No one can say with certainty why the flourishing Jewish settlement at
Ein Gedi abruptly ended sometime in the sixth century. We know that a
conflagration destroyed the community's handsome synagogue. But what
caused the fire? What befell the settlers? And what happened to the
secret they carried hidden within their breasts?
Autumn is a terrific time for a half-day family outing that begins at
the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) Field School
at Ein Gedi. Afterwards, refresh yourself at the Nahal David Nature
Reserve (bring a bathing suit!) and then visit the Ein Gedi synagogue.
The synagogue is accessible to wheelchairs.
Nahal David Nature Reserve
TAKE HIGHWAY 90 to the Nahal David Nature Reserve and follow signs to
the Ein Gedi Field School. Climb up to the field school overlook and
you will find Nubian ibex grazing nearby. Note what muscular bodies and
short legs they have, making them well adapted to life in the hills. An
ibex has a special groove in its hoof that makes cliff-climbing easy:
we have even heard that mountain-climbing shoes are designed based on
the ibex hoof.
Don't be surprised to see a coal-black starling with orange-striped
wings standing on an ibex's head. Songbirds identified by English
clergyman and naturalist Henry Baker Tristram in the 19th century, they
are known as Tristram's grackles and have a symbiotic relationship with
the ibex. In fact these unusual birds dine on a parasite that munches
on ibex fur!
While almost all of their feathers are black, the grackle's wings are
rimmed with orange. Long ago, however, the grackle's feathers boasted
all the colors of the rainbow. Then one day, King Solomon wanted to
impress the Queen of Sheba with an elegant fan. So he asked all the
fowl in his kingdom to contribute their fanciest feathers.
Every other species brought its finest plume and laid it at Solomon's
feet, but the arrogant multicolored grackle refused to donate even one
of its feathers. In his rage the king picked up the object nearest at
hand - an inkwell - and threw it at the grackle. And since that time,
only its wings retain a bit of their original orange color.
Enjoy a view of the nature reserve below, with its luxurious foliage
and waterfalls. Further south a brown, tent-like covering tops remains
from the Byzantine-era synagogue at Ein Gedi.
Those were good years for Ein Gedi, which owed its prosperity mainly to
a fabulous balsam-based salve or perfume. Manufactured at Ein Gedi
since the Israelites settled here in the eighth century BCE, this
man-catching unguent was reportedly used by Cleopatra herself. And it
did more than drive men crazy with lust: it also had miraculous healing
properties. The secret of its production was heavily guarded by the
Leave the field school for the Nahal David Nature Reserve. An easy walk
with lots of water follows a circular trail along the lower channel of
the riverbed. Your path is well-shaded by an avenue of Sudanese trees
seen only in the region of the Syrian African Rift and, in Israel, in
the reserve. They do well at Nahal David, where the weather is
generally hot and the temperature never drops below freezing in winter.
Besides, the plentiful springs here offer abundant water for their
Depending on the season, you may discover some beautiful caper flowers
peeking out of crevices in the cliffs. Apparently, the climate is of
little interest to the caper, which makes its home as far north as the
Banyas and here in the desert as well. As long as it finds a rock in
which to settle, the caper is happy.
Among the Nubian ibexes you see along the trail will be females with
young progeny. Practically extinct in the 1970s, ibexes were saved by
Israel's nature conservation organizations and today large herds
flourish throughout the desert regions.
Watch the ibexes on the cliffs. Grown-up males have thick curved horns
over a meter long while the females' horns are noticeably smaller. With
younger ibexes you can tell their sex by the base of the horn: male
horns are thicker than those of the female.
Much of the year young bucks spend a lot of their time butting horns.
Members of a singles' pack, they rarely hurt one another. Rather, they
just push and shove, instinctively working out a hierarchy in which the
strongest will take charge of the group and no one will pay any
attention at all to the least courageous!
The rocks near the waterfalls are covered with travertine, beautiful
limestone sediment that settles on rocks after water has receded - just
like the mineral deposits in your coffeepot. Travertine is found only
in areas where there are immense quantities of water, proof that once
Nahal David was extraordinarily wet.
Much of the lush foliage near the upper waterfall, destroyed by a fire
a few years ago, has returned. But once there, and if you have been to
Nahal David before, you will be disappointed to learn that you are not
permitted to stand under the falls. That's because they are directly
underneath Dodim Cave, and the nature reserve authorities worry about
rocks hitting you on the head if there are people walking above you.
But you can certainly enjoy the coolness of the spray and the
Back in your car, follow signs that say 'ancient synagogue.' Go slowly,
with passengers keeping their eyes on the rocks along the road. There
is always at least one hyrax (coney) on guard here - you will see him
on the alert, searching for enemies.
Ein Gedi National Antiquities Park
Your drive takes you through mango fields that belong to Kibbutz Ein
Gedi, but there are plenty of wild trees lining the road. One of them
is a small specimen with very large leaves called the Sodom apple.
Don't touch this super-poisonous plant, whose violet-tinged spring
flowers are replaced by succulent 'apples' in summer. Deceptively
inviting, the fruit is empty inside except for a fluffy mass of hairy
seeds. According to legend, depraved Sodom residents held these apples
out in greeting to non- suspecting outsiders! Stop when you reach Ein
Gedi National Antiquities Park.
TEL GOREN, southwest of this site, was the venue for the earliest
Jewish settlement. Over time the city expanded and residents built a
synagogue here. Its remains were uncovered in 1965, when kibbutz
bulldozers preparing the land for farming exposed the mosaic floor.
A third-century floor, featuring black-rimmed white tiles, is located
beneath the mosaics you see. Figured into the design was a 'mirror'
swastika facing left, a pagan symbol used for decoration.
Two centuries later the beautiful mosaics now on view were laid on top
of the old. Five long inscriptions grouped together would have
constantly caught the eye of synagogue worshipers. The unique middle
inscription not only set forth rules by which the people of Ein Gedi
were expected to live but also called down a horrible curse on anyone
who divulged the village secret. Could it have been the secret of
Black stains are evidence of the terrible fire that devastated the
synagogue in the sixth century and caused the second story to tumble
onto the first. While this collapse saved the mosaics from ruin, the
synagogue's demise heralded the end of 1,400 years of Jewish settlement
at Ein Gedi. Its renewal began when Kibbutz Ein Gedi was founded in
1953.Nahal David hours:
Daily, 8 to 5 - last entrance 1 hour earlier
Ancient Synagogue hours:
Daily, 8 to 5
Tel.: (08) 658-4285