IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Salt of the Earth

On a spa pilgrimage to Jordan’s Dead Sea, a Westerner finds healing for both body and soul.
Robed guests socialize on Zara Spa’s terrace.
Robed guests socialize on Zara Spa’s terrace.Zara Spa
/ Source: Spa Magazine

It was still early yet already scorching hot when we left Aqaba (along the coast of Jordan’s Red Sea) to drive 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 me 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 a long, dusty robe and headdress tended a flock of woolly, black sheep.

We had been driving for over an hour when, without warning, the road wound down a steep escarpment. With every mile my ears popped and the surroundings became gradually greener. Ibrahim slalomed, dangerously but deftly, between rainbow-hued, 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 landlocked sea depicted in the Bible, the famous beautifying waters that lured Cleopatra from Egypt before her dates with Mark Antony. Here was the source of millions of dollars worth of bath-and-beauty products distributed far and wide, and one of the world’s great spa destinations. It was majestic. On hazy days like this one, 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.

“This is where Abraham and his nephew Lot split up after their long journey from Mesopotamia — present day Iran and Iraq,” he continued. (We were just outside the ancient city of Zoar.) Ibrahim leads spiritual tourists to Moses’ grave, the site on the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized, and, of course, to these shores – where the famed Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and where Lot’s wife is reputed to have been turned into a pillar of salt.

Jordan’s Dead Sea resort district is confined to about a half mile of shore, where a cluster of large-scale spa properties huddle on the cliffs. Ibrahim pulled into the Moevenpick Resort & Spa, a Swiss franchise owned by Amman hoteliers that’s sandwiched between the Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa and the Dead Sea Spa Hotel. My room, on the top level of a beautiful Byzantine-styled complex that hearkened back to old Orthodox Christian settlements once dotting the country, was both earthy and elegant with thick sandstone walls, hardwood floors, a marble bath, and incredible Dead Sea vistas. Finally, I had reached my destination.

Sea views are ubiquitous at the Moevenpick. After dropping off my bags, I follow a sinuous path downhill toward the pool and spa and never lose sight of the water. I pass butterfly gardens with fountains, a plaza with four restaurants, and a pool area buzzing with Jordanian, Lebanese, and Saudi families and young singles. The resort is enormous — and packed. Leaving the crowds, I continue down to the beach. At 1,335 feet below sea level, this is one of the lowest points on Earth. There are a few small groups of people lounging — mostly older European couples caked in raw, chocolaty sludge they’d scooped from tall, terra-cotta vats by the shore. I immediately head for the sea and wade in until the water reaches my knees, then recline on my back. The feeling is like being lifted onto a cloud — I am not floating in the water; I am floating 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 turn over and try to swim freestyle but am undermined by density and involuntarily flip over after a few seconds. Next, I attempt to keep my body perfectly perpendicular, and though the water is easily 15 feet deep, my entire torso bobs above the surface. The shear physics of this counterintuitive buoyancy makes me laugh out loud.

After completing all the flotation tests I can invent, I’m off to the Moevenpick’s Zara Spa, another impressive Byzantine-inspired structure. With 22 rooms for massage, four mud rooms, four hydrotherapy suites, and a series of hot mineral pools, it has it all. My therapist, Nael (pronounced nile), leads me to Zara’s signature mud wrap. Still warm from 15 minutes in a mosaic steam room, I plop down on the treatment table in the raw (as is the protocol here), and Nael scrubs me down with Rivage Dead Sea salt, harvested straight from the source and refined in Amman. After another steam, it’s time for the mud.

As an ethereal flute drifts from speakers in the dimly lit room, Nael slathers mud (another Rivage product) over my legs and arms and piles it on my chest. Smiling, he tells me the mud has many minerals as he wraps me in plastic to (according to Nael) prevent the substance from drying and aid absorption. He then covers me with a heavy wool blanket and leaves the room.

I soon learn that Nael’s accommodating smile was hiding something. He knew perfectly well that the bio-active, mineral-rich Dead Sea mud eases aches and pains because it creates mind-bending, soul-stirring heat — and it doesn’t take long before I start to cook. I rapidly progress from warm to warmer to uncomfortably hot, streams of sweat working their way through the mud. My earth-laden chest gets heavier and heavier, and I itch like mad. My mind is racing, and it hasn’t even been five minutes. I’ve never run screaming out of a spa treatment room, but for the first time I am tempted to plan an escape. Finally (and just in time), the extreme heat produces calming hormones that flood me with the message to just let go and relax. The itching stops. I begin to breath easier, my muscles surrender and unwind, and my mind settles. By the time Nael returns about 30 minutes later, I’m asleep.

After the treatment, I explore the facility and wind up on the top deck, which features an infinity pool and a view that The Times of London tagged as the eighth best on Earth. I can see why. It is sunset, and a misty orange haze has gathered over the pale blue sea. The faint, glowing lights of Jerusalem gradually become visible among the far-off hills. I sit and watch them glimmer, my brain blissfully blank and body completely relaxed in a way neither has been in six months.

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

“Our climate is unique,” he points out. “We are a quarter mile below sea level, and although it is warm and sunny almost all year, the natural evaporation of the sea creates a film in the atmosphere filtering out the harmful UVB rays and allowing the beneficial ones [UVA] to penetrate and help clear the skin. The dry climate and the oxygen, magnesium, and calcium content of the air work to ease asthma. The air is also bromide rich, which induces relaxation and normalizes blood pressure. Our guests often tell us they sleep well here.”

He then explains how the seawater is ideal for those suffering from skin problems because it is 34 percent salt — a content three times that of the Great Salt Lake and 10 times the average salinity of ocean water. He tells me that the sea minerals penetrate the skin and also act as joint supplements and that 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 improve mobility. I describe to him my initial experience in the Zara Spa, and he laughs, saying, “Clinical treatments are much more intense [than standard spa treatments], using denser mud and more of it, 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. His clinic is so popular that the hotel is building a new, state-of-the-art facility scheduled to be open by the beginning of May. I tour the space with the dapper, silver-haired, Armani-clad doctor. Along the way, he gracefully diffuses a heated argument between young construction toughs and tactfully (and modestly) adjusts to a pinch on the tush from a middle-aged Italian beauty — all the while continuing, unfazed, to extol the virtues of natural healing.

“In Europe, they treat psoriasis with aggressive drugs and medicated creams, but often it is related to psychological issues and stress,” he says. “Patients come here, and after three weeks eighty-five percent have great improvement. Natural treatments are much safer and have fewer side effects.”

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, noting, “The Israeli side has also studied the issue.” I ask if he collaborates with Israeli doctors, and he replies, “No, because of 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 Zara Spa’s 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 more than three feet per year,” says Chris Johnson, the British-born spokes-person for Wild Jordan, an environmental non-governmental organization based in Amman. And, he tells me, if the trend continues the sea will fragment into smaller pools — like those of the industrialized section where raw materials for spa products (salt and mud) are harvested. Johnson notes that evaporation is natural, but the problem is that the Jordan River has been dammed and diverted, and there is no longer a free flow of fresh water to replenish the sea. (Later in the week, Ibrahim takes me to the once-rushing river where Jesus is said to have been baptized nearly 2,000 years ago. It’s now an empty, dry ditch.)

Driving away from the sea toward Amman, I see road signs pointing to borders with Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Jordan also borders the West Bank. “We live in the middle of a tough neighborhood,” says Ibrahim sadly. Still, if there is hope for the Middle East, Jordan embodies it.

For instance, Jordan’s king has recently enlisted the services of famed British architect Lord Norman Foster, designer of the Chep Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong and Millennium Bridge in London, to create and construct a canal that cuts through the Sinai Desert from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. It would include desalination plants along the way, providing the dry nations with fresh water for drinking and irrigation and, ultimately, replenishing the Dead Sea. But environmentalists like Johnson aren’t satisfied. “We’re against it, because it would change the Sea’s composition,” he says.

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? Before I left America for Jordan, I received concerned warnings from less-traveled family and friends, and, in truth, a part of me was a little nervous. But what I found was a culturally rich, hospitable, and safe country with astounding sites — such as the ruins of Petra, the vast and tranquil Sinai Desert, and the nurturing Dead Sea.

On the plane, heading home, I realize it was the people that made the greatest impression on me: unofficial diplomats like the suave and intelligent Dr. Kana’an; the humble and gifted Nael; and my best Jordanian friend, Ibrahim, who remains optimistic and open despite the turmoil. As my plane lurches toward the sky, I leave the Middle East not only relaxed and remineralized by my Dead Sea treatments but also rejuvenated with hope by the wonderful, caring people I met there.

  portrays the full-depth of the spa experience and ways to live it every day. Dedicated to providing the information and inspiration needed to pursue health of body and mind, Spa Magazine  presents a contemporary view of spas worldwide.