Israel is a land of contrasts and contradictions. It is an ancient land of enormous historical significance yet remains a divided and embattled country. It is one of the most hotly disputed territories on earth yet is considered one of the most sacred. The Holy Land contains spiritual sites to three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The age-old conflict between Arab and Jew, East and West, Israeli and Palestinian, remain as intense as ever, despite several recent peace treaties aimed at diffusing tensions. Everlastingly steeped in history of biblical proportions, travel through Israel is like a walk through time. Names like Bethlehem, Jericho, Jerusalem, Masada, and Nazareth seem rather odd on modern highway signs. But there they are, along with international religious tourists seeking out the sacred destinations of their faith.
In a dry and desolate region in the Judaean desert of Israel lay some of the most important archaeological sites in the world. The town of Jericho is the earliest known continuously inhabited settlement on earth, and is a treasuretrove of artifacts. Close to Jericho are a series of caverns, known as the Dead Sea Caves, which produced some remarkable ancient documents. This region north and west of the Dead Sea was significant because over many centuries the Judaean desert was a safe haven for all kinds of religious zealots, political refugees, and prophets. This sparsely populated area and inhospitable environment provided an atmosphere conducive for religious experience. Furthermore, the rough terrain allowed dissidents who required anonymity to remain elusive to the authorities.
The ancient Jericho ruins lay more than a mile (2 km) south of the modern settlement of Jericho, together regarded as the world’s oldest inhabited village. According to the Bible, it is here where Joshua “blew his horn, and the walls fell down.” Through the centuries Jericho has been razed many times, and on each occasion rebuilt on top of the rubble. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of at least 21 previous civilizations. Digging from the ancient Jericho rubble mound can be like opening a time capsule. An impressive find was the remains of a Hasmonean (Jewish religious group) Palace that contained Hellenistic elements from Greek influence, combined with Jewish practices, including ritual baths for the High Priests so they could maintain personal purity in line with the law of Moses. The current Jericho rubble mound at its highest point is 45 feet (13.5 m) above the road.
A Roman Legion determined to quash the First Revolt of the Jews captured Jericho around 68 CE. Jerusalem was next, then Qumran on the Dead Sea where the village priests scrambled to hide their sacred texts in nearby caves. Fearing the Romans would destroy the last remaining copies of the Bible, this small group of ancient Israelites hid hundreds of parchment scrolls in the caves within the shear desert cliffs. The texts, now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, almost certainly represent the beliefs and practices of the Essenes — one of several Jewish religious groups existing at the time.
Just after World War II, a young Arab shepherd climbed into a Judaean cave and stumbled upon the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In all, there were eleven caves and nearly 800 manuscripts discovered between 1947 and 1956. Half of all recovered texts were duplicates written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Taking duplication into account, about 400 texts are distinct compositions. Carbon dating shows that the scrolls were written between the last two or three centuries BCE and the first century CE , written in ink on the hairy side of leather pieces and sewn together with flaxen threads.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to have come from the monastery of the Essenes in the town of Khirbet Qumran. The Essenes of Qumran were a strict religious sect of pacifist Jews who did not maintain contact with the Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, this secretive sect of all males followed their own interpretation of the Torah (Law of Moses) and lived in communal seclusion. It is believed that John the Baptist, and possibly Jesus, spent time with the Essenes, but did not espouse their beliefs. The scrolls mention nothing of Jesus or John the Baptist, yet taken together with Essene belief show similar parallels with Judaism. Scholars divide the Dead Sea Scroll content into three categories: writings already known before their discovery; original compositions purposely omitted from Jewish and Christian Bibles; and the “Sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls” which consist of a mixture of poetic and legal works, as well as pieces of Bible interpretation and narrative. The Sectarian texts describe the various sects, or groups of people during their time. In short, the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm the history and most of the events described in the first five books of the Bible’s Old Testament.
Getting to Jericho and the Dead Sea Caves
Jericho, also called Ariha, is located in Palestine and may be closed to travel from Israel, depending on current relations between the two volatile nations. The Dead Sea Caves are easily accessible as a day trip from Jerusalem. The Arab and Egged public buses stop along the road at Qumran, also called Khirbet. It is a hot climb up to the caves, so bring plenty of drinking water. If the border is open, regular bus departures leave from Jerusalem daily and drop passengers off in the modern town of Jericho, which lies about 10 miles (16 km) from the Dead Sea. After passing the Dead Sea — the lowest point on earth at 1,266 feet (386 m) below sea level — the bus continues on to Tiberias in the north.