Forming part of Israel's border with Jordan, 30 mi/45 km southeast of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea is known for its extremely salty water—eight times saltier than the ocean. All that salt makes the water very dense, so it's impossible for you to sink—you'll simply float effortlessly. (Be sure to remove all metal jewelry before diving in—the minerals in the water may turn it black.) The room-sized "icebergs" you'll see floating are chunks of nearly pure salt, formed after water has evaporated.
You can also smear yourself with the Dead Sea's black, mineral-rich mud, which many people believe is good for the skin. Many spas are located on the shores of the sea and offer mud baths and other treatments. Several are clustered in Neve Zohar.
Along the Dead Sea's northern shore is the ancient city of the Essenes, Qumran (about 12 mi/20 km south of Jericho). It was in the hillside caves there that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947.
Near the lake is Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, one of the most beautiful spots in the country. It's a lush green finger cutting through the dry and desolate Judean Desert. Well-marked hiking trails follow freshwater streams to waterfalls and pools. The reserve is the home of wild ibex, rock hyrax, foxes and several species of birds. In April, the surrounding desert blooms with wildflowers. The Ein Gedi Hot Springs is a complex of six thermomineral water pools, where you can indulge in a whirlpool or a professional mud bath.
South of Ein Gedi is Masada, a mountain plateau where 900 Jews, known as Zealots, kept 10,000 Roman soldiers at bay for seven months during an uprising in the first century AD. When capture was imminent, the Zealots committed mass suicide rather than kneel to Rome.
The top of Masada has been fully excavated and partially restored, and it's well worth the 45-minute climb (or take the cable car to the top). On a clear day, there are panoramic views of the Judean Desert, the Moab Mountains, the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi. A half-day visit there is an absolute must while in Israel—sunrise is a particularly unforgettable sight. Like many other historic sites in Israel, Masada has a sound-and-light show, this one depicting the story of the rebellion.
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