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Ein Gedi

Oases in Israel : Relaxing at three comfort zones in the harsh desert

November 17, 1996|DAVID GREEN | Green is a senior editor at the Jerusalem Report and co-author of that magazine's recently published "Shalom, Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (Newmarket Press, $24.95)

There's no place in Israel quite like Ein Gedi, an oasis where the Judean Desert meets the Dead Sea. It's a place of palm trees, freshwater springs and demure and mysterious mountain goats called ibexes.

There are two nature reserves, a modern kibbutz, a spa where you can cover your body in mineral-rich mud and an ancient synagogue. Archeological finds here date back to the Chalcolithic (Copper) Age, at least 5,000 years ago.

My family and I are frequent visitors to Ein Gedi, and it was here that we retreated in November 1995, on the weekend after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. We felt that we and our two boys needed to get away from our home in Jerusalem. We didn't speak of it openly, but I think both Connie and I, two Americans who had come to Israel by choice as adults in the '80s, had moments during that black week when we wondered just what we were doing here. We needed to go somewhere where we could clear our heads. It didn't take much discussion before we decided on Ein Gedi.

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A cold, drenching rain was falling when we left Jerusalem on Friday afternoon, weather that matched the national mood. But when we arrived that evening, we found the air cool and clear. And the next morning, the sun was shining and the day warm. Though it is a mere two hours' drive from Tel Aviv, and less from Jerusalem, Ein Gedi is a world away from the congested center of the country.

Situated at the midway point along the western shore of the Dead Sea, it is lush only by local standards, perhaps. But its flora and the sweet water that flows year-round are in sharp contrast to the bilious body of water just across the road and the craggy cliffs of the Hebron Hills that run along the sea's length.

There are hundreds of caves up in those hills, and it is no mere coincidence that the humidity- and moisture-free environment they offer was chosen 2,000 years ago for the storage of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scrolls, about 800 documents written on parchment, include some of the earliest extant copies of biblical texts as well as manuscripts that describe the life and beliefs of an ascetic group that lived between the time of the Old and New Testaments.

There are many surprises and mysteries at Ein Gedi. Perhaps the most enchanting is your first sighting of an ibex. Its buff-colored hide is so perfectly shaded to match and blend into the background hills that only when it moves do you realize it's been staring at you all along.

On another recent visit, with three young boys in tow (our sons Itai, nearly 3; Avishai, 6 1/2; and his classmate, Adam), our first encounter with the wild goats took place several miles to the north of Ein Gedi, on the narrow road that heads south from Jericho. Around the curve we went and there in front of us was a herd of ibexes sauntering across the path.

Two generations ago, these majestic wild goats were near extinction. Today, because of preservation efforts, they are abundant, even approachable. But as close as they allow one to get, they retain an elusive quality, less fearful, I'd say, than shy.

It is little surprise, then, that none other than God refers to the secretive ways of the ibex in bearing its young. Appearing to Job from out of the whirlwind, God scolds him for presuming to understand the ways of the universe, and asking: "Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth?" (Job 39:1) And indeed, when the time comes for these fleet-footed ruminants to give birth, they disappear into those same hills that stand guard to the west of the Dead Sea; no human has ever witnessed an ibex in labor. Or so they say.

The name Ein Gedi, which in Hebrew means "spring of the kid" (as in baby goat), refers to one of four springs that flow year-round from a height of about 650 feet up in the mountains, feeding the oasis. Two of the other springs, Nahal Arugot and Nahal David, create the two nature reserves in the vicinity. (Nahal is Hebrew for wadi, itself an Arabic word that describes the ravines that run from the mountains to the sea, that are dry and perfect for hiking except when winter rains cause them to flash flood.)

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Due north of the reserves is a field school run by Israel's remarkably active Society for the Preservation of Nature, and an adjacent youth hostel, both of them clean but modest in fittings and prices, and both open to the general public. Just south of the reserves, on a hill overlooking the Dead Sea and facing the reddish hills of Biblical Moab in Jordan, is the modern-day Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year.

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