Qumran National Park is one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel today. Mainly due to the fact that it is where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found, at least most of them.
Qumran National Park
The Hellenistic period settlement was constructed during the reign of John Hyrcanus (134–104 BCE) or somewhat later; was occupied most of the time until 68 CE, and was destroyed by the Romans possibly as late as 73CE. It is best known as the settlement nearest to the Qumran Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden, caves in the sheer desert cliffs, and beneath, in the marl terrace. The principal excavations at Qumran were conducted by Roland de Vaux in the 1950s, several later unearthings at the site have since been carried out.
Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947–1956, extensive excavations have occurred in Qumran National Park. Nearly 900 scrolls were discovered. Most were written on parchment, and some on papyrus. Cisterns, Jewish ritual baths, and cemeteries have been found; a dining or assembly room and debris from an upper story alleged by some to have been a scriptorium, pottery kilns, and a tower. Many scholars believe the location was home to a Hebrew sect, probably the Essenes.
The Dead Sea Scrolls and Qumran National Park
The scrolls were found in eleven caves around Qumran National Park, some accessible only through the park. Some scholars have claimed that the caves were the sect’s permanent libraries due to the remains of a shelving system.
Other scholars believe that some caves also served as domestic shelters for those in the area. Many texts in the caves appear to represent widely accepted Jewish beliefs and practices. In contrast, other texts speak of divergent, unique, or minority interpretations and practices.
Some scholars that studied the texts found in Qumran National Park believe that some of these texts describe the beliefs of the inhabitants of Qumran; who may have been Essenes; or the asylum for supporters of the traditional priestly family of the Zadokites against the Hasmonean priest/kings.
A literary epistle published in the 1990s expresses reasons for creating a community, some of which resemble Sadducean arguments in the Talmud. Most of the scrolls seem to have been hidden in the caves during the turmoil of the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE), although some of them may have been deposited earlier.
Discovery and Excavation in Qumran National Park
The site of Khirbet Qumran had been known to European explorers since the 19th century. The initial attention of the early explorers was focused on the cemetery, beginning with de Saulcy in 1851. The first excavations at Qumran (before the development of modern methodology) were of burials in the cemetery, conducted by Henry Poole in 1855, followed by Charles Clermont-Ganneau in 1873.
Major Excavations at Qumran National Park were made first by Roland de Vaux and Gerald Lankester Harding. And in 1949, they excavated what became known as Cave 1, the first scroll-bearing cave. A cursory surface survey that year produced nothing of interest, but continued interest in the scrolls led to a more substantial analysis of the ruins at Qumran in 1951. This analysis yielded traces of pottery closely related to that found in Cave 1. This discovery led to intensive excavations at the site over a period of six seasons (1951–1956) under the direction of de Vaux.
De Vaux interpreted his findings at Qumran based (at least in part) upon information in the Dead Sea Scrolls—which continued to be discovered in the nearby caves throughout his excavations. De Vaux concluded that the remains at Qumran were left by a sectarian religious community.
Using his excavations as well as textual sources; including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the historical accounts recorded by Pliny, the Elder; Philo, and Flavius Josephus, De Vaux concluded that the inhabitants of the site were a Second Temple Jewish sect of highly ritualistic Jews called the Essenes; a conclusion that has come to be known as the “Qumran–Essene hypothesis.” This hypothesis suggests that the original residents of the settlement were the Essenes and that they established the site in the desert for religious purposes.
De Vaux Interpretation of the Qumran
He interpreted the room above locus 30 as a “scriptorium” because he discovered inkwells. A plastered bench was also found in the remains of an upper story. De Vaux concluded that this was the area where the Essenes could have written some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
De Vaux also interpreted locus 77 as a “refectory”, or a community dining hall, based on the discovery of numerous sets of bowls in the nearby “pantry” of locus 89. Additionally, de Vaux interpreted many of the innumerable stepped cisterns as “miqva’ot”, or Jewish Ritual Baths, due to their similarity to several stepped and partitioned ritual baths near the Jerusalem Temple Mount.
On my private tours of Qumran National Park, I like to start with the visitors center. You can find an excellent display of what they found in the different excavations. However, a lot of it is just replicas still good for some visualization. Most of the artifacts are on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book. Moreover, in the visitors center, you can find a lovely introduction film; it takes not very long in getting you into the correct mode to tour the site.
The ruins of Qumran can be seen immediately to the right. The settlement was built close to the seaward side of a plateau. The Dead Sea forms a hazy backdrop. To the extreme right is the Wadi Qumran, a torrent dry most of the year. On the few occasions when it rains, though, it becomes a ravaging torrent that has eroded the side of the plateau where Qumran is. From the mid-left, the remains of an aqueduct run down to the settlement. This channel helped furnish Qumran with a valuable supply of water.
The modern walkway lets visitors walk through the site and see some of the complexities of the water system. Behind the walkway on the right is the aqueduct that brought rainwater down into the site. The main channel snakes its way through the settlement. This round cistern was initially constructed during the Iron Age, making it one of the oldest structures at Qumran.
On the site, De Vaux discovered what he defined as a ‘scriptorium.’ Inside he found two inkwells and plastered elements he interpreted as benches or tables for writing. These benches (or tables) had fallen through the floor above when the ceiling collapsed. He concluded the Dead Sea Scrolls could have been written here.
But not all scholars agree with this interpretation. Nearly all scholars, however, conclude that some form of writing took place here on the upper floor of the structure. Several ostraca, including a practice alphabet, have been found in and around the site.
One of the things I like to stop and talk about is the stepped pool. The fact that it was a stepped pool meant it was used for ritual and storage of water. Another interesting find that de Vaux found is what he called ‘the refractory.’ Because next to it he found an adjacent room, commonly referred to as a pantry, containing over a thousand pieces of pottery. This pottery was thought by de Vaux to have been used for communal meals, though some have challenged this interpretation, so if I got your curiosity going! Don’t think about it too much, and book a private tour of Qumran. I am positive you will love it!
Reserve entrance closes one hour before cited closing time.
Entry to the film hall and the museum is permitted up to one hour before the site closes.
Sunday–Thursday and Saturday: 17:00 – 08:00 Friday and holiday eves: 16:00 – 08:00
Sunday–Thursday and Saturday: 16:00 – 08:00
Friday and holiday eves: 15:00 – 08:00
Holiday eves: 13:00 – 08:00
Yom Kippur eve: 13:00 – 08:00