Scarcely had I hit “Publish” on my last post, when a “ceasefire” came into effect. Rendered cynical by Israel’s past experience of so-called “ceasefires” with Hamas, (we cease and they fire), I shall not be holding my breath to find out how long this one lasts.
I shall, however, take advantage of the hiatus to describe last month’s tiyul to three interesting sites near the Dead Sea. Yes, autumn has come, and with it, the start of the academic year – including the first of this year’s field trips with Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, an institution about which I have written much in the past and will, no doubt, continue to write much in the future.
This year, I opted for a series of field trips specialising in that part of Israel which lies east of the north-south watershed. This series rejoices in the title “Lift up your eyes to the East” – the name of a song by Yoram Tehar-Lev and Uri Kariv, here performed by the Central Command Troupe of the Israel Defence Forces:
Earth facing earth.
Greenhouse facing greenhouse.
How did such blessed abundance
Grow here in the wilderness?
The Jordan is like a mirror.
Take binoculars and see
The abundance and fruit
Here in the East.
Lift up your eyes to the East
And see how quietly
The two banks of the Jordan Valley lie before you.
Lift up your eyes to the East
And see how she (the valley) grows
And rises from her thousands and thousands of years.
The Jordan has two banks.
This one flourishes, that one also,
And neighbour facing neighbour
Bears his crops.
And Man facing Man.
And perchance, both here and there,
Greenery may cover
The dust and the blood.
Lift up your eyes to the East etc.
This song was playing in the background as my brother and I, who was here in Israel for a brief visit, set out on a field trip to the area around Ein Gedi, on the last day of October.
Ein Gedi is mentioned several times in the Bible, most notably as the place to which King David fled (before he became king) and hid from King Saul (see: I Samuel 23, 29; I Samuel 24, 1). There, it is described as a fortress. But in the Song of Songs, Ein Gedi appears as an oasis (see: Song of Songs 1, 14).
The Ein Gedi National park and Nature Reserve comprises several springs and streams. We visited two of them, Ein Bokek and Nachal Arugot.
Ein Bokek is a small spring which wells up in one of the channels of Nachal Bokek (the Bokek stream). As it was a very hot day (32 C), the fact that for most of the hike, we were actually walking in the stream was a blessed relief. (In fact, I had dragged my brother all over town the previous day in order to buy him a pair of canvas sneakers in which he could walk in water, without spoiling them). The springwater used to flow directly into Nachal Bokek, but nowadays, most of it is pumped to provide water for the Dead Sea hotel complex. This is probably why, on this part of the hike, the water rarely came over our ankles.
Some members of our group seemed hesitant about wading even through such shallow water:
And some needed help scrambling over the rocks and boulders:
One of several waterfalls feeding the stream:
Taking a breather in the shade while our guide, Shai, explains some of the features of Nachal Bokek:
On these “explanation stops”, it isn’t always easy to find a comfortable rock to sit on, but these two managed it – albeit somewhat further away from the guide:
From Ein Bokek, we travelled to Nachal Arugot, a stream which, since it is fed by springs and is not dependent on rainfall, flows throughout the year. Nachal Arugot receives the runoff from several smaller streams. Here, the water level was considerably higher than at Ein Bokek. Our guide warned us that we would be wading through knee-high water. Of course, “knee-high” is a relative term, depending, as it does, entirely on the height of the person doing the wading 😉 .
Nor was it easy, scrambling up and over the rocks,
some of which were slippery with green algae:
And some people required more assistance than others:
One thing I can tell you for sure – my trousers certainly got wet above the knees 😉 .
And no wonder – because, looking down on the channel of the stream from above, one can tell that this is quite a respectable stream and, in comparison to Nachal Bokek, one might easily take it for a mighty river:
From Nachal Arugot, we were in a hurry to reach the ancient synagogue of Ein Gedi before sunset, as the archaeological site closes early in winter.
The Jewish settlement at Ein Gedi (or, at any rate, the particular settlement which was excavated at this site) existed during the late Roman and Byzantine periods (3rd – 6th centuries CE), that is to say, the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods.
Beneath the late Roman era site, remains were found of a much larger Jewish settlement dating back to the time of the Second Temple (that is to say, the early part of the Roman era).
The inhabitants of the village made quite a substantial living from two luxury crops. One was the date palm. Indeed, Ein Gedi was also known in ancient times as Hazazon Tamar (II Chronicles 20, 2) – tamar (תמר) being the Hebrew word for “date”.
The other was the famous balsam or bossem, made from the apharsemon (אפרסמון) – a word which today is translated as “persimmon” but which is believed to have been produced from Commiphora opobalsamum. The latter has sometimes been identified with Commiphora gileadensis, the Arabian Balsam Tree, also known as Balm of Gilead, said to have been brought to the Land of Israel as a gift for King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba. At all events, just as nobody knows for certain today the secret of the staggeringly expensive perfume produced by the inhabitants of Ein Gedi, its composition was a closely guarded secret in ancient times also . So much so that one of the mosaics found in the ancient synagogue of Ein Gedi includes a curse against whoever reveals the town’s secret to outsiders.
In the main hall of the ancient synagogue is an astonishingly complete mosaic floor:
Other mosaics display manifestly Jewish symbols, such as the seven-branched menorah (candelabrum).
More surprising, given the language of the 2nd Commandment, are the mosaic portrayals of birds:
However, depending on how one punctuates the Biblical injunction, it is perfectly possible to understand it as merely prohibiting the creation of graven images for worship, but not for decoration.
The synagogue was destroyed by fire sometime in the 6th century CE. When it was excavated in 1970, charred remnants were found in the synagogue’s holy ark. These were the burnt Torah scrolls, which could not be opened because they would have disintegrated. Nor did the technology exist for scanning them without opening them.
Fast forward to 2016, and the development of high resolution 3D CT scanning. Thanks to the collaboration between the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls preservation lab, and the Computer Science Department of the University of Kentucky, not only was it possible to scan and decipher one of the scrolls, revealing it to be part of the Book of Leviticus. it was also possible, by use of radio-carbon dating, to determine that the scroll, previously thought to date to the 6th century CE, the same time when the synagogue was burnt down, had actually been written at least 200 years earlier – and examination of the scroll’s distinctive handwriting suggests that it might be older still, possibly even 1st or 2nd century CE.
The Ein Gedi synagogue was our last stop for the day. The sun was already setting when we left and by the time we got back to Jerusalem, it was already completely dark – and quite chilly, especially in contrast to the desert heat around the Dead Sea.
I always find dusk somewhat depressing – especially in winter. But I shall put that thought behind me, for now.
I hope you, my faithful readers, enjoyed this virtual visit to one of the most beautiful places in Israel and will join me again, in future tiyulim, as we continue to explore the many and varied landscapes of my country.