No Christian tour to the Holy Land would be complete without a visit to the Dead Sea. Famous for its superlatives - lowest, saltiest, harshest, - the Dead Sea also claims a fascinating history, reaching back to the times of Abraham. A visit to the Dead Sea would be worth it just for the chance to experience the well-known “floating effect,” to douse yourself with the therapeutic mud, and to gaze upon the stunning vistas, but the impact of your visit increases tenfold when you bring with you the knowledge of its past.
The First Tourists
The modern tourist, on a Christian tour to the Holy Land, and the Dead Sea, travels in ancient footsteps. The Dead Sea, according to Biblical tradition, was the site of the infamous cities Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham was probably one of the first Dead Sea tourists, who was then quickly spirited away with his wife and nephew, Lot, when God destroyed the cities. Lot's wife, as the story goes, turned around to witness the destruction and was immediately transformed into a pillar of salt. At that moment, the area became the saltiest site on earth. One of the ridges of salt on Mt. Sodom, a geological salt ridge in the Dead Sea, is said to be the ancient Mrs. Lot. Later, the Dead Sea became a place of refuge for King David in his flight from King Saul. The ancient fortress Masada, a Jewish stronghold in the time of King Herod, is located in the Dead Sea region as well. Tours to the Holy Land should definitely include either a hike or cable car ride up to the magnificent fortress.
Site of the Baptism
For the Christian tourist in particular, the Dead Sea is an important historical location. Though the Dead Sea itself is never mentioned in the New Testament, the sea and its surrounding area holds many insights into Christian history. A few miles north of the Dead Sea, at the shore of the Jordan River (the Dead Sea’s only water source), lies the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It is considered one of the most sacred Christian sites in the Holy Land. Recently, the Israeli government has been working to have the baptism site, Qasr al-Yahud, open to the public without need for prior coordination. Each year in January, the Epiphany Festival, celebrating the Wise Men’s visit to Jesus, is held at the site, and during Easter, Mass is conducted there, with thousands of Christians in attendance. Christian Holy Land tour groups often make an effort to attend these events.
The Monastic Life
Christian tourists visiting the Dead Sea region should make sure to visit some of the ancient fourth-century monasteries, many of them built into the cliff walls. During the fourth century, the idea of asceticism and complete devotion to God took hold, and many believers left their hometowns to live their lives in the barren, arid Judean desert, allowing nothing to come between them and their faith. Many of the monasteries are open and welcome visitors. Of all the sites you will visit during your Christian tour to the Holy Land, they are not the easiest sites to access (which is, of course, the point), but the monasteries of Mar Saba and St. George, in particular, are well worth the effort.
Dead Sea Scrolls
In the last half of the twentieth century, archaeologists focused on the Holy Land as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls brought excitement and new relevance to ancient Christian history. These ancient scrolls, carefully transcribed and preserved, provided a tangible peek into the religious world at the time of Jesus’ birth. Some have even speculated that John the Baptist spent time with the Qumran community. At the Qumran National Park, you can visit the caves that the ancient Essenes, an ascetic sect, lived in, including the rooms where they may have actually copied the oldest Bible ever found. Christian tourists have flocked to these sites while in the Holy Land to witness where history was made.
What to Do
The Dead Sea area is filled with attractions to make your Christian tour to Israel refreshing to your body as well as your soul. The most popular access points to the sea are the Ein Gedi Public Beach and the Ein Bokek Public Beach. Make sure to attempt flotation (on your back only!) and lather up with the mud. Before diving in - be warned! The high salt levels can be absolutely vicious on any cuts or bites you may have, and be extra careful not to let any of the water touch your eyes! However, sufferers of psoriasis and other skin ailments rejoice - many of the beautiful spas and hotels alongside the Dead Sea offer therapeutic treatments for dermatologic conditions. Hike beautiful Ein Gedi, a true oasis in the midst of the harsh desert, complete with waterfalls and exotic flora and fauna. Serious outdoors enthusiasts can make a day of mountain biking, climbing, and rappelling at Metzoke Dragot, an outdoors activity center. Christian visitors touring the Holy Land will not be disappointed with the ample supply of activities, both physical and spiritual.
The Dead Sea is full of contradictions - lush vegetation alongside an arid desert, ascetic monastery neighboring modern, luxurious hotels, the most sacred baptismal site adjacent to two demolished cities of sin. However, it is precisely these contradictions which awe and humble the Christian tourist, transforming the visit from a dip in the sea to an intense and holy experience.