The last day of the 2023 Israel tour began at En-Gedi, where David hid from King Saul in a cave (1 Samuel 24). This is one of the more beautiful hikes on the trip since the Israeli Parks service has developed Wadi David as a nature preserve. The mile and a half walk is relatively easy since there are cut stairs and handrails, but there are a few steep flights and one passage through dark tunnel made of river reed. The walk also has several waterfalls and pools, the highlight being the final one at the end of the canyon. We saw a few hyrax and a few ibex on the way into of the park, and more ibex on the way out. Since we arrived at En-Gedi early (right at 8AM), we missed the huge crowds of tourists and school groups. I recommend visiting En-Gedi early!
From En-Gedi we drove north to Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The last time I was at Qumran, the new visitor’s center was under construction. It is now complete and has a very nice reception area, but the video and small museum is the same. The film was not working, which is good (in my opinion) because it is a bit strange.
The archaeology of the site is relatively simple, although the water system collects far more water that the site might need to survive. The reason for this is large number of ritual baths used by the community for purification. Almost everything at Qumran is controversial and the Dead Sea Scrolls have encouraged a wide variety of fringe ideas about the nature of both early Judaism and Christianity. The video at the beginning of the tour suggests a relationship between John the Baptist and the Qumran community. This provided an opportunity to talk about these theories with the students. At the viewpoint overlooking Cave 4 we had a good discussion about the contents of the Scrolls and their value for biblical studies.
Since it is on the way to Tel Aviv, we stopped at Qasr al Yahud, the more likely of the traditional sites for Jesus’s baptism. This site has been open since 2011 and is now on the Israel National Parks card, so it is an easy add-on for for groups using the park pass (see this Times of Israel story on the re-opeing of the site for tourist groups).
Qasr means castle, and Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist does indeed look at bit like a castle. Unlike the site at Yardenit in Galilee, this is a far more authentic location since it is in the general area John the Baptist was active (although it is still not certain this is the place). Another clear difference is the lack of commercialism compared to Yardenit. The majority of the crowds queuing to be baptized in the muddy stream of the Jordan were Orthodox, although there appeared to be a handful of Protestants. The site on the other side of the Jordan is only a matter of feet from this location in Israel. The Jordanian site is called Al-Maghtas, “immersion” in Arabic. UNESCO listed the Jordanian side as a world heritage site, but not the western side. They are renovating and expanding the visitor’s center (and the parking lot is in need of re-paving).
When we arrived at Jaffa, the traffic was even crazier than expected for a Friday afternoon. Getting in to the old city was difficult, and getting nearly impossible. Our guide walked us through several points of interest in Jaffa, although there is little that is authentic. There is a traditional site for the home of Cornelius and a Franciscan church commemorating Peter’s departure from Jaffa to Rome (although that is not in the Bible, but if he left for Rome by ship Jaffa is the likely port). There are several spectacular views if the Mediterranean Sea and Tel Aviv.
We stopped in a jewelry shop in Jaffa, Adina Plastelina. The owner gave us a nice overview of some the artifacts discovered when they renovated their apartment into a shop. They have a short video on their webpage describing their jewelry, it is a fascinating process (but I was really interested in the archaeilogy under the shop).
In Tel Aviv we stayed at the Metropolitan Hotel in Tel Aviv, just a block from the Mediterranean. Most of the group plans on watching the sun set on the Mediterranean (I am faithfully finishing up the blog posts in my room). I have stayed in this nice hotel before, but it is always too short: our wake up call was for 4:30 AM to get to the airport for our 8:30AM flight back to Chicago.