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Qumran

In addition to the scrolls, hidden at the time of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in A.D. 70, archaeological excavations during the early 1960s of the many caves in this region uncovered mysterious and beautiful copper ritual objects, used 5,000 to 6,000 years ago by members of a prehistoric civilization, as well as artifacts and personal documents and letters hidden by refugees from the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome in A.D. 135. Other caves in the area, their openings or interior reaches sealed by rockfalls over the centuries, may conceal still more treasures. A side road leads up to the ruins of Qumran. In a nearby cave, the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd boy. These are the oldest existing copies of the Torah and other parts of the Bible. They also include previously unknown ancient Jewish writings.

Getting There -- By Bus -- Buses will take you to Qumran from Egged's Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. For day tours from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, check with Egged and United Tours.

By Car -- From Jerusalem on Hwy. 1, bypass Jericho and turn right (south) onto Hwy. 90, the main road along the coast of The Dead Sea. Continue following the signs to Qumran and Ein Gedi.

Ein Gedi

Ein Gedi has been an Eden-like canyon oasis for millennia, attracting human beings for thousands of years before recorded time. More than 5,000 years ago, Chalcolithic people built a sanctuary amid the waterfalls and springs here -- in the 1960s, Israeli archaeologists searching for Jewish scrolls (150 B.C.-A.D. 135) amid the crevasses and depths of inaccessible caves nearby came upon a cache of elegant, mysteriously designed copper wands, crowns, and scepters from 3000 B.C. that scholars believe were the sacred vessels of a long-forgotten prehistoric culture centered at Ein Gedi (the copper objects are now displayed at the Israel Museum). It was to Ein Gedi that the young David fled as a fugitive from the paranoid King Saul; here David had the chance to kill his pursuer, but he would not lay a hand on his king, the anointed of God. The "Song of Solomon" rhapsodized thus: "My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire from the vineyards of Ein Gedi." Rare herbs and spices grown at Ein Gedi from approximately the 6th century B.C. until the late 8th century A.D. were famous throughout the ancient world and used to produce the most exotic incense, lotions, and perfumes. The secret of these plantations was carefully guarded by the Ein Gedi community until its demise in early Islamic times. Indeed, an inscription in the mosaic floor of a Byzantine-era synagogue discovered at Ein Gedi warns members of the community not to divulge the "secret of the town" to outsiders; many scholars believe this refers to the secret formulas for balm, incense, and perfumes. Modern romantics like to theorize that the "secret" the townspeople were pledged to protect may have been the knowledge of nearby caves in which the treasures of the Second Temple were hidden from the Romans. After more than 1,000 years of complete desolation, the region was resettled in 1949 by a group of pioneers who planted it with cotton, grapes, vegetables, and flowers. Beginning with nothing but rocky, barren land, the settlers created a beautiful kibbutz with stunning views of the wild, unearthly area, including the desert cascade of Ein David Gorge, where the water drops from a height of nearly 90m (295 ft.).

Getting There -- By Bus -- There is service from Tel Aviv via Jerusalem and from Eilat four times daily. Ein Gedi is a request stop. Try to reserve your seat when you purchase your ticket at either end, as seats may be filled by passengers from Eilat or Jerusalem.

By Car -- There are main roads to Eilat and Beersheva via Arad, and from Jerusalem via the Jordan Valley and The Dead Sea.

Masada

It's a national tradition to make the ascent at least once, for Masada is the scene of what many believe is one of the most heroic and tragic incidents in Jewish history. Few non-Jews outside Israel had heard of Masada until the events were dramatized in a book and a subsequent television miniseries in 1981. The story of a small garrison that defied the Roman army, as the historian Flavius Josephus recorded and perhaps embellished it, is worth retelling.

King Herod had built a magnificent palace complex and fortress atop this nearly inaccessible desert plateau mountain around 30 B.C. Underground cisterns assured the fortress of a lavish water supply for the palace's baths and gardens, as well as for Herod's court. Most impressive was Herod's personal winter villa, the extraordinary hanging palace on the northern tip of Masada, calculated to catch the breathtaking vistas of the lake as well as the refreshing breezes from the north. He furnished the luxurious place with every comfort as well as storehouses of food and arms, protecting the entire establishment with impregnable fortifications. The audaciousness of such an undertaking tells much about Herod's personality. After Herod's death in 4 B.C., a small Roman garrison occupied the mount. However, during the Jewish Revolt against Rome in A.D. 66, a small band of Jewish zealots attacked and overtook the almost unattended fortress. They brought their families, lived off the vast storehouses of food, and had more than enough arms with which to defend themselves. The weapons were even put to use in raids on the surrounding countryside.

Finally, in A.D. 73, 3 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the First Jewish Revolt, the Romans became so incensed with the Masada situation that they decided to put an end to this last pocket of Jewish resistance. They built a siege ramp up to the mountaintop, using captured Jews as slave laborers, knowing the defenders of Masada could not bring themselves to attack or harm their fellow countrymen. After a lengthy onslaught using siege engines, flaming torches, rock bombardments, and battering rams, the Masada fortress was still in Jewish hands. But with 10,000 Roman troops camped on the hillside and daily bombardments smashing at the walls, it became only a question of when the 900 defenders would succumb.

A brutal night attack spelled the end: Flaming torches thrown at the fort's wall were whipped by a wind into the midst of the defenders, and the garrison's gates caught fire. The Romans, seeing that Masada was practically defenseless, decided to wait until dawn and take it over in their own good time.

During that final night, the 900 men, women, and children who inhabited Masada held a desperate meeting. Their leader, Eliezer Ben-Yair, in a dramatic speech (as reported by the historian Flavius Josephus who, of course, was not actually present), persuaded his followers to accept death bravely, on their own terms. In the darkness at Masada nearly 2,000 years ago, one of history's great mass suicides occurred. Ten men were chosen as executioners. Members of families lay side by side and bared their throats. After all the families had been killed, one of the 10 executioners was chosen to kill the other nine; he then ran himself through on his own sword. Two women and five children survived, hiding in one of the caves on the plateau. The Romans, who had expected to fight their way in, were triply astonished at the lack of resistance, the eerie silence where they had expected to encounter battle, and at the "calm courage of [the defenders'] resolution . . . and utter contempt of death." So, Flavius Josephus wrote, ended the Jewish resistance against Rome. Like almost everything in Israel, the meaning of Masada has become a matter of controversy, with many contending that glorification of a political stand that resulted in mass suicide is not good for the national psyche.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.