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Exploring Ancient Qumran

This ancient site, excavated in the 1950s by a team headed by Père Roland de Vaux, has become the subject of a major archaeological controversy in recent years. De Vaux initially estimated that Qumran had been inhabited since the 8th century B.C., and that sometime in the 2nd century B.C., it had become the monastic desert retreat of the Essenes, an ascetic, mystical Jewish sect of the Second Temple period that may have influenced early Christianity. De Vaux and most archaeologists theorized that the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in nearby caves, were portions of the Essene community's library, hidden from the approaching Roman armies at the time of the First Revolt against Rome (A.D. 66-70). Qumran itself was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 68. Structures uncovered at Qumran were interpreted in terms of the Essenes' collective religious community life as recorded by Flavius Josephus and the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, who wrote of an Essene settlement near The Dead Sea, "above Ein Gedi." In neither of these writings is the precise location of the Essene community named.

Although most scholars accept the theory that Qumran was an Essene monastic community and that the Dead Sea Scrolls are part of the Essenes' library, recent reinterpretations of Qumran's location and structures have led a few scholars to postulate that Qumran may have been a traders' inn and military and customs outpost rather than the communal settlement of a religious sect. Qumran lies at a strategic point in an ancient trade route: Goods from Arabia and Africa were shipped up the Red Sea to Eilat, and then overland through the Arava Valley to the southern tip of The Dead Sea, where they were floated across to Qumran. At Qumran, cargo was unloaded and sent along the ancient Salt Road to Jerusalem. According to this theory, the otherworldly Essenes would not have settled at the crux of a major commercial route, but in a more remote location such as the caves in the mountains "above Ein Gedi." If this interpretation is correct, then the previously unknown writings found among the Dead Sea Scrolls may not be those of the Essenes at all, but a more mainstream sampling of extra-biblical literature from the time of the Second Temple, brought to the caves for safekeeping from Jerusalem. This heated debate is an example of the very partisan passions with which Israelis follow archaeological discoveries.

The excavated settlement includes trenches, pottery sheds, step-down baths, cisterns, bakery sites, and cemetery plots. You will also see the long, flat, tablelike structures that Père Roland de Vaux believed were the desks of the community's "scriptorium," where the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. Israelis love to debate whether these structures could or could not have been used as desks for ancient scribes of any normal human size. See what you think. You can view all the excavations from the top of the village tower. Near the ruins, signs direct you to the caves where some of the scrolls were found. It's a 10-minute walk, and you are permitted to visit the closest and most accessible cave. High above, you'll notice the mountains are dotted with many more caves. The National Park at Qumran (tel. 02/994-2235) is open daily from 8am to 4pm and has an air-conditioned snack-bar facility. Admission is NIS 21.

In Ein Gedi

There is no modern town at Ein Gedi. The area now called Ein Gedi is spread out along 4.8km (3 miles) of the shore of The Dead Sea and divided into four basic sections, each with its own bus stop. If you're coming from Jerusalem by bus, the first (northernmost) stop at Ein Gedi is where you'll find the entrance to the Nature Reserves, the youth hostel, and the SPNI study center/field school. The second stop is the bathing beach, with its self-service restaurant and gas station. The third stop is for Kibbutz Ein Gedi and its kibbutz hotel. The fourth and southernmost stop is for the Ein Gedi Spa.

The spectacular waterfalls and hiking trails are within the Ein Gedi Reserve's Nachal David and Nachal Arugot canyons (tel. 08/658-4285). Maps and suggested trail routes are available at the entrance; more-detailed maps and trail advice for hikes of several hours through these two neighboring canyon systems are available at the SPNI Center, near the hostel and the Nachal David entry gate. Follow the trail and the signposts, winding through tall pines and palm trees up and into the desert hills. You proceed between slits in the rock formations, under canopies of papyrus reeds, and after about 10 minutes of steady climbing, you'll hear the wonderful sound of rushing water. In another 5 minutes, your appetite whetted, you arrive at what is surely one of the wonders of the Judean desert -- the Nachal David-Ein Gedi waterfalls, hidden in an oasis of vegetation that hangs in a canyon wall. A second trail involving a 30-minute climb takes you to the Shulamit Spring and then to the Dodim Cave at the top of the falls. A 20- to 30-minute walk to the left brings you to the fenced-in ruins of a Chalcolithic sanctuary dating from about 3000 B.C. Mysterious copper wands and crowns, probably belonging to this sanctuary and hidden in nearby caves for more than 5,000 years, are displayed in the antiquities section of the Israel Museum. Another walk leads to the ruins of Byzantine-era Ein Gedi's synagogue, with its marvelously intact mosaic floor. The reserve is open from 8am to 4pm; in summer until 5pm. You must make arrangements with the Nature Reserves Authority if you plan to do any of the 5- to 6-hour hikes into the depths of the nachal (canyon) systems, especially if you plan to go beyond the Hidden Falls. Always carry at least 5 liters of water with you if you're planning a major hike in summer. From autumn to spring, it is important to be aware of the possibility of flash floods caused by rain in distant places. No food or cigarettes are allowed on the grounds. Admission to the reserve is NIS 29. There is a snack kiosk at the entrance. Tip: Ein Gedi is impossibly hot midday in the summer. Worse yet, during school holidays, it will be overrun by school groups.

At the Ein Gedi National Antiquities Park, the ruins of Ancient Ein Gedi, one of Israel's most important archaeological sites, may be visited. Admission is NIS 12 ($3/£1.50). From First and Second Temple times until the end of the Byzantine era, Ein Gedi was a largely Jewish outpost famous throughout the ancient world for its production of rare spices; fragrant, intoxicating balsam oil; and priceless myrrh. Perhaps Ein Gedi was permitted to survive the tumultuous decades of wars and rebellions against Rome because its secret formulas for spice and incense production were not only beyond value, but also irreplaceable. At Ein Gedi, the mosaic floor of a 6th-century-A.D. synagogue has been uncovered. If you visit other mosaic synagogue floors discovered in the Jordan Valley and the Galilee, you'll find that a number of Byzantine-era synagogues (at Bet Alpha, Hammat Tiberias, and Zippori) contain a circle with a depiction of the zodiac as the centerpiece of their mosaic floors. Some scholars believe the zodiac was meant to represent the orderly patterns of God's universe. At Ein Gedi, in place of a zodiac circle, the mosaic floor is dominated by a central circle design of peacock chicks and adult birds, perhaps illustrating continuing patterns of birth and growth through which divine presence is revealed. It may be that the Jewish community at Ein Gedi, less influenced by outside cultures than the Jewish communities farther north, was reluctant to employ pagan motifs in the ornamentation of its synagogue.

The extraordinary personal papers, letters, and possessions found in The Dead Sea caves and dating from the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (A.D. 135) belonged to Jewish inhabitants of Ein Gedi who attempted to escape the Roman armies by hiding in the region's almost inaccessible caves. Yigal Yadin's book, Bar Kokhba, details these dramatic finds.

Across The Dead Sea to the far left are the Moab Mountains, where Moses was buried and where Gad, Reuben, and half the Manasseh tribe settled after helping Joshua claim the rest of the Promised Land. To the right it seems the sea ends, but it's actually the Ha-Loshon (the Tongue) -- a strip of peninsula from the Jordanian side that reaches across the middle of The Dead Sea.

The Ein Gedi Beach is often mobbed with tour buses and weekending Israelis, but it's guarded and a fun place to try the experience of floating on The Dead Sea.

About 3km (2 miles) south of Ein Gedi Beach is the often very busy, public Ein Gedi Sulfur Springs and Spa (tel. 08/659-4934), housed in a modern building. Open daily from 8am to 6pm in summer; until 5pm in winter. Any bus to Ein Gedi will drop you here.

At Kibbutz Ein Gedi (tel. 08/658-4444), you can visit the incredible Botanical Gardens. Members of the kibbutz were at first amazed to find that the rarefied soil and atmosphere produced lush gardens to rival the legendary ancient plantations of Ein Gedi. Over the years, they planted 900 species of rare and exotic trees, shrubs, flowers, and cacti, and have created an incredible internationally recognized botanical garden. Night tours are given Tuesday and Thursday at 8pm. Admission is NIS 28 ($7/£3.50) and is free for guests of the kibbutz.

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.