How low can you go? In Israel, you can go to the lowest place on earth!
The Dead Sea (Yam Hamelach) sits at 1,300 feet below sea level in a fault in the rocks that runs all the way to Africa. It is also the saltiest sea on earth. No fish or other sea animals are able to live in its waters. But visitors to the area can enjoy "sitting" on the water (since it is impossible to sink) and covering themselves with black Dead Sea mud, which is said to relax tension, soothe pain, and keep the skin smooth and fresh. The potash in the water is a fertilizer that Israel exports all over the world. Among the other minerals in the water are bromine, which calms the nerves, and iodine and magnesium, which help with arthritis, rheumatism and skin problems.
But be careful —you don't want to get any of this salty bitter water in your mouth!
The southern part of the Dead Sea has partly dried up because the water of the Jordan River that feeds the sea has been used by both Israel and Jordan. On the Israeli side of the sea are artificial lakes formed by dykes built for the potash plant. They are used for the removal of chemicals, and are also used by bathers.
At Ein Fashka, the northernmost point on the sea, you can try out the seawater and the mud, then rinse off with 80-degree water from the freshwater springs. Several other spots along the Dead Sea have spas, mineral baths and beaches. At Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem is a school, called Metsukei Dragot, that offers desert safaris, rock climbing and rappelling.
North of Ein Fashka is Kumran, the Essene settlement where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The Essenes were a group of Jews who lived during the time of the Second Temple and built their community in this deserted spot. It was destroyed by the Romans in 68 C.E. The scrolls, which were stored in earthenware jars and found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947, came from the centuries just before and after the first century. They gave scholars much important information about the life, customs, rituals and beliefs of the people of that time. There is a tourist center, and the ruins of some of the Essene's buildings can be visited. The caves themselves are visible in the cliffs, but are not open to tourists.
Ein Gedi, about eight miles south of Mitzpe Shalem, is a beautiful oasis and a wonderful place for a hike and a swim. You can follow the trail to David's Spring, where David hid from King Saul during one of the king's fits of anger. There, a 100-foot-high waterfall spills over the rocks and forms a lovely pool for bathing.
About 12 miles south of Ein Gedi is Masada, the mountain-top site of Jewish resistance against Rome after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Originally, this was the site of King Herod's summer palace. You can climb to the top on the mountainside by a Roman ramp called the Battery, or by the Snake Path, which looks just like its name suggests. There is also a cable car for those who prefer it. On top, you can tour the remains of Herod's three-level palace, the Roman baths and storehouses.
To Jews, the story of the Jewish rebels' resistance to Rome is the real story of Masada. A group of people known as Zealots took Masada from the Romans and had a base there. After Jerusalem was destroyed, rather than surrender, fewer than 1,000 Zealots held out at Masada against over 15,000 Roman troops. The Roman army built a wall around the mountain and camps to cut off possible escape routes. The remains of these Roman camps can be seen from the summit. Then, they built a ramp up to the fortress. When they reached the top, they discovered that the Zealots had committed suicide rather than be forced into slavery to Rome.
When archaeologists explored Masada in the 1960s, they discovered the remains of the Zealots' homes, synagogue and ritual bath, as well as skeletons, evidence of their fire and the remains of their last meal. This site is so important to Jews that new soldiers being inducted into the Israeli armed forces take their oath at Masada.