AMMAN, Jordan — Long ago, in an age when it seemed life was simpler and uncomplicated, and innocence still possible, the River Jordan was a roaring torrent, barreling its way through the inhospitable Judean wilderness towards the shores of the Dead Sea where nothing was said to live, despite the infusion of the fresh waters.
As it sang along its path, the river gathered into its bosom the seasonal gift of rainwater cascading down the towering cliffs. And for countless years bands of hermits and other religious zealots eked out a precarious existence in the caves dotted around the landscape.
Unlike the Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth, who had no place to lay down his head, the hermits, who had denounced the world and all its vanities, had a place in those caves to call home.
Within a stone’s throw of these enclaves, another group of zealots, the Essenes, had labored to create their own community, firm in their dedication to the God whose name they held too sacred to pronounce.
In their stronghold, they would defy even the awesome might and power of the Roman Empire, bent on their persecution.
The Essenes left behind a library of priceless manuscripts whose secrets have not all been deciphered yet, but the Christian monks remained poor record-keepers: they left practically nothing for posterity, their only bequest the bowels of their caves which would be transformed into shrines or chapels for countless pious seekers who had braved the long trek from Jerusalem and Jericho.