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The site, identified by some scholars with the biblical “City of Salt”, was occupied mainly during the Greco-Roman period (ca. 150 BC-68 AD). The community that inhabited Qumran is generally identified with the Essenes, a religious sect, which lived in isolation in this region west of the Dead Sea.
Qumran became internationally well known in 1947, when a Palestinian shepherd called Mohammad al-Theeb discovered in a cave a series of scrolls, which were known later on as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The cave, then called cave no.1, was excavated in 1949 by a joint expedition from the Jordan Department of Antiquities, thePalestinianArchaeologicalMuseumand the école Biblique Francaise. Similar discoveries were made in eleven other caves between 1952 and 1956. A Copper Scroll consisting of two rolls of copper was found in cave no. 3. The scrolls consist of copies of biblical and apocryphal literature, the writings of the sect, including the Commentaries, the Rule of the Community, the Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, and the Damascus Document. The dates of these scrolls range from the II century BC to 68 AD, but mostly dated from the first century BC. The study of the Scrolls developed into an academic discipline known as Qumranic studies. It provides us with valuable information about the history of Judaism and the early phase of Christianity.
The excavated site is composed by a large complex of buildings, including communal facilities, a sophisticated water system, a library and a large cemetery. However, the area where the site is located currently controlled by Israeli occupation authorities.
Khirbet Qumran, located on the western coast of the Dead Sea, is one kilometer away from the seashore and circa 20 km south of Jericho, on a spur of the marl terrace, bounded by Wadi Qumran on the south and by ravines on the north and west.
The Dead Sea Scrolls constitute one of the major archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. They incorporate the earliest known manuscripts of the Bible as well as other important historical documents describing the life of the Essene community. At the same time, they are a main source for the study of the history ofPalestine: the Dead Sea Scrolls have shed light on Judaism and the roots of Christianity on the shore of the Dead Sea.
criterion (iii): Qumran bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition which has disappeared: the religious-based way of life of the otherwise unknown Essene community living in its specific type of settlement.
criterion (iv): The highly structured, monastic-type space displays an outstanding architectural and technological ensemble involving buildings designed to serve a range of specific functions, water supply and cemetery, all strictly connected to the life-style and aspirations of the Essene community. Its transcription of the Old Testament, copying of other documents, recording traditions, and other writings contributed to a significant stage in human history during the first century BC, and contributed significantly again to intellectual life following their discovery in the 20th century AD.
criterion (vi): Qumranis known world-wide as the place of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This event, and therefore the site, is directly and tangibly associated with the living traditions, ideas, beliefs and literary works of the Essene community which, through its writings, their survival and their fundamental importance for Judaic and Christian beliefs and theological scholarship, are of outstanding universal value.
The site of Qumran retains its antique character, albeit now excavated and presented to visitors in a rather antiseptic manner, with its natural setting still largely unimpaired. Neither its physical authenticity nor its integrity have been compromised in any significant way (though the modern visitor reception facilities and car park are too close to the main site according to the precepts of heritage contemporary management).
The site, however, now lacks those very written documents, the scrolls, which make it of world significance: they are largely in Jerusalem, with important parts of the archives elsewhere in the world. A parallel for this infringement, technically-speaking, of the site’s integrity can be found in the Vall de Boi, Spain, where splendid 12th century mural mosaics were removed from the churches for safe-keeping to the Catalonian Museumin Barcelona. This action was necessary to prevent further illicit dispersal of the mosaics in the 1920s and did not prevent the churches collectively becoming a World Heritage site in the 1990s.
Qumran really is unique in many aspects: merely as an archaeological site, it might be compared in general appearance with many others, but its particular characteristics as the home and work-place of an otherwise unknown ascetic, pre-Christian community make it without peer. Similarly, as the place where the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Bible were written and, 2000 years later, found, it has no comparison.