My recent trip to the Palestinian West Bank prompted me to re-examine some of the region’s history and archaeology, in particular Jericho which is located in the Jordan Valley close to the Dead Sea.
Jericho is one of a number of claimants to the title of “oldest city in the world. In 2010, the city fathers, to celebrate its 10,000 birthday, “unveiled” a large carpet mosaic thought to be around 1,200 years.
I liked Jericho it was a city more used to foreign visitors, much more relaxed than Hebron which had been tense and Bethlehem, the scene of some rioting, rock throwing and burning tyre barricades. I do have to add that although I did encounter some problems the vast majority of Palestinian people I met (I was not part of an organised tour) were welcoming and were anxious to tell me their ‘own story’. Consequently I would not hesitate to return to any of the places mentioned here.
Jericho the Oldest City in the World
Of course even with modern scientific methods it’s impossible to date the city exactly and there are also other cities including Damascus, and Byblos, challenging for the oldest city label.
During her excavations at Jericho (Tell Al Sultan), 1952 to 1958, celebrated British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, using radioactive carbon dating methods, dated the city to 6,850 BCE, plus or minus 200 years. More recently scholars from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, while agreeing it may be the world’s oldest city, dated it to around 8000 BCE.
There is a small entrance fee to the archaeological park where Kenyon excavated but its well worth it as the sense of ‘history’ is palpable.
Geological evidence has also contributed to the age debate. Writing for the Geological Society of London, Israeli academic A S Issar linked Jericho’s long history to its geological makeup, which created its water supply. He said Jericho, “dependent on the supply from a perennial spring, fed by a regional aquifer, was almost continuously settled from prehistoric times to the present.”
Walls of Jericho
Over the years, drawing from the Bible many archaeologists have sought the fabled “Walls of Jericho”. Joshua 6:16 says, “the seventh time round, when the priests were about to sound the trumpets, Joshua ordered his men to shout, ‘the Lord has given you the city [Jericho]. The city and everything in it must be totally destroyed.’”
Building on the work of fellow British archaeologist John Garstang, Kathleen Kenyon was also looking for Joshua’s walls of Jericho but what she found was much older – a rampart judged to be Neolithic (about) 6850 BCE. It was much earlier than Joshua’s period, which thanks to work by Yigael Yadin at Hazor, was dated to the 13th century BCE.
Writer Moshe Pearlman, in a commentary on Kenyon’s work, said,”there is no reason to doubt Joshua’s destruction of Jericho. With a less experienced archaeologist than Kenyon, they would say that finding nothing is no proof that nothing existed.”
Jericho and the surrounding area is packed with historical and archaeological treasures: Close to the Tell is the spring of Ain Al Sultan, so named because it was the spot where the Babylonians gouged out the eyes of the King of Jerusalem.
The city was the site of King Herod’s winter palace and both Christian and Byzantine monasteries and churches have been uncovered there.
Hisham Palace is another evocative site close to the city, the desert home of Umayyad Caliph Hisham Ibn Abdul Malik built during the eighth century. There are beautiful mosaic floors, royal buildings and fountains. It should not be missed if you do visit Jericho.
Most importantly for many people today is the Mountain of Temptation (Jabel Quruntul), and its Greek Orthodox monastery which clings to the cliff face. It’s the backdrop to the city and the spot where Jesus Christ spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and meditating. Although there is a cable car to take you, I can recommend the walk; it’s a bit of a slog but what a reward when you get to the top.
About 12 miles away are the caves of Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s. Apart from the historical connection Qumran is a stunningly beautiful place to visit but be warned during the summer months it gets very hot.
To round it all off why not dip your toes in the salty waters of the Dead Sea?