Whatever your religious persuasion, a visit to Qumran National Park may well leave its mark on you as one of life’s most memorable spiritual experiences. The site, set in the stark desert mountains just south of the Dead Sea, stands out as one of the most significant in both religious and general Middle-Eastern history.
And to really understand the roots of Judeo-Christianity, one of the founding pillars of what this area is all about, you really should head down to Qumran.
Qumran’s historical significance is, of course, dominated by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Beginning with the miraculous discovery made by a lost Bedouin boy in 1946, numerous scrolls were uncovered which were later revealed to be the oldest biblical Hebrew scriptures ever found (and not just ragged scraps of paper!). In total, the 700 scriptures are titanic in implication, as they contained evidence of speeches by Jesus and ancient Jewish prayers, among others, and the Qumran scrolls also affirmed the foundations of Judeo-Christianity.
What is less familiar to tourists is the history of the small group of isolationist inhabitants who populated Qumran, the Essenes. They were a hermit Jewish sect who believed that they were the chosen people and segregated themselves from society for spiritual reflection and study, abandoning worldly pleasures. They were preparing for an apocalyptic war and believed that its inception through a social revolution was nigh. Common practices included scheduled mass prayers, celibacy (which explains the small population of only 200) and a largely agricultural focus.
What to see at Qumran National Park
There hence emerges a twofold mission that a tourist seeking to fully explore the Qumran site really should take on. The first is, of course, to view the source of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the Scrolls themselves are now on display at the Israel Museum). Doubters will be hard-pressed to find a rebuttal to the physical evidence of Jesus’ speeches in the Holy Land. Believers consider this a pilgrimage, to view the best-restored Biblical prose in history. The second is to view the other documents, which compile information about the Essenes’ daily lives, and the artifacts that offer up for inspection the minute details of their existence.
The historians among you will view with great interest the documentation of their deeply religious existence, including their unwavering observation of the Sabbath, communitarian duties and strictly observed prayer routines. Artifacts including ancient agricultural tools, pottery, aqueducts and cisterns add flavor and credence to these texts. The excellent audio-visual presentations should not be missed. The history of this region is often complex and confusing, but is admirably fleshed out in an entertaining, accurate and concise manner.
The Qumran National Park consists of multiple caves with varying exhibits of focus and content, so to use your time wisely, it is highly recommended that you purchase a local map from the Visitor’s Center.
Once you’re done at Qumran, we’d highly recommend the mighty desert fortress at Masada, just down the road. In fact, it might be better to start the day at Masada which is more open to the elements, and then head to Qumran.
How to get there
Getting to Qumran National Park is a short 40-minute bus or car ride from Jerusalem. If you are driving, turn into Kibbutz Kala along Route 90 which runs parallel to the Dead Sea.
Opening hours are fairly regular. From April 1 through September 30, the site is open from 0800 hours to 1700 hours, though entrances will stop at 1600 hours. From October 1 through March 31, the site is open from 0800 hours to 1600 hours, though entrances will stop at 1500 hours. Take note that on Fridays and the eve of Jewish holidays, the sites close an hour earlier and entrances are also disallowed an hour earlier.
The site is fairly easy to get around, and will probably take you 1-2 hours.
Prices (correct at the time of publishing): Adult: NIS 29; Child: NIS 15, and senior citizens get a 50% discount. There are group discounts.