I left the stone walls and bustle of Jerusalem behind me. Within only a few miles outside the city, I met a vast desert of rolling golden hills. I drank in the stark beauty and great expanse of blue sky and layer upon layer of towering hills. After being in the Old City were everything is compact and close, my eyes were adjusting to distance and endless horizon.
Soon I was traveling on a road that wound and turned and then went down and down. I drove past a town called “Sea Level” and concluded I was about to go below the level of the sea. Turning a bend there was a bowl of blue over the barren hills. It was the Dead Sea. Sapphire blue, its beauty startling in contrast to the endless desert hills.
The Dead Sea, with a negative altitude, well below sea level, is the lowest place on the planet. The Jordan River spills out into this salt-laden sea. Near the top of the Dead Sea is the remains of the Qumran community of Essenes. (to read more, click read more below)
As I entered the Qumran complex, I was first invited to watch a video which provided an introduction to the functioning and practices of this community that was destroyed and its inhabitants massacred in 70 AD, the same year the Roman’s destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple. The movie began and ended with a commentary on John the Baptist.
Many of John the Baptist’s sayings come directly from Qumran writings. As a Jewish man, he would have been expected to marry and have a family, but as the Essenes were celibate, lived in the desert and practiced austerities, it has been believed that John himself was an Essene. Also the place where he stood in the Jordan baptizing was just north of the community, near the point on the river that spilled into the Dead Sea.
So…the video explains that there was a John that came and lived with the Essene Community for two years. Just before he was to take his vows, which would have tied him to the community, he up and left. When later news reached the Qumran community that John the Baptist was beheaded, a member of the community put forth that it was the same John. The High Priest of the community was virulent in his denial that they were not one and the same. The man who had suggested otherwise was penalized and ’written up’ for it. Having your actions put into writing was a serious business for the Essenes, but what the High Priest could not know was that this community member's assertion was not silenced but is now widely known today because of being written up.
The movie ended by saying that the Essenes believed that all is predestined. There is no free will. The narrator of the video then stated that it was part of God’s wondrous plan that I would be here at the location of the Qumran community today. In this vein, it was predestined I would write this blog and you would now be reading it.
The ruins of the community are substantial and as I walked through, I was struck by the community’s resourcefulness and by the difficulties faced living so far from life, human or otherwise. There was the Sea but nothing lived in it and you couldn’t drink it. Long aqueducts were dug, snaking down the mountain; the water that spilled from the towering craggy hills flowed into great pools. They had many ritual bath pits, also requiring water. They had a large cistern, like a very very deep swimming pool used for storing water.
The Essenes were completely self-sustaining. They had goats and sheep. They made honey from dates. They made their ink pens from reeds and their ink from charcoal or sheep’s blood. They had their own kiln for firing the jars that held the scrolls – and the clay for the jars was collected from the runoff of the cliffs that towered over the community settlement
The stone dwellings that made up their small city, that at its peak housed 100 men, stood a few hundred feet from the shoreline. Behind them were the cliffs. From ruins of the community setting, it was easy to spot some of the caves within the cliffs that were used to safely store the scrolls until they were found 2,000 years later.
I walked up to the hill towards the caves. It was an unforgiving ground, steep and pocked with stones. Resting on a stone near the mouth of a cave, I looked out at the fierce beauty of this place.
I encountered deep silence
Not empty, a full silence
The breath of the wind, whispered of God.
If one listened long enough, the feeling is that the message would be revealed.
The occasional song of a bird shattered the silence with a sweet beauty.
The crunching sound of my feet moving along pebbled ground echoed.
Desolate and Pure. Every curve and slope and line of the landscape is distinct and purposeful.
Forgotten by the world, it is as it has always been:
Untouched. Unforgiving. Welcoming. Compelling.
Breathtaking and Inhospitable.
There is clarity here.
To live here a person would need to be sure-footed and have a strong heart.