Israel's Good Name

Ein Gedi: Ancient Synagogue

In Israel, Judea on March 18, 2018 at 10:08 AM

About a month ago, I had the privilege of taking a trip to a popular site that has been missing from my blog for years: Ein Gedi. I was accompanying the tenth graders on their big annual trip, this time to the Dead Sea area. Being that I had an exam on the first day of their trip, I bused over the following morning to meet them at the Ein Gedi Field School.

View from the Ein Gedi Field School

Disembarking into the bright desert environment, I took out my camera to get started on morning birding. Within minutes I found satisfaction: a handful of fan-tailed ravens patrolled the cliffs and a pair of blue-cheeked bee-eaters entertained me from close by. In addition, I had nice bonding time with a few fearless Nubian ibexes. But it wasn’t just the animals – the view was incredible as well, the Dead Sea to the east and the arid cliffs to the west.

Nubian ibex

I explored the field school, admiring their collection of stuffed animals (of the taxidermy variety) and antiquities, while I waited for the schoolchildren to show up. At last they showed up and I was informed that unfortunately I had to remain behind, as there were two students who couldn’t do the hike for health reasons. Not to be discouraged, I decided that I would make the best of my day however it was destined to be. And so, while the mass of schoolchildren climbed Mount Yishai, I returned with the two lads and the buses to the Ein Gedi park entrance at Nachal David.

Schoolchildren on the trail

Visiting the ticket office, I procured some pamphlets and mapped out my next few hours. I could see the line of schoolchildren making their way up the nearby mountain while the sounds of birds filled the air, giving me a good start as to what to do. I began by leaving the parking lot area and walking along the scenic route near the base of the mountains in the direction of the ancient synagogue.

Blackstart

Along the way I birded and took many photographs of blackstarts, Tristam’s starlings, crag martins and, of course, large amounts of Nubian ibexes. It was a peaceful walk, and it wasn’t long before I reached the enclosure for the ancient synagogue. Inside, I explained who I was and was ushered in, free of charge.

Ibexes crossing the road

Shaded by short trees, a glass-covered model of the ancient village of Ein Gedi awaited me. It was fascinating to see a replica of the village life, complete with tiny people and animals going about their daily life. The highlight of the model was the replica of the fancy synagogue that had been uncovered in archaeological excavations beginning in 1965. Its mosaic floor was restored in the 1990s, also depicted in the model.

Ein Gedi’s ancient synagogue

To summarise the history of the ancient village as is displayed, the housing structures date to the 200-500s CE, the Late Roman and Byzantine periods. The synagogue itself was built in the 200s CE, and then renovated in the 300-400s CE, the fancy mosaic floor completed in the mid-400s CE. Unfortunately the village didn’t last very long, and was destroyed by the fires of persecution by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, sometime around the year 530 CE.

Mosaic floors

The site covered by the awning as seen above is mostly just the synagogue, with several attached structures as well. I began my tour at the Roman street, beside a ancient mikveh (ritual bath), where I continued alongside the ruins of unnamed buildings. Between the ruins of one structure I discovered a squatting man holding basalt grinding stones in his hands. Unsure of his identity, I inquired him if he worked at the park. He weighed the stones in his hands and replied that he was just a visitor. I was about to suggest that he not mess around in the fenced-off area but he added that he was a volunteer during the first season of renewed excavations in the 1990s, and together, we revelled in the joys of our digging experiences.

Rock hyrax

Continuing on my own, I entered the synagogue and noticed the expansive mosaic floor comprised of many sections. The first, a series of crudely-written Hebrew letters, was a composition of various religiously-oriented texts: early biblical ancestry, months of the year, rules and dedications to the many benefactors who contributed to the construction. The central mosaic interested me most: a geometric pattern with a centrepiece of curious looking birds.

Bird detailing

There was a total of twelve birds in the centrepiece, eight of them feasting on grape clusters. These fine feathered fellows were joined by other curious-looking tiled birds at the edges of the floor. Unfortunately, due to the simplistic artistic nature, the birds aren’t detailed enough to be interpreted as any particular species. I, of course, still attempted to make my guesses.

Ruins of Ein Gedi

Classic synagogue elements such as stone benches, a seat of honour, and a holy ark (for Torah scrolls) completed the look of the room. When I was done admiring, I headed out to see the rest of the excavated village. Somewhat hidden behind a fence, the continuation of excavated housing structures can be seen to the northeast.

Sodom apple

Beside the ruins I tracked a female Sardinian warbler in a bush and photographed the colourful flowers of a poisonous apple of Sodom plant. Sitting in the shade, I had a feast of pesto, cheese and tomato sandwiches and then began my walk back toward the buses, Eventually the schoolchildren trickled out from the trails, and I seized the opportunity to explore the little amount of Nachal David that I had time for.

Nachal David trail

Walking the paved path, I passed many birds and a couple of bold rock hyraxes which I photographed. Within minutes the lowest waterfall was beside me, and I climbed down to examine it. I waited for a few visitors to clear the little pool and then snapped a few pictures before heading back.

Lower waterfall

To my surprise, when I rejoined the group I was informed that we were going to head over to the ancient synagogue – the one I had just visited – to pray mincha (afternoon prayer). After the prayers we settled back into the bus and took a nice drive down to the Hazeva Field School where we were to spend the night. There, we got settled, had dinner and enjoyed the rest of the evening knowing that the next morning would begin another day of trips and adventure.

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  1. […] our trip day with the schoolchildren to Ein Gedi, the new day began with sunrise at the Hazeva Field School. We prayed, ate and packed our […]

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