Spectacular waterfalls and hiking trails are within the Ein Gedi Reserve’s Nachal David and Nachal Arugot canyons. 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 (5 1/3 qt.) 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. Parts of the Reserve and the Antiquities Park are wheelchair-accessible. Admission to the reserve is NIS 26 and includes admission to the Antiquities Park. There is a snack kiosk at the entrance. Tip: Ein Gedi is impossibly hot midday in the summer. Worse yet, during school holidays, it is overrun by school groups.
At the Ein Gedi National Antiquities Park are the ruins of Ancient Ein Gedi, one of Israel’s most important archaeological sites. Admission is NIS 14. From the First and Second temples’ 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 an a.d. 6th-century 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 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. Yigael Yadin’s book “Bar Kokhba” details these dramatic finds.