The many treasures of Jordan’s Dead Sea
Southern Shuneh - When Jordan and Israel signed their historic peace treaty in 1994, they spoke of plans to turn the Dead Sea into the Riviera of the Middle East, similar to the European resorts on the Western Mediterranean in France, Monaco and Italy.
Twenty-one years later, the Middle East neighbours, though maintaining cordial diplomatic ties and strong security cooperation, are bickering on how to save the environment of an endangered biblical and tourist area they share with the Palestinians.
“It’s a national treasure and a world heritage [site] that should be well preserved for generations to come,” insisted Jordanian Minister of Water and Irrigation Hazem el-Nasser in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
In the past decade, Jordan has pressed ahead with plans to rehabilitate the Dead Sea. A chain of five-star Western hotels, restaurants, a shopping mall, recreation facilities, apartment blocks, a promenade and street cafés sprouted up in the area, creating a clone of a modern city.
On the shoreline, a $1.1 billion Porto Dead Sea is being developed by an Egyptian construction firm on 800,000 square metres. The project envisages four five-star hotels, spas, three malls and 1,100 serviced apartments.
An exclusive seaside conference hall has hosted significant meetings of world leaders, including former Israeli president Shimon Peres, former US president Bill Clinton, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and scores of others.
Dead Sea attractions are mainly the saltiness of the water that allows people to float and spas that offer cosmetic and skin therapies. The Dead Sea’s thick black mud is rich with salt and minerals.
“The Dead Sea is the place to invest in because it has a future,” Jordanian businessman Zaid Aghabi, who lives in Australia and owns an IT firm there, said during a sightseeing tour of the area.
“It has a new infrastructure. It’s served by hotels and restaurants and to drive here is easy,” he said.
The Dead Sea is 304 metres deep, the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. It is bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. Its surface and shores are 429 metres below sea level, Earth’s lowest elevation on land, making it warm year-round. With a total area of 605 square kilometres, the sea stretches 50 kilometres, with the sole inflow from the River Jordan.
Outside the tourist area, locals grow bananas, oranges, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, eggplant, cauliflower and other fruits and vegetables. The area encompassing the Dead Sea is known as the Jordan valley, the country’s food basket.
However, because the Dead Sea has been receding 1 metre each year for the past 30 years, scientists have warned that, if the phenomenon continues, the Dead Sea will be extinct by 2050.
Jordan blames the receding water partly on evaporation but mainly on Israel’s industrial projects on the Dead Sea and its diversion of Jordan river water, leaving the flow at a trickle.
As a result, fresh water in basins around the sea dried up, causing thousands of sink holes — some are 100 metres deep — on both sides of the shoreline.
“It’s problematic, yet a clear warning of a tragedy to befall,” warned water expert Mohammed Salameh in his research on the issue.
To replenish the Dead Sea and provide drinking water to parched areas in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, Amman proposed to draw water from the country’s southernmost tip in the Red Sea Gulf of Aqaba through pipes or a water canal to the Dead Sea.
Israel initially agreed but later rejected it. It claimed it was more cost effective to draw water from the Mediterranean on its West. Jordan interpreted the Israeli proposal as an attempt to manipulate the project, closing the tap when needed to force its Arab neighbour into concessions that best suit its interests.
It wasn’t until 2013 that Israel agreed, under pressure from the United States, to sign a deal for the $10 billion project known as the Red-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Canal. The project is expected to be operational within ten years, with an initial phase completed by 2018.
Aside from politics, the Dead Sea not only has a distinguished mention in the old and new testaments of the Bible, but also has a rich history.
Biblically, an area the Vatican recognises as “holy” and listed on the world’s Christian pilgrimage sites lies near the mouth of Dead Sea — a place on the Jordan river where tradition says Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist.
Nearby, an area called Karameh is where Jordan battled an invading Israeli army in 1968, forcing it to retreat to the West Bank, a territory Israel seized from Jordan in 1967.
Somewhere on the seabed, some think is the site of the lost ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Atop a mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, a pile of stones resembling a human figure is believed by some to be the wife of Lot with her face turned towards the sea.
In Jewish traditions, the woman is identified as “Ado” or “Edith”, who, according to the book of Genesis, was turned into a pillar of salt after she looked back at Sodom, violating God’s instructions.
Contractor Othman Abssi, 46, said billions of dollars are pouring into the Dead Sea, where a construction boom involving apartment blocks is visible.
“No doubt, the Dead Sea area is booming and people are beginning to realise that this area has the potential in the future,” he said.