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Fayum coffin portrait of a woman

Rahab the prostitute

Reconstruction of one of the palaces in Jericho, built by King Herod the Great as a winter retreat

Ancient buildings in Jericho

Shofar, photograph by Roie Galitz

Ancient musical instruments: shofar

King Herod the Great, as depicted in the TV series 'Rome'

King Herod the Great

Reconstructon of the tiered palace built by Herod the Great at Masada

Ancient palaces

Assyrian archers

Ancient warfare








One of the Fayum coffin portraits showing a beautiful young woman with jewelry

'If Jericho was already run down, the area between the walls would have been quite seedy - the natural location for a brothel or inn... '
Rahab the prostitute


Jericho's story

So what does Elizabeth Taylor, pictured above in the movie 'Cleopatra', have to do with Jericho and the Bible? 

The movie ignored the fact that Antony took the great palm plantations of Jericho from their rightful owner, King Herod the Great, and gave them to Cleopatra instead - something that did not please Herod at all. 

Jericho has many stories, some remembered, but most forgotten. 

Palm tree with fruit It is one of the oldest cities in the world. There were people there in 9,000BC. Most Bible readers associate the town with Joshua, but it was already five thousand years old when Joshua arrived. It had seen a lot of history, and probably endured many like him before - conquerers who tramped in with their armies and razed the town to the ground. Why had these invaders come - and gone?

Jericho was a magnet, sitting low in the south Jordan Valley, about 10 km (6.5 miles) north-west of the Dead Sea. It was a lovely spot, with a lush oasis fed by a number of sweet-water springs. Going back to about 9,000 BC, it pre-dated farming villages in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Syria or in the upper Jordan Valley.

Pre-biblical Jericho

At different times in its history, Jericho sat on three different sites. There wasMap showing the location of Jericho

  • the Canaanite and Old Testament town which stood near the rich springs of Tel el-Sultan (Elisha's spring), some 4.5 miles west of the Jordan

  • the Hellenistic-Roman town at the time of Jesus and King Herod, which had shifted to Talul Abu-Alaiq, further west at the point where the canyon of Wadi el-Kelt opens out into the plain of Jericho

  • the later Jericho of Byzantine-Arab times, which stood at a third site, Ariha (modern Jericho), some 2 km. south-east of Tel el-Sultan.

The Evidence of Archaeology

Pottery found at Jericho, dating from 3300 - 1550BCAs well as this, Jericho had many different levels. The archaeologists searching for evidence of the Israelites' conquest of Jericho found  four walled towns:

  • Town A, dated from the Early Bronze Age in the 3rd millenium BC

  • Town B dated from the Early Bronze Ages II and III (second half, 3rd millenium BC)

  • Town C dated from the late Middle Bronze Age (1750-1550 BC) and 

  • Town D dated from the Late Bronze Age, mainly the 15th and early 14th centuries BC. 

An ancient watchtower found at the lowest levels of the city, from the Neolithic periodThere were also traces of a fifth, later town, unwalled, from the period of the monarchy. 

When they excavated In the north-eastern part of the tel, they found a deep ditch with seventeen layers of settlement, dating from the pre-pottery Neolithic Age (7th millenium BC) to the Early Bronze Age. Very, very old. 

At right is an ancient watchtower found at the lowest levels of the city, from the Neolithic period of the town's history. The tower was solid except for a narrow interior stairway, not hollow as medieval towers were. 

Originally, there was probably some sort of structure on top to give shelter to the guards posted there. A 19th century photograph at right shows a watchtower in Palestine, built to guard against crop thieves. The bases of these towers are solid stone, as the ancient tower at Jericho was.

The Oldest Town in the World

Archaeologists believe that people lived on the site around 8000 BC or even earlier. The inhabitants had planned, built, and lived in a walled city with an effective defence system. 

Since there is no evidence for fortified towns elsewhere before the late 4th millenium BC, the great Neolithic defences at Jericho suggest it was the oldest fortified town known in the world, marking the time when people gave up hunting for food, and lived instead in a settled community.

The remains of a pre-pottery Neolithic house in Jericho

The remains of a pre-pottery Neolithic house in Jericho

Jericho Clay Figures and the Myth of Creation

The earliest people who lived in Jericho did not make clay vessels, but they did use clay in rather a surprising way. Jericho: A clay-covered skull from JerichoFor some long-forgotten reason, they made life-size human figures modelled in clay. The archaeologist Dr. Kenyon discovered faces and heads, modelled in clay over a skull, as shown at right. There were also clay 'limbs': a sort of skeleton made of reeds and covered with clay to look like a human body. 

The question is, was there some link with the later creation stories of Babylon and Israel, that described God forming people from clay?

The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic tells how the hero Enkiddu was 'built' of clay, and the Hebrew story of Eve uses the same word for 'build'. 

The pre-pottery Neolithic B clay figures from Jericho seem to be saying the same thing. "There seems to be an intrinsic affinity between Near Eastern myths, according to which man was created from clay, and the clay figures and plastered skulls discovered in Jericho." (Ruth Amiran)

Prehistoric Trade of Jericho

The people who built the enormous walls of Jericho around the 8th millenium BC had very little knowledge of other arts. They lived in temporary houses and left no sign of any breakthrough discoveries that would explain the growth of the town. The only thing that might explain its existence was trade; trade in the salt, bitumen and possibly sulphur in which the Dead Sea was rich and which were all highly valued in the ancient world. 

Bitumen is needed to seal the cracks in a coracle made of reedsSalt was a necessity of life and some of the oldest trade routes in the area began with the traffic in salt. It's only a guess, but the people of Jericho may have been the earliest to develop this trade from the salt they found in the Dead Sea. 

Bitumen was needed for fastening sickles and other flint tools to their handles, and for boat-building for fishing (see above). 

Sulphur was in demand for medicines and fire-lighters. 

All three materials are perishable, so few traces of them have survived in the town, although evidence of trade has been found. This remains the most logical explanation for Jericho's early development.

The Walls of Jericho

Something happened at this time that made people flee from Jericho - probably invasion by an enemy. But they came back, and Jericho was continuously lived in all through the Early Bronze Age. Mud walls of Jericho

The town was walled throughout this period (3100-2100 BC), although in the course of a thousand years the wall was destroyed and rebuilt no less than 17 times. Defences were obviously a major concern of Jericho's inhabitants, for the town was very vulnerable to attack from the east.

The walls were made of unbaked mud bricks and stood 16-17 metres high. See at right an excavated mud brick wall from the Neolithic period. This made a substantial barrier to attackers but it needed constant care to prevent water erosion and to repair the effects of the earthquakes which ravaged the area at least four times per century. 

Jericho was also vulnerable to attacks from outside. The whole town seems to have been destroyed when the town was occupied by the Egyptians in 1580 BC. What became of the people when they were overrun by an enemy? Outside the walls of the town, numerous mass graves were uncovered. This grusome evidence confirmed the fact that, when a city was conquered, the whole population might be wiped out, or at best taken as slaves by the winning side.

For a century and a half the site lay desolate and abandoned, but in about 1400BC a new town was built and it was this stratum (Late Bronze Age) which was presumably the town Joshua captured. In fact, apart from a few potsherds and a number of scarabs inscribed with the names of different Pharaohs, the only traces of the Late Bronze Age town were a few fragments of houses, probably dating from the 14th century BC. This town was abandoned about 1325 BC and left unoccupied for some 400 years, during which time erosion destroyed almost every trace of it.

Biblical Jericho

Revetment wallIn the late Bronze Age (14th century BC), Jericho stood to the west of a ford used by all travellers crossing that section of the Jordan River. It plays an important role in the biblical narrative of Israelite penetration of the country from the East. 

The book of Joshua (2-6) records that the Israelites camped outside the town, which was surrounded by a high wall with houses built into it. This wall formed part of a revetment wall  around the city (see an example of this type of wall at right). The story of how Joshua's spies were hidden in such a house is well known (Joshua 2) as is the tradition that the walls sealing the town fell on the seventh day of the Israelite attack, at the sound of the trumpets. 

The walls of Jericho come tumbling down as Joshua and his soldiers march around its walls.

Above: a drawing based on the photograph below. It reconstructs the moment when 
the trumpet players blew their horns, and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

Excavated wall around Jericho

Above: the excavated walls of Jericho. 
See the human figure at bottom right of photograph, to gauge the scale

Joshua and Jericho

Jericho is famous as the first town attacked by the Israelites under Joshua after they crossed the Jordan River. In Joshua 2:1 he commands his soldiers to reconnoiter the city, and it is subsequently destroyed. And the walls certainly did come tumbling down. There is evidence of a collapsed stone and mud brick support wall. 

Did the walls of Jericho come tumbling down at the sound of Joshua's horn? 

Hard to say, at least if you are depending on archaeological evidence. The Hebrews were semi-nomads, with little or no material culture. They were only lightly equipped with the sort of objects that survive the centuries, or that can be dug up by archaeologists. Certainly they infiltrated the area over a period of time that may have begun in the 14th century BC, but they only gradually took possession of villages and towns. 

There is also evidence of Jericho's destruction by fire. Archaeological teams have discovered a number of storage jars containing charred grain from the last Canaanite city that existed at Jericho. This seems to indicate that the city was conquered at harvest-time and then burned. This evidence matches the biblical account of Joshua 6. 

But it is impossible to tell whether this destruction was caused by invasion or earthquake. The word 'shofar' is translated in the Bible as 'horn' or 'trumpet', but it can also mean 'great noise' or, at a stretch, 'earthquake'. Possibly both occurred and both were responsible - and why not? Both were part of God's unfathomable plan for his people. 

Shofar, photograph by Roie Galitz

Shofar, photograph by Roie Galitz

The tumbling walls

After its capture, the Israelites destroyed the town and slaughtered its inhabitants, with the sole exception of Rahab the harlot, who had given shelter to the spies, and her family. Finally, Joshua laid a curse on anyone who should attempt to rebuild Jericho. 

Despite the curse people later re-settled the area, and adapted to Canaanite culture. There is no break, for example, in the production  and design of pottery and domestic articles throughout this period. Moreover, Canaanite religious rituals keep popping up in Bible references - Jericho had been an early center of worship for the moon goddess and her cycles - which suggests that the Israelites were never able to completely suppress the Canaanite culture, or the people whose land they had infiltrated.

In the distribution of the land among the tribes, Jericho was assigned to Benjamin (Joshua 18:21); but it was lost when the king of Moab captured it with the help of the Ammonites and the Amalekites (Judges 3:13). The area was apparently inhabited during David's reign, (II Samuel 10:5) but later on during the reign of Ahab, Hiel Beth Ha'eli brought down Joshua's curse on his head by what the Bible calls 'rebuilding' Jericho, (presumably fortifying the town, I Kings 16:34).

Some extra information from the biblical narrative:

  • Jericho was a meeting place for the prophets. Both Elijah and Elisha stayed there. 

  • Elijah was taken up to heaven nearby, (II Kings 2:4-11) and Elisha purified its water (11 Kings 2:19-22). 

  • the Judean prisoners released by the Israelites after their defeat of King Ahaz were returned to Jericho (11 Chronicles 28:15)

  • in the Plain of Jericho, Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, was captured as he was fleeing from the conquering Babylonians (Jeremiah 39:5)

  • Jericho was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and its inhabitants deported with the Jews from the rest of the country.

  • tn the list of the exiles who returned from Babylon, Nehemiah (7:36) records 345 'sons of Jericho' who re-settled in their native town. Some of them took part in the reconstruction of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:2).

Post-Exilic Jericho

During the Hellenistic period, the site at Tel el Sultan was abandoned and the settled population moved west to Talul Abu-Alaiq. Excavations at this site found the ruins of a Hellenistic fortress, attributed either to Bacchides or Simon the Hasmonean. 

During the Maccabaean revolt Jericho was fortified by the Seleucid general Bacchides, and Simon the last of the five Hasmonean brothers was killed just outside the town. John Hyrcanus took over the town and he and his successors built palaces there and two small forts, Taurus and Thrax. Later, in 63BC, these were destroyed by the Roman general, Pompey.

King Herod at Jericho

Recent excavations revealed later buildings in Jericho from the time of Herod the Great.  A magnificent facade on Wadi al-Qult, a mile south of Old Testament Jericho, is probably part of a palace complex build by this mad, brilliant ruler. Its style is completely Roman, in keeping with Herod's admiration for all things Roman. 

Reconstruction of Herod's palace at Jericho

A reconstruction of one of the palaces built by Herod the Great at Jericho, where he had 
his winter palace; a key gives locations of various areas. Compare it with the excavations below.

Excavations of the winter palace of Herod the Great at Jericho

Excavations of the winter palace of Herod the Great at Jericho

Excavations of the frigidarium or cold room in the baths of the palace at Jericho

Excavations of the frigidarium in the baths of the palace at Jericho; see its position in the palace (above)

Traces of other fine buildings can be seen in this area. Herod had a no-expense-spared winter palace there, where he died in horrific circumstances in 4BC. The Jewish historian Josephus describes the macabre scene:

'A fire glowed in him slowly... his entrails were exulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon... an aqueous and transparent liquor settled itself about his feet and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly...his privy member was putrefied and produced worms...he had difficulty breathing...he had convulsions in all parts of his body...' (Josephus Antiquities 17:6:5). 

During the Roman period, Jericho's reputation stood high as a centre for the cultivation of balsam and other perfumes. When Cleopatra was intriguing to take control of Judea and Arabia, Mark Antony compromised by awarding her the palm and balsam groves of Jericho. Herod did not like it, but he had to agree. He recouped some of his losses by leasing the plantations from her and farming out the rent to his own advantage.

Right: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra; the Egyptian queen quarreled with Herod the Great over ownership of Jericho; she won, because she was able to influence Mark Antony, who was the Roman ruler of the Eastern provinces at the time.

Following the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus restored Jericho to Herod. Josephus records that Herod enriched the town with a number of public buildings, including a hippodrome and an amphitheatre, together with a winter palace for himself and villas for the Jewish upper class in the new town west of ancient Jericho. He also built a new wall with two towers around the town, one tower named Kypros after his mother and one named Phasael for his brother. When Herod died his palace was burned down, but his son, Archelaus, rebuilt it and improved its palm plantations.

New Testament Times

Jesus was familiar with the district. The scene of the his Temptation may have been in the desolate mountains above the town, and the place of his baptism by John was not far away. He made the road leading to Jericho the scene of his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30).The road to Jericho, 19th century photograph 

The road he took on his last visit to Jerusalem led Jesus to Jericho where he stayed at the house of Zacchaeus, a rich publican (tax collector, Luke 19:1-9), and restored the sight of the blind beggar, (18:35-43).

Jericho, in Jesus' time, was a thriving, prosperous city, centre of development for the Romanized Jericho Valley. It contained a small wealthy middle class and a great number of poor people who lived in hopes of better things to come.

The town was destroyed by Vespasian during the first Jewish-Roman war, although later on a garrison was stationed there. Hadrian rebuilt Jericho and it continued in existence throughout the Byzantine period.

See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible


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