Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Desert Roadtrip – Part One, Qumran

During my studies here in Jerusalem, I’ve met three PhD whizzkids from Harvard: Cian, Jonathan and Joanna. They’re researching biblical Hebrew, theology, ancient history, and loads of other exciting and esoteric stuff, I’m sure. They’d been thinking of going to visit some of the archaeological sites around the Dead Sea – Qumran, Masadah – and after I expressed an interest, they invited me along.

To maximise our time, we decided to skive off an afternoon of classes. Jonathan had hired a car, so we drove out of Jerusalem and due east into the heart of the West Bank. Jerusalem is up in the hills, and the terrain dips very sharply as you come out of the city. There’s what appears to be a checkpoint on the other side of the motorway, as you come back into the city, but no one stops you on the way out.

Qumran is on the coast of the Dead Sea, about 30 miles from Jerusalem, and it takes less than an hour to get there. It’s very much on the beaten track, just off the main road and well marked out with brown tourist roadsigns. It looks so normal, it’s easy to forget where you are.

The caves around Qumran are famous as the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s and 50s. As you look up into the cliffs around you, you can see the caves where the scrolls were found. On a rocky plateau in the middle stand the ruins of a settlement from the 1st centuries BCE and CE: possibly the home of the same sect of Jews who wrote the scrolls and hid them in clay pots in the surrounding terrain (although there is some serious debate about this in academic circles).

The site is not big – less than five minutes to walk the perimeter. Half broken-down walls show you exactly where the buildings would have been, and what size the rooms were. Looking around, you get the impression that it must have been very similar to a monastery. The Jews who lived there built no fewer than seven mikvehs – Jewish ritual baths – they had a large, long communal dining room, and a room for studying at night, where archaeologists discovered a large number of oil lamps.

We decided to hike up to one of the caves. This turned out to be a bad move. We were in a desert, it was the middle of the day, we were running out of water, and the cave we picked – although it had looked all right from the ground – turned out to be unreachable without climbing ropes, at least, according to a helpful signpost placed about three quarters of the way up the mountainside by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority, prophesying death and destruction upon our heads if we attempted to do it without professional equipment.

We took a break, recovered from the heat exhaustion in the shade of a large rocky outcrop, and clambered back down again. Once we were back at the ruins, we noticed a small, friendly looking cave much lower down, so we hiked up to that instead. It was small, not very exciting, full of batshit, and clearly didn’t have enough space for any ancient scrolls. It probably wasn’t an official Qumran cave at all. But we made it to a cave in the end, and that’s what counts.

From Qumran, we drove down back into Israel proper, towards our next stopover at Ein Gedi. There was a checkpoint on the way in, but in our tourist gear, and driving our hire car with Israeli numberplates, we were waved through.

I’ll pick up the rest of the story tomorrow in another exciting instalment.

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