No one can say with certainty why the flourishing Jewish settlement atEin Gedi abruptly ended sometime in the sixth century. We know that aconflagration destroyed the community's handsome synagogue. But whatcaused the fire? What befell the settlers? And what happened to thesecret they carried hidden within their breasts?
Autumn is a terrific time for a half-day family outing that begins atthe Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) Field Schoolat Ein Gedi. Afterwards, refresh yourself at the Nahal David NatureReserve (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 tothe Ein Gedi Field School. Climb up to the field school overlook andyou will find Nubian ibex grazing nearby. Note what muscular bodies andshort legs they have, making them well adapted to life in the hills. Anibex has a special groove in its hoof that makes cliff-climbing easy:we have even heard that mountain-climbing shoes are designed based onthe ibex hoof.
Don't be surprised to see a coal-black starling with orange-stripedwings standing on an ibex's head. Songbirds identified by Englishclergyman and naturalist Henry Baker Tristram in the 19th century, theyare known as Tristram's grackles and have a symbiotic relationship withthe ibex. In fact these unusual birds dine on a parasite that muncheson ibex fur!
While almost all of their feathers are black, the grackle's wings arerimmed with orange. Long ago, however, the grackle's feathers boastedall the colors of the rainbow. Then one day, King Solomon wanted toimpress the Queen of Sheba with an elegant fan. So he asked all thefowl in his kingdom to contribute their fanciest feathers.
Every other species brought its finest plume and laid it at Solomon'sfeet, but the arrogant multicolored grackle refused to donate even oneof its feathers. In his rage the king picked up the object nearest athand - 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 foliageand waterfalls. Further south a brown, tent-like covering tops remainsfrom the Byzantine-era synagogue at Ein Gedi.
Those were good years for Ein Gedi, which owed its prosperity mainly toa fabulous balsam-based salve or perfume. Manufactured at Ein Gedisince the Israelites settled here in the eighth century BCE, thisman-catching unguent was reportedly used by Cleopatra herself. And itdid more than drive men crazy with lust: it also had miraculous healingproperties. The secret of its production was heavily guarded by thetownspeople.
Leave the field school for the Nahal David Nature Reserve. An easy walkwith lots of water follows a circular trail along the lower channel ofthe riverbed. Your path is well-shaded by an avenue of Sudanese treesseen only in the region of the Syrian African Rift and, in Israel, inthe reserve. They do well at Nahal David, where the weather isgenerally hot and the temperature never drops below freezing in winter.Besides, the plentiful springs here offer abundant water for theirthirsty roots.
Depending on the season, you may discover some beautiful caper flowerspeeking out of crevices in the cliffs. Apparently, the climate is oflittle interest to the caper, which makes its home as far north as theBanyas and here in the desert as well. As long as it finds a rock inwhich to settle, the caper is happy.
Among the Nubian ibexes you see along the trail will be females withyoung progeny. Practically extinct in the 1970s, ibexes were saved byIsrael's nature conservation organizations and today large herdsflourish throughout the desert regions.
Watch the ibexes on the cliffs. Grown-up males have thick curved hornsover a meter long while the females' horns are noticeably smaller. Withyounger ibexes you can tell their sex by the base of the horn: malehorns 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, theyjust push and shove, instinctively working out a hierarchy in which thestrongest will take charge of the group and no one will pay anyattention at all to the least courageous!
The rocks near the waterfalls are covered with travertine, beautifullimestone sediment that settles on rocks after water has receded - justlike the mineral deposits in your coffeepot. Travertine is found onlyin areas where there are immense quantities of water, proof that onceNahal David was extraordinarily wet.
Much of the lush foliage near the upper waterfall, destroyed by a firea few years ago, has returned. But once there, and if you have been toNahal David before, you will be disappointed to learn that you are notpermitted to stand under the falls. That's because they are directlyunderneath Dodim Cave, and the nature reserve authorities worry aboutrocks hitting you on the head if there are people walking above you.But you can certainly enjoy the coolness of the spray and therefreshing pool!
Back in your car, follow signs that say 'ancient synagogue.' Go slowly,with passengers keeping their eyes on the rocks along the road. Thereis always at least one hyrax (coney) on guard here - you will see himon the alert, searching for enemies.
Ein Gedi National Antiquities Park
Your drive takes you through mango fields that belong to Kibbutz EinGedi, but there are plenty of wild trees lining the road. One of themis a small specimen with very large leaves called the Sodom apple.Don't touch this super-poisonous plant, whose violet-tinged springflowers are replaced by succulent 'apples' in summer. Deceptivelyinviting, the fruit is empty inside except for a fluffy mass of hairyseeds. According to legend, depraved Sodom residents held these applesout in greeting to non- suspecting outsiders! Stop when you reach EinGedi National Antiquities Park.
TEL GOREN, southwest of this site, was the venue for the earliestJewish settlement. Over time the city expanded and residents built asynagogue here. Its remains were uncovered in 1965, when kibbutzbulldozers preparing the land for farming exposed the mosaic floor.
A third-century floor, featuring black-rimmed white tiles, is locatedbeneath 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 topof the old. Five long inscriptions grouped together would haveconstantly caught the eye of synagogue worshipers. The unique middleinscription not only set forth rules by which the people of Ein Gediwere expected to live but also called down a horrible curse on anyonewho divulged the village secret. Could it have been the secret ofbalsam-oil manufacture?
Black stains are evidence of the terrible fire that devastated thesynagogue in the sixth century and caused the second story to tumbleonto the first. While this collapse saved the mosaics from ruin, thesynagogue's demise heralded the end of 1,400 years of Jewish settlementat Ein Gedi. Its renewal began when Kibbutz Ein Gedi was founded in1953.
Nahal David hours:
Daily, 8 to 5 - last entrance 1 hour earlier
Ancient Synagogue hours:
Daily, 8 to 5
Tel.: (08) 658-4285