Ein Gedi (literally Spring of the Goats, refers to Nubian Ibex that come to the spring to drink) is an oasis in the Judean desert along the western shore of the Dead Sea. Here are two hikes (each about 5 km) in the Ein Gedi reserve that are perfect for families, Nahal David and Nahal Arugot.
On entering the reserve follow the marked the path and after about 15 minutes of easy walking we’ll reach the first waterfall, Mapal Shulamit that cascades 30 meters down the rock to a pool below. After a refreshing dip we’ll continue to a fork in the trail, we’ll take the steeper one on the right (the other path would take us back to the entrance) to the Shulamit spring and from there above the wadi to the Dudim cave. Retracing our steps we’ll continue to the Ein Gedi spring and beside it the flour mill. From there we can walk to the ruins of the Chalcolithic temple (3500 BCE), one of the oldest remains of human settlement in the Judean desert. We’ll descend through a cranny along a dry canyon to discover a 50 meter high waterfall and a great view of Nahal David and the Dead Sea beyond.
According to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder the area of Ein Gedi was settled during the Second Temple period by a Jewish ascetic sect called the Essenes. The archaeological evidence uncovered by Hirschfeld suggests that they lived near the spring where he found more than 20 tiny stone cells and two pools, one for irrigation and one a miqve or ritual bath. Pottery shards date it to the first century BCE.
The second hike starts from Tel Goren along the Nahal Arugot river bed past acacia trees and salvadora to a large pool used for irrigation of crops like balsam; the pool was filled by a channel that brought runoff from the wadi. Continuing we will pass reeds, maidenhead ferns, willow and poplar; we may see a rare orchid called Ben Horesh. A little farther the wadi narrows to a steep walled canyon at whose end is a waterfall and pool.
Excavations at Tel Goren by Mazar of the Hebrew University in the 1960s show that the site was settled in the Israelite period and functioned as a royal estate for growing dates of the now extinct Judean palm Phoenix dactylifera, considered uniquely medicinal. Balsam was grown for the production of perfume (in Hebrew, afarsimon).
The Romans were interested in the production of balsam perfume; Mark Anthony confiscated the groves from Herod and gave them to Cleopatra. After their deaths, Herod was able to lease them back. During the Great Revolt, the Jews uprooted the groves so they would not fall into the hands of the Romans.
Excavations have revealed a small Jewish village and a synagogue from the 4th century with a beautiful mosaic floor. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic, inscriptions list the signs of the zodaic and months of the year (later displayed graphically in mosaic floors in synagogues in Bet Alpha and Tiberius) and the expression “Peace unto Israel” (also found in the ancient synagogue in Jericho) and a dire warning at the end: “whoever reveals the secret of the town to the Gentiles – He whose eyes range through the whole earth and who sees hiddens things, He will set his face on that man and on his seed and will uproot him from under the heavens.” The secret seems to be the production of perfume from balsam.
The other natural source of fresh water in the Judean desert is Ein Feshka 30 km to the north of Ein Gedi. The lowest nature reserve in the world consists of 3 parts of which one is closed to visitors except research scientists who are studying the desert. The public part includes a small archaeological site from the Second Temple period and pools of fresh water, picnic tables and facilities for the enjoyment of visitors. The closed reserve is 1500 dunams (370 acres) that can only be visited with an authorized guide like me. It’s incredible to find a large freshwater pond with fish, shaded by trees in the middle of the desert next to the Dead Sea.