Ein Gedi Historical Overview

Ein Gedi prior to the Biblical Age

The oldest remains discovered in Ein Gedi belong to the Chalcolithic period ( c.4500 – 3600 BC). The civilization that existed in the land of Israel at that time is known as the Ghassulian culture. Most of the Ghassulian settlements have been found in sites that had not been settled previously – in the Jordan Valley, on the Coastal Plain, in the Judean Desert, all over the desert plateau, throughout the northern and eastern Negev  ( all Beersheba Valley) and in the caves. There are remains of the Chalcolithic period in all the caves.

The settlements were small and subsisted mainly from agriculture. They were not fortified and no signs of destruction were found in them; the sites were apparently abandoned voluntarily by their inhabitants.  Their art reflected a developed aesthetic sense, much artistic ability, and an impressive knowledge of the processing of raw material, particular copper. In the Late Chalcolithic period there is evidence for interregional exchange attested by the presence of copper tools, faience beads, alabaster mace heads, imported ceramics and fine basalt vessels (Dictionary of the Near East,p.128)

The sole legacy of the Ghassulian culture in Ein Gedi is the remains of a 5,500-year old temple, built opposite the Dead Sea on a stone  projection between the Ein Gedi Spring and Nahal David. It is the only temple from this period in the southern part of the Land of Israel. A model of the building known as Chalcolithic Temple is exhibited in the Museum at the Ein Gedi Field School (see above) The main building is the sanctuary. It contains an altar that was found to be full of the dust of materials burned in cultic ceremonies. Finds at the site were sparse. Other than crushed  ceramic vessels not a single temple article was found. However, a cache of objects was discovered south of Ein Gedi in the remote “Treasure Cave” in Nahal Mishmar consisting of 429 stone, ivory, and copper objects of high technical quality. These may have been objects hidden in the cave by the priests.

Ein Gedi during the Biblical Age until the First Temple Period

 During the biblical period, Ein Gedi and the surrounding desert, were part of the territory of the Tribe of Judah. In Yoshua 15:61 the wilderness of Judah includes 6 cities, the five others have not been found. David sought refuge from King Saul at Ein Gedi  according to  I Samuel  24:1” David went from  there and stayed in the wildernesses of Ein Gedi “.

In the Second Book of Chronicles, it is related that at the end of Jehoshaphat’s reign (870-846 BC),  the Moabites and Ammonites invaded Judah.“ A great multitude is coming against you from beyond the  sea, from Aram, and is now in Hazazon-tamar” – that is Ein Gedi (20:2)’.

The first permanent settlement was built on the low hill, Tel Goren, on the northern side of the Nahal Arugot,  at the end of the  monarchic period (second half of the 7th century BC). The houses of the small village consisted of two rooms and a courtyard  It was during the biblical period that the water of the springs was first used for irrigation, and cultivation of aromatic plants began. 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

Israelite Ein Gedi was destroyed at the end of the 6th century BC. Little is known about the circumstances surrounding this event, but Josephus  Flavius reports that in those days, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, conducted a campaign to Syria and conquered  Ammon and Moab, Jews were exiled from Judah and Edomites, who were driven out of Edom by the desert nomads, invaded Judah and seized the abandoned property, including that of Ein Gedi. The area was part  of a region later called “Idumea” because of its Edomite inhabitants.

Ein Gedi from the Second Temple Period to the Present

Ein Gedi remained desolate for the next  hundred years.  During the Persian period (5-4th centuries BC) the village expanded. 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 Hellenistic period it had a small population which worked in agriculture. The situation changed at the time of the conquest of Idumea by John Hyrcanus (134-104 BC), who belonged to the Hasmonaen dynasty founded by the Maccabees. The Hasmonaens were responsible for the installation of sophisticated irrigation systems in the area. The annexation of Moab to the Hasmonaen Kingdom in the time or  Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) created a strong connection between the two sides of the Dead Sea and contributed to Ein Gedi’s development. It may have been at this time that the Dead Sea shipping industry arose. Ein Gedi  then became the principal city in Idumea. At this time

Ein Gedi expanded and spread to the low flat hill at the foot of Tel Goren.  Herod (37-4 BC) inherited Ein Gedi together with the other Hasmonaen possessions. Ein Gedi  was destroyed and abandoned during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-70 CE). When Masada was besieged by the Romans in 74 CE, Ein Gedi was demolished, but settlement quickly resumed.

During the Bar- Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE), Ein Gedi was an important outpost of the rebels. Documents from the time of the Bar- Kochba Revolt were discovered in the Cave of the Letters near Nahal Hever, south of Ein Gedi. In these letters Bar-Kochba scolds the people of Ein Gedi for not helping their brethren who were fighting the Romans. Later, a Roman garrison was stationed  at Ein Gedi.

During the Roman and Byzantine periods (2nd – 6th century CE), the oasis was  an imperial estate and the settlement at Ein Gedi reached the peak of its prosperity. It has been estimated that the population of this community was around 1000 people. 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.

An Intriguing Mystery

One evening, while an archeologist member of the Ein Gedi Kibbutz was walking on the southern slope of Wadi Arugot, under the Kibbutz, he noticed buried in the sand a beautiful, old piece of wood with round holes.  At first, he thought it was an old vegetable crate, but on second glance, he realized that it was much older than that.  The piece of wood was part of a coffin, one of around forty. The wood was very well preserved, thanks to the high concentration of salt in the ground, high temperature and low humidity. The area of burial caves was destroyed by erosion, only these wooden coffins remained.

The wood used for the coffins was from the sycomore tree.  There are sycomore trees at the seashore and beside the Dead Sea.  The ancient road from Ein Gedi to Tekoa was dotted with them. They grow 500 meters above sea level.  The prophet Amos (7:14), who lived in Tekoa, described himself as a cattle breeder and a tender of sycomore figs (boles shikmim).  His job was to cut the sycomore figs, because the fruit of the sycomore ripens with time only after it is cut.

In the 1980’s they excavated and discovered nine burial systems and the remains of 260 people .One of the caves was sealed with a rock and a cache of approximately 10 skulls and skeletons was found. A few years later, the anthropologist Israel Herkovits had the skulls inspected, and the result was conclusive: all of them were males and had been killed by the impact of a bat on their head. In a study by Israel Hershkovitz, Gideon Hadar and Seev Safras the impact of ancient weapons was investigated and it was reported that most of the skeletons suffered from a brutal death.

This probably reflects an event mentioned by Josephus Flavius. In his book, The Jewish Wars, Volume IV, Chapter 7.2  he mentions that in the year 68, at the height of the Jewish Revolt  against the Romans, the Sicarii a Jewish sect , were driven out of Jerusalem and took over Masada. The Sicarii were a religious fundamentalist sect that were driven out of Jerusalem because in pursuit of their aims, would stop at nothing. They kept a dagger under their clothing and killed their political enemies. The Sicarii used to raid the surrounding areas searching for supplies.  Josephus mentions that during Pesach, they attacked 700 people at Ein Gedi, including women and children, “those who could not flee, women and children, were butchered” stole their crops, and took them to Masada. The Sicarii knew that the wealthy people of Ein Gedi, which was an imperial farm, suitable for growing the sought-after aparsemon trees, were preparing themselves to celebrate the holiday in a lavish manner.  Before the men of Ein Gedi had time to get their arms, the Sicarii arrived. Because Josephus is the only source for this story, we have no way of corroborating his account .We are not sure if the numbers are correct, but the finding of these skeletons seems to confirm the story as such. We do not know the fate of the women.