On a trip to the holy land, Jericho is another stop along the way. It sits at 250 m below sea level. At first, it doesn’t seem much to look at. Nestled within the Palestinian territory labeled as the West Bank, with a current population of around 20,000, it features ancient ruins among contemporary accommodations. This centre of civilization is one of the longest enduring cities and marked one of the last stops of Jesus on his final trip to Jerusalem.
Jericho was known as an oasis city and bore the title “city of palms.” In 35 BC Mark Antony, a Roman politician, gifted the city to Cleopatra of Egypt because she wanted to control the plantations of persimmons which produced a perfume that reportedly “drove men wild.” The Egyptian queen then leased the site to Herod the Great for a price equalling half of Judea’s income. After Antony and Cleopatra died by their own hand, Herod gained ownership of the city.
Herod the Great built his winter palace here as a refuge of comfort. The city is about 20 km northeast of Jerusalem and features a warm climate in winter with fresh water springs. It was in this place that the king breathed his last.
As the first city conquered by the renewed Hebrew nation after emerging from Egypt under Moses and Joshua, it has been a point of curiosity for archaeologists and students of Scripture. The civilization lay abandoned after Joshua until King Ahab’s time when Hiel the Bethelite established the city again in the 9th Century BC (I Kings 16:34). Joshua had pronounced a curse on the city and the foundation of the city was re-established “at the cost of Hiel’s firstborn Abiram, and he set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, in accordance with the word of the LORD spoken by Joshua son of Nun.”
Historically, we remember this as a place where God’s grace was demonstrated to outcasts. First, Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute was welcomed into the family of God and became an ancestor of Jesus. God continues to tear down walls to reach his own. 1400 years later, Zacchaeus the tax collector is welcomed as a true son of Abraham. There are not too many sycamore fig trees left to host visitors but the one at the town center gives a good glimpse of the prop this tax collector used to glimpse Jesus.
There is a gondola ride up to the Mount of Temptation where the Devil is purported to have shown Jesus the kingdoms of the world. It reduces a 90-minute walk to a 5-minute ride. There is also a great date shop that is a must stop. Camel rides are also available. The Barracuda restaurant offers a great pit stop where beautiful tropical fish are on display. Our group of 27 enjoyed a great feast to energize ourselves for our next stop. The state-of-the-art cable car can take up to 700 people an hour up the 1400 m long ride from Tel Jericho to the 350 m high Mount of Temptation where spectacular views can be had. It claims The Guinness Book of Records as the longest cable car in the world below sea level.
The Monastery of the Temptation, built by the Byzantines in the 6th century AD sits at the top. It is considered a unique architectural masterpiece with its rock caves inside the mountain and with part of the facility hanging in the air and the rest carved into the mountain. Four Greek Orthodox monks manage the facility. Sixty-two percent of all visitors to Jericho are ‘religious tourists” so the economy appreciates newcomers.
There are actually three areas which qualify as Jericho. The original site where the walls fell down, the administrative centre set up by the Romans (about 2 km south) and the Jericho of Crusader times where the current town was founded ( 1 ½ km east of the original settlement).
A German team excavated the foundation of the wall in 1907-1909. Archaeologist, John Garstang excavated the site in the 1930’s and affirmed the Tel as Jericho. He saw a three-foot-thick massive destruction layer. This included jars of burnt wheat which aligns with the Biblical account that the Hebrews came against Jericho in the spring right after Passover. Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950’s discovered that a wall of mud bricks had been built above the foundation and this had fallen down to the foundation which formed a ramp for the invading army. She, however, disputed the dates of the collapse and this influenced modern archaeologists. Pottery discovered during the layer points to around 1400 BC for the Hebrew conquering.
In Jesus’ day, the town was a place for the wealthy and it isn’t surprising that we read of blind beggars like Bartimaeus lining the roads to call out for compassion from those who passed by. It was a main stop for traders and political elites on their way to Jerusalem. The call “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” is answered by “what do you want me to do for you?” The request of “Lord, let me recover my sight,” is met by “recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 18:35-43) The healing brought significant praise to God.