Ancient Qumran

Where an ancient sect kept the world’s oldest library of Scripture

Perched on an arid plateau overlooking the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, Qumran is an archeological site dating back to the Iron Age. During its heyday the community was home to about 200 people, and included homes, cisterns, a fortress, a cemetery, and most famously, a series of caves in which scriptures were stored. The discovery of these caves – and the Dead Sea Scrolls contained inside them – was one of the greatest archeological discoveries in history, and gave Qumran a permanent place in the imaginations of scholars, historians, theologians and believers around the world.


The Qumran hamlet was established in the eighth century BCE. A rectangular fortress on the site dates from this early period, which lasted until the Babylonian invasion of Judea and the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC. The site was abandoned in the wake of the Babylonian exile, and resettled in the second century BCE (the Hasmonean Era). Bronze coins found on the site establish a period of continuous habitation beginning from the rule of John Hyrcanus (135–104 BCE) and continuing through the First Jewish-Roman War (66–73 CE).

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The contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, along with archaeological evidence and supporting historical texts, have led scholars to conclude that Qumran was inhabited by a sectarian religious community sometimes referred to as the Dead Sea Sect or “Hayachad” (together) sect. Many scholars believe that this sect was in fact a community of highly ritualistic Jews called the Essenes.

Later coins from the period of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE) were also found at Qumran, indicating that some of the late Judean fighters also found shelter in its ruins. The name Qumran, from the Arabic word meaning “crescent moon,” replaced an earlier name for the community, which has since been lost to history.


In the winter of 1946-7, Bedouin shepherd Muhammed Edh-Dhib followed a goat into a cave near Qumran and emerged with 7 ancient scrolls. The finding led to the discovery of ten other caves over the ensuing decade yielding a total of 929 texts – scrolls housed in jars inside the caves – known collectively as the Dead Sea Scrolls.



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The scrolls include the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Biblical Scriptures ever found. Most have been carbon dated to the second and first century BC. As evidence of the diversity of religious and political ideas in existence at the period of the Second Temple, they are of monumental historical, religious and linguistic significance. They also provide invaluable information about Qumran’s inhabitants’ daily life and way of thinking.

The texts are written mostly in Hebrew and Aramaic, along with Greek and Nabataean. The scrolls – mostly written on parchment but some on papyrus or bronze – can be divided into three groups:

1. Copies of texts from the Hebrew Bible
2. Texts from the Second Temple Period and which ultimately were not canonized in the Hebrew Bible, such as the Book of Enoch, Jubilees, the Book of Tobit, the Wisdom of Sirach, and certain Psalms.
3. Sectarian manuscripts of previously unknown documents that shed light on the rules and beliefs of the Dead Sea Sect (probably Essenes) or other Jewish sects. Such manuscripts include the Community Rule, the War Scroll, and The Rule of the Blessing.

Of all the scroll’s contents, perhaps the most remarkable are similarities of several of their expressions to teachings of Jesus that appear in the New Testament. Paul used terms that can be found in the scrolls written at Qumran, and according to some scholars, the sect is also hinted at in the Gospel of John.

Several historical texts describe a sect of Jews called the Essenes, some of whom lived near the northwestern coast of the Dead Sea, whose practices were similar to those of the Dead Sea Sect as depicted in their manuscripts. This leads many scholars to conclude that the Essenes were in fact the sect that assembled the library of manuscripts that comprise the Dead Sea Scrolls. Recent interpretations have challenged this association and suggest that the sectarian scrolls came from Jews living in Jerusalem who hid them away for safekeeping as the Romans destroyed their city, or that the sect living at Qumran were actually Zadokite (Saducean) Priests.


The people who lived in Qumran during the Hasmonean Era and at the beginning of the Roman period were probably Essenes, a sect of Second Temple period Judaism that existed from the second century BC to the first century AD.

During the Second Temple period there were several ascetic, mystic, and messianic sects that broke off from the mainstream Judean social order. The Essenes were the largest such sect, living in cities throughout Judea, but also on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea, which is one of the stronger indications that they are the Dead Sea Sect who lived in Qumran.

The Essenes renounced wealth and material comforts and elected to live a communal life of asceticism. They rejected the ways of the two larger Jewish denominations at the time – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – and saw themselves as the true inheritors of the Saducean (Zadokite) priestly traditions.

After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran, the similarity of the ideas contained in the scrolls’ sectarian manuscripts and ideas attributed to the Essenes in other historical texts further buttressed the theory that the Essenes were either the authors of the scrolls or the “librarians” who assembled and stored them.

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The daily routine of the sect is described in the scrolls. They would rise at dawn and begin the day with communal prayer. After the prayer they worked – some as shepherds of sheep and goats, others as farmers (of dates), or in communal functions like drawing water or preparing food. In the afternoon, they immersed themselves in water as part of a ritual bath before praying again. A communal meal prepared by the priests, was then eaten in hallowed silence. The Essenes prayed once again at sunset, and spent much of the night studying scriptures.

Some scholars have also theorized that John the Baptist himself lived among the Essenes. Though there is no direct evidence of this theory, it is supported by certain similarities between John’s recorded life and practices, and those of the Essenes. Both John and the Essenes lived in the desert, saw themselves as “voices in the wilderness” as prophesied by Isiah, and practiced baptism.

Although the Essenes believed that all of life was pre-ordained by God, their belief in free-will led them to aspire to righteousness. They saw the world as being divided into righteous and evil, and built their lives around a commitment to keep the righteous path. They believed that a great and final war was before them – one in which the world would be destroyed – and saw their role as one of readying the world for the new social order that would come in its wake.


Qumran was known to nineteenth century European explorers. The cemetery was the focus of the earliest excavations, conducted by Henry Poole in 1855 and followed by Charles Clermont-Ganneau in 1873. A string of late nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeologists and scholars visited the site, taking note of the fortress and cistern, and establishing Qumran as part of a string of fortresses along the southeastern border of ancient Judea.

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Full-scale excavations of Qumran began after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late nineteen forties. In the winter of 1946-7, Bedouin shepherd Muhammed Edh-Dhib went into a cave near Qumran and emerged with 7 ancient scrolls. The war that broke out in the years that followed made it impossible to explore the cave until February 1949. It was then that Lancaster Harding, director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, and Roland de Vaux, of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, arrived at the cave, known as Cave 1, and began to dig. Soon de Vaux was given authorization to conduct a full scale excavation of the area.

The site that de Vaux uncovered contains two sections: the main building, a two story structure with a central courtyard and a defensive tower on its corner; and a secondary building to the west. The excavation also revealed a complex water system featuring an aqueduct that delivered water to several cisterns and ritual baths around the site, two of which were within the walls of the main building. These findings indicated a community that was consistently developing, with many improvements and new projects undertaken to accommodate growth.

The contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which continued to be discovered in nearby caves throughout De Vaux’s excavations of the main site, led scholars to conclude Qumran was inhabited by a sectarian religious community. Additional texts, like the historical accounts of Josephus Flavius, Philo, and Pliny the Elder, led De Vaux and others to adopt the theory that the site was inhabited by a sect of highly ritualistic Jews called the Essenes (despite the fact that the term “Essene” does not appear in the scrolls themselves).

Although de Vaux’s excavations of Qumran were quite exhaustive, and thereby the most important source of information on the settlement, there have been several excavations since de Vaux finished his work, notably:

• The 1967 restoration performed by R.W. Dajjani on behalf of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities
• A systematic survey of the caves and pathways around Qumran conducted by Joseph Patrich and Yigael Yadin between 1984 and 1991. Patrich concluded that the caves were not inhabited by the Dead Sea Sect, but were rather used as hiding places and storage.
• “Operation Scroll”: from November 1993 to January 1994, under the direction of Amir Drori and Yitzhak Magen, the Israel Antiquities Authority carried out works in the Qumran compound.
• In the winter of 1995-1996 and later seasons Magen Broshi and Hanan Eshel carried out further excavations in the caves north of Qumran, in the cemetery and in marl terrace caves.
• Continued excavations as recent as 2010.


The site of ancient Qumran is operated by the Qumran National Park, under the direction of Israel’s National Parks Authority. For visiting hours, prices and other useful information, visit the Nature and Parks Authority website.

Just outside the park gates, the Qumran Visitor’s Center offers dining, shopping and tourist information to the public at large.


The Qumran Visitor Center restaurant is open daily from 11:30 to 16:00 (including Friday, Saturday and Sunday).

The Qumran Visitor Center gift shop features exotic hand-made jewelry from the Qumran region, religious icons, relics and souvenirs, and authentic Judaica made by local artisans.


The nearest lodgings are located at Kibbutz Kalia, about 1 mile (1.5 km) from Qumran National Park. Overnight guests of Kibbutz Kalia are invited to participate in the unique experience of Kibbutz life by taking their meals in the communal cafeteria. Guests also are welcome to make use of the Kibbutz facilities, which include a swimming pool and horse stables. Kibbutz staff can arrange desert jeep tours. For more information.


Visitors who would like to combine a trip to Qumran National Park with a dip in the Dead Sea can visit Kalia Beach, about 2 miles (3 km) from the archaeological site. Kalia Beach is one of the only places on the Dead Sea shore where bathers can also dip in natural Dead Sea mud located on the premises. Additional facilities include a restaurant, a cafeteria, souvenir shops, showers and toilets. For more information.