Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Down From Jerusalem to Jericho

Water collection cistern from the first century AD at Qumran National Park. Water was stored in cisterns such as this after it was collected from rare periods of live flow of a stream in the wadi following a handful of rains in the winter. Remnants of the ancient concrete lining to prevent water seepage loss are visible on the sides. (Glenn Juday photo)

By Professor Glenn Juday
(This is the continuation of a series about Dr. Juday's travels in the Holy Land May 23-June 1, 2011.)
At the Israel Museum we load the coaches for a trip back into the Palestinian territories. We are going to descend on Road 1 from Jerusalem to Jericho, a small city with a population of about 20,000. The drive is only 23 miles, takes about 30 minutes, and it’s a steep drop. The highest point in Jerusalem, Mount Zion, is 800 meters (2,600 feet) above sea level, and Jericho is 225 meters (740 feet) below sea level, so making the trip from Jerusalem to Jericho can involve an elevation loss of as much as 1025 meters (3300 feett). The route from Jericho up to Jerusalem is named in the Bible as the Ma’ale Adum’min - the “red ascent” - in the Book of Joshua (18:17), as part of the boundary of the tribe of Benjamin.

Among the most controversial actions in the entire Arab-Israeli conflict have been the annexation and expansion of de-facto control by Israel of the area from West Jerusalem eastward toward Jericho. In most respects this is a straightforward conflict about one side taking and the other losing control of territory, and all the associated politics, legalities, and practicalities. The Israeli Ma’ale Adum’mim settlement block is part of Israeli-controlled land in a broad corridor along Road 1 for about half the distance from Jerusalem to Jericho. We pass out of the Israeli-controlled zone along a broad modern highway without even stopping.

Observant readers will note that a road, especially an ancient one, which drops nearly a thousand meters in elevation over such a short distance, almost always follows a natural incised valley or fault line. The wadi (dry ravine or riverbed) that the broad new highway follows departs from the old route for about half the distance, where modern earth moving equipment has been able to reshape the land well beyond natural topography. Of course, in ancient times roads or paths in incised topography occupied canyon bottoms, often narrow. These were chokepoints of travel and commerce, and so were also the natural habitat of thieves, bandits and murderers – accepted then as an unfortunate but ordinary fact of life:

“Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. … a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.’” (Luke 10: 30, 33-34)

Within the context of the Biblical account this incident is clearly offered as a story to make a larger point. Samaritans, inhabitants of the hills north of Jerusalem, were not regarded well by Jews as a matter of ethnicity and religion, and the feeling was strongly reciprocated. This Biblical account is, of course, the source of the term “good Samaritan” which would have had a particular bite and surprise value to the audience Jesus was addressing.

But shortly after our journey down from Jerusalem to Jericho, an actual incident occurred with some analogous characteristics. A Jewish package delivery driver traveling from Jerusalem in the direction of Jericho took a wrong turn onto an old road to reach the Ma’ale Adum’mim settlement district. He crossed the line from Israeli to Palestinian administration. Immediately young Palestinians identified him as a Jew, broke into the vehicle, dragged him out, and began the process of beating him to death. A local Palestinian mukhtar (village head) and his sons came upon the scene and rescued the driver. He took the injured man to his home and began to wash the blood from his head. They drove him out of the neighborhood and delivered him to the Israeli border police. The metaphorical became the actual.

As we descend farther on the highway to Jericho, on either side of the highway the vegetation is closely cropped by grazing animals (sheep and goats mainly) – to a degree beyond the ordinary experience of rangeland managers in North America. The area we are passing through is the territory of the Jahalin tribe of Bedouin. It appears that in the Jerusalem to Jericho corridor there is a land issue that overlies and goes beyond the Israeli-Palestinian land ownership/control struggle. It is the familiar conflict between the competing land uses and cultures of a farming and pastoral grazing system versus high-density, high-value urban real estate expansion. Even if such a conflict over land use and natural resource management systems here is secondary to the ownership/control issue, this urban/rural element is present. Who controls this land?

The Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Agreement on the interim management of the Palestinian Territories designated as “Area C” all land outside the larger Palestinian Arab cities and the villages clustered nearby, totaling about 60 percent of the West Bank. In Area C, Israel retains control over security, planning, and zoning. Much, but not all, of Area C is arid, so whoever controls the water in a practical sense controls everything else within it.

Almost all of the area from the crest of the Judean and Samarian Hills (where Jerusalem and most of the Palestinian population is located) down to the Jordan River in the east is in Area C. Area C of the West Bank includes 49,348 hectares (121,890 acres) of Israeli-declared nature reserves and large military areas (21 percent of the West Bank) closed to general access. The reserves are mainly steep cliffs or hills together with parts of the arid Jordan valley. Under the Wye River Agreement in 1998, the Palestinian representatives agreed to an additional 16,665 hectares (41,163 acres) of nature reserves. Overall, a little less than 12 percent of the West Bank is covered by nature reserves, totaling 66,013 hectares (163,052 acres). For size comparison, the total area of all West Bank nature reserves is about 0.2 percent of the area of national parks and wildlife refuges in Alaska, which are more than 23 times the size of Israel (June 1967 borders).

Precise figures and maps are available on land-related matters because actions taken by the government of Israel are thoroughly documented by UN offices and international groups. A number of these organizations are antagonistic to Israel and make the effort to build Geographic Information System data layers relevant to disputed issues so that the status quo ante is carefully described for tactical purposes and for future negotiations or arbitration. In any event, Israel is an open society with free movement of information and almost always takes its land actions through documented administrative and legislative procedures, many of which have been reviewed by its courts. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, about 150,000 Palestinians live in Area C, including 27,500 Bedouin and other herders.

The land that we see along Road 1, which has been made available for Israeli residents of Ma’ale Adum’mim and other uses, was confiscated primarily from communal land and had few structures on it at the time. Now it is closed to grazing. The nature reserves, as well as land that Israel restricts or uses for military purposes and holds for potential community expansion, is likewise mostly not available for herding and grazing. The land use practices associated with modern Israeli development usually involve (re)establishing maximum amount of forest cover possible by planting trees where forests are estimated to have occurred before the long-ago ecosystem change caused by the heavy grazing regime. Another part of the Israeli social/cultural system in non-urban areas is economic rationalization of land use by favoring environmental amenities (parks, landscaping, nature reserves) on the one hand, and intensive, high-tech farming at the other end of the spectrum.

It is not hard to see how rural Palestinians and Bedouins, most of whom have been involved in the grazing system and way of life, would look on the new forests and nature reserves. This particularly is the case because of the threat of fines or confiscation if their animals are discovered grazing in restored nature reserve lands. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority agreed to the designation of some existing reserves, and there are organizations and interests within Palestinian Arab society, such as the Palestine Wildlife Society that work for biodiversity and wildlife protection.

Since the Bedouin culture is so closely tied to being on the land with grazing animals, the only alternative for the displaced pastoralist families to retain animals at all is to hold them in pens and feed them fodder grown elsewhere. It’s almost certainly not viable in the long term. Providing tourists with roadside camel rides and a quick peek at a desert camp can generate cash for the Bedouins. But the genuine freedom of a migratory life in deserted places and the satisfaction of self sufficiency are completely lacking if they become tourist attractions. In living like that, they would essentially cease being Bedu ("inhabitants of the desert").

The unfortunate fact is that successful maintenance of the pastoral system requires free access to the land across long distances. But the modern world of fixed land ownership, roads, infrastructure, boundaries, farms and other obstacles make such movement increasingly difficult if not impractical. And those obstacles are not a uniquely Israeli imposition. Around the world similar issues with different players and power relationships have developed and unfolded. As we know so well in Alaska, even if an analogous process of land use change happens in a participatory democracy and through voluntary market transactions, the change for the traditional rural people and cultures can be gut-wrenching.

The barren and desert-like appearance of parts of the Holy Land is a product of ecological change from long-standing intensive use of the land. The ecosystem on the land today is itself largely a product of human use over the past 10,000 years at least, and the “natural” condition of the land as we think of it in North America has more restricted application here. Even so, some of the new ecological management practices and nature protection underway in Israel and parts of Palestine today arguably are achieving a sort of ecological recovery. It must be admitted that some of the ecosystems present in the Holy Land today are so much the product of domestic livestock that they may actually channel most of what grows on the land into animal flocks, essentially making them as productive for pastoralists as they can be with the current set of plant species.

Some of the international assistance organizations that advocate for Palestinian interests or against Israeli actions use arguments that almost seem to blur the distinction between arguing against involuntary imposition of conservation policies versus arguing against conservation itself. It would be a tragedy if Palestinians were to be denied the practical benefits of recovering their natural heritage, where it can be achieved, because of negative political and social attitudes associated with some of their current experiences of how conservation is implemented.

Jericho and the Mount of Temptation

The Palestinian territories include a little over a dozen largely autonomous urban zones centered on the major population centers (“Area A” in the Oslo Accords). Jericho is the only such zone in the arid rift valley through which the Jordan River flows toward the hypersaline Dead Sea. Or, rather, used to flow into the Dead Sea. Water from the Jordan River is diverted so heavily that in its lower segment below Jericho most of the flow only occurs after heavy rains, and then much of that is made up of treated sewage effluent and overflow from fish ponds.

View from Qumran National Park across the Dead Sea looking east into Jordan. The international boundary (1994 Treaty Line) runs north-south (left to right in this view) through the center of the Dead Sea. The mountains of Moab are on the horizon. Moses died after looking into the promised land from the top of Mount Nebo, just out of view to the left. (Glenn Juday photo)

Jericho has long been named as the oldest city on Earth. Even with a number of qualifiers added to the claim by rival cities that insist they instead are the oldest – qualifiers such as size, continuous occupancy, etc, - Jericho’s claim is at least as good as any other, and probably better. Jericho has traces of habitation starting at about 9,000 BC, when large parts of North America were still locked in glacial ice, and only shortly after the first humans arrived in the Americas. Jericho is clearly the earliest walled city known, with fortifications dating to at least 6,800 BC and depending on interpretation, perhaps 8,000 BC. Archaeological evidence indicates that the city was destroyed and abandoned several times. Following the times of destruction it sometimes remained uninhabited for hundreds of years, but subsequently was rebuilt and expanded.

The modern city of Jericho is built closer to the Jordan River than the ancient city, which was right at the mouth of the Wadi Kelt. On the main road from the Jerusalem highway north into the city, paralleling the Jordan River channel, we encounter a Palestinian security checkpoint but roll through without actually stopping. The coaches and tourist money are welcome. The various autonomous zones have their own character, and Jericho has not been a major source of security issues. Commerce appears to be more in character with the place. In recognition of that, the international community decided to shower the Jericho area with aid projects to demonstrate the practical benefits of a peace agreement in the hope of starting a positive feedback loop throughout the West Bank.

On the access highway into town, developed areas are dispersed, with open spaces still found between most of them. Along one section of the road a thicket of huge signs proclaim the source (US, EU, UN, other) and the purpose of foreign aid donations for the various developments or infrastructure projects. Most are on a radically extended completion schedule, or are semi-derelict. The Oasis Hotel and Casino has been closed and forlorn looking since October 2000. It may appear to have been an investment that just did not work, but its owners claim that it was one of the more profitable in the world. The customer base arriving from Israel just became reluctant to book stays since transit could not be guaranteed. In this case, the fruits of a future peace would be a surge in gambling.

As we enter Jericho we encounter a circular intersection in the central green space within which is a large sycamore tree with mulberry-like leaves. The tree is the sycamore, sycamore fig, or the fig-mulberry (Ficus sycomorus). The Hebrew name for the tree is shikmah. It’s a species that has been cultivated since ancient times. In fact, this species may be the oldest cultivated tree of all. It was the nearly exclusive tree cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, and it’s not clear whether it ever occurred naturally here or was introduced. The species often grows with several main stems that can achieve large diameter in a somewhat spreading form at the lower or middle section of the trunk. In other words, it’s a good climbing and lookout tree. It has a small yellow fruit, similar to the common fig. The fruit is very sweet and grows in clusters close to the branches. Flowering and fruiting occurs all year long, although most occurs from July through September. We do know the species has been in this place for at least 2,000 years:

“He [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchae'us; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchae'us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19: 1-5)

What was Jesus doing in Jericho? There were two practical alternatives for travel between Nazareth or Capernaum (the two places he lived in the north) and Jerusalem to the south. Dutiful Jews were expected to be at the Jerusalem Temple for the major festivals, and Jesus is recorded a number of times as expressing eagerness to be there. Travelers could sail to the south shore of the Sea of Galilee and continue south by walking along the Jordan River to Jericho, with water and some shade continuously available along the river corridor, and then take the Ma’ale Adum’mim, or Red Ascent, up to Jerusalem. The only problem was that in the height of summer the heat was unbearable, and potentially lethal.

The alternative route was to travel south along the crest of the Samarian Hills with less intense heat and more plentiful shade. Springs and wells were available, and food could be purchased in this more productive landscape. The only problem for the highland route was hostility from the Samaritans and the custom Jews had of avoiding them - or worse on the part of both groups. The Bible records Jesus as taking both routes, and even interacting with Samaritans. So it’s likely he, and most other travelers from Galilee, took the low elevation Jericho route in the cool part of the year, and the high elevation route (at some risk) in the warmest part of the year.

Mount Temptation Center

Mount Temptation or “Jabel Quruntul” in Arabic, rises about half a kilometer west of old Jericho. The word Quruntul is derived from the Latin word quadraginta, meaning “forty” which refers to the 40 days and nights that Jesus fasted before he began his Galilean ministry. The number 40 in Biblical numerology is a symbol of testing. Our Footprints pilgrimage group has come down into the Judean ‘wilderness’ (uninhabited lands) to Jericho to have our lunch at the Mount Temptation Restaurant and Tourist Center – a collection of shops.

"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.' But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” … Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, 'All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.' ” (Matthew 4: 1-4, 8-9)

The location of this incident is not given in the Biblical narrative of Matthew Chapter 4. In that account Jesus had just been baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. So, it is logical that the site which commemorates the next major event in the narrative, the temptation, would be the nearest location to the Jordan River at Jericho with great heights and a commanding view. All along a north-south line that marks the break between the Judean and Samarian Hills in the west and the Jordan Valley to the east, the topography breaks in a series of cliffs and scarps. It’s a classic normal fault, with the cliffs or scarps in the hills representing the hanging wall, and Jordan valley the footwall.

The first written record associating the Wadi Kelt site with the temptation incident was made by St. Helena in 326 AD. Her pilgrimage party asked the local residents, and they provided their tradition that was by then centuries old. At the least it is a great location to meditate on the incident. The Mount of Temptation today is marked by a monastery near the top, standing above lower Wadi Kelt (alt. Qult or Qilt). Along the cliff face a number of caves used by monks over the centuries have been excavated into the sheer rock walls. The cliff face in Wadi Kelt and the monastery loom over the town. Today only a few monks live there. In Jericho itself there are a number of churches, but only a couple hundred Christians remain.

The monastic way of life (derived from the Greek word “monos” meaning alone) is a religious life involving renunciation of all worldly goods and activities in order to be radically devoted to the spiritual life. The term was first applied to Buddhist practitioners before 500 BC. After the Christian monastic movement began in the late third and early fourth centuries in Egypt it spread especially across the desert areas of the Middle East, the Christian heartland of the time, and then to Europe about a century later. John of Thebes became a hermit in Egypt and moved to Wadi Kelt in the late 5th century to build at this monastery site, so it has roots that go back to the very start of Christian monasticism. The monastery was named for a monk who later lived there, St. Gorgias (George) of Coziba. Today’s Orthodox Monastery of Saint George was built in 1895 on the ruins of a 12th century Crusader era monastery, which was built on the ruins of the sixth century monastery which was destroyed by the Persians in 614.

Portions of the area in and around the Wadi Kelt are an Israeli-designated nature reserve (in Hebrew “Nahal Perat”). Agricultural production in the Jericho oasis is made possible by the numerous springs, caused by the movement of groundwater and streamflow from the highlands to the west encountering impervious rock and emerging at the surface down below. In the first or second century BC, a royal agricultural complex, probably specializing in the production of high-value date palms and balsam oil, was built by the Hasmonean rulers near the site. Both of those crops require sophisticated horticultural techniques and require a number of years in a non-productive juvenile growth stage before a harvestable product is available, so royal sponsorship was a distinct advantage. Herod had the original agricultural complex rebuilt after the original was destroyed in an earthquake in 31 BC.

As we pull into the parking lot of the Mount Temptation center and disembark, an excavation of one of the oldest parts of the oldest city in the world is visible right at the edge of the asphalt. Some archeologists suggest that the main road through the area may have damaged or destroyed features of the ancient site of Jericho. The Mount Temptation Restaurant runs a high efficiency cafeteria-type food service to handle the large number of tourists who arrive simultaneously. The menu includes many food items grown in the oasis agriculture practiced in Jericho. Local food harvested that day is featured in the facility. Josephus described Jericho as “the most fertile spot in Judea.” The ancient Greek geographer Strabo described first century Jericho this way:

“Jericho is a plain surrounded by a kind of mountainous country, which in a way, slopes toward it like a theatre. Here is the Phoenicon [palm tree], which is mixed also with all kinds of cultivated and fruitful trees, though it consists mostly of palm trees. It is 100 stadia [about 17.6 km or 11 mi] in length and is everywhere watered with streams. Here also are the Palace and the Balsam Park.”

The temperatures, even in the air-conditioned mall-type Mount Temptation center, are elevated beyond the level we non-desert dwelling pilgrims and tourists are accustomed to. A number of the shops feature health and beauty products from the nearby Dead Sea, and hand-blown glass and ceramics from Hebron in the Palestinian Territories. There are shops with oil and stones, jewelry and jewelry boxes, rosary beads, candles and candlesticks, wood art, and books. It appears to be a thriving business as long as the tourists keep coming. But, as usual, there are complications. If tourists book a tour to the surrounding countryside with an Israeli driver while they are in Jericho, they need a separate ticket for transportation to the Jericho entrance to Zone A (autonomous Palestinian area). There they must transfer because existing agreements do not allow Israelis into Zone A.

Right across from the Mount Temptation Center is the spring of Elisha, with a flow of about 4,500 liters (over 1,000 gallons) of water per minute. It’s a major source of water today, and is featured in a Biblical incident involving the prophet Elisha.

“Now the men of the city said to Eli'sha, ‘Behold, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.’ He said, ‘Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.’ So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it, and said, ‘Thus says the LORD, I have made this water wholesome; henceforth neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.’ So the water has been wholesome to this day … (2Kings 2: 19-22)

The way the ancient Jews and the early Church Fathers interpreted this passage, if we add the salt (seasoning or flavor) of the words of the Lord to the bitterness in our souls, what flows from us will be purified and enable a fruitful harvest.

Despite its relative calm in this turbulent region, Jericho has experienced a number of incidents of bitterness. In 1997 over 40 percent of the population in Jericho was made up of Palestinians or their descendants displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war (about 6,000 people). After the 1993 Oslo Accords on interim Palestinian self-government, opponents of the agreement who felt it was a dangerous movement toward peace with Israel shot to death two Israeli tourists in the Wadi Kelt. In 1995 two more were shot, and 1997 two were stabbed to death. After British and American monitors withdrew from their role as observers of convicted Palestinian terrorist prisoners held in Jericho, Israeli forces conducted a raid and (re)captured the prisoners, followed by retaliatory hostage-taking of European citizens by militants. In 2008, members of a family clan that attacked Hamas forces controlling Gaza were exiled and forcefully settled in Jericho.

Jericho remains today, as it has been for longer than any other human city, a fertile place. Given its features, resources, and environment, the ‘situation of this city is pleasant’ - as long as the human environment is not poisoned with bitterness.

Qumran National Park, Palestine

As we exit the checkpoint for the Palestinian autonomous zone at Jericho, we head south toward an incongruous sight. We are traveling along the flattened valley floor of the Jordan River, known in modern times as the ‘ghor’ (alt. ‘al ghawr’), meaning ‘the depression,’ or valley. But just ahead at the bottom of the lowest point on the surface of the Earth (not counting the sea floor), in a roasting hot and hyperarid environment, is a large expanse of sky-blue water – the Dead Sea. We will visit this interesting desert feature following our next stop. It’s really not hard to comprehend the reason for the occurrence here of the Dead Sea. The extreme geologic uplift and subsidence in the surrounding landscapes have produced mountain slopes and a deep rift basin. Even though the mountains intercept rain and snow that run off into the basin, in the climate of recent millenia the volume of water input is overcome by evaporation loss.

As we head south down the western margin of the Jordan valley, we work toward the topographic break between the subsidence block (the ghor) and the wall of steep slopes and cliffs. This sharp, straight line of hills and cliffs is broken by a number of perpendicular wadis that have been carved by the torrents that occasionally flow down off the slopes after the rare occurrence of rain in the desert or on the hills above. The lower portion of each wadi is marked by lobes of sediment deposited at the debouchment area. These intersections of fertile soil and at least seasonal water availability were well known to ancient people and so they have a long history of use.

As we approach the northwest shore of the Dead Sea we climb above a narrow, low coastal plain to an elevated terrace of marl (soft, crumbly mixture of clay, sand, and calcium carbonate) above it. The terrace is tucked up near the cliffs and provides a fine view of the northern Dead Sea next to a modest but deep wadi. Today the site is known as Qumran (Arabic for “crescent moon”), although the ancient Hebrew/Aramaic name might have been Secacah. The Qumran site was one of the only places on the upper marl terrace on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea that both provided natural protection and the opportunity to collect rainwater flowing off the rocks of the cliffs without the danger of flooding the site.

A tributary to the main wadi (dry streambed) that collects infrequent runoff from the cliffs and rocks above Qumran. Flash floods fill the streambed once or twice a year. In the first century AD the water was diverted above this location and fed into cisterns for storage at the site. In the upper left is a view south along the western shore of the Dead Sea. Green along the coastal terrace is irrigated agricultural and vegetation fed by groundwater. A shaded interpretative display in Qumran National Park is in the upper far left. (Glenn Juday photo)

We enter Qumran National Park, in the Palestinian Territories but administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. At the entry area the crowd is an even mixture of international tourists and Israelis. As the coaches pull up to the park entrance the temperature hits 105 F (41 C) - in the shade of course. Standing in the sun at this latitude, at this time of year, in those temperatures requires a steady supply of water. And, as we will see water is the key to interpreting this intriguing place. So, as a matter of practical necessity, a shade canopy has been provided for the small pavilion at the gathering area near the start of the path through the archeological excavations and displays. Standing and listening to an orientation talk while in the full sun just would not be practical, to say nothing of humane. Still, the Footprints pilgrims from south Texas are basking in, for them, seasonable temperatures.

Scott Hahn gives the group an orientation lecture. He has read through most of the Dead Sea Scroll material – twice. Although he does not claim to be an expert on the scrolls he clearly has been immersed in the community of Qumran scholars. He delivers a spontaneous, fluid, accessible account of what is known, and some of what is inferred or suspected, of the Essene phenomenon, especially here at Qumran. If the Qumran site was an important installation of the Essene community, as the traditional and current majority consensus of scholars infers (and as the interpretive signs in the national park state), then it strengthens the view that ancient Judaism was more diverse than understood until recently.

Qumran National Park interpretive sign for an Essene ritual bath. Although some archeologists do not believe that the structures of the site were used 2,000 years ago by this Jewish sect, the park interpretive signs follow the majority view that the site was a sort of monastery used by the Essenes, as described by secular authors of the time. (Glenn Juday photo)

It would mean that the Jewish community’s way of life has parallels with what were thought to be distinctive features of apostolic Christianity, such as celibate clergy and monastic communities whose members preserve scholarship and learning by a strict ascetic regime of living, in order to pursue spiritual goals. Even today monasteries are being founded for the same reasons, and they attract families to the surrounding area to support and be spiritually supported today as they did, for example, in the early history of Europe. This pattern is not difficult for Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians to understand, and protects them from making sweeping claims of falsifying the whole interpretive basis for understanding Essenes when evidence of women and children are found in association with their sites. A few Qumran scholars have not been as judicious. Essenes, it appears, had numerous adherents who were not the fully initiated in the strict regime.

This emerging interpretation of the Essene phenomenon undercuts a view of Christianity as having some vague and generic Jewish roots but starkly distinct, something that accumulated novelties outside the scope of and against the spirit of Judaism from its beginning, something that stunned those who heard it for the first time by its absolute novelty. Instead, the spiritual systems of Christianity and Judaism would more correctly be seen as more integrated, even while clearly distinct on essential points.

Although there is more to be learned, and it’s somewhat speculative, this interpretation might explain why Essenes keep turning up at key places in the very earliest history of Christianity – the Jewish Christian places, such as Mount Zion we have already visited. The Essenes might have been a particular population from which the earliest Christians were drawn, before there was even an attempt to incorporate Gentiles into the Church. If so, then it would provide a logical explanation of the audience, subject, and timing for the Letter to the Hebrews in the Christian Scriptures.

“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware… Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; … the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come … Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God… Those who come from Italy send you greetings.” (Hebrews 13: 1-2, 5-6, 11-14, 15, 24).

A few key points in this passage from the Letter to the Hebrews strongly imply a Jewish Christian audience of initiated, priest-like figures with a way of living very similar to the Essenes in the time before the destruction of the Second Temple. The similarities include renunciation of material goods, communal sharing, a focus on charity, a reference to the Temple animal sacrificial system in the present tense, and a specific reference (presuming familiarity in the audience) to the “place outside the gate” (Gennath Gate) in the city (Jerusalem) where Jesus suffered. The extension of the city walls that finally placed the mound of Golgotha or Calvary inside the walls of Jerusalem took place in 42 AD. Even if the reference in the Letter to Hebrews to “outside the gate” is an implied past tense, the passage still seems to date before AD 70. Yet, already the reference to Italy indicates the universalist scope and ambition of the followers of “the Way” (Christians) at such an early date. In fact, the Emperor Claudius (reigned AD 41 – 54) was reported by Suetonius in his Claudius (25.4) to have temporarily expelled the Jews of Rome because of the controversies dividing the community:

“Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit.”
(Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.)

Was Jesus himself an Essene? With as much certainty as we can conclude any matter associated with his life, he was not. The Essene teachings and practices of ritual purity described here at Qumran were practically unsurpassed in their severity, and according to the accounts we have, rigidly enforced. Yet Jesus was blunt to the point of being provocative in what he taught on the issue:

“Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’ … And he said … Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” (Matthew 15: 12, 17-20).

In any event, some of the Qumran documents express concepts in language with remarkable similarities to the words of Jesus and other writers such as Paul and John in the New Testament. This suggests that the idiom was familiar among all Jews of the first century AD. As a result, the actual depth of meaning of the Christian scriptures and teaching is to be found precisely in its Jewish context, because the authors expected the reader to know that world already. And the texts found here in Qumran have added substantially to a picture of that world.

The End of the World

The ancient Jews believed that the world was a macro Temple and the Temple was a micro cosmos – a true microcosm of the universe. Imagine the situation in 70 AD. The Second Temple has just been destroyed. The world/Temple is ending, or at least coming to an end of some type. God did not intervene and save his people from their pagan enemies. Jerusalem, the center of government, culture, commerce, religion, law, historical records, literature, is now a vast field of rubble. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, elite and ordinary citizens alike, have been starved to death, slaughtered by the sword or crucifixion, or sold into slavery. Imperial Roman forces are systematically pushing on into remaining pockets of Jewish resistance, and are prepared to devote a two-year siege to destroy the last pocket of defiance by a handful of Zealots at Masada (just north of Qumran) just to make the point that absolutely all resistance would be crushed. What would you do?

It is almost axiomatic that any believing Jew of any of the sects or factions of the time would have done what was necessary to save the most precious objects they had – the scrolls of their sacred scriptures and associated commentaries and writings, especially the oldest and most revered copies. Moving across the now-occupied landscape by night to avoid detection by the Roman patrols, they would have stayed in caves or other hiding places by day. Groups of refugees would have made their way toward some chosen haven, some place deserted or that did not attract a lot of attention, as long as it was out of the effective reach of the Roman forces bent on the last acts of retaliation. Because the survivors could not have been sure of their own survival, let alone the re-emergence of a thriving community of their members now that the world (or a world) was ending, they would have looked to place these writings in permanent safe storage. Indisputably, the latter is what happened at Qumran.

The story is that in 1947 an Arab shepherd threw a rock at one of his goats that had wandered into a cave opening via a ramp from the back. The rock struck a tall ceramic jar that held scrolls of leather and papyrus largely preserved in the hyperaird climate of the region. But these particular writings were 20 or more centuries old. Alternatively, the discovery may have been the result of a well-established system of looting antiquities for cash. In any event, after a decade of subsequent professional archeological work at the site (then under Jordanian administration), 11 caves with writings of many hundreds of works were discovered.

Entrance to Cave 4 at Qumran National Park, where the initial discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was made in 1952. The story is that a Bedouin shepherd spotted one of his sheep in the cave from this point (there is a gradual ramp down into the cave from the backside that is hidden from view here) and threw a rock to drive the sheep back out. The rock hit a ceramic jar and the scrolls were discovered on the cave floor and in the jar. (Glenn Juday photo)

Sign in Qumran National Park explaining the 1952 discovery of the scroll jars and parchments recovered from Cave 4. At that cave the scrolls were fragmented, possibly deliberately torn by a Roman soldier. Thousands of fragments were recovered by Bedouins and later an additional 1,000 by professional archeologists. The fragments have been assigned to over 500 different scrolls. (Glenn Juday photo)

Some jars apparently were damaged at the time of placement, some possibly after being discovered by Roman soldiers, and some from the roof rock falls in the caves following earthquakes over the centuries. Once the jars were shattered, rodents chewed on the parchments, scattering fragments. Ultimately tens of thousands of fragments were recovered. The youngest is dated to 68 AD, the year of the start of the final Roman siege of Jerusalem. In the latest application of high-tech research approaches, individual parchment fragments are being subjected to DNA profiling, so that individual animal sources of parchment and sources of plant papyrus that are related can be established and thus possibly link individual fragment pieces together in their original documents.

The vast majority of the documents in the collection are simply the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The collection includes many different literary styles, every book in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (except Esther), some religious commentaries, and manuals, statements, and visions of Jewish sects of the time. In other words it is very much like a comprehensive but slightly randomized collection of the most significant and revered writings of a people facing the end – and, of course, it almost certainly is.

A Great Detective Story

Now comes one of the world’s great mystery stories, and even though some of the mystery has been boiled down to two main explanations, it may take another generation of detectives to figure it out – or argue it out. Who produced and put the scroll writings in the caves? Was it the people living at the Qumran site in the decades before and during the Roman-Jewish War of 66 – 72 AD? Just like the dating of Biblical manuscripts, it may sound like a nerdish question of interest only to a few specialists, but in fact a considerable amount of significance hangs on the answer, and so it has stirred passions. Why?

Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archeology Review, puts the issue this way:
“In other words, there’s really nothing that you can point to in the Scrolls and say, ‘Aha, this is astounding! We didn’t know this before!’ On the other hand, there is almost no question that you can ask, beginning at about 300 B.C.E. to 300 C.E., a six-hundred-year period, about which the scholar doesn’t have to ask, ‘Do the Scrolls have anything to say about my question?’”

The idea that the Essenes inhabited Qumran and wrote much of the Dead Sea Scroll material is the “Qumran Essene Hypothesis.” If the hypothesis is correct, and if the related new interpretations of the Essene role in Judaism and Christianity are correct, it might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the standard historical treatment of the original relationship of these two religions would need an update. In other words, a lot of well-educated people of today got a distorted view of history as they were growing up and going to school. Yet today few Christians have even heard of any of this, let alone seriously considered it. From the Jewish perspective, public display information in Israel, including the Israel Museum and here at Qumran National Park, consistently uses the term “sectarians” when referring to Essenes, rhetorically keeping them at arm's length so to say.

On the other hand, what if we’re over-interpreting or misinterpreting the evidence? Taking a good, hard look at the material evidence, what if we can’t really prove that there was an organized Essene community here at Qumran? What if all it amounts to is that a few refuges from the chaos in 70 AD just passed through the area? Then all this drama and controversy would be self-inflicted.

Dealing with issues like those is quite a burden on an area of scholarship. It’s no wonder that the literature on the subject is occasionally punctuated by angry outbursts and tense statements.

Scenario 1: Hiding On the Run: Qumran Is No Essene Site!

A team of archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, who worked at the Qumran National Park site from 1993 to 2004 claim that at the time of the revolt against the Romans it was a large pottery manufacturing center, period. They found eight kilns and significant quantities of fuel (date pits from palms), a space for vessels that apparently had been stored for sale, and a place for pottery rejects. They have a new interpretation for the cisterns or stepped pools that were fed by the diversion channels designed to intercept flash floods. They reject the idea that these were ‘ritual baths,’ as the interpretive signs in the park describe them, and which are usually taken as evidence for the presence of Essenes. They claim that the cisterns were designed to trap not only water but also clay as raw material for pottery manufacture.

They infer that the last period of occupancy at Qumran, beginning in the last century BC and first century AD, was initially part of a military and civilian colonization movement along the Jordan Valley, Jericho and the Dead Sea coast. Colonization became possible only after 110 BC following the Hasmonean conquest of Samaria, Idumea and Transjordan (1 Maccabbees 16:11–17). In their interpretation, the site was not chosen because of the desire of members of the Dead Sea sect to live somewhere remote. It was simply good military tactics and the logistics of collecting water that dictated the location of the Qumran settlement.

Next, when the Roman General Pompey conquered the overall eastern Mediterranean region in 63 BC, it caused a major change in security considerations. A fortress in what was now an interior boundary at Qumran no longer had military value. The soldiers who had manned the forts were out of a job. They infer that former soldiers in the Dead Sea area found a new way of making a living, probably by rearing livestock, growing dates and balsam, manufacturing pottery and exploiting the resources of the Dead Sea. Qumran deteriorated from a military outpost to a marginal site of habitation.

In the final period of use, Qumran was the last spot where refugees from Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD could hide their scrolls before descending to the shore of the Dead Sea. People on the run fortuitously found a site full of clay cylindrical jars – mistakenly, in the view of Magen and Peleg, called “scroll jars,” but which actually were originally used for storing dates. The refugees, they infer, hid scrolls inside these jars in no particular order and up to a kilometer from the site, probably at night. They probably intended to one day return and retrieve the scrolls. Instead, the scrolls were largely or partially protected for nearly 1,900 years until they were discovered two generations ago. Only now is the “crime scene” being comprehensively investigated and understood. The site itself contains some coins from the time of the final revolt against Rome in 135 AD. After that Qumran remained abandoned until the Bedouin found the cave scrolls.

Scenario 2: A Proto-Monastery? Essenes – Again!

So, is there any good evidence that the Essenes were a group of any note 2,000 years ago? Yes, there is.

Josephus, the participant/historian in the Great Revolt against Rome from 66 to 70 AD, described the major forms of Judaism to his audience of Romans and non-Jews of the empire in his book “The Jewish War.” He devotes 43 of 47 paragraphs on forms of Judaism to a description of the Essenes. Josephus himself was once an Essene before he became a follower of the Pharisaic school. In his autobiography, Josephus describes his experiences in the religious scene this way:

“At about the age of sixteen I determined to gain personal experience of the philosophical schools into which our nation is divided. These, as I have frequently mentioned, are three in number—the first that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes. I thought that, after a thorough investigation, I should be in a position to select the best. So I toughened myself to hard training and laborious exercises and passed through the three courses. Not content, however, with the experience thus gained, on hearing one named Bannus, who dwelt in the wilderness, wearing only such clothing as trees provided, feeding on such things as grew of themselves, and using frequent ablutions of cold water, by day and night, for purity’s sake, I became his devoted disciple. With him I lived for three years …” (Life 10–12).

In his book The Jewish War, (Book II. Chapter 8) Josephus describes a community similar to what the Essenes have been interpreted to represent.

"For three forms of philosophy are pursued among the Judeans: the members of one are Pharisees, of another Sadducees, and the third [school], who certainly are reputed to cultivate seriousness, are called Essenes; although Judeans by ancestry, they are even more mutually affectionate than the others. Whereas these men shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue. And although there is among them a disdain for marriage, adopting the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons they regard them as family and instill in them their principles of character: without doing away with marriage or the succession resulting from it …"

The Essenes are also mentioned by the Roman writers Pliny the Elder and Philo of Alexandria, a Greek geographer. Pliny the Elder was a Roman naturalist who wrote in about 70 AD, after the destruction of Judaea by the Romans:

“By the western shores [of the Dead Sea], but away from their harmful effects, live a solitary people, the Essenes, wonderful besides all others in the world, being without any women and renouncing all sexual desire, having no money, and with only palm trees as companions. Their assembly is born again day by day from the multitudes, tired of life and the vicissitudes of fortune, that crowd thither for their manner of living. So, for thousands of ages—strange to say—a people, in which no one is born, is eternal, so fruitful for them is the repentance of others for their life!”

The parallels with the circumstances in which John the Baptist is introduced in the New Testament are notable. John was an extreme ascetic, active in the lower Jordan River near the Dead Sea – at the place and including the time the Essenes are reported to have been living the same way, in the same (Qumran) area. And John also delivered an apocalyptic message based on repentance, even if somewhat different:

“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ … Now John wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, … Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” (Matthew 3: 1-2, 3, 4-6, 13)

Added to this are new scientific findings that strongly support the majority view of Qumran as an Essene outpost, but perhaps short of conclusive. Recent studies demonstrate by isotope analysis that the ink from one of the scrolls used water taken from the Dead Sea and vicinity. Clearly then, at least some of the scrolls were written locally. Handwriting analysis indicates that dozens of manuscripts from most of the caves were probably the product of a single scribe, even though the inventory of manuscripts represents a cross-section of then-current literature from many distant libraries, deposited in a short time. The existence of numerous manuscripts copied in one man's handwriting increases the probability that a significant part of the stored manuscripts were produced locally at the site, which would not have been likely if the collection of texts had been hastily gathered and transported there from all over Judea and Galilee. DNA testing shows that some of the skin in the parchments came from the Nubian ibex, a cliff-dwelling wild animal whose distribution did not include Jerusalem or the Mediterranean coastal plain, but does include the cliffs of the western shore of the Dead Sea immediately behind Qumran among other places.

Rock cliffs above (west of) the Qumran archeological site. Nubian Ibex and seek out and stay close to this type of cliff habitat as escape terrain from predators. In the foreground is the marl terrace that is the surface the structures of site were developed on. A wadi (dry streambed) is out of view, running from the center to the left at the base of the cliff. The marl terrace was free of the danger of flash floods but could intercept and collect runoff coming off the cliffs in a series of ditches and channels that led to storage cisterns. In the foreground are interpretive signs and an elevated walk above an excavation of an ancient structure. (Glenn Juday photo)

In 1996 some investigators at the site recovered an ostracon (a potsherd or ceramic fragment with text on it). They interpreted the faded text to constitute a deed by which a new Essene member deeded all his property to the community (in Hebrew: “yahad”). The word yahad is uncommon, but appears in the scrolls recovered from nearby caves. So this would connect, if the text is being interpreted correctly, the scrolls to the settlement at Qumran. As might be expected on this subject, a number of investigators claim that the word yahad is not present and the recovered text is being misread.

So, in this second interpretation of the final period of first century use of the Qumran site, it was a small but important outpost of the well organized and numerous Essene community. Simply because of geography it became a logical magnet for escaping Jerusalem refugees, because it was well away from the besieged Jerusalem environs and down in the rift valley where the next leg of an escape from the Roman legions could be planned and undertaken. One of the local activities at Qumran – copying and storing manuscripts – made it a logical destination for all Jews salvaging whatever they could of sacred manuscripts and the commentaries of whatever school of Judaism in the face of an unfolding apocalyptic disaster.

The additional manuscripts from refugees would have been added to existing cave libraries or placed in new caves similarly constructed. Essene casualties in the Roman war from 66 to 72 AD and the revolt from 133 to 135 AD reduced their numbers. Also, according to this interpretation, substantial numbers of Essenes became members of the early Church. Eventually, the Essenses ceased to maintain numbers sufficient for a significant separate identity within Judaism. As a result, in the early third century when Judaism adjusted to a radically altered world without the Second Temple or priesthood, the modern rabbinic form Judaism developed largely from the Pharisaic movement or school, without an Essene influence.

Interpretive sign at Qumran National Park. The sign says, “Members of the sect assembled in this room for communal meals and doctrinal deliberations.” Also quoted is Essene Community Rule VI:2:5 “They shall eat in common and bless in common and deliberate in common … and when the table has been prepared for eating and the new wine for drinking the priest shall be the first to stretch out his hand to bless the first provie of the bread (or new wine).” Parallels with the liturgy (public worship) of the apostolic churches are notable, suggesting that the Essenses may have been a receptive population for the earliest spread of Christianity. (Glenn Juday photo)

Buried Treasure

In addition to all the parchment and Papyrus scrolls recovered at Qumran, there is another and unique Dead Sea scroll – two rolls that were stamped on copper sheet. The Copper Scroll was actually professionally removed by archeologists from the third cave identified at the site - the first cave they reached before looters. The language of the Copper Scroll is a style of Hebrew more similar to the Mishna (written form of Jewish religious law codifying the formerly Oral Law) than to language commonly spoken or written at the time. The form or shape of the letters is affected by having been stamped on copper sheet with a hammer and chisels, making it subject to some interpretation. But, all that said, the Copper Scroll is a list of 64 locations; 63 of which are described as locations of stored gold and silver. Seven of the location names are followed by a group of two or three Greek letters. The amounts of precious metals listed are not small – the estimates of the physical amounts are in tons.

So, undesired by the scholarly and religious communities who are absorbed in the minute details of the material remnants of the 1,900 year-old Qumran site with important implications for two great religions, an object appears as if out of a low-grade Hollywood movie with an unoriginal plot written by a screenwriter down on his luck and forced to reach for cheap tricks. Yet, the Copper Scroll was found intact and is genuinely from the last days of Essene Qumran. It is a terse description of hiding locations and objects. The division of sections in the Copper Scroll list suggests inventories known from the Greek temple of Apollo.

The archeologist Bargil Pixner interpreted the hiding locations listed on the Copper Scroll to be clustered, interestingly enough, primarily around two principal known Essene locations in Jerusalem. One appears to be outside the southwest area of the walls of Jerusalem, which - not too surprisingly - is near the Essene Gate. He proposes that the other cluster was northeast of the Temple, near the pools of Bethesda.

There has been no modern recovery or even indications of any treasure. The Romans were very thorough in their looting of conquered cities, because this helped the process of making war produce a profit for them. If the Romans did not capture the treasure, ancient Jews might have done so. The one item on the Copper Scroll list that is not a treasure is a reference to another hidden scroll, described as a guide to the treasures, which may have been retrieved.

I suspect the tests, the theories, the synthesis of the Dead Sea Scrolls will continue for some time. There’s always the potential of finding another cave and doing the full range of high-tech testing of an undisturbed site of recovery that will squeeze one more solid conclusion out of the quivering mass of controversy about Qumran. But most of the material objects at the site, likely already have been discovered. And, of course, if a new discovery included something like buried treasure then interest on the part of the general public would likely skyrocket. But in a way that strangely unites and divides, both Jews and Christians already consider what has been obtained from this dramatic site as recovered buried treasure.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, ... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6: 19-21)

A Date (Palm) Controversy

The Footprints group wanders about the Qumran National Park for a time, and then loads the coaches for a trip down to, and a dip in, the Dead Sea. As the coaches work their way down the terrace and on to the ghor (valley floor), the road skirts the margin of date palm groves, irrigated by springs and groundwater pumping.

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is a particularly well-adapted desert species. The species name dactylifera is Greek for “finger” – a reference to the shape of the fruit – from which comes the English word for the fruit. The species has been cultivated in the Arabian Peninsula for over 8,000 years, and trade gradually spread it across the southern parts of Asia, across North Africa, and in to Spain and Italy. Dates reached California by way of Mexico as a result of Spanish cultivation in the late 1700s.

Date seeds are hardy and viable to an amazing degree. At the ruins of the nearby fortress of Masada just north of the Dead Sea a date seed was discovered, and it germinated. It grew to a healthy seedling palm tree. Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the seed did indeed date to the time of the Roman siege during the Jewish War nearly 2,000 years ago. This is the oldest viable seed of any plant on Earth – and by a good margin. The previous record was a 1,300 year-old lotus plant in China.

Our guide explains that the irrigation system for these palms is controlled by a computer chip that is connected to sensors on each tree, so that water application is absolutely optimized. The date palm can even withstand a certain amount of salt content in the water, and so mixtures of freshwater with brine from salt springs are calculated and then applied to extend the precious freshwater supply to the maximum. These high-tech approaches could provide a boost for local farmers. International donors and the local parties were willing to cooperate toward this goal.

As a result, the US Agency for International Development, Enterprise Development and Investment Promotion (EDIP) sponsored a training program in 2010 in collaboration with the Israel Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Palestinian Manasra Development and Investment Company (MADICO). It was a technology transfer outreach to enhance Palestinian date production by improving planting, irrigation, pesticide control, plant tending, and post harvest practices. The Israeli government cooperated with travel permissions. So, is this one very modest case of cooperation that might become a model for further steps? No, it all fell apart – a sort of case study of frustration and intractability.

It’s a tangled web of maps, permissions, rivalry, ambiguity, jurisdictions – and, of course, water.

The Palestinian farmer Maisa Almanasreh tells the story:

“We have an old water well from 1961 that is legally permitted through the [former] Jordanian authority.

In 2007, we tried to renew the license to reactivate the well because we wanted to cultivate our land and plant it with Medjoul Date Palms but the Israeli army stopped us saying it is a C area and that we need a permission. After some research and information digging we figured out that, according to official maps, the area is A and not C (we have documents to prove that).

We stopped and applied for the permission from both the Israeli and the Palestinian Authorities.

We got the Palestinian approval while the Israelis said it is not their responsibility, according to what my lawyer at that time said.”

In the summer 2011 the Israeli military issued a notice of intent to demolish the new well, the Irrigation Computer Shelter and the worker housing at the farm. At a distance, it is difficult to determine whether the issue is a serious intent to stop the project by Palestinian authorities looking to become more adequately satisfied, or Israeli authorities looking to favor the local Kibbutz Kalia (a settlement contrary to international law on Area C), or just a complete bureaucratic and procedural gridlock by parties across the board who don’t really care. Or maybe it’s all three. However, the result is clear and the outcome in similar cases is consistent. In the administrative, jurisdictional, cultural, and economic twilight between straightforward Israeli occupation and Palestinian autonomy steeped in an extremely poor record of democracy and transparent rule of law, whoever has imagination, ambition, willingness to risk in order to create opportunities and build community wealth is punished.

As we drive by, the workers we see tending the palms on Kibbutz Kalia’s settlement farms are Thai migrant workers. Apparently, someone believed that the addition of Southeast Asian Buddhists to the situation was required, possibly to achieve the next level of complexity in the problems of the region.

Dead Sea

The Jordan Valley within the Afro-Syrian rift forms the northwestern margin of the Arabian plate. Across this rift, the eastern side (Arabian Plate), which is part of the country of Jordan today, has traveled in a northward direction by 105 to 112 km (65 to 70 mi) relative to the western side in Israel/Palestine (African Plate) since the Miocene period. Highly precise global positioning system measurements indicate that the two sides of the rift are currently drifting apart in the north-south direction from 2.6–3.8 mm per year. Up and down movement has been considerable too. The relative difference in vertical position of the rift floor and surrounding upland blocks is as much as 3,000 m (9,800 ft) in total. The subsidence block (graben) is now partially filled with Quaternary sediment, or else the hole at the Earth’s surface would be much, much deeper. About 900 m (3,000 ft) of this infill material is salt. That is a lot of salt.

The salt was originally transported to the bottom of the rift as dissolved minerals in the waters of the Jordan River and the flash flood channels that feed directly into the lowest portion of the basin. Throughout nearly all of the period of the existence of the rift, evaporation has exceeded water inflow, so the salt minerals remained behind in the lowest portion of the valley. These minerals accumulated in a briny lake with the salts precipitating out from solution, or in open-air salt flats. The designation “Dead Sea” is a modern name that doesn’t occur in the Bible, which refers to it instead as the Salt Sea, the Sea of the Arabah, or the Eastern Sea. The salts in the waters of the Dead Sea, on an approximate weight percentage basis, are made up of magnesium chloride 51 percent, sodium chloride (table salt) 30 percent, calcium chloride 14 percent, and potassium chloride 4 – 5 percent. Ocean water, by contrast is about 97 percent sodium chloride. Sulfate content of Dead Sea waters is quite low, and the concentration of bromine ions is the highest of any major water body on Earth.

Salt, unlike brittle sedimentary rocks, behaves as a thick fluid. Under pressure from the weight of sediments above or from shifting along the fault, teardrop shaped blobs (diapirs) of viscous salt can start to migrate upward. This upward motion can become a self-driven process due to forces of buoyancy. Mount Sedom (Sodom) on the south shore of the Dead Sea and various salt cliffs are examples of such features that have reached the surface. Organic material that accumulated at the bottom of the Dead Sea in times past has been formed into asphalt, which similarly oozes up to the surface in small blobs. Ancient Greeks called the Dead Sea Lake “Asphaltites.” Late stone age humans coated skulls of their dead with Dead Sea asphalt, which was also imported into Egypt and used in the mummification process.

The water temperature of the Dead Sea varies between 19 °C (66 °F) and 37 °C (99 °F) in the upper, near-surface layer. Because the water of the Dead Sea is so saturated with minerals, it is famous for the high buoyancy it gives swimmers. When an object, such as the human body, displaces Dead Sea water it has to push aside not just the relatively light hydrogen and oxygen atoms of fresh water, but also all the ions of the salts, including the heavy metallic atoms, and so the object rides higher.

Our coaches park in a large lot next to a developed beach facility on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea. A certain amount of instruction is necessary because this is not going to be an ordinary swim. Splashing has to be minimized to avoid severe irritation to membranes such as eyes and mouth. Prolonged immersion in the salt water will dehydrate the body through the skin. Outdoor freshwater showers are provided and the freshwater rinse after saltwater immersion is important. As I launch off in waist-deep water, I experience something I never have before. I float. In water I have always been a sinking member of the human family, always starting with the dense bones of my legs. Here I not only float, I ride high in the water with my legs comfortably extended. My fellow floaters employ a number of languages, and I gather that the same topic is being discussed among a number of them.

The depth and surface area of the Dead Sea has varied considerably over time. In modern times, precipitation at the Dead Sea occurs on average only about 15 days per year, and the annual precipitation total is only 41.9 mm (1.65 in). A recent sediment core drilling project found a gravel shore near the deepest portion of the lake, suggesting that during the driest part of a previous interglacial period there was practically no water body at all. During the most recent global Ice Age, from about 70,000 to 12,000 years ago, the Dead Sea level was between 100 m (330 ft) to 250 m (820 ft) higher than currently. This saltwater lake, called Lake Lisan, fluctuated repeatedly, rising to the highest level about 26,000 years ago. This was the very coldest part of the Wisconsin Glacial period globally, and the high lake level confirms that a cooler and more humid climate occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean region then. After the global warming that ended the glacial period around 10,000 years ago, the lake level dropped rapidly, probably to levels even lower than today. The late Second Temple period or the time of Jesus appears to have been one of the higher lake levels (-395 m) of the last few thousand years.

In today’s environment the Dead Sea faces some serious challenges. Routinely starved of nearly all freshwater inflow, it is evaporating away. In the early 1960s, the Jordan River deposited 1.5 billion cubic meters of water per year from the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea. In recent years the average amount is only about 100 million cubic meters because of Israeli and Jordanian diversions of fresh water into dams, canals and pumping stations. Meanwhile, one of the highest evaporation rates in the world continues. The surface of the Dead Sea was at an historically high 395 meters below sea level in 1970, but in 2006 it was 418 meters below sea level. The surface level of the Dead Sea continues to drop at a rate of more than one meter per year, and over the last two decades its surface area has shrunk by about 30 percent.

In 1960 the Dead Sea was a continuous body of water divided into a North Basin and a South Basin by the Lisan (Arabic for “the tongue”) Peninsula. Now the basins are completely separated, and the South Basin is simply a series of evaporation ponds for the production of mineral salts such as potash (potassium) and magnesium for export. Today the North Basin of the Dead Sea is 67 km (42 mi) at its maximum length and 18 km (11 mi) across at its widest, and the surface area is 810 km2 (310 sq mi).

Various schemes have been proposed to supplement the water level of the Dead Sea, mainly by importing seawater and using the falling gradient to generate electricity. Some plans would desalinate the seawater and release the brine into the Dead Sea. Given the geography, governments of Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel would have to agree. Amazingly enough, the parties largely do agree. The issues facing the proposal are technical, economic, and environmental. In this case, as the environmental community (generally opposed) and the development community (in favor) face each other, they each have allies that cut cross one of the most bitter political divides in modern times.

Stopping for Some Camels

On the way back along Routes 90 and 1 to Jerusalem, the coaches stop at a pullout mini-mall of a type that is utterly familiar to Americans. In a corner of the parking lot, a few local Bedouins have set up a camel ride and photo operation for the Jerusalem tourist traffic. There is something compelling to most people about the idea of sitting atop this ungainly, yet iconic animal. Alaskans, living with moose, certainly have some appreciation for an ungainly, iconic animal. The short camel rides are innocent fun for the pilgrim group, and most people find these pictures among their favorites from a trip to the region.

But given the life I’ve led - working in the wilderness, teaching about wilderness - there is something quite painful about watching a people who for so many centuries were the very embodiment of living a wilderness life now taking tourists around the parking lot of a mini mall. I find myself just wandering over to some shade to reflect. Most Alaskans eventually come to accept that they have become, in some special way that they value but that also makes them odd, simply different than the most of the rest of contemporary humanity. Wilderness is not a concept or an abstract idea to them, it is a living reality - with an emphasis on living.

No matter what branch of the human family you belong to, the wild places of the Earth formed your ancestors. Your ancestors simply would not have understood the concept of “wild places” if you could go back in time and tried to explain it to them, because there was not an alternate reality or even the thought that there could be one. The Bedouin are a group who lived the life of nomads in the wilderness much longer than most others. A number of Israeli natural scientists have developed an appreciation, and even fondness for them.

Still, the old Bedouin way of life should not be romanticized, as some with only a superficial acquaintance have tended to do. It involved raiding, and it was the very epitome of what today is called tribalism and all that brings. The Bedouin of the past had a substantially different notion and attitude toward personal property that made interaction with surrounding settled cultures not infrequently problematic. On the other hand, the corresponding cultural attributes of a sense of awe for the created order, family loyalty, and harmony with the rhythms of nature are splashed all over the pages of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, including a distinct spiritual dimension of the wilderness. For example, Jesus displays a repeated pattern of intense involvement in ministering to his followers to the point of exhaustion, and then seeking the solitude of the wilderness to regain strength and seek divine communion:

“… and great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities. But he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed.” (Luke 5: 15-16)

Christian monasteries are still being founded in out-of-the-way places, perpetuating that same pattern.

In today’s world essentially the entire planet is gridded, owned, geo-referenced, and administered. A few pockets of people and cultures here and there are all that is left of what was a universal human experience of living in and from wild lands, a way of life in which there were always unknowns beyond the horizon. Today in the Holy Land, in some ways the very idea of moving freely across wild places where people are not permanent residents seems quaint, attractive though it may be to many. But cultures are, among other things, a means for living and surviving in the world as it actually is, not static museum objects dug up from the past. Since national borders in the Holy Land became highly militarized, and particularly since 1960s the Bedu of the whole region have had to adapt to settled living and jobs following drought (Syria), oil development (Persian Gulf states), and their own desire for improved standards of living and health. They are now nearly all settled citizens of the nations of the region and not primarily the nomads of the past.

The Israeli government removed the Bedouin from the Negev Desert that makes up most of the southern portion of the country in the early 1950s and placed these Israeli citizens on the border with the West Bank. But the Bedouin residents of Arakib village (unregistered under Israeli law) have come back repeatedly, and the government repeatedly has torn down the structures and crops they establish (http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jul/28/world/la-fg-israel-bedouins-20100728).
The disputed land is planned as a national park, and once the people are gone it will be planted with trees - as part of a plan to make the desert come alive. As so often in the region, history, law, justice, conservation, and culture come into conflict.

“Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains, and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness, because they are laid waste so that no one passes through …” (Jeremiah 9: 10)

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