The year was 68 CE and the Romans were coming, tearing through Judea and destroying everything and everyone in their path. An isolated community of 200 Jewish souls, located below the cliffs on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea, reached a desperate decision. It was a long shot — but they resolved to hide away the fruit of two centuries of hard labor, hoping to return someday and to pick up where they’d left off. Wrapping hundreds of fragile scrolls in linen, they placed them gently inside clay jars and hid them in caves near their homes at Qumran.

Almost two thousand years later, in spring of 1947, a shepherd boy taking his flock to Bethlehem passed by the caves. One of his goats had wandered off and no sooner had he thrown a rock into the nearest opening to flush it out than he heard a crash: the stone had smashed an ancient jar. Since that time, over 800 scrolls — and the ancient settlement itself — have come to light.

A local mikveh, shattered by the earthquake of 31 B.C.E. (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)

A local mikveh, shattered by the earthquake of 31 B.C.E. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The first century was not the only time that Jews had settled at Qumran. Indeed, there were Jews here during the Israelite and First Temple Period who abandoned the site only during the Babylonian conquest. But the Jews who settled here during the second century BCE were an especially spiritually oriented group. They were called the Essenes, and belonged to one of the largest of contemporary Jewish sects in Judea.

From the Dead Sea Scrolls they wrote during the Second Temple period, we learn that they lived communal lives. They were mostly celibate, and preached and practiced an ascetic, contemplative life while waiting for the Messiah to lead them to everlasting glory. Members of the sect ate together, prayed together exactly in the manner required in the Bible, and bathed often to purify their bodies and wash away their sins. So similar were many of their beliefs to those of Christians today that some researchers find the origins of Christianity within the Essene creed.

When you bathe a lot you need plenty of water — not so easy to find in the Judean desert! To this end, and well before Roman aqueducts came into fashion, the Essenes built an elaborate water system leading from Wadi Qumran to their ritual pools and reservoirs. The waterfall from the top of the cliffs is dry most of the year but, during heavy rains, the flow is tremendous: the Essenes may have built a dam beneath it.

A natural pool along the ancient Qumran cliffs (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)

A natural pool along the ancient Qumran cliffs (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Qumran National Park offers a fascinating glimpse into that ancient past, full of archeological finds that are augmented by ongoing excavations. A special feature at the Park is the video center, whose multi-screens offer a dizzying bird’s-eye view of the cave-ridden cliffs and crags that fill the Judean desert. Viewers are stunned by its immensity, the silence, and the desolation of the brown, stony hills among which the Essenes made their home. Just as fascinating are the scenes of “Essenes” as they go about their every day life.

Just outside the video center is a tiny museum with remains found at the site. One favorite exhibit provides the sounds of water, moving footsteps, and discarded garments — so people can actually visualize an Essene descending into ritual pools.

East of the ruins in the direction of the Sea are over a thousand Essene graves.  From the fact that six female skeletons were uncovered here, and the knowledge that the community remained a stable 200 at all times, we can assume that a few of the men, at least, had wives. Additional new members were probably adopted from other sects as children and brought up here.

Hiking along the Qumran trail (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)

Hiking along the Qumran trail (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A trail follows the Essene water channel that picked up flowing waters from the hills and deposited them here in a series of pools. Interestingly, while Hellenistic and Roman-era reservoirs are square, one of the pools here is round. Experts speculate that the pool — typical of the Bronze (Israelite) era — was either used by much earlier Jewish settlers or was shaped out of geological necessity by the later residents. A sign designates some of the excavations as Essene public rooms; they probably made their homes in hillside caves.

The tower jutting out from the rest of the park was used for defense, observation or storage. Other interesting excavations include the Scriptorium, the most important feature in the complex. During excavations archeologists found dry inkwells and pieces from a number of weirdly shaped tables in this room.  Apparently the Essene scribes worked standing up at the tables, which were placed close to each other so that parchment could be spread out, examined and sewn together.

Some of the scrolls that were discovered are copies of the Bible. Until they came to light, the oldest Bible in the world was from the 10th century. Yet, to the astonishment of the experts, that Bible is almost word for word the same Holy Book as the one written by the Essenes in the Second Temple period!

Just outside of the excavations, green trail markers leads hikers on a trail up into the cliffs, slightly south of where the first three scrolls were discovered. In winter, the riverbed below the trail — Nahal Qumran — is full of lovely gorges and little pools that are filled with water. An added attraction: from here there is a great view of the Dead Sea, the national park, and Cave Number 4. It is here that more than half of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

The trail eventually winds through the Qumran aqueduct, and hikers have to bend over as they pass frog-footed through the tunnels. Emerging, they are high enough to view two openings in one of the caves (less visible but also possible to view from a covered hut down below).

One of the exciting finds from this area is called the Copper Scroll. Discovered in a cave nearby and written on copper and tin, it lists buried treasures and where they can be found. The description beautifully matches this particular cave. It reads: “In the Pillar Cave with the two openings that face east…”  It’s easy to understand why former Baptist priest Vendyl Jones, who claims to be the inspiration for the Indiana Jones series of movies, has spent years excavating here in his search for what he believes are the Temple Treasures.

Note: Some of the original Dead Sea Scrolls are on view at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, in the Shrine of the Book.

Except for the hike, almost the entire site is wheelchair accessible.

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Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language 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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