En-Gedi, Qumran, and Qasr al Yahud

Hyrax, En GediThe last day our the 2019 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 with their pups on the hike and a large group of ibex on the way out of the park.

From En-Gedi we drove north to Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. 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. Even the video at the beginning of the tour tacitly 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 we have a long drive to Tel Aviv, we stopped only briefly 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 parks 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 (likely due to the political situation in West Bank).

Qasr al Yahud, Baptism of Jesus

My plan was to return to the Old City in Jerusalem for final shopping, but it was the first Friday of Ramadan and many streets were closed to traffic. We could have walked to Jaffa Gate, but that would have cut down on our time. Our guide suggested driving to Jaffa instead. As it turned out this was a good idea. He walked us through several points of interest in Jaffa, although there is little I can say 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, if he left for Rome by ship Jaffa is the likely port). After a 45 minute walk, we turned the group loose in the shops and they contributed much to the local economy.

We stayed at the Tal Hotel in Tel Aviv, just a block from the Mediterranean. This was a very nice stay, although it was far too short: our wake up call was for 2:00 AM and we were at the airport by 3:15 AM for a 6:15 departure. Since I am now back in Michigan, I can cay they long day of travel went well despite an hour delay in Vienna for engine maintenance and extremely long lines at immigration in Chicago (easily the worst I have ever experienced there).

Hiking at En-Gedi

Our second-to-the-last day in Israel 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 rock badgers on the hike and a group of ibex on the way out of the park. An ibex is a wild goat common in the Negev. 

For the first time that I have been coming to En-Gedi there was a security guard at the final waterfall to make sure hikers do not try to go under the waterfall. One of my students said he warned one person, “rocks fall with the water-do you want to die?” Perhaps there was an incident which forced the park to post the guard. (Not that any of my students ever went into that waterfall…) 

From En-Gedi we drove north to Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. 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. Even the video at the beginning of the tour tacitly 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 this was our last day in the desert, we ended with a Dead Sea float. The place I have taken groups in the past is a spa with a small restaurant which allows free swimming. We usually order some pizzas when we arrive and they are ready by the time we are finished in the Dead Sea. The spa has either changed owners or the owner has shifted his business model, because we paid a higher fee for the beach and a buffet. Although the food was good, they played glaringly loud techno music (which I approached less than some of the students) and we amused ourselves at dinner watching several drunken America servicemen drink on the patio. This was disappointing, and I am not sure I will return to this spa in the future. 

We have two people who are sick, and all are tired. Tomorrow we return to the Old City for final shopping and our last night in Tel Aviv. We fly home Sunday morning and return to Grand Rapids later Sunday night. I hope to get a final post finished before we leave and add a few pictures to the previous posts. 

GBC Israel Trip 2015, Day 12 – En Gedi and Qumran

This was our final full day touring the Dead Sea region. We started early at En Gedi, a nature park with a 1.8 mile hike back into a canyon to “David’s Waterfall.” This is the location called the Crags of the Wild Goats in 1 Samuel 24:2 and the general environment on the wadi give the story the ring of truth. It is very easy to imagine David and a few men hiding back in the bushes in a small cave when King Saul comes and takes some time to relax in the shade and “cover his feet.”

IMG_0677 EnGediSince we arrived earlier than the big tour buses from Jerusalem we were the only people at the  waterfall for most of the time we spent there. I thought there was far less water than in the last two or three visits, the pool was certainly much smaller. We saw a very conservative Jewish family hiking in full black coats a first for me at En-Gedi. Aside from being hot in the sun, I thought it was interesting the children were playing in the water in there long black coats!

One warning for anyone driving to En-Gedi: there is a serious road construction project in front of the En-Gedi with a detour and traffic jam caused by one-lane traffic. The public beach across from En-Gedi is closed as is the gas station and resturant. I had planned to picnic at the beach, but had to adjust and eat at Qumran.

Getting to En-Gedi early means a hot afternoon at Qumran. After the vertigo-inducing video we walked out the the archaeological site, working our way quickly to the shaded viewing area of the cave. This was a particularly good time of discussion of who the Essenes were and why the the Dead Sea Scrolls are important. It also gave me a chance to correct the goofy suggestion in the video that John the Baptist was once part of the Qumran community.

Funny story: when I was giving some explanation in the little museum after the video, a young Jewish couple from New York hanging around listening. I chatted with them a bit and they were visiting Qumran for the first time. The stayed with us for most of our talk and seemed really interested. Strangely this was the second time someone has joined us on the tour.

Everyone Takes this Picture

Everyone Takes this Picture

After some shopping at Qumran, we drove to a beach for a float on the Dead Sea. There was a large group of American Jewish high schoolers, but they left soon after we arrived. Most of the students chose to float in the warm water, several collect some salt to stink up their luggage on the trip home. We enjoyed some excellent kosher pizza before heading back to Tamar for the night. Most of us are very tired after ten solid days of hiking, yet as I write everyone is hanging out playing games and snacking.IMG_0722 Dead Sea

I hear some of the students are planning on hiking up a hill behind Tamar to watch the sunrise. It really is a spectacular view and I wish them well. We head to Jerusalem tomorrow for final shopping in the Old City and then to the airport for home.