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Letter from the Dead Sea

Life in a Busy Oasis

Natural resources from land and sea sustained a thriving Jewish community for more than a millennium

May/June 2019

Dead Sea Ein Gedi

The Dead Sea includes the lowest point on Earth, at more than 1,400 feet below sea level, and lies in a long and narrow desert valley that runs through Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank. The sea itself is nearly 1,000 feet deep and covers more than 200 square miles, but its water is too salty to support any life beyond microscopic bacteria. Called a “sea” in multiple languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, this body of water is actually an inland lake, fed mainly by the Jordan River at its northern end. Green oases of palm trees and freshwater springs dot the land around the Dead Sea, but the terrain is overwhelmingly barren and rocky, with mountains rising along both the eastern and western shores.

 

Despite the harsh landscape, people have lived alongside the Dead Sea for millennia, drawn in part by the valuable minerals that can be harvested from its water and mud, as well as the maritime transport routes and trade links it provides. Located just 20 miles from Jerusalem, the Dead Sea has played an important political and economic role in the Near East since at least the seventh century B.C., when boats loaded with salt, bitumen, and crops likely first plied its waters, their cargo destined for Jerusalem, Jericho, and Mediterranean ports. “The Dead Sea gradually becomes this place where people see that they can make a lot of money,” says King’s College London archaeologist Joan Taylor. “The economic resources, from salt to asphalt to what was grown around it in the oases, are incredibly significant. It’s one of the most extraordinary places in the world.”

 

Dead Sea mapOne place where archaeologists have unearthed abundant evidence of people’s long relationship with this unique body of water is Ein Gedi, the region’s largest oasis, which covers more than 250 acres on the lake’s western shore. Here, a team led by archaeologists Orit Peleg-Barkat of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Gideon Hadas of Ben Gurion University’s Dead Sea-Arava Science Center is uncovering the remains of a Jewish village that thrived for more than a thousand years. As a direct consequence of the rule of a long series of powers, including the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Roman Empires, all of whom were heavily invested in the village’s economy, Ein Gedi’s inhabitants reaped the benefits of their unusual environment—a lush oasis with easy access to the Dead Sea’s mineral riches. “This may be the most beautiful place in the world,” says Hadas, “but it all has to do with the environment and resources. That’s what brings people here.”

 

The 2019 excavation season, which concluded a 16-year-long investigation of dwellings and other structures from the Second Temple and Byzantine periods, built on earlier excavations going back to the 1960s. Those previous digs had exposed remains that date back more than 6,000 years, including an ancient temple, dozens of houses, Jewish ritual baths, a Byzantine synagogue, and agricultural terraces, but also left many questions. During the most recent excavations, the team sought to understand more about the village’s economy and trade connections, as well as how it weathered the chaotic last years of the ancient province of Judea and its eventual incorporation into the Roman Empire. Hadas and his colleagues are showing that evidence of the lives of Ein Gedi’s ancient villagers are key to understanding how the Dead Sea enriched, supported, and connected those able to prosper on its inhospitable shores.

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