by Claire Burkel
A view across 10,000 years of history: Between the two arteries leading out of the city stands the Tell es Sultan. The first traces of the inhabitants of the site go back to the ninth millennium before Christ. Up to 17 different periods of occupation have been identified. Photo © Nadim Asfour/CTS
After experiencing the heat of the desert, Jericho can appear as an oasis. The world’s oldest city and its tens of thousands of inhabitants also have a rich biblical past.
At Jericho, many historical periods are layered upon each other, and many biblical episodes are set there. The pilgrim who wants to follow its history and Scriptural legacy can begin chronologically with a visit to the ancient mound: the Tell es Sultan. Archaeologists–English, Italian and Palestinian–who have been digging at this site since 1867 agree that the “oldest city in the world” has been occupied for tens of thousands of years. Successive layers have raised up the level of the soil. A tower dating from the eighth millennium rises nearly 33 feet high. It is made of dry stones, almost 28 feet in diameter, with an interior stairway of 22 steps. Its exact purpose remains unknown, though it was most likely used for worship.
The livelihood of groups of people at that time was assured by the perennial and abundant springs, called the Ain es Sultan, and an ingenious system of irrigation for agriculture. Excavation of the Tell has uncovered the Neolithic level. It is known as “aceramic,” that is to say no evidence of the work with, or domestic usage of, clay has been found to date—no jugs, plates, or bowls.
A fortified city on the Tell es Sultan: The most ancient ruins of the town dating from 10,000 years ago, feature a tower nearly 33 feet high and almost 28 feet in diameter. In the top upper part of this photo, you can see the Mountain of Temptation, where Jesus may have spent the 40 days the desert before his public ministry. Photo © Robert Hœtink
The Walls of Jericho
Across the periods, ramparts and gates were built to protect the city. Round or rectangular habitations have been uncovered–until there appears a long gap in the city’s occupation, between 1550 and 1400 BCE, after a disastrous fire.
The town rediscovered its prosperity and walls only under the Israelite king, Achab (873- 853 BCE), as noted in 1 Kings 16:34. The city is also mentioned during the administration of Nehemiah which noted the number of exiles returning from Babylon (Nehemiah 7, 6-36).
Pilgrims who climb to the top of the Tell can stand together under a little straw hut at the summit to read about the famous episode of the entrance of the people of Israel into the land which God had promised them since their departure from Egypt.
The Book of Joshua 2-6 recounts the descent from the hills of Jordan with Joshua in the lead, the crossing of the River Jordan and the conquest of the town—when its walls crumbled at the sound of the trumpets.
But the archaeology presents us with a problem: The walls which burned down in 1550 BCE were not rebuilt before the ninth century BCE. This finding might prompt a different reading of Joshua 6—an account rich in symbolism, especially the six-day procession around, and the use of the number seven—the number of officiating priests, the number of trumpets being blown, the day on which the triumph occurs (the seventh), as the people cry out.
Jesus was tempted in the desert: Often on their way through Jericho, pilgrims push as far as the Monastery of the Temptation of Jesus, seen here, photographed from a drone. Photo © Marie-Armelle Beaulieu/CTS
Everything points to a well-orchestrated liturgical scene. Like the passage through the sea in Exodus 14, this story celebrates God’s power to allow entry to the town, as the people sing the praises of God and commemorate the great victory in a beautiful account filled with colorful details.