Jericho - Archaeology in Israel

    April 2000 Passover Edition            
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The Ancient City of Jericho

By Jacqueline Schaalje

Many people in Israel know Jericho has a casino. Tour buses opened a scheduled line leaving from the big cities. The new modern casino building guards the entrance road to the beautiful green town on the northern border of the Dead Sea. Consequently many Israelis do not enter the town itself, which is a pity because there is much more to see. Some people think it is hazardous to visit Jericho, but this is not so. The atmosphere is pleasant and the place swarms with tourists.

Our group of Israelis was guided by an expert tour guide from Haganat Hateva (Society for the Protection of Nature). We were far from the only people stumbling up to the Mount of Temptation and other exciting sights.

Jericho was for many centuries the second important city in Israel after Jerusalem. Because of its lush surroundings in the desert oasis, planted chockfull with fruit trees, and its pleasant climate in the colder months when it rains and snows in the capital; many, especially richer Jews, built their winter residence in Jericho. It was said that here you could still hear the cry of the High Priest from the Temple in Jerusalem.

It is an understatement to say that Jericho has a legendary history. Besides the lowest city on earth (258 m below sea level) it is thought to be the oldest one. Remember the story about Jericho, as told in the Book of Joshua, that its walls crumbled down without a blow after the Israelites walked round it seven times and blew the shofar. This would have happened around 1200 BCE. Actually Jericho existed long before that.

The first settlement at Jericho was in prehistoric times at tel es-Sultan, now the town centre. To enable settlement in this place, right in the Judean Desert, two things are necessary: water and good earth. The water requirement is satisfied by a perennial spring. This can be seen just a short walk north from the parking lot of the ancient site, where clear water bubbles out of the ground. The spring is called Elisha's spring following the story in II Kings 2:19-22, according to which the prophet made the water at Jericho healthy. An amount of 4500 litres bubbles up from under the ground each minute. A sophisticated system of canals and pipes supplied the whole oasis from antiquity until the present day.


The first remains of the town are at tel es-Sultan. The "tel" is a small hill that is the result of many habitation layers on top of each other. This was the time before bulldozers and people apparently found it too much trouble to remove the older ruins, so they just built a new house on top of an old one. The old houses would become useless after a while due to the rain. Although rain is extremely scarce in Jericho - less than 100 millilitre per year - if it occurred, the mud-brick houses would collapse and turn into mud. Layers of mud can clearly be seen in the excavated areas of the tel. Also destruction occurred because of fires. These account for the black areas that are seen in the layers.

In the middle of the tel is an open area in which a huge round stone tower lies. Its age is estimated at thousands of years, belonging to the first settlement in Jericho. In the middle of the tower is a perfectly preserved stairway. The stones of this building are not made from mud, but from natural stones. It is this tower which gives Jericho its status as oldest city on earth, because nowhere else a tower or similar building has been found from such an old age.

The tower also points to the existence of some sort of communal system through which the construction would have been organised. Probably these same Stone Age settlers engineered the first form of irrigation. This means that they could actually settle there and did not have to hunt for food anymore.

After the first settlers moved away - for unknown reasons -, Jericho was inhabited by several peoples. Of the first group after the Stone Age, archaeologists found skulls that were restored with plaster. Also they made clay heads with shell eyes. These objects, which according to scientists point to ancestor worship, are in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

From the last occupation until around 1000 years before Joshua, there are parts of a city wall and rampart on the southern side of the tel. At the beginning of the 20th Century, when this wall was first dug out, archaeologists wanted to believe that these were the walls that Joshua conquered. But it was later proved that they are 1000 years older. Now it is thought that there are no remains at the tel of Jericho from the time the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land. About this the debate still goes on.

Nothing seems to have happened in Jericho for more than one millennium. Only in the 7th Century BCE occupation returned, but it did not last long. The Babylonian conquerors exiled all the inhabitants (586 BCE). Later the spot became a Persian administrative centre. After that it was controlled by a Syrian general who built strongholds on the Mount of Temptation and on the entrance to the Wadi Kelt, of which there are some ruins. During all this time the fruit plantations in Jericho were still kept.

At a later period, the area of Jericho was given to Herod by the Roman Emperor Octavian as a reward for his assistance during the war. Before that the Judaean king leased the oasis and its plantations from Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. Herod had a winter resort at the entrance to the wadi. Once he acquired the city, he built new aqueducts to irrigate the area and a new winter palace on the place of the old Hasmonean winter residence on the same location. The ruins of these luxurious palaces are worth a separate visit.

After Herod's death - also in Jericho - the Roman army ravaged the town. Habitation flowered again in Byzantine times. Jewish and Christian communities existed. Two very nice synagogues are in the area, both from the 6th Century. One is in Naaran (mentioned in Joshua 16:7), a bit north of the centre of Jericho. Only the mosaic floor of the synagogues is left. The one in Naaran is heavily damaged. That it was a synagogue can be deducted from its direction to Jerusalem; otherwise it could also have been a church. Decorations are of a wheel of astrological signs in the centre. The entrance is sided by two deer. The left one looks much more primitive, maybe this is from a later restoration by a less skilful artist. In the farthest corners were lions, this can be deducted because there is a lion's tail.

The second synagogue is on the northeastern side of the city centre. This synagogue is called "Peace upon Israel" because of the Hebrew inscription in the middle of the floor mosaics. This synagogue is much better preserved than the one in Naaran. In the middle of the floor are the double doors to the holy arch. They are surrounded by flowery motives.

Since the Byzantine era monks, or rather hermits, flocked the Holy Land. They did not always reside in monasteries, but inhabited the pervasive natural caves in the surrounding mountains of the Judean desert. These caves were also used by Jewish refugees or rebels from ancient times, for instance by Bar Kochba. The monastery in Jericho, a literal cliffhanger against the Mount of Temptation, is actually half built in such a cave. The cave-church is from medieval times. It has a cute bell-tower. In the 19th Century, the Greek Orthodox bought the place and built the monastery. The place is open to everyone, modest dress required. The cloister can be reached by the cable car or climbing for about 30 minutes.

After the Byzantines came the Arabs. An impressive monument of theirs is the "Hisham" hunting palace at Khirbet al-Mafjar. To reach it, follow the road which leads to the "Peace upon Israel" synagogue. It was built by the Umayyad caliph al Walid ibn Yazid (8th Century). This al Walid seems to have been an eccentric fellow, banished from the Arab court because of bad behaviour. He built a private palace; apparently so he could enjoy life without restraint. Walid was the best poet of the Umayyads and a great drinker. The central pool in the palace was filled with perfumed water. About the small water tanks in the upper western corner of the palace the story goes that al Walid used to fill them with wine. One day a friend of his read a poem to him at the side of the wine pool. The banished caliph became highly excited, tore off his expensive robe and plunged in the pool. He drank so much wine that the level of the pool was visibly lowered. While al Walid lay on the side of the pool, more dead than alive, the caliph's friend tiptoed away with the expensive robe.

Al Wadid must have been very rich; the palace is very spacious. The most ornate decorations are in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. In the central courtyard stands a beautiful wheel of cut stone, pieced together by the archaeologists. The palace is further supplied with two mosques, bathhouses, intricate mass toilets, and big pillared rooms. The reception room in the northwestern corner of the palace has what are called one of the most beautiful mosaics in Israel: the colours look as bright as if it was laid yesterday. One part is abstract; the other part shows a tree, on one side of the tree are grazing deer, on the other side fighting lions.

A last addition to the seemingly endless treasures of Jericho is located in its vicinity: Nabi Musa, a little west on the main road leading back to Jerusalem. The building itself is from the Middle Ages. Among Muslims it is famous as a place of pilgrimage: it was originally built as a shrine from which one could see the grave of Moses on Mount Nebo (in Jordan). Moses, as everyone knows, did not enter the Promised Land, but died just before he and the twelve tribes were ready to enter it. At some point the story must have changed, and people came to believe that Nabi Musa was really the place of Moses' grave. In Ottoman times (19th Century) it got so far that the Turkish rulers actively promoted a yearly pilgrimage there for Moslem worshippers. The pilgrimage was organised on the Christian holiday of Easter (the Moslems do not have Easter nor Pesach holiday). The whole thing soon got political overtones; later the Jordanian government banned it. In the room next to the mosque on the ground floor "Moses' tomb" can be seen, covered with carpets. Entrance to the building is free but access depends upon the mood of the guardian; usually it is open.


from the April 2000 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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