Ein Gedi nature reserve
Ein Gedi nature reserveIsrael news photo: Shmuel Browns

Ein Gedi (literally the Spring of the Goats, referring to Nubian Ibex that come to the spring to drink) is an oasis of lush beauty in the Judean Desert along the shores of the Dead Sea.

Waterfalls and pools in the Ein Gedi nature reserve

Israel news photo: Shmuel Browns

It is one of only two sites along the western shore of the Dead Sea in an area called the Judean desert with a natural source of fresh water (the other is Ein Feshka 30 km to the north). For this reason, secular historians say that Ein Gedi was settled as early as the Chalcolithic period, about 6,000 years ago; archaeologists point to the remains of an outline of a cultic temple as proof.

Ein Gedi is mentioned in the Bible, in the Song of Songs 1:14 and in Samuel I 24:1, where the story is told how David fled to Ein Gedi while he was escaping from King Saul.

Information gleaned from excavations at Tel Goren that were led by Benjamin Mazar of the Hebrew University in the 1960s indicates that the main period of settlement near Ein Gedi was the end of the First Temple period. The site at that time apparently functioned as a royal estate of the Kings of Judea for the cultivation of dates, specifically those of the extinct Judean palm Phoenix dactylifera, which is considered uniquely medicinal.

One such palm tree has in fact been resurrected from a 2,000-year-old seed found atop the wind-swept Judean Desert fortress of Masada and is being grown at the Arava Institute, located on Kibbutz Ketura. The date palm, now more than three feet tall, has been named "Methusaleh." 

A date palm in all its glory, full of new dates not yet ripe for picking... (Israel news photo: Michelle Baruch)

The fronds of the Judean palm were also used at the time for the lulav that is part of the arba minim, or four species, over which a special blessing is made on Sukkot. Balsam was grown for the production of perfume, (in Hebrew, afarsimon, a plant that is now extinct). Ein Gedi was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, but resettled by Jews on their return to Zion.

During the Second Temple period the area was settled by a Jewish ascetic sect called the Essenes, described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder. Archaeological evidence gathered by Yizhar Hirschfeld shows that the Essenes lived higher up, nearer to the spring where he found more than 20 tiny stone cells and two pools, one for irrigation and one a mikve or ritual bath. Archaeologists have dated pottery shards found there to the first century BCE (secular calendar), during the Second Temple Period. There was another phase of occupation during the late Byzantine period.

The Romans, too, were interested in the production of balsam perfume; Mark Anthony confiscated the groves from Herod and gave them to Cleopatra. After their deaths, Herod was able to lease them back. During the Great Revolt against Rome, the Jews tried to uproot the groves so they would not fall into the hands of the Romans, a move the Romans fought to prevent.

During the Second Jewish War (132-135 CE) against the Romans, Bar Kokhba, the famed leader of the Jewish rebels holed up in caves near Ein Gedi, sent the inhabitants of the town a reproach for failing to take part in a battle: "From Shimeon bar Kosiba to the men of Ein Gedi, to Masabala and Yehonathan bar Beayan, Shalom. In comfort you sit, eat and drink from the property of the House of Israel, and care nothing for your brothers."  In another letter, the rebel leader makes specific requests in order to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot: "pack and send to the camp, towards you, palm branches and citrons. And you, from your place, send others who will bring you myrtles and willows. See that they are tithed". The rebellion, however, was crushed by the Romans and Jewish Ein Gedi was destroyed.

Nahal David, overlooking the Dead Sea

Israel news photo: Shmuel Browns

Jews came back in the third century and built a small village, including a synagogue featuring a beautiful mosaic floor. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the inscription lists the signs of the zodaic and months of the year (later also seen in mosaic floors in synagogues in Bet Alpha and Tiberius) and the expression "Peace unto Israel (also found in the ancient synagogue in Jericho). A dire warning was included at the end: "Whoever reveals the secret of the town to the Gentiles - He whose eyes range through the whole earth and who sees hiddens things, He will set his face on that man and on his seed and will uproot him from under the heavens." The secret seems to be the production process for balsam perfume.

The availability of water year round also attracts animals -- the reserve closes early so that the ibex will be able to come to drink before dark. This is the best time to see ibex close up, just before closing time.

Ibex are coming to drink toward the end of the day

Israel news photo: Shmuel Browns

You may also see tristram grackles, a small black bird with an orange stripe on the outer wing and a unique cry, particularly noticeable in flight. These friendly, inquisitive birds can be observed grooming ibex for parasites. They were discovered by Henry Baker Tristram, an English clergyman, traveller, Bible scholar and ornithologist who visited the area in 1881.

As you leave the park at dusk, the setting sun paints the blue-green water of the Dead Sea with varying shades of pink and purple. The colors and patterns of shoreline and water create an abstract composition that is a rare treat to behold.

The other animal you can see is a small, furry, rodent-like animal called a hyrax, or shafan (the Hebrew term). Shafan was the name of the scribe of King Josiah mentioned in Jeremiah. A bulla (clay seal) with the incription Gemariah ben Shafan was found recently in the City of David.

Hyraxes spend most of their time huddled together or basking alone  in the sun. These behaviors help the hyrax to regulate its body temperature because although they are mammals their body temperature fluctuates with the ambient temperature, like reptiles. They have large, soft pads on their feet which are kept moist by sweat-like secretions that help them climb on the rocky terrain.

A hyrax crouches in the cleft of a rock

Israel news photo: Shmuel Browns

Across from Ein Gedi, east of the main highway is an area of sinkholes, a chain of holes that is unfortunately being created as the Dead Sea recedes at the alarming rate of one meter a year.

A sinkhole chain

Israel news photo: Shmuel Browns

Nonetheless, with a depth of 330 meters, the Dead Sea is still the deepest hypersaline lake in the world; it is the world’s second saltiest body of water, 8.6 times saltier than the ocean. Sink holes are created when fresh water dissolves the salt in newly uncovered salt-laden earth, forming an empty cavern and causing the top crust of earth to collapse.

Sinkhole across from Ein Gedi

Israel news photo: Shmuel Browns

"Ein Gedi" also refers to the kibbutz, with a botanical garden and an industry that bottles spring water, as well as the nature reserve with hiking trails, pools and waterfalls and archaeological sites; across the road is access to the Dead Sea and spa facilities. There is a modest fee to enter the nature reserve and the spa. Appreciate the contrasts, water and desert, rock and vegetation, the broad horizontal expanse of the Dead Sea and the cliffs and mountains that rise vertically above it; the contrast between serene nature and human industry.

Shmuel Browns lives in Jerusalem, and is a licensed tour guide who loves to show visitors the unique archaeological and nature sites of Israel. To read his blog, click here!