Set on the edge of the parched and rock-strewn Judaen desert, Ein Gedi is home to a variety of flora and fauna, creatures large and small that prove life thrives even in the most forbidding of landscapes.
Ein Gedi is also home to ghosts from the past – if you know where to look for them.
In one memorable episode from the Bible, as told by our guide, Ido, the young David, fleeing the wrathful King Saul, hides out at Ein Gedi. Saul, in pursuit, reaches the desert oasis adjacent to the Salt (Dead) Sea, but tired from his efforts, lies down to rest.
David spies him and quietly makes his way to where the king has fallen asleep. He removes the king’s sword, pulls a corner of his robe and slams the sword through the robe into the ground.
Then he crosses the dried-out wadi, picks up some stones (he didn’t have to look far), and hurls them at the king. The startled Saul wakes up and tries to rise, but is pinned down by the sword. David calls to him, “See, Saul, I am not your enemy. I could have killed you where you slept.”
It is one of the remarkable aspects of a trip to the Holy Land that stories from the Bible gain immediacy and a sense of place, even though they occurred some 3,000 years ago.
The wadi (dried out river bed) that David crossed to get to Saul is still there, though the exact spot of the encounter is unknown, Ido explained. You could be standing on the same spot as David.
Today, Ein Gedi is better known for the cool sweet water that springs out of the ground and creates mini-waterfalls. Visitors can trek hundreds of feet to the top of the canyon or choose less rigorous walks to view the site, which, with its four spring-fed streams, has been designated a national park.
The naturally skittish ibex (like a medium-sized mountain sheep) keep their distance, but small rodent-like rock hyrex show no fear, coming right up to visitors, sniffing for a handout.
The area is home to other wildlife such as foxes, snakes, ravens, Tristram’s grackles (a type of bird) and even wolves, hyenas and leopards, though a brief visit to the site failed to uncover any of the (mostly nocturnal) predators.
Nearby is the kibbutz of Ein Gedi, a lush garden in the desert. Walking its grounds, you’d never imagine you’re in the middle of a desert that receives on average less than three inches (70 millimetres) of precipitation each year. The kibbutz’s man-made oasis features 1,000 plants from around the world, including numerous species of cacti. A centrepiece is a massive baobab tree, which can live for 2,000 years.
Kibbutz Ein Gedi was established in 1956 and in 1959 assumed its current location on a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. It offers panoramic views of the sea and the mountains of Moab across the border in Jordan.
The kibbutz runs a resort with three classes of accommodations, plus a tourist spa, and the cool, well-watered grounds provide a refreshing respite from the arid surroundings.
Massada and Ein Bokek, where more than a dozen hotels are located, are only a few kilometres to the south, while Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were uncovered, is to the north, making it a convenient location from which to explore the area.
In ancient times, the area was known for persimmon oil and rare perfumes. It was also famous for its dates and was a thriving settlement during Hasmonean times (150s BCE) until the end of the Byzantine period (500s CE).
Its history dates back 5,000 years, to the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the age of copper.
Temples and synagogues were established in Ein Gedi in ancient times, and today, an ancient synagogue’s mosaic floor, containing Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions, is open to the public.