Qumran National Park is one of Israel’s most fascinating and significant archaeological sites. Thousands of tourists visit it every year, to learn about the beginnings of Christianity and where the scrolls were found – a discovery which is considered to be the most important archaeological find of the Twentieth Century! It’s an extraordinary site and the events that took place in and around it, some two thousand years ago, have affected the entire world.
In order to understand Qumran, one must go back in time to one of the most critical periods of Jewish life. To the early days of a religion which would eventually become Christianity – as far back as the Second Temple Period. It was a dramatic period that changed the course of history for Judaism, and for Christianity that was yet to be born…
A visit to Qumran will expose you to the story of a mysterious Jewish sect, of relentless archaeologists, of scrolls that survived in the desert for thousands of years, and of the birth of a new religion. This amazing story emanates from one of the most beautiful places – facing the Dead Sea and backed by the “Haetekim” Cliffs which are dotted with dozens of obscure caves. But let’s tell this important story in the correct order…
Not much is known about the mysterious sect that lived here, nor about their way of life. Even their name isn’t really clear. In some sources, the cult-members are referred to as “People of the Desert Sect”, or “Yahad” (togetherness), and in other sources they are referred to as the Essenes, the “Cult of Justice” or simply, the “Qumran Sect”.
They are known to have regarded personal immersion and purification as an important ritual and, indeed, the remains of many Mikvahs (ritual baths) can be found on the site – far beyond the quantities found in other communities from that time. They lived a life of modesty and even asceticism, they held corruption and material wealth in contempt, they believed in a life of sharing, and were highly educated people. Much of their day was devoted to learning and writing. Remember this – we’ll return to it later in the story.
At the site, many relics can be seen, attesting to their exceptional way of life – a meeting room, a shared dining room, workshops and book-rooms. After the Great Revolt, Qumran was conquered by the Romans, and the fascinating sect disappeared.
The Boy Who Searched for a Goat and Found Treasure
Our story now jumps ahead several hundred years. Qumran was deserted and only Bedouin tribes roamed around the area occasionally. That all changed in 1946. A Bedouin boy went looking for a goat, took a wrong turn, threw a stone into a cave and heard the sound of shattering pottery. He discovered ancient manuscripts in the cave, collected them, and his family offered them for sale at a market in Bethlehem. Here begins a tumultuous adventure story, full of coincidences (or not…). The antiquities dealers had no idea of the importance of the discovery that was placed before them! The scrolls passed from hand to hand, from merchant to merchant, until Professor Eleazar Lipa Sukenik heard about them and decided to purchase them. In November 1947, on the day of the UN Declaration of the State of Israel, Prof. Sukenik arrived in Bethlehem and managed to purchase 3 scrolls.
Following the discovery, the Bedouins began searching for additional scrolls in the Qumran region, and found many more – in 11 different caves.
In 1954, an advertisement was published in a U.S. newspaper about the sale of scrolls from the Judean Desert. Yigal Yadin, who was in the U.S. at the time, rushed to purchase them and discovered that they also originated in Qumran.
From 1952 to 1956, organized excavations began in Qumran. The dry climate in the area protected the ancient scrolls and they were very well preserved. These excavations revealed many of the buildings that can be seen today on the site, and also a large cemetery with some 1,200 graves. But the highlight of the finds at the site are the scrolls which, undoubtedly, crowned the largest archaeological discovery of the 20th century.
So – what’s so special about these scrolls? These are the earliest Hebrew manuscripts, that date back to the first and third centuries AD, and they shed light on one of the most important and tempestuous periods in the life of the Jewish people. In addition, their large number, and the fact that they were so well preserved, allowed researchers to learn more comprehensively, about the period.
Among the important scrolls, are a complete tract of the Book of Isaiah, the “Copper Scroll”, which tells of hidden treasure, the Thanksgiving Hymns (“Hodayota”), and the Scroll denoting the “War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness”. Today, all of the scrolls are in the Shrine of the Book (a wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem) and it’s highly recommended that you complete your visit to Qumran, by going to view the scrolls.
The Connection to Christianity
Qumran is also a “lodestone” (magnet) for hordes of Christian tourists and history enthusiasts, who come to see the site. Many testimonies indicate a close connection between the Essenes, who dwelt here, and the people who formed the beginnings of Christianity. The Essenes’ way of life was very similar to that of the early Christians, and the main tenets of their faith were also comparable – modesty, contentment with very little and a life of sharing. One of Jesus’ famous sermons – the Beatitudes Sermon (in the Sermon on the Mount) is very similar to one of the sermons found in the Scrolls of Qumran. Paul, one of Jesus’ two senior apostles, also quotes a passage in the New Testament, a tract relating to the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The People of Qumran – the Essenes – were, of course, the Sons of Light. In addition, it is known that John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River at Qasr al Yahud which is very close to Qumran. All of this makes Qumran a site where one can easily connect to, and feel, the early days of Christianity which, in those days, had not yet separated from Judaism to take its first steps in the world.
Visiting the Site
At the entrance to the site, there is a small screening-room where you can watch a film about the history of Qumran. From there, you continue to a small Museum containing some of the discoveries found at the site, and an illustration of the way of life of the Essenes. After the Museum, you will take a circular tour of the archaeological remains at the site. From one particular point at the site, you can see Cave number 4 – the famous cave where most of the scrolls were found. It is highly recommended to pick up a portable sound device at the entrance, with voice guidance in several languages. Then, at any point in the Museum, you can hear another chapter in the dramatic history of this special place.