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Ein Gedi - Sweet and Low

A botanical garden bursting with vermillion, orange and ivory blossoms, luxurious spa treatments, a dip in the Dead Sea, exotic animals, synagogue ruins and canyons with rushing waterfalls – it’s all part of what they call “Ein Gedi country.”

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The ancient synagogue of Ein Gedi A botanical garden bursting with vermillion, orange and ivory blossoms, luxurious spa treatments, a dip in the Dead Sea, exotic animals, synagogue ruins and canyons with rushing waterfalls – it’s all part of what they call “Ein Gedi country.”
The floor of the ancient synagogue of Ein Gedi contains an intriguing inscription about a secret no one in the community was supposed to reveal. Some scholars believe it referred to the production of balsam, a scent worth its weight in gold that once grew on the terraces carved into the cliffs above the Dead Sea. But after a visit to the modern community of Ein Gedi, a kibbutz on the rocky slopes above the world’s lowest and saltiest body of water, you can’t help but think these folks have their own well-kept secret – some of the most beautiful and exotic scenery in the country and a magical air of sweetness and quietude that makes you want to grow roots there like the huge and unexpected African baobab trees that now shade its lawns.


Did the hardy pioneers who founded the kibbutz in 1956, when it was surrounded by desert and borders on three sides, ever imagine that today it would be home to an internationally famous botanical garden, a wellness center specializing in ayurvedic treatments, gourmet restaurant and a 180-room inn whose picture windows look out on magnificent canyons and the teal-blue waters of the Dead Sea? Did they ever think that visitors would come from the ends of the earth to spend a day, a week or a month here, and keep coming back again and again?


They probably did; after all, these were people with vision. The kibbutz today – with 500 residents and successful agriculture, mineral water and tourism enterprises – is living proof of the adage attributed to David Ben-Gurion: “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.” In the 1960s, for example, kibbutz landscape designer Eli Ron was inspired by the mention of the baobab in “The Little Prince” to try to grow the tree at Ein Gedi. All the experts asserted there was no change of success. Now there are 30 leafy baobabs on the grounds, just as author Antoine de Saint-Exupery described them, growing “as big as castles.”


A visit to Ein gedi, a little over an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, can begin with a cup of coffee or cold juice at the guesthouse café, sitting in the shade of a patodea tree whose spreading branches drip bright titian-colored blossoms all around you. Then head out for a walk through the botanical gardens that offer almost 1000 species from all over the world, including some cacti from South America that bloom for only a few hours at night – and draw aficionados from all over the country when they do. There’s fragrant flowering plumeria (better know as frangipani) that seems more at home on a Pacific island than a patch of desert, and seven species of its relative, the magnificent desert rose known in Africa as “the star of impala.” Aromatic myrrh, which grew there in biblical times and has been transplanted from Ethiopia, now flourishes again.


At the entrance to Kibbutz Ein Gedi is an information center, staffed seven days a week, where friendly advice on all of the garden is right on the grounds of the kibbutz – in fact, it is the grounds of the kibbutz. The members and residents you’ll encounter on the paths give a warm welcome to visitors. Amnon, the chief gardener, has his hands full, but if you have something botanical to ask, he’ll hop off his motor scooter to listen.


Keen observers of the tourist scene say you’ll come for an hour and stay the night, and if you come for one night, you’ll stay for two. At the inn, you’ll find a number of different kinds of rooms to choose from The “desert rooms,” for example, feature furnishings designed by local artists and charming murals of local animal life on the walls. Early mornings are for walking high above the floor of the Nahal Arugot canyon with wild goats, conies and the occasional fox for companions and perhaps a very rare glimpse of spotted leopards that inhabit the hills. The rest of the day can be spent exploring further afield. Nahal David is just north of the guest house; a 20-minute walk along paths beneath caves said by the Bible to be where David hid from King Saul brings you up to the sparkling cascade of the David waterfall. A longer route leads to the hidden waterfall at Nahal Arugot. The trails reveal the miracle of fresh water in the wilderness that turns everything it touches green, and brings a host of birds and animals to feast on the plants and water, as you feast your eyes on the scenery.


Gems of history are never far away in Israel, and in their desert setting, the remains at Ein Gedi are particularly fascinating. Just beyond the kibbutz date plantation is the mosaic floor of the Ein Gedi synagogue, with its mysterious inscription and its avian, animal and geometric patterns – the jewel in the crown of the community that flourished here between the third and the sixth centuries CE. A 5000-year-old shrine stands on the southern slope of Nahal David, and members of the Essene sect may have lived in simple dwellings found on the hillside.


Astralian native Michelle Hechtman, who made Ein Gedi her home over two decades ago, says “this place can give you something that you can’t get anywhere else.” When pressed to describe what that something is, she takes a deep breath, gestures toward the sea and the mountains and says one word: “Magic.”


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