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That Sinking Feeling 

4,000 years later, the Dead Sea is facing another disaster

Photos: Moshe Bernstein

After four years as a manager of Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul branch of the Osher Ad supermarket chain, Moshe Bernstein decided to switch directions and professionally pursue his favorite hobby of video editing. Right before the course started though, he decided to use a last free day to take his camera and travel to the Dead Sea, never fathoming the magnitude of the project he was about to undertake.

That impromptu trip to the lowest place on Earth quickly became a hobby he couldn’t stop. Bernstein began to travel along the Dead Sea at least twice a week, walking along its rocky shores, clambering down the cliffs, hiking on crumbling ground and skipping over sinkholes, documenting the magic on his camera, and returning home when the sun set.

“People didn’t know what had come over me,” he says, “and actually, neither did I. It was like I was possessed — the Dead Sea simply captivated me.”

What makes a person decide to leave his job and daily routine to set out and track the Dead Sea on foot, along dozens of kilometers including dangerous swamps and up to 6,000 sinkholes? Bernstein can’t really answer that question, but half a year later, he completed one of the most breathtaking trails in Eretz Yisrael.

“Each week I did a different segment. In all, I walked about 55 kilometers, the length of the main northern basin. At some of the shores, I skipped over streams and wells, but I spent most of the route on dry land, photographing continuously.”

He subsequently publicized his photos and video clips, but only when people reached out to him from all over the world to ask him permission to publish the pictures did he realize the value of the treasure he had created.

Still, he doesn’t take his adventure as a blanket recommendation to hike around the Dead Sea. “There are dangerous sinkholes everywhere,” he says, “and no one should get close to them without a professional escort.”


Pillars of Salt

It was over 3,700 years ago that the Biblical cities of Sedom and Amorah, Admah and Tzeva’im, and the entire plain — the Arei Hakikar — found their epic destruction as a result of human wickedness and Divine retribution.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and this huge saline basin, in the running several years back as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is on the verge of another collapse, although tourists are not yet about to turn into a pillar of salt. It’s the convergence of thousands of sinkholes, breathtaking in their beauty but wreaking havoc with the stability of the region.

Everyone knows that the Dead Sea’s therapeutic waters are so full of salt that bathers float right to the top, and the healing power of its minerals is unmatched.

But today the Dead Sea is dying again, and its banks are collapsing. The water level is dropping close to four feet every year, and the main part of the sea, the northern basin, has lost about a third of its surface area since the 1970s. Over the decades, Israel, Jordan and Syria have diverted the freshwater sources that feed the Dead Sea, for drinking water and irrigation. Plus, Jordanian companies and the Israeli Dead Sea Works factories evaporate Dead Sea water to harvest its rich minerals for industry and export.

In fact, the southern part of the sea at Ein Bokek, Israel’s Dead Sea hotel and tourist strip, is actually a massive man-made evaporation pool making up the lake’s southern basin (even though the water and the minerals are essentially the same).

Sinkhole Kaleidoscope

As the lake recedes, the landscape has been changing in both beautiful and ominous ways. Exquisite salt formations are revealed where the water has dried up, but there are also the spooky scenes of closed down beaches and parts of roads — including the Ein Gedi beach and a section of Highway 90 that runs from the north all the way to Eilat — swallowed up by sinkholes along the shore. (The famed Ein Gedi spa, known for its smelly but oh-so-therapeutic sulfur baths, has been closed since 2020 because of sinkholes in its perimeter.)

But those sinkholes — created when the thick salt rocks, newly exposed because of the receding sea levels, are dissolved by groundwater, forming cavities as they disintegrate and causing the earth around them to collapse — are at the center of Bernstein’s picture gallery. They are filled with gorgeous clear water in a range of colors, from bright pink to fluorescent turquoise to fiery red to inky black, as the rain and groundwater flowing to the sinkholes pass through different minerals and algae on their way there, mixing with such substances as oxidized copper and beta-carotene.

“When I went back to a spot I’d photographed two months earlier, I discovered that the color of the water had changed,” Bernstein says. “The pink water in the sinkhole had changed to green.”


Signs of Life

In 1990 there were a little over 100 sinkholes, according to the Geological Survey of Israel. Today, there are more than 6,000, with new ones showing up daily. And alongside the breathtaking reality, there is also danger for anyone hiking in the area.

“I sank into one of the pools up to my knees. I got out at the last minute, but my shoes remained deep in the swamp,” Bernstein relates. “There were some places, which, in order to pass, I had to construct a makeshift bridge, and I knew that if it wasn’t stable, I could be putting my life at risk — and that was after extensive consultations and utmost attention to safety.”

It is widely assumed that the Dead Sea does not contain any life (that’s where its English name comes from, while in Hebrew it’s known as Yam Hamelach, the “Sea of Salt”), but Bernstein has photographed stunning scenes of wildlife in the area. There are freshwater streams all around that are home to many fish and water birds.

In fact, the Dead Sea’s ebb and the sinkholes’ convergence have prompted various species of birds, mammals and fish to come and enjoy the area, as well as a growing variety of vegetation, creating a totally new ecosystem from what was a salty grave.

“In the cliffs above Ein Gedi, one can see ibexes (a type of desert goat) walking along the near-vertical cliffs, and down on the coast, there were ibexes that came right up to me. It’s fun to have a mountain goat come right up to you, but the fact that they aren’t afraid of people is actually quite problematic, as it indicates that they’ve been fed by hikers. The hikers might have given them processed food that can make them sick, but even worse is that they’ve learned that they don’t have to forage for food on their own, but can rely on humans. In nature, that’s not a good thing.”

In certain areas near the sea, Bernstein found tracks of animals of prey, such as wolves, hyenas, and coyotes. But among all those, he says what impressed him most was a tiny red ladybug. “It was like a ray of light in an arid desert,” he says.


Mushroom Mystery

Most of the flora at the Dead Sea consists of green algae that mysteriously manages to survive in the water. But how did all those mushrooms get here? In fact, they aren’t live mushrooms at all, but are made of salt.

“The salt ‘mushrooms’ are always on the seabed, but as the water recedes, they’ve become a new symbol of the area,” Bernstein says. “The tallest mushroom I documented is about five feet tall, but about a month ago, it collapsed under its own weight.”


Crystal Clear

The contrast of the blue of the sea kissing the gold of the desert is the backdrop for most of Bernstein’s photos, but the most unusual of all of them are probably the ones where salt crystals are floating around. “I photographed most of the crystals in the Mitzpeh Shalem area, and some in Ein Gedi,” he says. “But I don’t suggest you go looking for them there, because the Dead Sea changes all the time, and the crystals don’t always remain where they were. They could dry up and crumble, and you could fall into a sinkhole.”

He notes that the phenomenon of Dead Sea crystals is one of the most unique facets of the area, as it’s one of the few places in the world where the crystals and stalactites are not made of stone or ice, but of glistening salt. Sometimes they get reflected in the seawater, and then they generate hypnotic three dimensional images.

As most readers know, anything that goes into the Dead Sea comes out afterward with a coating of salt. Bernstein points to one favorite photo as an example — a water frog that he found in the sea, probably swept in from one of the sinkholes without knowing it would meet its death there. Of course, there was no way it could survive in the sea, but it was coated in salt, and thus preserved.

In another photo we see a tree completely enveloped in salt crystals from the roots to the branches, while in a third photo, there’s some unidentified object also coated in salt. “Do you see what it is?” Bernstein asks. Wait — could that be a car?

“I speculate that it fell into the water about twenty years ago, if not more,” he says. “At first, they couldn’t extricate it, but in recent years, as the water level receded, it was exposed, and of course, it was also completely covered in a layer of salt.”


Water Pearls

“Among the things that excited people from all over the world were the pictures of the ‘Dead Sea pearls.” Bernstein says, pointing to another batch of breathtaking photos. “The pearls are officially white because they’re made of salt, but I’ve found other colors as well, such as gray or even black. Of course, these are not real pearls — real pearls are created over time in an oyster’s shell. These are actually balls of salt that dried up and became round and smooth. It’s not clear what generates the pearl-like image — some say it’s the desert wind.”


Diamonds in the Rough

Needless to say, just like the pearls are not pearls, the diamonds in the Dead Sea are not diamonds. “But they are gorgeous and so precise,” Bernstein stresses as he shares photos of the “diamonds.”

“I was able to filter them out from the dirt of the sea, that looks at first like thick clumps of mud, and suddenly, these clear diamonds fall out of them. They are actually sparkling crystal cubes. You can’t find the diamonds everywhere in the Dead Sea, but there are certain areas, especially from the Einot Tzukim nature reserve in the north part of the Dead Sea coast until Ein Gedi, where they are abundant.”

This area is especially striking, as the lush desert oasis slowly morphs into arid scenery, and the contrast between the sparking pools of Einot Tzukim, with its the surrounding abundant greenery, and the huge desert cliffs is stark. This area is one of the most dramatic lookouts onto the Dead Sea, but it’s also a bit sad: The coast here has receded close to a mile, and today it’s almost impossible to get from there to the shore below.”


A Little Heat

Ein Kedem is a unique sight that many come to see, especially during the winter. Here, there are natural sulfur pools bubbling up from the ground, with the water temperature reaching over 100 degrees.

“I can’t document the heat of the water or the smell of the sulfur in the pictures,” Bernstein says, “but these gorgeous pools are filled with healthy and important minerals. You can see that the pools vary in size and appearance — some are huge and deep, others small and shallow, and people come here from all over the world because of their health benefits — especially after the sulfur pools at the nearby Ein Gedi spa were closed down.”


Healing Waters

There’s a place on the northern part of the Dead Sea where, Bernstein says, the water is an unusual orange-brown shade. “I wanted to see the orange-hued coastline for myself, but only when I left the area did I notice a sign saying that civilians are not allowed to enter, because there’s a suspected minefield there,” he says. “Apparently, it’s a piece of land that over the years was used to hide weapons and arms. It’s thought that the water there is orange because of all the rust of those buried weapons.

“There are differing opinions about when the weapons were buried in the Dead Sea. Some claim that it was during World War II, when the British tossed weapons caches into the sea, and now they’re being exposed as the sea level declines. But I saw weapons with Hebrew inscriptions as well, so I guess the riddle remains unsolved.”

And like those exposed weapons caches, once strong and stable, Bernstein’s album documents a sad fact about one of the most remarkable places on earth.

“You know, you look at the photos and everything seems so strong and stable, but I know that at any point, a sinkhole can develop and it will all collapse, while the shoreline continues to recede. I hope and pray that my pictures are not going to be farewell images, because even over the last few months, the scenes in them have already changed and will never return.”

But perhaps he shouldn’t be too concerned. Because, when the Geulah sheleimah arrives, as the Navi Yechezkel envisioned, (47:8-10), “the waters will be healed… the creatures will live, the fish will be abundant, and it will be a place where fishermen will spread their nets, from Ein Gedi….”


Rachel Ginsberg contributed to this report


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 987)

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