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 townspeople.
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 thirsty roots.
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 refreshing pool!
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 balsam-oil manufacture?
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.