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Qumran National Park - Scrolling Down the Dead Sea

qumran Qumran scenery
Open water channel

Photos and text: Lydia Aisenberg

In 1947, two Bedouin shepherds wandering the dusty, rock-strewn northwestern shore of the Dead Sea stumbled across a cave while searching for stray animals. They unwittingly opened a priceless Pandora's box of mystery, intrigue, theft, forgeries, international battles over ownership, and highly acclaimed research, as well as deeply divided academic opinions, some of which are ongoing to this day.

But above all, the followers of the Muslim faith had stumbled across a most magnificent legacy for the Jewish people.

Back then in 1947, seeing that one of their lost lambs – actually it was a goat – had entered a cave, the shepherds tentatively followed. Since the darkness emanated a rather none-too-welcoming aura, the wary Bedouin threw a few stones into the void in the hope that their precious animal would react and make a quick exit.

They certainly did not expect to hear the sound of shattering pottery!

In actual fact the shepherds had discovered some 2,000-year-old clay jars, well-preserved in the arid climate, containing linen-wrapped leather parchments filled with script. And so begins, or one should say still continues, the tale of the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls, some of which are on permanent exhibition in Jerusalem's Shrine of the Book, with its distinctive enormous white dome, shaped like the lid of one of those ancient clay jars.

One of the empty vessels from way back then, also discovered in the nearby caves, is on display with other artifacts at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority's Qumran National Park Center, where visitors learn that this extensive site was home to a Jewish population as far back as the eighth century B.C.E. 

The reconstructed potter’s kiln

But it was not those inhabitants who brought future fame to Qumran. It was a break-away sect named the Essenes who lived and studied for over 200 years in Qumran – starting from the end of the Hashmonean period, and right through to the great revolt of the Jews against the Romans with the ancient fortress of Masada, chosen refuge of King Herod, situated further south along the Dead Sea shoreline.

It appears that the last known inhabitants of Qumran were members of a Roman garrison stationed there during the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 C.E.), but when the garrison was relocated the site was abandoned. The forces of nature eventually took over, covering up the remains until in 1947, a team of French archaeologists began excavating the area.

Deep water cistern being reinforced in present times

In the early 1950's additional scrolls were discovered in other caves, and the archaeologists began to uncover the remains of buildings, water cisterns, Jewish ritual baths (mikvot), and even an aqueduct, which had been constructed by the Essenes over a large, somewhat flat site situated between the foothills of the cave-pocked mountain range and the nearby Dead Sea.

When this writer visited Qumran recently, the extensive site was abuzz with archaeologists and scores of workers – most of the latter Palestinians – toiling in the midday sun under shade-giving black netting, excavating and physically rebuilding what was possible of Qumran's ancient past.

The painstaking archaeological work, partial reconstruction where possible, is absolutely mind-boggling. The impressive water cisterns have been cleaned out and reinforced, as have areas of stone-sided open channels where water would have rushed through, coming down from the mountains during the winter rains, filling the deep, wide underground cisterns and the all-important mikvot. 

Large mikveh

The foundations of buildings, work areas of artisans – such as the kiln area in the pottery maker's workspace and so much more – have already been discovered, uncovered and partially reconstructed with useful information boards placed in strategic places.

By the remains of a partially rebuilt potter's kiln, one such board reads: "Pottery for everyday use was manufactured here, numerous pottery utensils characteristic of the early Roman period discovered."

Underneath this description is a sketch of how the kiln would have looked way back then, a robe-clad Jewish artisan standing alongside. Sitting on some large stones immediately behind the sign is a neatly folded jacket and a black and white kaffiyeh on top, items belonging to one of the Palestinian workers who is crouching under a shade-giving net nearby, painstakingly cleaning a cluster of half-buried rocks.

On a hot, albeit mid-December day, when the land all around is dusty and parched and hardly any greenery is visible, it is hard to imagine how the vast cisterns that workers are cleaning out filled up in the winter and provided for the needs of a large community living in the lowest place on earth. 

Remains of building;

 However, almost every winter, especially after heavy rainfalls in the Jerusalem and Judean Desert, huge amounts of water come surging with horrific force down toward the Dead Sea, shooting out between the deep crevices gouged out by the sheer force of the water over thousands of years.

Although dry, dusty and none too welcoming in many ways, Qumran and the surrounding area are absolutely fascinating. It is quite wondrous that so many people could have survived in ancient times and lived such a rich community life in such terrain – unforgiving but eerily beautiful, especially against a deep blue sky.

Painstaking reconstruction 

From a hiking path close to the site one can see a rather large, boiler-shaped rusty piece of metal dangling from a metal chain attached to a number of equally rusty metal poles – all totally incongruously out of place in the middle of the desert.

Puzzling to say the least, but apparently these are the remains of a small construction built in the late 1930s by soldiers serving in the Haganah, the pre-State of Israel Jewish army, who were sent out on a mission to dig for water.

As they labored to bore down into the rock-solid ground in 1938, four of the soldiers were murdered by local Arabs. The structure they had built has been left in place as a memorial to the brave fighting men and water seekers.

Standing alongside a reconstructed open water channel created by the Essenes, and looking across the bleak but beautiful terrain to the buckled rusty contraption, now a memorial to the four soldiers, one can only be even more in awe of the incredible achievements of those who built a thriving community in the most difficult of conditions, thousands of years before.Enter your text here ...

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