The Middle East is famously a place of paradoxes, and perhaps the oddest paradox of all is this: the Dead Sea is dying. Edward Stourton, who has been to Israel to investigate, has found the Dead Sea is now shrinking at a terrifying speed with the sea level dropping by more than three feet a year.
There can be few sights sadder than a seaside restaurant that has been abandoned by the sea.
Dropping south on Route 90, the Israeli highway that stretches the length of the Jordan River, we turned left at the service station
selling Dead Sea mud for skin-toning and salt crystals for your bath.
A few hundred metres on is a wrecked concrete building baking in the sun, one of those melancholy Middle East ruins that look as if they became redundant almost as soon as they were built.
Except this one is different. Walk into what is left of the lobby and you notice the remains of a once stylish bar.
Look ahead and you see two crescent arms enclosing a dining terrace, adorned with an outsized crusader map of the River Jordan. It is of course recognisable, despite the large hole in the concrete just up from Jericho.
The restaurant was sited so that guests could drop off the terrace straight into the sea. You do not really swim in the Dead Sea, you bounce about, and it is easy to imagine flopping into the salty waters after a hearty lunch.
Except that the sea has now gone, you can see it glittering in the sunshine just less than a mile away.
Where the sound of lapping water once mixed with chinking glasses and the clatter of plates, there is now just desert dust.
Gura Berger was brought here as a small child in the aftermath of the 1967 war, and as we stood at what was once the water’s edge, she remembered her father scooping her out because a Jordanian sniper was firing on the Israeli bathers.
She describes her father’s wedding ring slipping off in the scramble and “the twinkle of the gold in the water”.
It is a blasted landscape, dun-coloured, with scarcely a hint of green, and the unforgiving heat drills into you.
Gura Berger is now the spokesperson for the Dead Sea Regional Council, and she is a passionate evangelist for this unique environment.
It needs someone with a little passion and poetry to speak on its behalf, because the beauty is not of the seductive kind – quite the reverse, in fact.
It is a blasted landscape, dun-coloured, with scarcely a hint of green, and the unforgiving heat drills into you. The Bible records it as a place of God’s anger, the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah are said to lie beneath the Dead Sea’s surface.
And yet this place, the lowest on the planet at more than 420m (1378 ft) below sea level has also offered shelter for seekers after God. The ascetic communities that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls flourished here.
The Sea has, from a time beyond the memory even of the Bible, been fed by that most famous and hallowed of waterways, the River Jordan. And therein lies the problem.
Time was when the Jordan hurled one billion cubic metres of water a year into the sea. The figure now is 10% of that.
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians – everyone wants a bit of Jordan water – and by the time the river reaches its end, there is almost none left. At its mouth, two strides with rolled up trousers can take you from Israel across the river border into Jordan.
Nature is taking its revenge in truly Biblical style. Along the sea’s western edge I found a landscape pitted with vast sink holes, some as deep as 26m (85ft).
Roads that not so long ago led to seaside campsites, are interrupted with craters which reminded me of the sort of bomb damage I have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan courtesy of the American air force.
The holes open where the shrinking salt waters have made way for subterranean fresh water springs.
The fresh water eats away at the salt deposits around the edge of the sea, creating huge underground caverns. When the ground above collapses, it can do so with terrifying speed.
Eli Raz, a geologist from the Ein Gedi kibbutz, was out surveying a new sink hole that had been reported to him when, as he put with almost English understatement, it “developed”. He spent 14 hours nine metres below ground before he was rescued.
The rescue plan
There is a plan to stop the Dead Sea dying. Water would be drawn from the Red Sea in the south, it would be desalinated to provide precious fresh water for the region, and a Red-Dead channel would take the salt water waste on to replenish the Dead Sea.
On the way it would drive a hydro-electric plant, and create 2,000 jobs.
The champions argue it would also promote co-operation between Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. The opponents say the environmental impact is unpredictable and could be disastrous.
The World Bank is studying the plan, so we will see. In the meantime we are left with Gura Berger’s words:
“If we cry enough,” she said, “perhaps we can refill it with our tears.”