Jericho is the world’s oldest city, dating back more than 11,000 years. Sacred to three religions, it is of great historical and archaeological interest. Referred to as the “city of palm trees” in the Bible (Deuteronomy 34:3), Jericho enjoys a favorable climate and fertile soil. Besides being in close proximity to the Jordan River, Jericho is fed by “Elisha’s spring,” which today still produces 4,500 liters (over 1,000 gallons) of water per minute. An abundance of fresh water made the area very attractive to the early farmers, for whom Jericho was probably a market town. The name Jericho is most likely related to the Semitic word yerah, meaning moon: early cultures worshipped a moon goddess, who controlled the seasons and fertility. In addition to its agricultural wealth, ancient Jericho also had great strategic importance. It controlled a ford across the Jordan River, while natural barriers were formed by the mountains to the north and the Dead Sea to the south. Jericho, with its formidable walls, was the gateway to Canaan, the Promised Land.
Jericho in the Time of Jesus
By the time of Jesus, what is now the Old City of Jericho had been rebuilt 1.5 kilometers (about a mile) west of its original site. It housed the winter palace of King Herod, who was called the Great by some for his magnificent public works, and the Wicked by others for his cruelty. It was during Herod’s reign that Jesus was born.
John the Baptist baptized people in the waters of the Jordan River, just east of Jericho, including Jesus (Matthew 3). The desert to the north of Jericho and the Mount of Temptation, which looms above it, are where Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights to successfully resist Satan’s temptations. Today, two churches offer Christians the opportunity to worship and meditate there.
Just outside the Old City lies the road on which Jesus restored the blind beggar Bartimaeus’ sight (Mark 10:46-55). Within the Old City a sycamore tree still stands that is said to be the tree the tax collector Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus amid a throng of followers. Zacchaeus later became a convert and gave one-half his fortune to the poor (Luke, 19).
Tel Es-Sultan: The Original City
The original “City of the Moon,” located to the north west of modern Jericho, is buried under a low hill. Tel Es-Sultan is comprised of layers upon layers of buildings, each one built over the ruins of the previous ones. Between 9000 and 5850 BCE the city was inhabited by the world’s first farmers and cultures so old that some had not yet learned the art of pottery. They were, however, accomplished engineers. At the excavations at Tel Es-Sultan, you can still see the remains of the world’s oldest wall and watchtower with a well preserved staircase that dates back to about 8000 BCE. It appears these stone age engineers devised an irrigation system to distribute water from the spring.
Jericho was one of the principal cities of ancient Judea and is often mentioned in the Bible. Across the river from the city, in present-day Jordan, lie the Plains of Moab, where Moses died. Mount Nebo also is there. That is where Moses could look upon the Promised Land but was prevented from entering by the might of Jericho. Following Moses’ death (around 1400 BCE), the Israelites, under Joshua, captured the city by blowing on rams’ horns and shouting, causing the “walls to come tumbling down.” The Tel Es-Sultan excavations have revealed the remains of many sets of walls, which most likely fell because of the region’s frequent earthquakes. Archaeologist Bryant Wood has dated one close to Joshua’s time. It can be viewed at the site of the excavations.
Also near Jericho is Cherith Brook (Wadi Cherith), where the prophet Elijah sojourned (1 Kings 17). His successor, Elisha, is said to have created the spring that is named after him, through a miracle. When the Kingdom of Judah later was captured by the Babylonians, the last Israelite king, Zedekiah, fled to the Plains of Jericho, where he was taken into custody, blinded and led into captivity in chains (2 Kings 25:1-7).
Jericho and the Parable of the Good Samaritan
Jesus tells the parable of a Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), who helped a man who had been robbed by taking him to an inn in Jericho, where the man would be looked after. The parable is a story not only about loving thy neighbor but also about religious tolerance. The Samaritans, a sect considered heretical and historically persecuted by Jews, Christians and Muslims, still live on Mount Gerizim, the site of their ancient temple. It is located 44 kilometers (27 miles) northwest of Jericho.
The Jordan River, located in Southwest Asia, flows through the Great Rift Valley into the Dead Sea. It is considered—historically and religiously—to be one of the world’s most sacred rivers.
According to the Bible, the Jordan was referred to as the source of fertility to a large plain (“Kikkar ha-Yarden”), called “the garden of God” because of its luxuriant vegetation (Genesis 13:10).
Other Sites near Jericho
Three kilometers (two miles) north of Jericho lies Hisham’s palace (also called Khirbet El-Majfar), built by either the Caliph Hisham bin AbdulMalek (724-743) or his nephew and successor, Al-Walid bin Yazid (743-744). Intended as a luxurious hunting lodge and surrounded by a walled park, the palace never was completed. Its remains, however, display many beautiful stone and tile decorations and interesting architectural features.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, Biblical manuscripts dating back to the time of Jesus and beyond, were discovered in 1947 in a cave near Ain al-Fasha, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Jericho. In antiquity, the site was the headquarters of a populist, mystical sect called the Essenes, to which John the Baptist may have belonged.