At 2 P.M. I parked along Highway 90. I got out of the car opposite the pillar of salty rock that’s known popularly as “Lot’s Wife” and tried to photograph it alongside the thermometer I’d brought from home. I wanted proof that the red liquid in the glass tube had stabilized at 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). But, I thought, what will happen if the temperature reaches 50 degrees, the maximum on the thermometer? Will the tube shatter? Will my head burst?
The heat was inhuman. The air that entered my lungs was on fire. My eyes were searing. Quickly I escaped back into the air-conditioned car. I recalled an article I read once about tires that melted from heat.
Last July 17, at Sodom, the thermometer hit 49.9 degrees Celsius (almost 122 degrees Fahrenheit) – the hottest temperature recorded in Israel since the state’s establishment. Dr. Amos Porat, head of the Climate Department in the Israel Meteorological Service, linked the event – heat records were broken all over the country – to the global warming phenomenon and explained that we can expect an increase in extreme heat waves.
With that optimistic forecast I drove to Sodom.
Too hot for hugging
Moshav Ein Tamar is located just south of the Dead Sea, close to Moshav Neot Hakikar, a fairly well-known tourist destination. Fifty families live in the former, 80 in the latter. It’s not easy for anyone here. Besides the murderous climate, residents have to contend with the distance, the disconnect and particularly with employment problems that stem from the glum state of agriculture and the absence of attractions or genuine “reasons” to visit. To get there you turn off onto a narrow side road (Route 2499), which leads from the intersection to the green gardens that are cultivated in Ein Tamar. Ilana and Yehuda Zamstein have lived in Ein Tamar for 35 years. Immediately after I arrived they offered me water with ice, and after I drank it down they explained that it was desalinated water, “but it tastes pretty good.” They are not impressed by the record-breaking temperatures. “We’ve had 52 degrees here, too, but no one came to measure it and no one published it,” they say with a smile. I feel like hugging them, but it’s too hot.
With incredible optimism and industriousness, the couple has created B&Bs intended for 18 people – well kept, spotlessly clean and with green vegetation that looks unnatural in the noonday heat. For years they grew melons and then peppers for export, but they stopped farming four years ago. “It’s impossible to live from agriculture here. Tourism is our economic base now,” Yehuda explains. Ilana adds, “It’s hard to live here, from every point of view. The climate doesn’t make things easy for us. The conditions are hard even for the plants.” The visitors, mostly Israelis, come only in winter, from November to April, and mostly on holidays and weekends. Foreign tourists are rare, though Ilana Zamstein says she hopes to appear on sites such as booking.com this year.
The Zamsteins are not alone. Four other families in Ein Tamar and five more in Neot Hakikar also offer guest rooms. All told, about 100 beds at the end of the world. Some places promise “a magical vacation in a community close to the shores of the Dead Sea and the stunning landscapes of the Negev and the Arava.” All emphasize the quiet. The sinkholes are not a problem here, they say – they’re a lot farther north. The Dead Sea Works, though, are a problem, because sometimes you can smell the gases they emit.
I ask the Zamsteins what is there to do or see here. After a brief consultation, they have a double reply. First, they warn that the heat is simply horrific and there’s no use trying to outsmart it. An elderly Dutch tourist went out by himself, walked 700 meters from the community and died. They then suggest that we go to the hidden spring, the Spring of Love. “Don’t worry,” they say, “it’s close to the road.”
Two kilometers west of Ein Tamar, the spring is a small, lovely artificial pool, tucked away between high palms. It collects groundwater that rises to the surface, lucid water about a meter deep. You can sit at the edge and dangle your legs in it. A kind of small oasis or mirage that in another minute could vanish.
Cold black cube
The next stop is the complex of hotels at Ein Bokek. The first of these hotels, Galei Zohar, was inaugurated exactly 50 years ago, in July 1969. There are now 12 hotels with a total of 4,000 rooms, creating a large tourism site close to the Dead Sea and to Masada. Some of the hotels have medical centers that specialize in curative tourism. Few possibilities remain for swimming in the Dead Sea, as sinkholes have forced the closure of many beaches. The main remaining beaches are Kalia in the north and Ein Bokek in the south.
A great deal of money has been invested in the hotel complex in recent years, notably in the three-kilometer promenade by the sea, which connects Ein Bokek to Hamei Zohar to the south, where three more hotels are located. Another 1,500 hotel rooms are slated to be added in the coming years.
The big sensation at Ein Bokek is a mall that opened last November. Looking like a weird black cube, the two-story shopping center was built by Bercleys Properties, a Jewish-owned British company, at a cost of 300 million shekels (currently about $85 million). There you can buy, at the world’s lowest spot, exactly the same brands that are available at every other mall in Israel. It’s said the mall doesn’t charge VAT, but most tourists come here on Shabbat, when it’s closed. The air conditioning is simply superb, even overpowering, but it’s hard to find anything reasonable to eat – which is true of the entire Dead Sea area.
It’s heartbreaking to pass the fenced-off, hermetically sealed enclave opposite Kibbutz Ein Gedi, with its abandoned gas station, and alongside it the beach and a cafeteria. The beach has been closed because sinkholes make it unsafe, and the receding Dead Sea has become a disaster zone. The comparison isn’t pleasant, but Chernobyl is not a dirty word in this context. Here, too, humans destroyed nature. A whole list of the culpable can be rattled off: our governments, the neighboring governments, the green organizations that didn’t issue warnings, and the industries that are continuing to take in money but are not raking salt, as they undertook to do.
I love Ein Gedi, and especially the people. The kibbutz has one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the country, with impressive baobab trees, and that’s already reason enough to come here even in this unbearable heat, to shelter in their shade. Merav Ayalon, a kibbutz member who was born here, promotes social tourism and teaches history and civics in the local high school. She says the tourism industry is ignoring the issues in the area. “You can’t build tourism that pretends and that disguises itself as something else. It’s impossible just to enjoy the spa and the pool and the hotel as though everything is hunky-dory. In contemporary tourism, shortcomings are what people come to see.
“We are still having a hard time developing ‘responsible tourism,’ which will include observation tours of the sinkholes and cope with the problem the way our parents coped with the difficulties they found when they came to live here. I honestly think that people will want to come and see the difficulty if we are able to present it in the right way.”
It was 9 P.M. when I left Ein Gedi. The thermometer showed 40 degrees. An hour later, in Jerusalem, the temperature had plunged to 25 degrees (77 Fahrenheit). Salvation.