At four hundred meters below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. The air has a heavy, almost viscous quality, and there is a continuous haze hanging over the reddish cliffs that rise up from around the rim of the salt-laden waters.
At the foot of these cliffs nestles an archaeological site known as Qumran, once home to a mysterious community of reclusive ascetics who retired to this remote spot around a hundred years before the birth of Christ. It was in a cave above Qumran that an astonishing discovery was made in 1947, the year that saw the birth of the state of Israel.
The discovery occurred purely by chance. A Bedouin shepherd, easing his way along a ledge in pursuit of an errant goat, casually tossed a rock into a cave below and heard the hollow sound of something breaking. Scrambling inside, he found a collection of earthenware jars, stuffed full of crumbling manuscripts. It was these that were to become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Inevitably, the papyrus scrolls were in a highly fragile state, having lain there for two thousand years, and many were probably destroyed soon after their discovery. But some of them eventually found their way into the international antiquity markets, where their exceptional importance was soon recognised.
Incorporating the oldest versions of Old Testament literature ever discovered, as well as some previously unknown apocalyptic literature and an inventory of hidden treasure inscribed on copper, the Dead Sea Scrolls had potentially explosive implications for the history of Judaism and Christianity.