Qumran PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Essenes
Scrolls and Bible
The Site

The Site

The earliest structure here was an Israelite fortress called Sekakah (Joshua 15: 61), abandoned since the 6th century BC. (Many think that the round cistern in the photo below belonged to it.) The first archaeologists here deduced the site's later dates on the basis of coins. A new complex was founded, they thought, in the 2nd century BC - although when exactly is disputed. As to the end, the Romans conquered and occupied the site in 68 AD while quelling the first Jewish revolt. The place was in use for a few more years under Roman occupation.


1. The water system. When we climb the tower (the sole structure standing to its original height), we can see numerous plastered chambers joined by channels. Some were cisterns, but ten have been identified as ritual baths. One can identify a ritual bath or mikveh by its broad staircase, which usually has a divider running down its length in the middle. (A cistern does not require a broad staircase, which takes up space and involves much labor in the cutting.) The divider separated those coming up, who had purified themselves by total immersion, from the impure going down.

So many big ritual baths on so small a site! We may understand this by looking at the Manual of Discipline (the sect's "constitution"); we read, "They [the men of injustice] shall not enter the water to partake of the pure Meal of the men of holiness..." (V 13 in Vermes, p. 76); Josephus describes this combination of bathing, followed by eating. (While the site was active, a man named John baptized other Jews about six miles away at the Jordan River.) 

Qumran has no spring, and it rains less than 100 mm. per year (four inches, a fifth of what Jerusalem gets). Looking west, however, we see the gorge of Wadi Qumran (enlarge picture, above right). Its drainage basin spreads westward in the desert for about three miles. The inhabitants dammed this gorge near its mouth. (Pieces of the dam are visible from within the canyon.) On a rare rainy day in the desert, the accumulated water flowed into an aqueduct, the line of which is visible on the north side of the path leading westward from the site. The water filled the baths and cisterns one after another. (Given the intense evaporation here, the baths and cisterns must have been covered.) Nowadays, however, only one or two flash floods reach this place in a year; the climate was slightly wetter 2000 years ago, but not dramatically so. The conclusion is inescapable that the group repeatedly used the same water for immersion!  

But why so much ritual bathing? In the regular Jewish practice of the time, a ritual bath was necessary only to cleanse oneself from impurity before entering the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. Impurity, be it noted, should not be identified with sin. It may be the case that the Essenes at Qumran considered themselves to be the proper priests and conducted themselves accordingly, as if their settlement were a substitute Temple, pending their return to a purified Temple in Jerusalem. This theory would also explain the ritual meals and the careful disposal of the animal bones, as mentioned below.

2. The scriptorium (?). Likewise southeast of the tower is a long narrow windowless chamber, into which things had fallen from the second floor. Among them was an object interpreted to be a narrow table or tables, which could have been used for laying out pieces of parchment before sewing them into a scroll. (Scribes wrote, as said above, with tablets on their laps.) The diggers also found four inkwells here, one with dried ink - a rare find for this country at the time. 


3. The assembly and dining hall. In this passage from Josephus, the Essenes are said to have bathed and then gone into a dining room, where they ate a solemn meal. A day would come, they thought, and soon, when the priestly and the lay Messiahs would join them in this banquet, as preparation for God's great victory over the "sons of darkness." According to those who connect Qumran with the Essenes, this long hall was the room -- and note the ritual bath beside its entrance. (See picture above.) We see a channel from a cistern leading into the room, to keep it clean. There is also a stone dais, on which, perhaps, the priest used to stand to bless the food or conduct the assembly. In a small adjacent chamber, archaeologists found more than a thousand plates, bowls, serving dishes, water vessels, wine flasks and cups, all cracked from the earthquake of 31 BC. In the rebuilding that occurred in the time of Herod the Great, the part of the room that contained these dishes was sealed off, and so they remained for the archaeologists.

The Manual of Discipline (1QS) makes many references to an assembly room in columns VI and VII. For example:

"Wherever there are ten men of the Council of the Community there shall not lack a Priest among them. And they shall all sit before him according to their rank and shall be asked their counsel in all things in that order. And when the table has been prepared for eating, and the new wine for drinking, the Priest shall be the first to stretch out his hand to bless the first-fruits of the bread and new wine." (Vermes , p. 77)

A variant text of the Manual (1QSa II, 11-22) talks about this common meal as "a liturgical anticipation of the Messianic banquet" (Cross, pp. 88-90).

4. Sacrifice (?) In the open areas of the complex (for example, in the plateau south of the main building) the diggers found carefully buried deposits containing the bones of kosher animals (sheep, goats and cattle, but no poultry). Some of the deposits were in jars, while others were covered with fragments of pottery. These, thinks Cross, "are the remains of the sacral feasts of the community" (Cross, op. cit., p. 70) - an idea first proposed by the chief excavator, Roland de Vaux.

They may have been sacrifices. One may translate a passage in Josephus to read, "they offer sacrifices by themselves" (Antiquities  XVIII 1.5). For a discussion, see Cross, pp. 101-102.

5. The archive (?) From the plateau on the south side of the complex, we can view the entrance to Cave 4. The Bedouin found thousands of fragments here, buried beneath the sediment of centuries. They sold them to the archaeologists for $5.60 per centimeter of writing (less than half an inch). From them scholars have reconstructed parts of some 600 documents. There are regularly spaced holes and horizontal cuts in the walls of the cave, perhaps indicating the placement of shelves. If so, this may have been the library or archive.

Under Jordanian auspices, eight scholars divided the fragments among themselves. For 40 years they had exclusive access, and the rate of publication was extremely slow. These years included the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, when de facto control passed from Jordan to Israel. In late 1991 the Biblical Archaeological Society obtained photographs of the unpublished fragments and, against the will of the Israel Antiquities Authority, published them. For the Society's view of this controversy, see Shanks,ed.  pp. xxiv-xxxiii.


7. The cemetery. Just east of the main building is the cemetery, which contains more than 1100 graves. They are neatly arranged in rows, a fact which suggests strong organization. Of the 46 that have been excavated, all except three on the upper plateau, as well as the areas north and the east of it, were the graves of men. Those to the south include women and children, but they are Beduin graves from recent centuries. It would seem that the vast majority of men lived here without their families.

Each grave on the upper plateau, six feet deep, is marked by an oblong heap of small stones, surrounded by a row of larger unhewn stones, with still larger stones standing upright at either end. The head is on the south side. Since the apocryphal Book of Enoch (of major importance to the Essenes) has the Messiah arriving from the north, the idea may have been that the dead members of the Yahad would rise from their graves and greet him. The heaps of stones may reflect general Jewish practice at the time: when people were buried in the earth (and not in a family cave-tomb), it would have been important to mark the grave so that the living would not unwittingly walk over it, an act that would render them ritually impure (cf. Luke 11:44 ). Perhaps this is behind the Jewish custom of placing a stone on the grave.

At Ein Feshka, about two miles south on lower ground, there are freshwater springs. Here archaeologists found agricultural installations that fit the time-frame of Qumran.