They say honesty is the best policy, right? Well then, to be honest, our visit to the Dead Sea was my least favorite part of our trip to Israel. It's a fascinating place, but still...
We were impressed by the distance between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. And not so much by the miles traveled on the bus which took us there. It was even more impressive to consider the difference in elevation. Jerusalem 2,474 feet, above sea level. The surface of the Dead Sea, in contrast, is over 1,300 feet below sea level, and bottom of the sea lies over 2,300 feet below sea level. The Dead Sea is also roughly 10 times saltier than the Atlantic or Pacific, so we took the warnings not to get the water in our eyes quite seriously.
Walking down to the sea involved traveling though sucking, stinking, black muck. I lost a flip-flop there and suspect it will be excavated centuries from now and cause quite a wonderment among the creatures which will survive us. Folks said that generous applications of the goopy stuff on the skin was beneficial but, frankly, I couldn't get into a shower quickly enough. And despite rinsing my swimwear vigorously and triple-bagging it in plastic, every item in my suitcase had to be washed or dry cleaned to get rid of the smell.
So with apologies to those who have fond memories of the Dead Sea, I will gladly pass if I'm ever given the opportunity to visit Israel again.
Not all that far from Jerusalem, the terrain changed mightily. Soon we were in the desert where, even in October, the heat was impressive. We were headed toward the Jordan River, straight through Bedouin country. And for miles, we saw what our guide referred to as "no man's land"... a strip of desert surrounded by barbed wire to prevent the unwary traveler from stumbling into territory planted with land mines.
Although we were going to the Jordan River to remember our baptism and to renew our baptismal vows, we knew that we would not be visiting the actual site where Jesus was baptized by St. John the Baptist. According to this CNN article, there are several churches where Christians of one denomination or another believe this event took place, but the land around them is peppered with land mines. An organization called HALO, based in England, is trying to clear them... or at least enough of them to enable pilgrims to visit there.
The mined desert seemed to go on forever; indeed this article from The Jerusalem Post indicates that "92 million sq.m. of Israeli territory" is mined. The mines were placed by Israel and by the PLO, many at the time of the Six Day War in 1967. This war was fought between Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
The history of Israel - whether viewed from a religious or a secular perspective - is complex, and I don't have enough time left on earth to truly understand it. But one thing that "no man's land" brought home to me clearly:
We're not in Kansas anymore, Auntie Em.
Miracles still happen in Israel, however. Although in "a barren desert", we saw large date plantations along some portions of our route. How they grow... where they get the water... is a mystery to me.
The walkway down to the Jordan was interesting, and the sky was gorgeous. The temperatures on the day we were down in the desert region of Israel topped 110, so a dip in the water sounded refreshing.
The Jordan River we read about in the Gospel bears little resemblance to the Jordan River we saw on our time in Israel. Factors such as the use of water for irrigation have turned the flowing river into a muddy trickle. Only one of our group was intrepid enough to fully immerse in the water, although most of us got our toes wet.
The Jordan River - at least at this point - is quite narrow, and it would be easy enough to swim across to the nation of Jordan, where pilgrims were also renewing their baptismal vows.