5 Amazing Archaeological Sites in the Judean Desert

5 Amazing Archaeological Sites in the Judean Desert

5 Amazing Archaeological Sites in the Judean Desert

The harsh environment of the Judean Desert has kept it relatively untouched by human inhabitants, from ancient times until today. But there have been some extremely interesting residents of the region, and the ruins of their settlements are considered by many to be must-sees on a trip to Israel.

If you want a quick overview, you can see all of these sites in one (long) day, or you can choose to spend more time at each place while staying at one of the Dead Sea hotels.

Masada, the Last Stand of the Great Revolt

Masada is one of Israel’s most iconic sites. Schoolchildren, soldiers, bar and bat mitzvah children and adults all make a point to climb the slopes here. Built by Herod the Great, the site was a Jewish stronghold in the Great Revolt against Rome and even managed to survive after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Unfortunately, the small group was unable to withstand a full Roman onslaught in the year 73, and the fighters elected to commit mass suicide instead of surrendering.

Start your visit with a stop at the new museum, which tells the story of the fighters as well as the discovery of the site in modern times. Then ascend to the top, either by hiking a “snake path” or by taking a cable car. You will see the remains of Herod’s elaborate palace as well as the synagogue he built at the site, complete with columns and pews.

Qumran, Where the Dead Sea Scrolls Were Found

For a deeper look into the communities that existed in the Second Temple period, visit the Qumran archaeological excavations. An esoteric sect lived in near-seclusion here in the Judean Desert, following and recording rules exclusive to its members. Their emphasis on ritual purity, evidenced by writings as well as the large number of ritual baths found at the site, are reminiscent of the baptism rituals common to Christianity. The sect may have influenced John the Baptist or even Jesus, making Qumran an important site for understanding the development of the monotheistic religions.

Your visit begins with a film and continues with a survey of the extensive excavations. Don’t forget to look up into the cliffs to spot the openings of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were first found by a Bedouin shepherd.

A Mosaic-Floored Synagogue at Ein Gedi 

The village of Ein Gedi was a Jewish settlement from the third to the sixth centuries CE and is now a modern kibbutz. The ancient residents built a beautiful synagogue, with a mosaic floor you can still see today.

The inscription on the floor makes references to a secret, which scholars have been attempting decipher since the site was first excavated. Some believe that the secret is connected to the production of balsam, a scent and salve produced from bushes in the area.

Nahal Hever, Where the Bar Kokhba Letters Were Discovered 

Nahal Hever is a beautiful stream that flows between Ein Gedi and Masada to the Dead Sea. These waters once served as the primary water supply for the rebels during the Bar Kokhba Revolt. A series of letters between Bar Kokhba and his commanders were found here in a spot that came to be known as the Cave of Letters.

A second cave, called the Cave of Horrors, contained the skeletons of men, women and children who perished during a siege on their hideout. You can also see the remains of the corresponding Roman siege camp, constructed similarly to the Masada camp. Nahal Hever is an excellent hike for those who don’t mind a strenuous walk, but it should not be attempted without a professional guide.

King Herod’s Palace at Herodian

Herodian is a little off the beaten path, but it should not be missed. The impressive ruins were once the palace of the mighty King Herod, who wintered in Masada but spent summers here. The elaborate palace looks out over the city of Jerusalem, so Herod was not far away from the center of his kingdom. In recent years, Herod’s apparent grave was discovered right on the edge of a cliff.

Visits to these sites provide excellent perspective on life in the Judean Desert region during the Second Temple Period. Follow the history of the clashes between the Jews and the Roman Empire and the development of Judaism and Christianity from biblical to modern religions.

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