On January the 14th I set-out for The Dead Sea in Israel. Apart from a well-earned holiday, it was my intention to experience the place where some of the first recorded agriculture in the history of mankind exists. Despite the water’s dead reputation, fresh water seeps or floods through deep gulleys in the Judean dessert to create a narrow band of fertile and usable land, and the valuable resource of salt can be collected by hand. 

The first inhabitants of the area are known to have kept pigs as well as growing vegetable crops, hunting for deer and trading among each other. Long before they even had pottery, evidence of their ingenuity includes the invention of glue.

 

I wanted to experience the unique salt waters for myself, the historical use of salts from the area for curing, and any other curing mechanisms that might date-back to before records begin. I kept a journal of my brief travels along with technical notes, as I sought the basis for a cure out of The Garden of Eden. Here are some of my observations.

 

Day 1

 

Apparently built of the same stone upon which they are founded, structures both modern and biblically old appear either to grow out of the landscape like worn teeth in a sun-bleached sheep’s jaw, or to be the cracked and crumbling remains of the geography itself. 

The landscape has the look of having had done to it, everything that can be. As our little “sherut” shuttle-bus speeds us from Ben Gurion and along dual carriageway side-cuttings, one friendly passenger begins to act as tour-guide and explains that both this and the alternative road to Jerusalem are Roman. To me the road signs, signals and bollards seem tacked-on and tin-pot, even though they are at least as well made and efficient as our own. I bet the road looked identical 2000 years ago, were it not for these. There seems to be a habit in Israel of building a new road right next to the existing one, either to cope with more and more travellers, or before the original is consigned to dust. Modern civil engineering can do little to alter the hard facts of forcing infrastructure upon bare, ancient rock.

With their brightly patterned blankets, corrugated iron and scavenged wooden lean-tos, I don’t suppose the roadside dwellers of the Judean dessert live much differently from their ancestors either. Excellent mobile phone coverage does not a Mecca make. They are all Arab.

 

There is an odd duality to life here, given that I don’t understand the language and so cannot decipher any subtle nuances in how people treat each other. On one obvious hand, the savagely chewed West Bank is panoramic from our lofty trail, the rest of Israel literally looking down upon it as they pass by in Mercedes or Toyota 4 x 4s. Even ordinary police vehicles here are decked in military green and have a capable, utilitarian look about them as do their machine-gun toting occupants. The latter are remarkably relaxed however and I do not feel threatened.

At the same time, Israel does not seem like a county at war with itself. Street markets in Jerusalem are open daily rather than weekly and the mix of Arab and often secular Jew is a bubbling, stress-free maelstrom of Middle Eastern culture and dress.

Nobody seems to mind anybody else amid fast exchange of conversation and business deals. I call into an Armenian bakery where men quietly nod even as people crowd the counter, passing shekels and seriously (and dear reader, I do mean seriously) good bread. The Marlborough red never leaves his mouth, left eye half closed against the smoke. I call next door for some delicious hummus, and a diet coke. 

Mobile phone kiosks rub shoulders with traditional sweet pastry and coffee shops, spice and tea bazaars, western clothing stalls, fishmongers, street-food, grocers with cabbages the size of medicine balls and jet-black knobbly aubergines. Olives and pickles can be bought, alongside garishly dyed florets of cooked cauliflower, those too of gargantuan proportions. There are butchers with half sheep, goats or hind-quarters of beef (young and pale by our standards) all hanging, some without refrigeration, but selling rapidly enough not to matter. And of course there are bakers with their huge mechanised mixing bowls and ceiling-high stacks of speckled eggs.

 

I am merely passing through however, on my way to The Dead Sea. It is Shabbat, a day of rest in the weekly calendar here, so public transport is a problem. Indeed, without my own car, living outside the major cities is not easy anyway; there are huge distances between one amenity and another. 

Like many, my driver does not understand the attraction, especially outside the tourist season. And I am beginning to agree. After a spate of lonely looking pottery sellers and camels we pass a checkpoint, hardly slowing down. Then we head to the lowest point on Earth.

Jordan is barely separated by the saline waters, unending road stretches before us. It is punctuated only by occasional newly razed oasis of irrigated date-palms, small but World-conquering enterprises based upon dead-sea products, and the kibbutzes they serve. Only a single hotel resort to the south rises-up in the distance. It is isolated and expensive. To our right, is the Judean desert. It is hard to believe that we are in The Levant, a place where humanity first paused on its several migrations out of Africa to become farmers and feasters upon the fertile crescent. Strangely, this is perhaps the historical location of The Garden of Eden.

 

The erosion of those clifftops is of epic proportions. When I arrived I was warned that it might rain over the weekend, and that the parched ground closes-up rapidly, causing flash floods. Huge waterfalls, dry for now, can be seen from far below. Nobody wants to be under it when the floods arrive. In spite of these regular cascades dropping into the chasm which holds us, the sea itself is shrinking so fast that we are driving on where it used to be just 30 years ago. Perhaps this is the result of exploitation, or just evaporation. Either way, the effect upon me is that someone has pulled The World’s plug. I am beginning to regret flushing spiders away when I find them in my bath.

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