Biblical Archaeology Review 22:6, November/December 1996
What Was Qumran?

A Ritual Purification Center

By Edward M. Cook

Qumran has remained a mystery long enough. Forty-five years after excavations first began, all the evidence from the site has still not been satisfactorily reconciled by any single theory. Jodi Magness, in the accompanying article, makes a persuasive case for what Qumran was not. I believe I can make an equally persuasive case for what it was, but first I want to address the most recent competing theory about Qumran’s purpose.

Two years ago Australian scholars Alan Crown and Lena Cansdale argued in these pages that Qumran, situated as it is on what used to be a major commercial route, was an entrepôt, a stopping place for merchants and goods.a To prove their case, they attempted to demolish the theory that Qumran was an Essene settlement, first by dispatching Pliny the Elder’s often-quoted statement that Ein Gedi lies south of an Essene settlement and secondly by pointing out the many discrepancies between the way ancient writers described the Essenes and the materials excavated from the site.

Pliny’s passage on the Essenes reads:

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