Insider's Guide to Spas
The Dead Sea
Svetlana Grechinka

My Spa Experience

Why Dead Sea Mud is Better Than Walking On Water

Stephen Kiesling

A few years ago, I was walking on water in Israel, when I had what seemed like a powerful — and badly needed — revelation about healing. Earlier that day, as part of a press tour of luxury spas in the Holy Land, our group had taken a side trip to the legendary mountaintop fortress at Masada. I was feeling claustrophobic from the bus ride, so I decided to run up the old trail to the fortress rather than ride up in the gondola. It was 1,300 vertical feet, and I didn’t stop to get a hat or water bottle. I just charged upward, leaping from rock to rock in the desert sun. Along the way I noticed that I’d stopped sweating. What I didn’t notice was the damage I was doing to my right knee. I got to the top feeling triumphant, sat down, and could barely get up again. I hobbled through the tour of the fortress, rode the gondola back to the bus, and we drove to the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Dead Sea Spa.

I felt exhausted and hurt and exceedingly stupid. But I knew that people had been coming to the Dead Sea for healing since Biblical times, so I pulled on my bathing suit and limped across the white, salt-crystal beach into the water. I kept walking, straight out, and pretty soon I no longer felt the salt crystals underfoot. That’s when I realized two marvelous things: I was walking on water (albeit chest deep) and my knee had stopped hurting.

To walk on the fresh water of the nearby Sea of Galilee takes a miracle, but here the salt is so thick that anyone can do it. I jogged and danced, pain-free, feeling as if I myself had walked into a Biblical healing story. But then I walked back out, hit the beach, and realized that my knee still hurt like hell. So much for that.

An hour or so later, I was lying on a large sheet of plastic in a small room in the hotel spa, while a powerful Russian woman slathered my body with hot mud. Once I was completely basted, she wrapped the plastic as well several layers of heavy blankets around me, so that the only things capable of movement were my thoughts — which went something like this: I should feel exceedingly grateful for this press trip. Spectacular places, remarkable food, exotic treatments — and all of it gratis! But maybe I should feel guilty. I’m a journalist. How can I objectively evaluate these often wildly expensive experiences that I haven’t paid for?

Here I was wrapped for free in hot mud prized by Roman emperors, and I was estimating how much money I would gladly pay someone to please get me out of there.

Mostly I was feeling a sense of irony. Here I was wrapped for free in hot mud that had been prized by Roman emperors, and I was estimating how much money I would gladly pay someone to please get me out of there.

After I had been unwrapped and unceremoniously hosed off by the Russian woman, I headed up the marble stairs, relieved that it was over. Then I abruptly stopped. I shook my leg tentatively. I hopped gently. Then I leaped upward. “Oh my God!” I said aloud. My knee was healed! I suddenly and viscerally understood why ancient baths and spas were regarded as sacred places for healing. I also understood how the spa industry developed from those sacred spaces. In fact, I found myself in the gift shop stocking up on local skin creams and wishing I could bring home enough Dead Sea mud to fill a hot tub.

Stephen Kiesling

Stephen Kiesling

Stephen Kiesling is the editor in chief of Spirituality & Health magazine. He was the youngest member of the 1980 US Olympic Rowing Team and the oldest competitor at the 2008 Olympic Rowing Trials. A Scholar of the House in Philosophy at Yale, he was a founding editor of American Health and Spirituality & Health magazines. Stephen is the author of several books, including The Shell Game and The Nike Cross Training System, and has written for The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and Outside. He has been featured in The New York Times and The Boston Globe and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including Today and All Things Considered.