AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan borders a dramatic shore of the Dead Sea, a singular 1,000-foot-deep body of water filling part of the great Jordan Valley rift. A geological cataclysm millions of years ago created the valley and tore mountain ranges apart. The sea has slowly become saltier and salter until it is about a 30 percent solution. Because of that, bathers have the delightful sensation of zero gravity. Sinking is out of the question, because the human body is less dense than the brine.
This is the lowest point on earth, a good 410 meters below sea level.
The area has been home to at least five cities mentioned in Jewish and Christian scripture, including Sodom and Gomorrah, which the Bible says were destroyed by God. One U.S. archological team claims to have found Sodom just northeast of the Dead Sea. The massive city-state dominated the region for thousands of years, but evidence shows that 4,000 years ago, the area suddenly went uninhabited, a situation that lasted for 700 years.
Archeologists have found a layer of ash and burned pottery, but can find no earthly or non-biblical evidence of what caused the sudden desolation.
In the hills above the Dead Sea, it’s possible to visit Lot’s cave, where tradition holds that Lot took refuge after God destroyed Sodom for straying too far from God’s plan.
Today, the Dead Sea is lined with an increasing number of expensive resorts. The black mud is said to remove toxins and restore youth. Hotel guests often can be seen looking ghostly, with a muddy mask applied. The resorts have created many jobs as Jordan seeks to boost its economy, particularly with Holy Land pilgrimages.
Another sea borders Jordan. Aquaba, in the far south, sits at the north tip of the Red Sea, near the intersection of Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. There’s a pan-Arabism about the place, which was the site of a crucial World War I victory by Arabs in revolt against the Ottomans. T.E. Lawrence of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame helped lead the battle of Aqaba.
The waters of the Red Sea are certainly blue. The name of the waterway comes from corals that once lined the shores and possibly from red fish. This is the body of water that tradition tells us was miraculously parted by God through Moses when the Hebrews were escaping from Egyptian slavery.
Colorful sea life darts in the clear waters, including fish and corals. Tourists can snorkel, fish, sail or ride glass-bottomed boats driven by eager youths.
An old fort sits on shore and is open to tourists. On an island not far away are the ruins of the fort of Saladin, foe of Richard the Lionhearted and other crusaders.
Unike some parts of Jordan, Aqaba has little trash along the road. People come from all over to enjoy the water, and the beaches can have a touristy feel. One part of the city center has a row of U.S. fast food, for those who want that sort of thing.
Aqaba is devloping fast. Cement condominiums are sprouting up and can be had for about $150,000.
For the tourist interested in religious history, Aqaba has Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic ruins, though Jordan certainly has better ruins elsewhere.
Christian guides complain that writeups for the Islamic ruins often leave out the fact that under the mosques are usually Byzantine churches.
For those who enjoy shopping, Aqaba’s souk, or marketplace, is one of the best in Jordan, winding through streets and into covered places with friendly butchers, bakers and clothiers. Though it attracts tourists, it offers an authentic experience.
In a back alley off the souk, a half dozen men sit around a table playing cards and sipping sweet tea. They good naturedly assent to let a traveler take their photograph, but do not stop the game. It’s safe to explore like this in Jordan, which has little crime. The souk does have people seeking money, and they can be as persisent as the woman who stayed after the judge in the parable from Luke’s gospel.