An Essene site in Ein-Gedi?
The Essenes were a Jewish sect in the time of Jesus, and some believe they lived in Qumran and formed the famous Dead Sea Scroll. The Scrolls do describe a sect that believed in similar beliefs as the Essenes, but they are not really identical, and the community who formed the scrolls called themselves ‘Yachad’, not Essene. Furthermore, the detailed first century historian Josephus states that the Essene “occupy no one city, but settle in large numbers in every town” (Wars 11: 124).
On the other hand, the contemporary Roman historian and geographer, Pliny the Elder, stated “Lying below the Essenes was formerly the town of Engedi” (Nat.Hist. V: 15,73). Ein-Gedi is an oasis along the Western Shores of the Dead Sea, some 20 miles south of Qumran. Many used Pliny’s reference as proof that the Essenes indeed dwelt in Qumran, which is ‘above’, i.e. north, of Ein-Gedi.
Dr. Y. Hirschfeld, an archaeologist from the Hebrew University, challenged this thesis, and proposed an alternative explanation. He proposes that the Essenes did reside above Ein-Gedi, literally, on cliffs above the site.
The ‘Essene site’ in Ein-Gedi
Hirschfeld’s ‘Essene Site’ is at one of the most beautiful locations in Israel, on a spur overlooking the Oasis, the Dead Sea, and the Moab Mountains. It is indeed topographically above the oasis, but is indeed the ‘capital’ of the Essenes. The site bears less then 10 single room houses set around a small spring, whose water is collected into a plastered pool, traces of pipes indicate the water was used to irrigate its surroundings, most likely Ein-Gedi’s famed Balsam plant. Most of the pottery is from the Byzantine period. The shards from the 1st century are scarce. In fact, very few artefacts were found at the site in general.
Nevertheless, Hirschfeld concluded that this was indeed the lost ‘Essene site’ mentioned by Pliny the elder. His main arguments are:
* The site was constructed during Herod’s reign and Herod favored the Essenes.
* The dwellings are all small. Their size and contents match the Essenes’ celibate and modest nature.
* Hirschfeld identifies the pool as a ritual bath, and purity rituals were an important component in Essene rituals.
* The lack of bones at the site leads Hirschfeld to suggest the dwellers were vegetarians, and Josephus describes the Essenes as vegetarians.
* Philon of Alexandria states that some of the Essenes are peasants. The site is indeed in the heart of rural cultivated and irrigated area.
Though Hirschfeld’s thesis has some intriguing arguments, it has many problems:
* No written material was found at the site to suggest their identity.
* The site is small, and we inhabited mostly in the Byzantine period. In fact, it is not certain that it was inhabited at all in the time of the Essenes.
* The site does not bear a dinning hall where the Essenes could assemble, as described by Josephus.
* The lack of bones is probably because scavengers ate them later.
* The plastered pool has no steps, an element that appears in every Jewish Ritual bath.
So Who Lived in the Site?
Danny ‘the Digger’ Herman participated in the excavations at the site in 1999. In his opinion the archaeological evidence suggests that the site was (only) seasonal post of peasants from Ein-Gedi. During the high season they may have preferred to spend the night at the site, as Ein-Gedi’s village was more than an hour’s walk away. Perhaps they also guarded their plantation, as the Balsam was a very valuable product in Roman times. However, the site bears no evidence to suggest anything else. Furthermore, the site was also in use in the Byzantine period, and there is no question that in that period it was in use only by peasants.
Qumran was inhabited by the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. They followed a philosophy similar to the Essenes, and perhaps Roman historians such a Pliny the Elder could not distinguish between the two.