The Dead Sea is one of the strangest places on the planet. It is a salt lake located in a depression at the lowest place on earth, over 400m below sea level. Bordered by Israel and the West Bank to the west and Jordan to the East, it also has an odd microclimate, 10⁰C warmer at the Dead Sea coast than the rest of the country. And it really is dead. At around 35% salinity it can’t support any life. Any unfortunate fish that happens to swim in there from the river Jordan lasts but moments. But there is no activity on the water either – you don’t see any boats or water sports. The water is so saline it basically destroys machinery. The only thing you can really do there is bathe. And bathing in the Dead Sea is undoubtedly an experience.
The north end of the sea is mainly comprised of resort hotels of varying degrees of poshness, which have private beaches where you can do all sorts of spa type stuff, and the rest is rather beautiful coastline. We travelled along the shore on the Jordanian side.
There is a pillar of salt, considered by locals to be Lot’s wife from the biblical story.
We decided to stay at a resort hotel for just one night. The resorts on the north coast in Jordan are fairly isolated and you are pretty much tied to the activities and restaurants there. For example, it’s difficult to eat at establishments outside the resort and outside restaurants are more likely to cater to tourists rather than offer local fare. Our hotel had its own beach located about a two minute drive via a free shuttle bus (if you were lazy) or a ten minute walk from the swimming pools. Initially we wondered why there were pools when the purpose of our visit was to swim in the sea but it became clear later when we bathed.
Dead Sea mud contains all sorts of minerals that are supposed to do wonders for your skin. And, like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, you can buy a plethora of products containing miraculous mud at hugely inflated prices that are guaranteed to help you achieve eternal beauty. Or something. We headed down to the beach and caked ourselves in free mud from a bucket by the water’s edge before heading into the sea.
It is impossible to sink in the Dead Sea. You walk in and keep walking. And then, when the water is about at chest height, you take another step and realise that you should be able to touch the sandy floor, but you can’t, yet the water is still at chest height. The easiest way to bathe is simply to float in a sitting position. It’s very comfortable. If you want to move around, sculling gently seemed to produce the required propulsion. We didn’t take pictures of ourselves reading books or anything but it really would be perfectly possible.
It is also impossible to swim in the Dead Sea. When trying to do a simple breast-stroke you are so buoyant that your bottom kind of flips up, pushing your face into the water, which is a really bad idea because if you get any water in your eyes it stings like crazy. You know that feeling when you’ve been chopping chillies and forget to wash your hands and then brush your eye? That burning agony? Well, it’s ten times worse if you splash Dead Sea water in your eye. The water feels oily and hurts like hell. When you emerge from the sea you really need to shower off quickly and get all the salt off your skin and bathing suits. Any fabric splashed with water becomes stiff as a board and encrusted with salt. Fresh water showers are located on the beaches, not far from the shore, so that you can clean up quickly.
We’re not convinced that the mud did endow us with youth and beauty but bathing was an most definitely an interesting experience.
What was truly beautiful was the salt-encrusted shoreline.
We did wonder whether Dead Sea salt was edible as most sea salt can be used for seasoning and preserving. However, the merest (accidental) taste of Dead Sea salty water will confirm beyond any doubt that in its basic form it tastes revolting. The mineral composition is very different to standard sea salt, and tastes extremely bitter, so processing is needed to remove these in order to ensure safe – and tastier – use for human consumption.
Jerash is within easy 50-ish km drive of Jordan’s capital Amman and its Roman ruins are some of the best preserved in the world. The site makes for a fascinating day trip; covering a very large area it is possible to wander all over the city. It is definitely worth finding a guide who can point out all the features and explain the history and the architecture, especially as there aren’t many signs or information points, although beware as they may encourage you to buy stuff you don’t really want to buy from various vendors who can be found waiting for tourists.
The arch of Hadrian (who had already started construction of the wall in the north of England) was erected around 129-130 AD , when the Emperor visited Jerash.
The hippodrome was an enormous arena which was used for chariot races and gladiator fights. Sometimes chariot races are re-enacted in the space. Sadly, not when we visited.
The colonnaded forum, an area designed as a marketplace but used for social gatherings, including important political meetings, is stunning. Its oval shape is very unusual.
The nymphanium, a monument to the nymphs, was fed by an aqueduct.
It’s possible to walk down the roman street, also known as a cardo and as straight as Roman roads are reputed to be, again lined with columns. The road’s surface is original.
There’s an amphitheatre where you can stand on the stage and let your inner thespian out. Even if you don’t feel up to a full performance of your favourite speech, it’s worth standing on the stage and just speaking – the acoustic design of the theatre ensures that your voice can be heard with remarkable clarity, even normal speech levels.
And at the end of a day’s exploration, you are likely to be peckish. We were. Amman has some really excellent restaurants so on our return to the capital we went to Habibah to eat Kanafeh.
Middle eastern desserts are not only delicious they are also quite addictive. One of the defining elements of the desserts we tried in Jordan was the sweet, sweet syrup that soaks into and pervades the pastry or dough that forms the base. The sweetness is probably a good thing as it does limit your ability to scoff vast quantities of these scrumptious desserts.
The magic ingredient in Kanafeh is cheese. Kanafeh comprises pastry or dough, saturated in syrup and layered with a very slightly salty cheese, traditionally nabulsi or akkawi, which adds a comforting and savoury contrast to counterbalance the sweetness. Kanafeh can take a variety of forms – some use vermicelli type noodles as the base, others a pastry type dough. The syrup can be flavoured with rose or orange water to give a light fragrance to the dessert.
Habibah in Amman have been in business for several decades. It’s easy to see why. Their kanafeh is superb.
The kanafeh we tried was based on a pastry dough with layers of cheese. Topped off with pistachios for crunch and a nice green colour, and served warm, it is an absolutely delicious way to round off any meal. Or you could just order a really large portion and eat that instead of a meal – it’s worth it.