Qumran National Park is a magnificent, eery place. You're so low down that even the air feels heavy. The heat and salt make any effort feel hard and you can understand why the community retreated there for contemplative purposes. That is, if this is what happened. Not only is this one of the most stunning landscapes in the world, but it is also one of the most enigmatic.
A complex of caves surrounds a small archaeological site, and in these caves, from a chance discovery in 1946-7, huge numbers of scrolls were found. Preserved in the unrelenting dry heat, hidden in jars, they massively increased our supply of early Christian texts, and texts with Jewish origins. The most recent cave, 12Q, was only discovered in 2017.
Some of the caves are up in the hills, whereas others are hidden in the chasms taking you down to the sea. Hugely complicated to access in the past, let alone now, this dramatic landscape poses many questions. Who chose to hide texts in these caves? How did they access them? How did they get here in the first place? What kind of community was it?
Visiting the site gives you some access to these questions. The visitor centre includes a short video to help orientate visitors. You continue your indoors journey through a small museum displaying finds from the site. Unfortunately, most academics working on the site would dispute the comments made in it. This might not be too unfortunate though, as a visit to Qumran National Park draws you, the visitor, into the interpretative process, and the conflicts in establishing any certainty about the site are fascinating. There are information signs around the site, and these are what I've used to describe my photographs, however much lack of agreement there is about them.
A walkway takes you safely through the excavated area, which makes it reasonably accessible, and gives a good flow through the site. Supposed baths are interspersed with rooms such as supposed scriptoria, writing rooms for the production of scrolls. Jars are buried in the earth for storage purposes. A raised viewing platform in the centre gives a bird's eye view of the site, but also over the area down to the sea.
The Dead Sea is known for its high mineral content, so full of salt that it is too dense for a swimmer to sink into. The shoreline is receding annually as the sea contracts, but it's still impressive. Over the other side is Jordan. The water, even though it's undrinkable, is the sole break in the relentless brightness of the sandy landscape.
This landscape is remarkable. Carved by nature over the millennia, dramatic cave formations abound, and from the road you can see what looks like an alien landscape of small dusty hills. You can walk a little way up to the hillside caves, crossing a stone water channel, for example, but the path peters out in a dead end, and further unaccompanied exploration would be dangerous.
Visiting the Qumran National Park is easy from Jerusalem, taking well under an hour, even by public transport. If you take the bus, there is a stop at the bottom of the road leading up to the site. There is plenty of parking, and plenty of water fountains to keep visitors hydrated. The main visitor centre also includes a shop. You are likely to spend in the region of an hour at the main site as a general visitor, but there are other Dead Sea centres nearby, including spas and beaches, if you want to stay in the area.