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Archaeology in Israel: Ein Gedi

Ein Gedi is an oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, some 400 m. below sea level. Extreme heat and aridity prevail in this desert region throughout most of the year. But perennial fresh water springs (Ein is Hebrew for spring) flow down from the high cliffs of the Judean Desert and have made permanent settlement and agriculture possible since ancient times.

Ein Gedi is mentioned in many historical sources and the abundant finds from archeological excavations which have been conducted since the 1960s make it possible to trace the long history of this unique place.

A Chalcolithic Temple

In the Chalcolithic period (4th millennium BCE), a temple was erected at the Ein Gedi oasis which served as a cultic center for the nomadic tribes of the region. The temple compound was built on a rock terrace above the spring. It consisted of several separate single-roomed stone structures, built around a large courtyard which was surrounded by a wall. The temple complex was reached via a gateway, consisting of a square chamber with benches. The temple itself stood opposite, on the other side of the courtyard. It was rectangular in shape (20 x 2.5 m.), with stone-built benches along its walls and an altar on which animal bones and ash were found, testifying to its use as a sacrificial altar.

Only the structural remains of the abandoned temple were uncovered; researchers believe that the priests of the temple fled in the face of approaching danger, taking with them the many cult artifacts accumulated during generations of use. The temple was never used again, but due to the arid desert conditions it has been well preserved to the present day.

The Village at Tel Goren

During the biblical period, Ein Gedi and the surrounding desert, known as the Wilderness of Ein Gedi, were part of the territory of the Tribe of Judah. David sought refuge from King Saul at Ein Gedi. (1 Samuel 24:1)

The first permanent settlement was built on the low hill, Tel Goren, at the end of the monarchic period (second half of the 7th century BCE). The houses of the small village were built close together on terraces; each consisted of two rooms and a courtyard. In them were large clay vats for the storage of drinking water or liquids made from special plants growing in the area. Royal seal impressions, and others bearing personal names, as well as a hoard of silver pieces were found in the ruins of the village, indicating wealth and economic importance.

During the Persian period (5th-4th centuries BCE) the village grew in area. Among the buildings was a prominent, large structure (550 sq.m.), probably two stories high. It had many rooms, courtyards and storerooms in which numerous artifacts, including royal seal impressions were found. These attest to the continuing importance of the village.

In the Hasmonean and Herodian periods (first century BCE to first century CE) the Jewish settlement at Ein Gedi thrived, expanded and became a royal estate. At Tel Goren, a well-fortified citadel was built to protect the village and its agricultural products against raiding nomads. At this time Ein Gedi expanded and spread to the low, flat hill at the foot of Tel Goren. Ein Gedi was destroyed and abandoned during the First Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66-70 CE).

In renewed excavations, beginning in 1996, some 30 stone-built cells, clustered around a small spring, were found northwest of Tel Goren. The excavator suggests that this might have been a monastic site of the Essene sect, whose members lived in isolated communities in the desert near the Dead Sea during the Roman period.

During the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE), Ein Gedi was an important outpost of the rebels, as recorded in the Bar Kochba letters found in the Dead Sea area. Later, a Roman garrison was stationed at Ein Gedi.

During the Roman and Byzantineperiods (2nd-6th century), the oasis was an imperial estate and the settlement at En-Gedi reached the peak of its prosperity. Eusebius, 4th century bishop of Caesarea, describes Ein Gedi as a "very large Jewish village." In the course of excavations, remains of dwellings, water installations and shops along streets, were uncovered. During this period, stone terraces were constructed on the hillsides and a sophisticated water system, including storage pools and a network of irrigation channels, was developed. These measures, initiated by the central administration, made for expanded, efficient and intensive cultivation of tropical plants and the production of perfumes and medicines. Especially famous and costly was Balsam, a perfume produced from a plant that grew only in this region. To protect the cultivated areas and to control the trade route, a fortress and watch towers were built.

The Synagogue

The synagogue at Ein Gedi dates from the Roman-Byzantine period, but it underwent several changes in the course of its use.

When first built at the beginning of the 3rd century, it was a modest, trapezoidal structure. In its northern wall, facing Jerusalem, were two openings. The floor was of simple white mosaic with a swastika pattern in black tesserae in the center. This pattern has been interpreted as a decorative motif or as a good luck symbol.

The synagogue underwent far-reaching renovations during the fourth century: The opening in the center of the northern wall was blocked and made into a square niche which probably contained a wooden Torah ark; along the opposite southern side a three-stepped bench was built; the building was divided by two rows of square pillars into a central hall with two aisles; the entrance was through three openings in the western wall.

In the mid 5th century, the synagogue underwent a further change, but its trapezoidal shape was preserved. Its dimensions were now 16 m. on the western side, 13.5 m. on the eastern side, with a width of 12.5 m. and it was two stories high. A platform (bema) containing a semi-circular niche surrounded by a chancel screen was added to the northern side of the building facing Jerusalem. The whole interior of the synagogue and the pillars were covered with white plaster and painted decorations and a new, colored mosaic floor was laid. The central hall contained a mosaic carpet decorated with a pattern of four-petalled flowers; in the center is a circle with four birds and on the corners of the outer, square frame are pairs of peacocks. The decoration opposite the bema included three seven-branched menorot (candelabra).

The floor of the western aisle, through which one entered the prayer hall, included five inscriptions. These include an Aramaic inscription mentioning the local community as well as private donors who contributed toward the construction and maintenance of the synagogue. One inscription also includes a warning and a curse:

Warnings to those who commit sins causing dissension in the community, passing malicious information to the gentiles, or revealing the secrets of the town.

The one whose eyes roam over the entire earth and sees what is concealed will uproot this person and his seed from under the sun and all the people will say, Amen. Selah.

Two inscriptions in Hebrew relate to Jewish tradition. One notes the names of the thirteen fathers of the world according to 1 Chronicles l:l-4: Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mehalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Another lists the names of the twelve signs of the zodiac and the twelve months of the Hebrew calender; the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and the names of the three companions of Daniel: Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; and a blessing: Peace upon Israel.

The synagogue was destroyed by fire, probably during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (second half of the 6th century), a period of Jewish persecution. Among the items in the destruction debris was a unique find: a 30 cm. high seven-branched candelabrum made of bronze.

The synagogue building has recently been restored and a huge, protective tent covers it, enabling visitors to enjoy this beautiful synagogue of the Jewish community which once lived at Ein Gedi.

Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs