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An Essene site discovered at Ein-Gedi? (1998)

The Essenes are famed as the probable creators or copiers of most of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Qumran is the central site in the region near where the scrolls were found in the 1950’s. Research revealed additional sites along the Dead Sea shore that were also attributed to the Essenes, yet no site equals the size or contents of Qumran. Because of Qumran’s unique material culture, it is presumed by most scholars to be the central Essene site by the Dead Sea. But the evidence is contradictory. Josephus, the main historical source for the Essenes, declares that “they occupy no one city, but settle in large numbers in every town” (Wars 11: 124). Even more puzzling is the statement of the Roman historian and geographer, Pliny the Elder, who writes: “Lying below the Essenes was formerly the town of Engedi” (Nat.Hist. V: 15,73). But Ein-Gedi is located 30 km south of Qumran!. Scholars have explained the discrepancy as a mistake of Pliny, understandable since Pliny was writing inRome. But recently Dr. Yizhar Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem announced that he has found an Essene site right next to ancient Engedi, as described by Pliny, thus claiming that this site, and not Qumran, is the “capital” of the Essenes along the Dead Sea shore.

The discovery created public interest and was reported in local newspapers and TV news broadcasts. Intrigued by the discovery, I asked Dr. .Hirschfeld if I could join his expedition for the last day of the excavation and he generously granted my request.

Located in the oasis of Ein-Gedi, The site is located in one of the most beautiful spots in Israel – a natural shelf below the cliffs, overlooking the Dead Sea as well as the mountains of Gilead and Moab. The site is very close to ancient Ein-Gedi, and situated right above it – exactly as Pliny states(!). Most of the site consists of a row of small rooms built of large stones. Very few objects were found in the rooms and even pottery shards were scarce. And most of them are from the Byzantine period (some 300-600 years later than the Essenes). Finds of the first century CE are rare. A natural spring in the central part of the site is barely active today.

Below the spring the excavators revealed two square pools with pipes linking them with the terraces below, most likely to irrigate the balsam fields for which Ein-Gedi was famous.

The upper pool is carved in bed rock with a ramp in the centre sloping into the pool. The lower pool is partly carved and partly built of local stone so the walls are plastered. Near the pools are three rooms, larger than others at the rest of the site. One was a lime kiln used for the maintenance of the pools. Another single room building contains 3 stoves and a thick layer of ash covers the floor. The pottery from that building is also mostly Byzantine. Despite the substantial excavation of the building, no traces of bones were found. It is clearly a kitchen for the residents who, in Dr.Hirschfeld’s view, were vegetarians.

In a single room near the pools a row of jars from the leaning against the wall were discovered. The room functioned as a local storage cell. Although most of the finds are Byzantine, some are from the Second Temple Period. According to the few numismatic and glass finds, the duration of the first settlement can be dated to between 30 BCE and 130 CE. Thus the settlement may have commenced during the time of Herod the Great.

Arguments for the Essene Identification through the finds are minimal, and yet Dr. Hirschfeld is convinced that he has found there the Essene settlement mentioned by Pliny. He lists the arguments in favor of his theory:

1. The site was constructed during Herod’s reign and Herod favored the Essenes.

2. The dwellings are all small, built with large boulders found scattered on the surface. Their size and contents match the Essenes’ celibate and modest nature.

3. The site contains a purification facility – a ritual bath (mikveh). It is expecred that an Essene site would include such an installation because purity played a major role the Essene daily liturgy.

3. The lack of bones at the site matches Josephus’ descriptions that the Essenes lived like the Pitagories, known to be vegetarians.

4. The terraces below the site match Josephus’ description that the Essenes worked in agriculture.

Though intrigued by the site, I find several problems with Dr. Hirschfeld’s hypothesis:

1. There is no written evidence or find that hints at the identification of the people who lived at that site.

2. Remains show the site was used in the Byzantine Period. Evidence from the Second Temple Period is scarce, and it is difficult to decide what parts of the site belong to the primary stage of construction. It is possible that during the Second Temple Period only the pools and the three cells nearby existed, but such a site is too small to be identified with the Essenes.

3. There is no building to match the dining hall in which the Essenes assembled daily, as described by Josephus. There is a kitchen so we know where they prepared the food but apparently they ate alone or outdoors.

4. Lack of bones is odd, but as a principle I don’t think this proves much. They may not have been found yet. It is also possible that organic rubbish was used to fertilize the Balsan fields near by.

5. I don’t agree with Dr. Hirschfeld’s identification of the upper pool as a ritual bath (mikveh). Ritual baths have a regular shape and size wherever found and the most common component of mikva’ot are steps into the pool. In this pool there is a carved ramp, not steps.

6. According to some finds the inhabitants lived at the site until 132 CE. But there is no evidence that the Essenes existed after the destruction of the Temple inJerusalem by the Romans (70 CE).

An alternate interpretation of the site

I offer an alternative interpretation of the site. In my view it was a night post for the peasants of Ein-Gedi who worked in the terraces of the Balsam plantations. Perhaps they stayed the night on the cliff to guard the precious plants. Balsam was a very expensive perfume in Rome but only grew in Ein-Gedi and Jericho. And the knowledge of its production was a secret.

Another possibility is that the Ein-Gedi farmers may have stayed in this site to avoid the daily journey from Ein-Gedi to the upper terraces, which was a physical challenge (as I experienced every morning..)

A third possibility is that the farmers of Ein-Gedi used it on  a random basis when they would  irrigate at night. The climate is very hot and dry in that region, and without the steady flow of water from the spring, cultivation is impossible. Random usage of the site would explain why there are no bones. Fires warmed the farmers and maybe boiled water for hot drinks, but meals were probably eaten at home, in Ein-Gedi. The fact that finds date up to 132 CE agrees with my theory too. Although the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, Jews continued to produce Balsam in Ein-Gedi until the outbreak of the Bar-Kokhba revolt in 132 CE.

And indeed documents found in the nearby caves prove that the Jews of Ein-Gedi abandoned their homes only during the Bar-Kokhba revolt.

The Byzantine phase of the site can be interpreted in the same way. During the Byzantine Period (325-638) Jews returned to Ein-Gedi and cultivated its terraces. The synagogue from the that period was discovered in Ein-Gedi in the 1970’s.

But Dr. Hirschfeld’s hypothesis is even more innovative and complex. He is convinced that the Essenes lived ONLY at Ein-Gedi only, and that Qumran is not anEssene site, despite the fact that Qumran has several mikva’ot, and a big hall which was probably the dinning room, and that the Dead Sea scrolls were found in nearby cliffs, Dr. Hirschfeld holds the view that Qumran was never more then a fortified farm. He claims that it was a typical of the farms maintained throughout Judea by the Hasmonean kings and the house of King Herod. This is a very extreme interpretation of the Qumran site which most scholars agree was an Essene site.

Daniel Herman
Jerusalem Correspondent, Daniel Herman, at work with a sledge hammer breaking up the large boulders covering the floors of the cells.

monks in essene site
Monks from a monastery near Jerusalem visiting the presumed Essene site

Essenes site
Volunteers looking at pottery found on the floor of the building thought to belong to the Essenes. Below the site is Ein-Gedi and the Dead Sea