The ancient synagogue in Ein Gedi is an attraction with the added value of historical study and experience.
The remains of the ancient synagogue and settlement in this place, provide great interest to visitors. This is alongside a first-of-its-kind, enjoyable and challenging “escape-compound” with many stations, each with unique content.
The location can be accessed using an annual subscription-card (for Israelis) or by payment at the entrance to the site.
The “escape-compound” must be booked in advance.
And now that we’ve covered the basic details, we’ll dive into the story of this wondrous place…
The People of Ein Gedi
The first evidence of a settlement in the area dates back to the 7th century BC. It is mentioned in the Old Testament, both by the familiar name “Ein Gedi”, and also by the name “Hatzatzon Tamar”. A temple was found in this place, dating from the Chalcolithic Period, and is mentioned in the writings of ‘Chazal’ (Jewish Sages), the writings of Joseph Ben Matthias, and others. There is a long history of people from different eras, who made this oasis their home. Ein Gedi was founded, destroyed and re-built, in a recurring chain of events, whose last link, at the present time, is the pioneers who came here in 1953 to establish a kibbutz in the heart of the desert. They also have an important place in the story of the ancient synagogue.
The ancient synagogue reveals to us the story of the people who lived here over a period of some 300 years, from the 3rd century AD to the 6th century AD. Who were those people? From what did they make their living? What occupied them and why was the settlement destroyed in the 6th century? The remains of the synagogue reveal quite a few answers to these questions, but also open up new questions.
In 1953, while working to prepare the land for agriculture, findings were discovered that attested to the existence of a synagogue here. A small leap in time, and in the 1970s, organized archaeological excavations were being initiated by Prof. Dan Barag, Dr. Sefi Porath and Prof. Ehud Netzer. The excavations revealed the remains of an ancient synagogue, whose construction began in the 3rd century and ended in the 6th century. And here, we also obtain an answer as to why the Jewish settlement in Ein Gedi ended during the same period – the synagogue burned down in a large fire which destroyed it, and the settlement next to it.
By the way – the excavations continue intermittently to this day – every January, a group of volunteers come to the site, organized by the Archaeologist, Dr. Gideon Hadas, a member of Kibbutz Ein Gedi.
Secrets from the Past
In order to discover the secrets of the ancient villagers, you have to turn your eyes down towards the floor. The floor of the synagogue is decorated with a mosaic that is just as fascinating as it is beautiful. The floor we see today is an exact replica of the original floor, which was sent to the Rockefeller Museum. What’s to be found between the ornate decorations?
A Swastika – a swastika symbol which, today, immediately causes us to recoil instinctively. However, this symbol once served as a common ornamental motif, and can also be found in other synagogues from that era.
A List of Generations – a list of all generations from Adam to Japheth.
The Zodiac List and a List of Months – both in Hebrew.
An inscription dedicated to those who contributed to the establishment of the synagogue.
Decorative Motifs such as peacocks, geometric patterns, cranes (birds), plants and more.
But the most intriguing and unique inscription of all, is a long inscription containing a mysterious curse.
The Secret of the Persimmon
“Whosoever causes a dispute between a man and his neighbor, or blasphemes against his Gentile friend, or steals his friend’s belongings, or whosoever reveals the secret of the town to the Gentiles – the one whose eyes wander all over the Land and sees all that is hidden – He will turn his face to this man, and to this man’s offspring, and uproot him from under the sky. And all the people shall say, Amen and Amen Selah”.
What is the secret of the town that was so vitally important, that a curse on whoever revealed it would be inscribed on the floor of the synagogue?
One of the main crops of the residents in the ancient village, was the Persimmon plant. It’s not the same orange-colored fruit that we know today by that name. In fact, researchers aren’t even sure what the mysterious plant is yet. We do know, however, that this plant produced the most expensive and rare perfume in antiquity. A perfume that was sought after throughout the ancient world, and whose name was associated with many legends. When Marc Anthony wanted to prove his love to Cleopatra, he made her a gift of the persimmon orchards in Jericho.
The Babylonian Talmud says that the wealthy would hide their precious possessions, along with persimmon oil and, that way, thieves with a highly developed sense of smell could find the hidden treasure. The Daughters of Zion are said to have hidden a bag containing persimmon perfume, in the heel of their shoe, and when they met a handsome young man, they would tread on the bag to release the fragrance. The Jewish historian, Joseph Ben Matthias, describes the persimmon in his book “The Wars of the Jews” – “the most precious of all the fruits in the land.” The secret of growing the persimmon plant and producing perfume from it, was the “secret of the town” and the wealth and economy of ancient Ein Gedi, were dependent upon it. So, it’s no wonder that the fear of the secret being revealed was so intense, that a harsh curse was placed on whoever divulged the secret. It is to the credit of the people of Ein Gedi that, indeed, the secret was kept so well that, to this day, we don’t know what the persimmon plant is and how the perfume was extracted from it. And perhaps it’s better that way. It might be best not to discover if the curse actually works…
And What’s Around the Synagogue?
At the entrance to the complex, a small garden with local vegetation was found – the ‘Desert Wick’ (also called the Sodom Apple), whose fibers once produced wicks for oil lamps. Also growing there were the Indigo plant (Indigofera), from which they produced the desired indigo color, the Henna plant (Lawsonia Inermis), the Caper bush (Capparis), and others.
Around the synagogue the remains of the ancient settlement can be seen. These were discovered primarily in excavations conducted by Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld.
At the end of your visit, raise your eyes and look around you. It is probable that the palm plantations you see around you may be very similar to those grown by the people of the ancient Ein Gedi village. The only change is that the persimmons have been replaced by mango trees. Take a look at the kibbutz up on the hill above the old synagogue today…
Remember that, in the end, it’s all always a story about people – the 3rd century or the 21st century – we all have the same desires, dreams and hopes. A long thread connects us all to one chain.