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orion-list Essenes at Qumran: A Reality Check
Once again, Khirbet Qumran has been vehemently declared as the site of
Josephus' Essenes. Fictional Documents and linguistic impossibilities
aside, Qumran as the site of Josephus' or Pliny's Essenes is a physical
and physiological impossibility. We are NOT, after all, talking about a
romantic adventure story whose heroes undergo short-term deprivations
and hardships to support a story-line. We are talking about an agricul-
tural community where people go out to the fields to tend and to reap
crops, as well as a community where ritual washing and super-cleanliness
are supposedly a part of daily life. What we need is a reality check.
Khirbet Qumran is located in the Rift Valley amid very rough, dry terrain
with no arable land, and in proximity to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is an
inland sea that was formed and blocked off at its Southern end long before
the last major earth movements in the area, i.e. ca. 4,000 BCE. The Dead
Sea is saltier than the oceans; the water cannot be used for drinking or
for washing. There are no underground springs in the area, and if there
were, at Qumran the rock is phosphate and to dig a deep well is difficult,
even with modern heavy duty drilling equipment. The only source of water
at Qumran is rain. During the rainy season, from mid-October to mid-March,
the area gets roughly 8 inches of rain. From mid-March to mid-October, the
area is dry. From June through August, the temperature is over 40 degrees
Celsius (104 F) every day.
Humans sweat; sweating is the body's way of cooling off, but as one sweats,
water is lost. Anyone living in a hot climate sweats a great deal. A
person living in such a climate (without airconditioning, of course) must
drink 1 to 2 liters of water every hour to prevent dehydration. If some-
one is doing sedentary work, 1 liter _may_ suffice (this depends upon the
individual, some people sweat more than others when just sitting); anyone
doing physical labor needs at least 2 to 4 liters per hour.
Excluding sleeping time, a conservative average of the amount of water
needed by *one* person living and working in this area during the hot
season is 2 liters of water per hour to replenish his body tissues. This
adds up to 16 hours times 2 liters, or, 32 liters of water per day per
person. This amount of water, 32 liters per person, is needed every day,
day-in and day-out. While a person may go *temporarily* on short water
rations, such a shortage cannot be prolonged. If a person does not replace
the water lost in sweat, and he keeps working, he will die of dehydration
and his death can be swift. It can take as little as *two* hours at 40
degrees Celsius to move from sweating profusely, to a sudden drying out,
to disorientation, to collapse, to coma, and to death. Further, once the
person has collapsed from dehydration, even if he can be saved by IV
infusion (a remedy not available at the time), he may have suffered
irreversible brain damage.
In ANT Josephus claims that the Essene community numbered 4,000 people.
4,000 people will need a minimum of *128,000* liters of water per day
just to survive. This figure does NOT include water for washing or for
cooking or for livestock or for agriculture.
1 liter of water weighs 1 kilogram. A community of 4,000 people requires
128 *tons* of water every day merely to sustain life.
The water, 128 tons of it just for sheer survival, would have to come from
somewhere. While an arrangement to purchase the water from an oasis is con-
ceivable, getting the purchased water from the source to the site of Qumran
is another story. The choices would be by donkey or by ox cart.
A donkey can carry 70-80 kilos. A water skin filled with 20 liters of
water weighs 20 kilos. The most a donkey can carry is 80 liters of water.
Ox carts with jars holding 20 liters each (no more, or the weight becomes
difficult to manage) might be used, but oxen are slow, and a trip that
will take a donkey 1 day will take an ox 2 days. (For the moment we can
ignore the fact that the animals will need some of that water, as will
To carry 128 tons of water would require a train of 1,000 donkeys. The
1,000 donkeys and their drivers would have to work on a round-the-clock,
non-stop, day-and-night basis to bring in just the water necessary for
survival. It is impossible to transport 128 tons of water for the minimum
needs of a community of 4,000 people on a daily basis -- even with modern
equipment. Because desalinated water is not a very satisfying drink, trans-
port of fresh water on a mass basis has been tried with modern tanker-trucks
for a settlement on the Dead Sea. The feat cannot be done even today; water
at this Dead Sea settlement now comes from distillation plants.
>From the number of cisterns for water storage at Khirbet Qumran, at most
120 men, a company on guard duty -- a primarily sedentary job, could live
at the site. In normal years, if handled with care, the amount of rain water
collected in the cisterns would be sufficient to supply water for drinking,
cooking, and some washing during the dry season. If the rain should fail,
by June, most of the men would be pulled out and only a skeleton crew left
behind until the first rains replenished the water supply.
No matter how vehement the insistence that Khirbet Qumran is the site of
Josephus' Essenes, the idea fails on a simple reality check. It is both a
physical and physiological impossiblity that an _agricultural_ community
of 80 people, much less 4,000 people, people who had a "thing" about
"ritual" washing could exist at any time at the site of Qumran. The idea
that those are "ritual baths" used by the Essenes at Qumran simply will
not wash. Water for washing of any sort is way down on the priority list
in the desert. Those are cisterns to collect the rainwater for drinking.
Any elementary text book on human physiology immediately removes Khirbet
Qumran as a site for Josephus' or Pliny's Essene settlements. Scholars
will have to look elsewhere, and, of course, many have. Ein Gedi has been
proposed as answering both Pliny's description and Josephus' list. <1>
Nonetheless a word of caution must be sounded: while a big oasis, such
as Ein Gedi, could support -- barely -- a community of 4,000 people,
water conservation would have to be strictly enforced: agriculture uses
70 times as much water as humans.
<1> There are a number of points in Josephus' list that also fail reality
checks. Josephus' Essenes, for example, go out to work in the fields in
late morning. Perhaps the words of that Noel Coward song could be changed
to reflect this: "Mad dogs and Essenes go out in the noon day sun."
Dr. Rochelle I. Altman, co-coordinator IOUDAIOS-L firstname.lastname@example.org
[Note: this posting was allowed by permission of the moderator, although
it exceeds the limit. AP]
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