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Volume 46, Number 2March/April 1995

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The Waters That Heal

Written by Kirk Albrecht
Photographed by Bill Lyons

Sunlight splashes over the rim of the wadi, burnishing the hills and accenting the red sandstone walls that tower on either side. Ferns, reeds and a few trees dot the rock with green. In the cool of the desert morning, a plume of steam rises off the shallal, the waterfall, as it tumbles to the river below.

Even at this early hour, families who have slept on the hard ground are already bathing, singly or in small groups, amid the rock perches and pools of the naturally hot mineral waters of Ma'in, in Jordan. Generations of their ancestors have done the same.

Ma'in is rugged and spectacular and—though only 60 kilometers (37 miles) south and west of Amman—lies well off the beaten path. Nestled in the bottom of a wadi, or valley, the hot springs attract not only casual bathers. They are also the center of the Ma'in Spa Village, specializing in the treatment of arthritis, joint pain and circulatory diseases.

Built in 1989 and operated by a private corporation under government supervision, the complex contains a hotel, tourist chalets, restaurants, two swimming pools, a fitness room, and even a market. A similar spa village at the Dead Sea Hotel, soon to be directly linked with Ma'in by a mountain road, specializes in the treatment of skin diseases.

Weary bodies have sought curative waters to ease their ailments for thousands of years. There is archeological evidence of Neolithic and Bronze Age devotions at hot springs in France, Italy, and Switzerland. The founding of Bath, England, is attributed to Bladud, the father of King Lear, who in 863 BC was cured of a "raging disease" by immersion in the steamy swamps near the presentday city. The ancient Greeks erected temples to Asclepius, god of medicine and healing, near natural springs, and a Roman cult, aimed at relief of a plague around 293 BC, grew up around such springs. The springs at Ma'in have been known at least since Hellenic times, and the Roman-era historian Josephus recorded them as Therma Callirhoes, or "beautiful thermal waters."

Centuries later, motivated by the belief that God provides help in nature for human afflictions, Muslim physicians and naturalists were quick to explore the curative powers of hot springs. Muslim baths fused eastern traditions with what was by then a largely Roman technology, and the result has been a fixture in Middle Eastern cities for centuries. Combining the ancient with the contemporary, the staff at the Ma'in spa prescribes an individual treatment regimen for each patient only after screening him or her for high blood pressure or heart difficulties that could be aggravated by the hot waters. There are several types of whirlpool baths, a hot-water pool, massage treatments, and hot-mud therapy. The spa is divided into men's and women's sections, each with the same up-to-date facilities, and each patient's program is overseen by a physiotherapist.

During my own visit, I ask to sample the treatments. When I deny any health problems, the doctor consents, and allows me to pick and choose my treatments. After a cold shower to prepare me—and to make sure I'm fully awake—I wade into the hot-water pool. At a scorching 50 degrees Centigrade (122°F), the water makes my arms and legs tingle madly with heat. When I stoop to bring the water to my chest, the shock of the heat takes my breath. Perspiration quickly forms and flows on my brow. I was told not to stay in longer than 10 minutes—it won't be hard heeding that advice! In less than half that time, I know I'll never again look at a boiled chicken in quite the same way. I emerge lightheaded, and plunge into a cold shower that somehow doesn't feel so frigid anymore.

When I lie down to rest, I find myself next to a former justice of Jordan's high court. He is, he tells me, a "regular" at Ma'in. Twice my age, he dips in and out of the hot pool with enviable ease, and he credits his vigor to his visits to the spa. "I have been all over the Arab world and visited Russia," he says, "but I have never seen another facility like this."

Next stop is the whirlpool, where the thermometer indicates a mere 42 degrees Centigrade (108°F). As the physiotherapist adjusts the settings, I settle into the tub. It's hot, but strangely refreshing compared to the far hotter pool. This, I think, could be truly relaxing. My helper fires up the jets and the pulsating water cycles around the tub, buffeting and massaging my muscles. After 10 minutes, I'm relaxed and invigorated, and ready for the hot mud. Or so I think.

In another room, the physiotherapist slips on an industrial rubber glove—the kind one might use to handle a toxic substance—and casually asks how I respond to a touch of heat. I'm not sure what to say—"As well as anyone else, I suppose." A machine at the end of the room produces a fiery-hot blob of greenish-brown muck, brought over to Ma'in from the Dead Sea. As the physiotherapist smears it on my back, I arch in pain. "Does this ever cause blistering and burns?" I wince. "No, never," is his confident reply, punctuated with another glob. I somehow resist the urge to roll off the table and escape.

Soon I'm not only covered in the steamy sludge, but also wrapped in plastic and covered in blankets. Left alone, I feel like a cabbage roll being steamed. But slowly, my attempts to persuade myself that this torture must be good for me begin to succeed. My apprehensions trickle away with my sweat. If there was anything else to purge from my system, it has surely fled by now.

The hot spring water of Ma'in contains a number of apparently curative agents. The most important element is the heat itself, which averages 56 degrees Centigrade (133°F), but in some of the five dozen springs around Ma'in can reach as high as 63 degrees (145°F). It improves skin circulation by dilating the superficial arteries, which allows an easier flow of blood. As anyone who has ever relaxed in a warm bath knows, the heat also relaxes muscles, thereby easing joint pain. High sulfur levels in the water serve as a tranquilizer for the respiratory system, making breathing easier. Some visitors drink the water, but only after it stands, cooling, to dissipate the radon gas it contains, which is harmful if taken internally. Ingested, the high levels of carbon dioxide act like seltzer in aiding digestion.

Not all who come to Ma'in, however, come for the spa. The natural springs are open to the public, and on Friday mornings they are especially full as entire families often bring picnics. Women and children clamber on rocks and wade in the waters of the stream below the steamy plume of the shallal, while young men often opt for higher ledges under hot cascades. Some stay the night, sleeping under the stars and enjoying the desert evening while soaking in effervescent luxury.

According to geologists, the springs were formed when this part of the earth's crust began a process called rifting. Responding to magma flows deep below, the rock plates that make up the earth's crust pulled apart and, over tens of thousands of years, formed deep valleys. In the Middle East, this movement has produced an enormous rift stretching nearly 3000 kilometers (1900 miles) from western Syria southward all the way to the Gulf of Aden, including both the Red Sea and the Dead Sea.

Dr. Elias Salamah, professor of hydrogeology at the University of Jordan, explains that as the Arabian Peninsula moves slowly east and Jordan moves north, the Red Sea widens by about four and a half centimeters (1¾") each year—three times the rate of rifting in the mid-Atlantic. "This is what we call an active geological zone," Salamah says. The rifting is responsible for the nearly 200 hot springs in Jordan, for it allows surface water to reach deep, hot underground levels and eventually circulate back to the surface. Radioactivity and volcanism heat the water, underground and under pressure, as high as 130 degrees (266°F), but it cools as it moves toward the surface. Geologists estimate that the water at Ma'in has been underground for at least 3600 years.

A few kilometers from the springs, the stream empties into the Dead Sea, the lowest-lying body of water on earth, whose salt content is eight times that of most oceans. Intense sunlight and less than 10 centimeters (4") of annual rainfall have created a unique, fragile community of flora and fauna around the Dead Sea, many of whose 300 species of plants are found nowhere else. Zaqqum trees (Balanites aegyptiaca) dot the hills; the local name refers to the tree mentioned in the Qur'an "that springs out of the bottom of Hell-fire," and whose bitter fruit is the food of the damned. There is also the yusur tree (Miringa peregrina), with its brittle branches and delicate pinkish-white flowers, which produces 30-centimeter (12") pods whose beans have been used for generations to make the misbaha, the so-called "worry beads." These are popular in some parts of the Middle East with both Muslims and Christians, who use them in their devotions.

Along the barren and rocky shoreline, the Dead Sea Spa Hotel, like its cousin in Ma'in, has become a haven for what the industry calls "medical tourism." The high oxygen content of the air 400 meters (1280') below sea level relieves bronchial asthma. On the women's side, I was told, mud is used for the notorious "mud facial" that is believed to remove wrinkles. The mineral-laden waters of the Dead Sea, combined with the dry air, hot sun and mud, have also proved to be uniquely helpful in healing more than 80 types of psoriasis, a painful disease of the skin. As the spa's doctor told me, "You can't take the waters of the Dead Sea to Scandinavia and do what we do here!"

Psoriasis patients spend up to eight hours a day in the spa's solarium, seven days a week, alternating sun with shade to avoid sunstroke and heat exhaustion. Under supervision, the heat, occasional mud, small amounts of water and more heat gradually dry and close their sores, taking patients to progressively higher levels of healing.

The spa attracts patients from Europe, particularly from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, where government medical insurance pays for the three- to six-week stay required for effective treatment. And the hotel recently signed a contract with the Psoriasis Association of Italy to treat Italian patients. But many visitors pay their own way, too, says Kamel Ajami, general manager of the hotel. "They like it because it is quiet here."

As at Ma'in, I am permitted by the staff to sample some of the therapies. I head for the solarium, where the late morning sun burns the dry air and "bakes my limbs. It's no wonder everyone else keeps a bottle of olive oil at hand to protect from sunburn. I apply some mud to my hands, and as I do, I am warned that it is caustic, and should not be left on the skin for more than 10 minutes at a stretch. Remarkably, when the time is up and I wash it off, my hands do feel looser and less stiff. All around me, my fellow patients liberally slather elbows, knees, shoulders and hands with the hot, sticky stuff. I retreat to the shade of an umbrella, away from the wilting power of the sun.

Reiner Erhard of Munich, I find, is among those who have come to the Dead Sea from Europe. Like his grandfather, father and uncles, he suffers from psoriasis. Now on his third visit to the Dead Sea, he said he has experienced more healing each year, and he entertains unprecedented hopes. "It is gradually going away. I can now play sports like tennis that five years ago I could not."

As the shimmering sun drops over the hills and the saline waters lap heavily against the shore, the steaming waters of Ma'in, hidden now in the steep wadi, splash over rocks nearly as old as the earth itself. To the centuries of visitors and cure-seekers, they are more than natural wonders: They are waters that heal.

Free-lance writer Kirk Albrecht and veteran Aramco World photographer Bill Lyons are based in Amman.

This article appeared on pages 34-39 of the March/April 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1995 images.