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
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
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
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.