No one can say with certainty why the flourishing Jewish settlement at Ein Gedi abruptly ended sometime in the 6th century. We know that a conflagration destroyed the community’s handsome synagogue. But what caused the fire? What befell the settlers?  And what happened to the secret they carried hidden within their breasts?

Ein Gedi synagogue inscriptions (photo: courtesy)

Ein Gedi synagogue inscriptions (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A delightful autumn outing begins at the regional Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) Ein Gedi Field School — along Highway 90. Climb the steps and then mosey over to the field school overlook, to come face to face with grazing Nubian ibex. Their muscular bodies and short legs make them well-adapted to life in the desert hills. An ibex has a special groove in its hoof that makes cliff-climbing easy and mountain climbing shoes are often designed according to the ibex hoof.

Don’t be surprised to see a coal-black starling with orange-striped wings standing on an ibex’s head. Songbirds, identified by English clergyman and naturalist Henry Baker Tristram in the 19th century, are known as Tristram’s grackles, and they have a symbiotic relationship with the ibex. In fact these unusual birds dine on a parasite that munches on ibex fur!

While almost all of their feathers are black, the grackle’s wings are rimmed with orange. Long ago, however, its feathers boasted all the colors of the rainbow. Then one day, King Solomon wanted to impress the Queen of Sheba with an elegant fan. So he asked all the fowl in his kingdom to contribute their fanciest feathers.

Every other species brought its finest plume and laid it at Solomon’s feet, but the arrogant multicolored grackle refused to donate even one of its feathers. In his rage the king picked up the object nearest at hand – an inkwell – and threw it at the grackle. And since that time, only its wings retain a bit of their original orange color.

At least one hyrax guards the byway at all times – he is on the alert, searching for enemies. If startled, he will warn the others and dozens will be seen running for cover

From the overlook, it is easy to see the luxurious foliage and waterfalls of the Nahal David Nature Reserve almost immediately below. Further south a brown, tent-like covering tops remains from the Byzantine-era (4th-7th century C.E.) synagogue at Ein Gedi.

Those were good years for the settlement of Ein Gedi, which owed its prosperity mainly to a fabulous balsam-based salve or perfume. Manufactured at Ein Gedi since the Israelites put down roots here in the 8th century B.C.E., this man-catching unguent was reportedly used by Cleopatra herself. And it did more than drive men crazy with lust: it also had miraculous healing properties. The secret of its production was heavily guarded by the townspeople.

Next stop is the Nahal David Nature Reserve, where an easy walk featuring lots of water follows a circular trail along the lower channel of the riverbed. The path is well-shaded by an avenue of Sudanese trees seen only in the region of the Syrian African Rift and, in Israel, in the reserve. They do well at Nahal David, where the weather is generally hot and the temperature never drops below freezing in winter. Besides, the plentiful springs here offer abundant water for their thirsty roots.

Depending on the season, beautiful caper flowers may be peeking out of crevices in the cliffs. Apparently, the climate is of little interest to the caper, which makes its home as far north as Banias and here in the desert as well. As long as it finds a rock in which to settle, the caper is happy.

Among the Nubian ibexes meandering along the trail are females with young progeny. Practically extinct in the 1970s, ibexes were saved by Israel’s nature conservation organizations and today large herds flourish throughout the desert regions.

Dozens of ibexes will be climbing the cliffs. Grown-up males have thick curved horns over a meter long while the females’ horns are noticeably smaller. With younger ibexes, the base of the horn indicates their sex, for male horns are thicker than those of the female.

Much of the year, young bucks spend a lot of their time butting horns. Members of a singles’ pack, they rarely hurt one another. Rather, they just push and shove, instinctively working out a hierarchy in which the strongest will take charge of the group and no one will pay any attention at all to the least courageous!

Ibex locking horns at Nahal David (photo: courtesy)

Ibex locking horns at Nahal David (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The rocks near the waterfalls are covered with travertine, a beautiful limestone sediment that settles on rocks after water has receded – just like the mineral deposits in your coffee pot. Travertine is found only in areas where there are immense quantities of water, proof that once Nahal David was extraordinarily wet.

A final attraction on this pastoral outing is the Ein Gedi National Antiquities Park, whose main feature is an ancient synagogue. The road from Nahal David to the park passes through mango fields that belong to Kibbutz Ein Gedi, and is lined with hundreds of wild trees. One of them is a small specimen with very large leaves called the Apple of Sodom. It is dangerous to touch this super-poisonous plant, whose violet-tinged spring flowers are replaced by succulent apples in summer. Deceptively inviting, the fruit is empty inside except for a fluffy mass of hairy seeds. According to legend, depraved Sodom residents held these apples out in greeting to non-suspecting outsiders!

Don't even touch the Apples of Sodom (photo: courtesy)

Don’t even touch the Apples of Sodom (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Several species of fauna climb on the rocks and hide in the bushes next to the road, but they may be difficult to spot. At least one hyrax (coney), guards the byway at all times – he is on the alert, searching for enemies. If startled, he will warn the others and dozens will be seen running for cover. Psalms said it beautifully: “The high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the coneys.“ [104:18]. The road ends at the ancient synagogue.

Tel Goren, southwest of the park, was the venue for the earliest Jewish settlement in this area. Over time, the city expanded and residents built a synagogue here. Its remains were uncovered in 1965 when kibbutz bulldozers, preparing the land for farming, exposed the mosaic floor.

All that is necessary for an enjoyable visit are the park’s excellent brochure and signs posted at the site. Of special interest are the house in which archaeologists discovered a bowl full of linen-wrapped coins, and ritual baths from the Second Temple period.

A third-century floor, featuring black-rimmed white tiles, is located beneath the mosaics you see. Figured into the design was a “mirror” swastika – facing left – a pagan symbol used for decoration.

Two centuries later, the beautiful mosaics now on view were laid on top of the old. Five long inscriptions grouped together would have constantly caught the eye of synagogue worshippers. The unique middle inscription not only set forth rules by which the people of Ein Gedi were expected to live but it also called down a horrible curse on anyone who divulged the village secret. Could it have been the secret of balsam-oil manufacture?

Black stains are evidence of the terrible fire that devastated the synagogue in the 6th century and caused the second story to tumble onto the first. While this collapse saved the mosaics from ruin, the synagogue’s demise heralded the end to 1,400 years of Jewish settlement at Ein Gedi and left hundreds of questions floating in the air.

Fortunately, ongoing archaeological digs right next to the ancient synagogue are slowly but surely unlocking the town’s mysterious secrets. Soon, perhaps, we will be better able to guess why Ein Gedi settlers fled in haste, taking the secret of balsam production with them – and leaving their homes and the ruins of their synagogue behind.

The synagogue is wheelchair accessible. A new path at Nahal David is also wheelchair accessible.

Nature Reserve and Ancient Synagogue – Winter hours (October to March): Sun-Thursday and Sat 8:00 -16:00; Fridays until 15:00. Last entrance one hour before closing.

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Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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