Rare Natural Beauty and Compelling History

Nestled up against the cliffs of the Judean Desert on the western coast of the Dead Sea, an ancient oasis still springs forth from the rock. In this shockingly arid landscape, the verdant slopes of Ein Gedi have attracted life of all sorts since time immemorial.

It’s a place of natural beauty and ancient history; the Bible calls it Ein Gedi: Kidgoat Spring.

People have lived in Ein Gedi since before history began. King David himself stayed here while pursued by his enemies. Jewish rebels held out here and at nearby Masada against the Roman onslaught, and Jewish life returned once more to this desert oasis last century with the founding of the State of Israel.

No visit to Israel would be complete without exploring the wonders of this special place.

The Judean Desert

Stark Refuge

 

Ein Gedi Ancient Synagogue

The Ancient Synagogue at Ein Gedi

Where mysterious mosaics and ancient Torah scrolls were found

David Waterfall

David Waterfall

A magnificent waterfall in the middle of an arid desert.

Ein Gedi Botanical Gardens

The Ein Gedi Botanical Gardens

A unique botanical experience, hidden amid the rock and sand.

The Judean Desert is perched above the Dead Sea valley, a short drive from Jerusalem. Visitors who come from that direction are surprised to see a barren desert materialize along a highway which only minutes ago was lined with lush trees. Ecologists call this the Rain Shadow effect. As moist air comes blowing in from the mediterranean, it smashes into the Judean mountains to the East. The air cools as it reaches higher altitudes, causing the moisture within to condense. During the rainy season, that moisture falls over Jerusalem as rain. Once it passes over the mountain tops, the now parched air continues eastwards towards the Dead Sea, which sits in the “rain shadow” of the watershed.

Hebron Road in Jerusalem runs along this watershed. A drop which falls on the west side of the street will eventually flow out into the Mediterranean, whereas if it falls on the East side of the street, it will likely end up in the Dead Sea via the Kidron Valley, Jerusalem’s major drainage basin, which King David crossed as he made his fateful escape from his rebellious son Avshalom.

When the waters of Ein Gedi erupt from the rock, they do so after travelling dozens of kilometers eastward from the watershed in the mountains. By the time they exit the porous layers of rock, they could have been flowing underground for decades, perhaps centuries. Local legend has it that the water flowing today in Nahal David once fell on the Ari Z”L in Jerusalem.

There are four springs in Ein Gedi flow through two valleys: Nahal David to the north and Nahal Arugot to the south. In total, the Ein Gedi System produces three million cubic meters of water every year, about half of Jerusalem’s current combined annual household consumption.

Springs like these form when ground water flows downwards through more-or-less horizontal layers of porous rock until it reaches an impenetrable layer such as clay. The water then flows along the top of that impermeable layer until it reaches the edge of the cliff, where it bursts forth as a spring. That’s why geologists call them “layer springs.”

The fresh, constant flow from the springs has turned this desert valley into an oasis, flush with life and diversity. The density of tropical plant species is higher here than anywhere else in the country. The Sodom Apple (פתילת המדבר) is mentioned by Josephus in his scathing description of this otherwise bleak landscape. Several species of acacia (שיטה) grace the landscape as well as moringa peregrina, tamarisk, and a host of delicate ferns, canes and shrubs.

The wealth of plant life in turn attracts and supports the local fauna. Tourists at Ein Gedi are inevitably amazed to come face to face with nubian ibex (יעל) and rock hyrax (שפן סלע). None other than the Psalmist remarked at the wonder of these animals in their God-given habitat (Ps. 104:18). Look up and you’ll spot Tristram’s grackle, the which is endemic to the area. More patient visitors may be fortunate enough to spot the nocturnal mammals: striped hyena, red fox, and several species of bats. Though on the brink of extinction, leopard droppings and tracks are still spotted by park rangers and naturalists.

This incredible diversity, which we’ve only barely touched on so far, has confirmed Ein Gedi’s place among the world’s prized biological possessions.

Honey and Perfume – Prized Desert Crops

High Tech Israeli Agricultural Exports from the 1st Century BCE

This pristine oasis attracted more than just wildlife. Later kings of Judea Yehoshafat, Uziah, Hizkiyahu and Yoshia all settled the area. They surely appreciated the natural beauty of the landscape, but there were other, more lucrative resources in the area as well. One of the biblical names for Ein Gedi is חצצון תמר (Haẓeẓon Tamar: “palm grove”), and it’s likely that cultivation of the palm stretches back to biblical or pre-biblical days here. In fact the date palm was such an important and coveted crop, that the bible lists it among the Land of Israel’s special seven species. But it seems that in the days of King Yoshiyahu, another crop was beginning to be harvested.

A thorny shrub grows wild around the Dead Sea. Gilead Balm (Commiphora opobalsamum) is a member of the Myrrh family, but unlike its cousins which must be processed before their perfume is detectable, this species has the unique property of exuding its enticing scent from every part of its anatomy. Its abundance of aroma made the afarsimon plant (as it’s called in Hebrew) a prized cash crop. From Second Temple days (2000 years ago) through to talmudic times, (~3rd-6th centuries CE), the crop was harvested and apparently processed in local workshops to produce a rare product known by many names.

 

Afarsimon oil, as it was called in Hebrew, is cognate to the Latin name opobalsimum, a corruption of the Greek Balsam, itself a corruption of the Hebrew בוסם (bosem – perfumed scent). The rabbis of the talmud referred to it as שמן ערב – fine scented oil. Whatever the name, this scent was highly sought after. This was particularly true in Rome, where streets foaming with human waste and worse smells made daily life unthinkably unpleasant without ample odorization. The Coliseum was built with fountains that automatically sprayed fountains of perfume onto the spectators in order to mask the scent of death rising from the human sacrifices below.

The Synagogue at Ein Gedi

Jewish Life in Talmudic Times

Economic factors attracted Jews down into the dry heat of the Dead Sea valley. They settled in some numbers and established a community complete with a synagogue. Archaeological digs in the early 1970’s revealed a magnificent synagogue built and used for centuries during the talmudic (byzantine) era. Drs. Dan Barag and Yosef Porat found not one but two fine mosaic floors, one earlier and one later that beautified the synagogue.

The earliest mosaic floor in this synagogue was decorated with a large black swastika in the center of the floor. This motif shocks our post-war sensibilities, but was common enough in Roman-era craftsmanship, and even features in some decorative pieces from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Some years after its original construction, the synagogue was renovated and enlarged, with a brand new mosaic floor built right over the original.

This latter mosaic is decked out in floral and animal designs. Cranes and peacocks strut around, carrying clusters of grapes in their beaks. The northern border of the mosaic, facing Jerusalem and the Aron Kodesh, is emphasized by three menorahs.

These designs avoid representing human figures, affording the ancient residents of Ein Gedi the most current artistic style, while holding fast to the Jewish proscription of images. It’s interesting to compare this to other synagogues in Israel which did permit the two-dimensional depiction of human beings on their floors, but the most interesting of all is the epigraphic (written-word) mosaic that was laid in this synagogue’s entrance chamber.

The written mosaic is composed of five sections. They list the descendents of Adam until Noah; the signs of the zodiac starting in the Hebrew month of Nissan (Aries), the first month of the biblical calendar; and blessings of peace on the patriarchs and prophets.

The third and largest inscription is a warning, a kind of social contract. It castigates any member of the community who divulges their secrets, promising divine retribution for perfidy. What was the secret of the Ein Gedi community? Scholars imagine it was the method of preparing afarsimon oil, but perhaps we’ll never know. The last two inscriptions are dedications. Think “Goldberg Dining Hall,” except in Aramaic. It praises Yosi, Azrun and Hizkiyo, the sons of Halfi and Yohanan the Hazzan, and everyone who joined in renovating the synagogue.

The Ein Gedi Scroll

He Called to Moses, and The Lord Spoke to Him from the Tent of Meeting, Saying…

The same excavations which uncovered the mosaics also found a number of burnt scroll fragments, still inside the Holy Ark where they once rested. C14 analysis showed them to be from the late sixth century CE. The excavators were stumped. They must have thought that the scrolls were likely Torah scrolls, but they were burnt beyond all recognition. They packed them into boxes where they sat, unnoticed and undeciphered for 45 years.

This year, Merkel Technologies Company, Ltd., an Israeli firm specializing in research equipment, examined the scroll with a specially built CT scanner. The resulting data was analysed by Professor Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky using a bespoke algorithm to piece the segments of the scan back together.

The researchers discovered that the scroll was indeed a Torah scroll, and that the first eight verses of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) were legible.

Contents of the Scroll

וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר ה׳ אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אָדָם כִּי יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַה׳ מִן הַבְּהֵמָה מִן הַבָּקָר וּמִן הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת קָרְבַּנְכֶם. אִם עֹלָה קָרְבָּנוֹ מִן הַבָּקָר זָכָר תָּמִים יַקְרִיבֶנּוּ אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַקְרִיב אֹתוֹ לִרְצֹנוֹ לִפְנֵי ה׳. וְסָמַךְ יָדוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ הָעֹלָה וְנִרְצָה לוֹ לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו. וְשָׁחַט אֶת בֶּן הַבָּקָר לִפְנֵי ה׳ וְהִקְרִיבוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֲנִים אֶת הַדָּם וְזָרְקוּ אֶת הַדָּם עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ סָבִיב אֲשֶׁר פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. וְהִפְשִׁיט אֶת הָעֹלָה וְנִתַּח אֹתָהּ לִנְתָחֶיהָ. וְנָתְנוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אֵשׁ עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְעָרְכוּ עֵצִים עַל הָאֵשׁ. וְעָרְכוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֲנִים אֵת הַנְּתָחִים אֶת הָרֹאשׁ וְאֶת הַפָּדֶר עַל הָעֵצִים אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ.

God called to Moses, speaking to him from the Communion Tent. He said: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them the following: When one of you brings a mammal as an offering to God, the sacrifice must be taken from the cattle, sheep or goats. If the sacrifice is a burnt offering taken from the cattle, it must be an unblemished male. One must bring it of his own free will to the entrance of the Communion Tent, before God. He shall press his hands on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall then be accepted as an atonement for him. He shall have the young bull slaughtered before God. Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall then bring forth the blood, dashing it on all sides of the altar that is in front of the Communion Tent’s entrance. He shall have the burnt offering skinned and cut into pieces. Aaron’s sons shall place fire on the altar, and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons shall then arrange the cut pieces, the head, and the fatty intestinal membrane on top of the wood that is on the altar fire.

Dr. Porat, who had originally excavated the scroll, had this to say:

“The deciphering of the scroll, which was a puzzle for us for 45 years, is very exciting. Ein Gedi was a Jewish village in the Byzantine period (fourth–seventh century CE) and had a synagogue with an exquisite mosaic floor and a Holy Ark. The settlement was completely burnt to the ground, and none of its inhabitants ever returned to reside there again, or to pick through the ruins in order to salvage valuable property. In the archaeological excavations of the burnt synagogue, we found in addition to the charred scroll fragments, a bronze seven-branched candelabrum (menorah), the community’s money box containing c. 3,500 coins, glass and ceramic oil lamps, and vessels that held perfume. We have no information regarding the cause of the fire, but speculation about the destruction ranges from Bedouin raiders from the region east of the Dead Sea to conflicts with the Byzantine government.”

– Dr. Sefi Porath

The researchers intend to perform additional scans with the aim at deciphering more of the scroll.

The Botanical Gardens

The Jewel of the Desert

In modern times, the first settlers at Ein Gedi arrived in a scorching hot desert wasteland. Although their oasis provided some comfort, it was rough going in the years before air conditioning. Kibbutzniks returning from vacation would bring all manner of exotic plants, which they transplanted to the kibbutz. As they built up their garden, they created for themselves a cool place to relax after a hard day’s work in the sun. Before long, word of the magnificent garden started to get around and gifts of exotic plants poured in from around the world.

This world-famous garden contains over 1000 species from five continents. A professional staff tends the award-winning garden, which attracts tourists from all over. Among the species you’ll find there are gigantic fig trees, bizarre baobabs, the Henna tree (כופר) and others. There’s even a small zoo with tortoises, peacocks and other exotic animals. A new plot is dedicated to local scented shrubs, including the original afarsimon, cammiphora opobalsimum.

Some photos courtesy Israel Ministry of Tourism, Israel Antiquities Authority