporation. You float in a way you don’t think you will. Once you start, you want to float a lot longer. The water has an oily, medicinal feel to it and can allegedly cure skin complaints, arthritis, depression and a host of other medical problems. I can personally attest that burns (see last week’s column) sting like wasps, then heal with miraculous speed.

The views are as therapeutic as the waters. The Dead Sea glows with colors. Puddles of blue bluer than a Maldives lagoon. Streaks of metallic gray water studded with salt bergs could be Alaska or the Canadian high north. Sudden concentrations of minerals produce spirals of purple, orange and ocher — a sort of liquid Australian outback.

Heat haze and humidity, like the constantly changing light, make no view permanent here. One American lady put the whole transient glimmer into a fine sound bite: “Where’s those mountains over there gone? I wanted a photo!” Jordan (“over there”) comes and goes.

Landscape artists probably won’t get much further than a stool by the shore. A week later they’ll have a truly surreal portfolio, and sunstroke (it gets pretty hot). But they’ll be missing out on a few world-class attractions.

In the north are the caves at Qumran where a Bedouin allegedly discovered the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 while looking for a lost goat. It’s a lovely story. The shepherd threw a stone into the cave and heard it rattle off pottery. Further investigation, some by rope and oil lamp, revealed scores of jars containing mainly animal hide scrolls (one 7 meters in length) on which the Essenes, an ultradevout Jewish sect, had written and collected some 40,000 fragments of biblical text. These predated existing texts by centuries. The scrolls (which, some say, narrowly avoided being made into sandals) are now on display in Jerusalem. The ruins of the scriptorium and monastery at Qumran remain.

Absolutely unmissable is the fortress of Masada, which clings to the summit of a towering 440-meter rock outcrop overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod the Great, a Roman client ruler, built his palace here. The historian Josephus Flavius described Masada as “fortified by Heaven and man alike against any enemy who might wage war against it.”

Herod’s system of baths, reservoirs, granaries and so on are impressive in their own right, but Masada is best known as the setting for one of history’s most dramatic sieges, when 967 Jewish Zealots took refuge here during “the Great Revolt” against Rome.

The encircling Roman camps and the immense earthen ramp that they built after the siege failed to starve the Zealots out, are eerily visible from the summit. It must have been a dreadful thing for the besieged Zealots to watch this huge, improbable ramp slowly, remorselessly growing from the gorges below.

When the ramp reached the summit, the Romans met no resistance. The Zealots had committed mass suicide. Each man first executed his wife and family. He was then executed by 10 chosen men. These last 10 then drew lots to decide which one man was to then kill the other nine before falling on his sword. Someone must have had qualms; a handful of women and children were tucked away to tell the tale.

Masada is strong stuff. You can climb it in an hour (if you’re fit), or you can make the ascent by cable car (if you’ve a good head for heights).

The nature reserve of Ein Geddi is another place that witnessed Jewish die-hards dying hard. The Romans (again) besieged rebellious Jews (again) and won (again). Unlike Masada, though, Israelis don’t come to Ein Geddi’s springs and verdant greenery to reflect on the importance of “Never again!” They come to splash around in its numerous pools and waterfalls, hike its trails and admire its wildlife. Four springs of sweet water feed Ein Geddi and support a degree of life that is actually quite shocking after one’s eyes have become accustomed to the sterility of the surrounding deserts.

The number of leopards that live in Ein Geddi’s 6,750-hectare reserve is variously estimated at between four and 13. They prey on partridges, the abundant herds of ibex and on hyraxes (playful mammals that resemble a sort of desert-dwelling beaver, though their closest biological relative is the elephant). Ein Geddi’s trees fizz with bird life; huge griffin vultures as well as eagles and falcons nest in the high Ha-Haetakim cliffs. Spring rains result in flowers smothering all areas not already occupied by perennial flora. Religiously motivated troglodytes have chiseled cells into some of the canyon walls, which are now the haunts of colorful reptiles.

The Ein Geddi motto is “Flora and fauna should be seen and not hurt!” Reasonably priced accommodation is offered by the nearby Field School, with beautiful views over the Dead Sea and herds of rambunctious ibex leaping about on the roof. The Field School can arrange jeep tours into the desert, naturalist guides and so on.

Nearby is Ein Geddi spa. The $10 admission price entitles one to wallow in sulfur baths, cavort in a swimming pool, bob in the sea and, best of all, slather yourself in Dead Sea mud which then congeals leaving one looking like an Exxon Valdez victim and feeling like an unwieldy, but healthy, stalagmite.

It’s apparently very good for you, but even if it were toxic it would be worth doing. There’s nothing quite as liberating as getting utterly filthy. Ask any dog or small boy and they’ll tell you the same.

Natural/cultural tours from day trips to week-long tours throughout Israel from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Israel Nature Trails, 19 Hasheron St, Tel Aviv 66183. Fax: +972 (03) 688-3940. E-mail Tourism@spni.org.il Home page spni.org.il

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