Hot Water Forever

A dispatch from Hammamat Ma’in

By / April 2016

Hammamat Ma’in is an oasis of hot springs in Wadi Zarqa, a narrow canyon near the Eastern bank of the Dead Sea. As the crow flies, the eco-tourist attraction is 40 miles southwest of Amman. By car, it is a curvy, hour-long ramble over sandstone mountains and down craggy ravines scarred by centuries of wind erosion and flash floods.

Wadi Zarqa is 850 feet below sea level and surrounded by rocky bluffs layered with red, brown and black sediment. An ancient volcano left charred stones scattered across the mountain tops and imbedded in sheer rock walls. At sunset, the mountains blush with color.

In March, I traveled to Hammamat Ma’in for a picnic and thermal massage with my friends Yoseph and Abu Shaddi. In Jordan, Friday is the beginning of the weekend and the main relaxation day for families who want to get out of the city. After Jumu’ah, the Friday prayer and preaching service for Muslims, we set up lawn chairs under the leafy branches of a locust tree.

After a lunch of roasted lamb, chicken, tomatoes, and onions on pita bread, Yoseph, Abu Shaddi, and I joined dozens of bathers at the waterfall. The 105-degree cascade rushes down a 50-foot, moss-covered precipice then free-falls another 30 feet before splashing forcefully against the pale, naked torsos of bathers. The water collects in a wading pool at the bottom of a Roman bath made of concrete and stone. The structure is laid out in a series of terraces with each level four feet lower than the previous tier.

A group of preadolescent boys dressed in tighty-whities splashed at each other while shebab (Arabic for teenage boys) in cut-off shorts stood before the waterfall taking selfies with smart phones. Women walked under the waterfall or waded into the pool, some dressed in street clothes, others dressed in burquinis, a swimsuit that covers the entire body except for the face.

At the top of the Roman bath, directly behind the waterfall, there is a large cave about the size of a typical American living room. Scalding water, much hotter than the water in the fall, flows from a hole in the ceiling. The steam turns the cave into a natural sauna.

Written accounts of Jordan’s thermal springs date back to the first century AD. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus recorded the account of Herod the Great, king of ancient Judea, who came by stretcher to the springs in hope of finding a cure to his kidney illness. And it was at a villa near the springs that Salome, Herod’s stepdaughter, asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

The three main waterfalls in Hammamat Ma’in are manmade. Engineers capped ancient geysers then installed pipes and culverts to channel water from underground springs to the cliffs that hang over the baths. At the top, water gushes from three ten-inch wide spigots tapped into the base of the mountain. Two miles below ground water passes over magma near the Dead Sea Fault. As the boiling stream is pushed upward through fractures in the Earth’s crust it dissolves minerals and mixes with cool groundwater before emerging on the surface.

Yoseph has been coming to Hammamat Ma’in for more than 50 years. When he was a boy, the valley was little more than a rustic campground that rented tents to visitors. “The roads,” he told me, “were too rough for cars so we ordered our food and had it delivered to us by truck that came only once a week.” Since then, the Jordanian government, with the help of foreign investors, has transformed the Hammamat Ma’in from a rustic campground into a resort with swimming pools, health spas, restaurants and a five-star hotel.

I sat under the waterfall for 90 minutes. Beside me sat two old men, one a slender, balding pensioner wearing floral swim trunks, the other a stocky graybeard, wearing calf-length denim capris.

The water splashed against my head and shoulders with such force that I had to grip the wall to stay upright. The roar drowned out all other sounds. After a while, I could no longer feel my limbs. But the men were smiling. They were in heaven here. At Hammamat Ma’in, they could sit for hours and hours and never run out of hot water.

 

Danny Wright lives and writes in Jordan.

 

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