This month’s field trip with Yad Ben Zvi saw us exploring the area of Ein Gedi, in the wake of King David and the Book of Psalms.
As many of you no doubt recall, when David – not yet king – was forced to flee from King Saul, for part of the time he took refuge “in the strongholds of Ein Gedi”
(I Samuel 23:29).
It is easy to understand David’s choice of hiding place. The rocks and mountains around Ein Gedi are riddled with caves, some of them quite large, and the mountains afford a vantage point which would enable a fugitive to have plenty of warning of the approach of his pursuers.
We started our day at the foot of Tel Goren, an Israelite settlement dating back to the end of the 7th century BCE, at the entrance to Nachal Arugot. Nachal Arugot is one of two perennial streams running through the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve (the other being Nachal David, about which, more later). What we had come to see there – besides the spectacular view – was a poignant memorial to the eight young victims of a terrible tragedy that occurred here in April 1942 – Chol Hamoed Pessach. A large group of teenagers, from Tel Aviv and Petach Tikva, most of them members of the Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement, set out on a hike to the Judaean Wilderness, Masada and the Dead Sea. On the last day of Pessach, the young hikers reached Ein Gedi, and after touring the area all day, encamped overnight at the foot of Tel Goren, meaning to proceed north before dawn the next day.
At 3 a.m. the youngsters were woken. In the chill air of the wilderness, they kindled a campfire and as they huddled around it, there was a sudden explosion. No-one knows for certain exactly what happened, but it is probable that a knapsack, belonging to one of the Palmach escorts and containing concealed hand grenades – as the British did not allow armed escorts to accompany these youth groups – had been placed too close to the campfire and the extreme heat caused one or more of them to explode. Three boys and a girl were killed instantly. Fourteen more people were injured, four of them critically. In those days, there were no mobile phones and three volunteers set off on foot for the nearest Jewish settlement, where help might possibly be obtained – Kalia, more than 50 kilometres away, over mountains and through steep gullies. It took them nine hours. Meanwhile, those left behind tried to signal a boat passing on the Dead Sea, but in vain. It was only later that a second boat, belonging to the phosphate company in Sodom, noticed and responded to their signals and turned inshore. The injured and the dead were evacuated by boat and taken to Jerusalem.
It was not until 5 o’clock in the afternoon that the wounded began arriving at the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Some were then transferred to the Sha’arei Zedek Hospital. The four critically injured all died in hospital – no doubt because of blood loss and other complications stemming from the delay in receiving treatment. All of the dead, with the exception of one, the group leader and Palmach escort Zvi Reisenberg, were aged between 16 – 18.
On the site of the tragedy is a memorial stone, bearing the simple epitaph (inspired, it is said, by Simonidas’ epitaph to the fallen of Thermopylae):
“Oh stand, you who pass by!
Here fell (followed by the names of the fallen)
At the ascent of Hashomer Hatzair to Masada,
They forged paths.
The journey did not end.”
Getting back to the Biblical Ein Gedi, our next stop was Nachal David, and a hike which was to prove almost as challenging as last month’s 😉 .
Nachal David is wheelchair accessible as far as the first of the lower waterfalls, by means of a concrete-paved path, along which there are benches under shade-giving trees, and visitors will be happy to know that the ibexes and rock hyraxes here are sufficiently used to human presence that they approach quite close and even let themselves be photographed, although, if one is unable to scramble along the bank of the stream, one might be forced to make do with a zoom lens in order to capture them on camera:
Beyond the first waterfall, however, it helps not only to have the use of both legs, but also some of the ability of an ibex or mountain goat:
Some of the waterfalls cascade into pools deep enough to bathe in:
We stopped and rested beside one of these, while our guide, Shai, read to us from I Samuel 24. For those who do not remember the story, King Saul had been informed that David was hiding out in the wilderness of Ein Gedi, so he set off in pursuit, with an army of 3000 “chosen men”. There are, as I said before, many caves in the area. David and his men were hiding in one of them. By a stroke of fate, this was the very cave which King Saul chose to enter “to cover his feet” (a Biblical euphemism, according to our guide, meaning Saul had to go to the bathroom). At this point, Saul was alone and David could have, literally, caught him with his pants down. Indeed, his men urged him to do just that. But David refused to raise his hand against the King, saying (v.6) “The LORD forbid it me, that I should do this thing unto my lord, the LORD’S anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’S anointed.”
Instead, he contented himself with cutting off the corner of Saul’s robe, which he then showed to Saul, as proof that he could have killed him, but did not, at which the King admitted (v.17) that David was more righteous than he himself.
This was the first of two occasions when David had King Saul in his power and could have killed him, but forbore to do so, because he would not raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed. The second is described in I Samuel 26. According to Shai, our guide, in the first instance, it might have been possible to argue that David’s refusal to slay the King could be attributed, not to the righteousness of the former, but to his prudence and forethought. David, after all, was trapped with a handful of men in a cave while Saul had an army of 3000 men waiting outside. Had the King failed to reappear after a reasonable length of time, his soldiers would have come to look for him and David and his warriors would not have stood a chance. In the second case, however, such an argument would not hold water. David stole into Saul’s camp with one companion only, took the spear stuck in the ground and the cruse of water at his head, refused to allow his companion, Abishai, to kill the King even though everyone in the camp was sleeping and got clean away. Thus, we know that his refusal to smite “the Lord’s anointed” really was due to his being a just and honourable man.
David must have felt that God truly was watching over him, when he was hiding in the cave and Saul was at his mercy, even though he, himself, showed mercy and refused to kill him. This is clear from Psalm 57, “A Psalm of David; Michtam; when he fled from Saul, in the cave ” and from Psalm 142, “Maschil of David, when he was in the cave; a Prayer.”
This rest stop was also an opportunity to admire some of Ein Gedi’s vegetation. Since the area is much warmer than Jerusalem, as well as being blessed with abundant water, many plants grow here which are unique to the area. The Dead Sea is, after all, the lowest spot on earth. For this reason, in ancient times, it was famous for the perfume produced in the area. But there are also edible fruits – not all of them having the most pleasant taste. One of the most interesting, I thought, was this one, although it is not found only here, but grows in hot,dry places all over the Middle East and Africa.
This is the desert date or Jericho Balsam, Balanaites Aegyptica – זקום מצרי (Zakum Mitzri) in Hebrew, or, as our guide told us, Tamr-el-Abd (Slave’s Date) in Arabic. Its fruit does indeed resemble the date, but it is bitter, whereas that of the date palm is sweet. In Islamic tradition, the bitter Tam’r-el-Abd is fed to the wicked in hell, as punishment.
We pressed on, sometimes walking through the stream bed, sometimes over and under waterfalls, often meeting other groups of hikers. This is one of the most popular hiking trails in Israel, after all. In fact, I was surprised – and delighted – to meet school groups from all sectors of the population, including some which one does not normally expect to find taking part in this kind of activity. A group of Bedouin schoolgirls from the Negev, for example. A group of Haredi (Jewish ultra-orthodox) primary schoolboys, with their Rabbi. And a group of Zionist Religious schoolgirls (whose affiliation can be gauged by the way they dress and by their teacher’s headcovering).
On we trekked, until we reached Mapal David – David’s Waterfall, surrounded by lush, green vegetation.
Note the tree trunk to the left which has been cut in half, in a vain attempt to prevent further growth.
This was the furthest point of our hike. Now, we turned back. It is a circular trail, which I, at least, found somewhat easier on the way back, although “easy” is a relative term 😉 .
Our last stop was the ancient synagogue of Ein Gedi, a short drive away. Here, a magnificent mosaic floor has been unearthed:
Another, smaller mosaic contains, amongst other things, a curse on any of the townspeople who might dare to reveal the settlement’s secrets (presumed to be the method for producing the fabled – and extremely expensive – perfume for which Ein Gedi was famous).
There was a Jewish settlement at Ein Gedi at various periods, but the synagogue apparently dates back to the 3rd century C.E. and was destroyed by fire during the 6th century C.E. From the latter period, archaeologists found what appears to have been the Holy Ark, and inside it, burnt remnants of parchment. Only in 2015, forty five years after its discovery, was there sufficiently advanced technology to decipher the scroll, which turned out to be a part of the Book of Leviticus.
As the sun was by now sinking in the west and as a large group of rather noisy Haredi schoolchildren and their Rabbi were waiting, with a tour guide, to inspect the site before it closed for the night, there was no time for us to see more and we left. On our way back to Jerusalem, we stopped for a last, lingering look at the Dead Sea, whilst our guide, Shai, recounted the story of how Ein Gedi came to be included within the borders of the Jewish State, back in 1949.
But that, my friends, is another story.