In my ongoing series about ancient civilizations throughout the millennia, I have described a 1,000-year-old city in America, a 2,000-year-old city in Mexico, a 5,000-year-old city in Peru, and a 7,000-year-old city in Iraq. Now, I want to go back even further in time to a 12,000-year-old city in Palestine. This is because, throughout history, there have been more than 20 successive settlements in Jericho, and I find that to be really fascinating.
As far as anyone can tell, the first settlement dates back to circa 10000 BCE, however, a few centuries of cold and drought made permanent habitation impossible until 9600 BCE, when the droughts and cold of the Younger Dryas had come to an end, making it possible for Natufian groups to extend the duration of their stay, eventually leading to year-round habitation and permanent settlement.
The Natufians founded a settlement at Jericho, which is the longest inhabited urban area on Earth. They chose the lushest oasis in the Jordan Valley because the Levant hosts more than a hundred kinds of cereals, fruits, nuts, and other edible parts of plants. Thus, the village housed artisans who baked bread and brewed beer. These were affluent hunter-gatherers who became farmers and shepherds, complete with sheepdogs.
More importantly, every original human settlement was a sacred site, and Jericho was no exception to the rule. The original village was named after the Canaanite lunar deity Yarikh. The settlement served as a center of worship to the old moon god. Yarikh was recognized as the provider of nightly dew, and being married to the goddess Nikkal, his moisture causing her orchards to bloom in the desert.
The first permanent town on the site developed near the Ein es-Sultan spring in 9500 BCE. So, as the world warmed up, a new culture based on agriculture and sedentary dwelling emerged. They lived in small circular huts and they buried the dead under the floor. At Jericho, buildings were built of clay and straw bricks left to dry in the sun, which was plastered together with mud mortar. Each home measured about 16 feet across and housed several people.
After the Neolithic Revolution, Jericho became a 430,000 square foot settlement surrounded by a massive stone wall over 12 feet high and 6 feet wide at the base, inside of which stood a stone tower over 28 feet high, containing an internal staircase with 22 stone steps. The tower of Jericho was built around 8300 BCE and stayed in use until 7800 BCE. This massive construction project took a few decades to complete, but it became the first walled city on Earth, and it even had a stairway to heaven.
By 7500 BCE, Jericho had become the foremost site of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. However, after an earthquake struck in 7300 BCE, the city crumbled and the site was abandoned. Then, a second settlement, established in 6800 BCE, perhaps represents the work of an invading people who absorbed the original inhabitants into their dominant culture. These new inhabitants brought a great deal of refinement to the city.
Their architecture consisted of rectilinear buildings made of mudbricks on stone foundations. The mudbricks were loaf-shaped with deep thumbprints to facilitate bonding. The courtyards had clay floors, while most of the buildings had floors adorned with reed mats. So, at that time, the dead were buried in the rubble fill of abandoned buildings. Plus, the bereaved would plaster human skulls, which were then painted so as to reconstitute the individuals’ features for ancestor worship.
Then, in 6000 BCE, overpopulation and famine led to a great decline in society. Still, a succession of settlements followed from 4500 BCE onward. In the Early Bronze Age, the settlement reached its largest extent around 2600 BCE. Jericho was continually occupied into the Middle Bronze Age, reaching its greatest Bronze Age extent in the period from 1700 to 1550 BCE, as a result of increased urbanization. The area remained unoccupied from the end of the 15th to the 10th centuries BCE, when the city was rebuilt.
This means the Book of Joshua holds no real historical value. Jericho had been deserted throughout the mid-late 13th century BCE, the supposed time of Joshua’s battle. The myth of Jericho and the rest of the conquest represented the nationalist propaganda of the kings of Judah. They claimed the territory in the name of the Kingdom of Israel after 722 BCE. This scripture was later incorporated into an early form of Joshua written late in the reign of King Josiah.
By the 7th century BCE, Jericho had become an extensive town, but the settlement was destroyed once more in the late 6th century BCE. Later, Jericho went from being an administrative center of the Province of Judah under Persian rule to serving as a private estate of Alexander the Great between 336 and 323 BCE. After the abandonment of the Tell es-Sultan location, the new Jericho of the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman periods, was established as a garden city in the vicinity of the royal estate.
The Hasmoneans, a dynasty descending from a priestly group from the tribe of Levi, ruled over Judea following the success of the Maccabean Revolt until Roman influence over the region brought Herod to claim the Hasmonean throne. The rock-cut tombs of a Herodian- and Hasmonean-era cemetery lie in the lowest part of the cliffs between Nuseib al-Aweishireh and Jabal Quruntul in Jericho and were used between 100 BCE and 68 CE.
Each of the three Synoptic Gospels tells of Jesus Christ healing the blind near Jericho, as he passed through the city shortly before the Crucifixion. The Anointed One miraculously healed blind beggars and inspired a local chief tax-collector named Zacchaeus to repent of his sins. Plus, the story of the good Samaritan is set on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Meanwhile, Herod had to lease back the royal estate at Jericho from Cleopatra after Mark Antony had given it to her as a gift. After their joint suicide in 30 BCE, Octavian then assumed control of the Roman Empire and granted Herod absolute rule over Jericho. Herod’s rule oversaw the construction of a hippodrome-theater to entertain his guests and new aqueducts to irrigate the area below the cliffs and reach his winter palaces.
After the fall of Jerusalem to Vespasian’s armies in the Great Revolt of Judea in 70 CE, Jericho declined rapidly, and by 100 CE it was just a small Roman garrison town. A few decades later, a fort was built there in the year 130 and played a role in putting down the Bar Kochba revolt in 133 CE.
A synagogue was built in Jericho in the late 6th or early 7th century. However, by the year 659, that district had come under the control of Mu’awiya, founder of the Umayyad dynasty. That year, an earthquake destroyed Jericho. Later, the unfinished structure of a palatial complex was largely destroyed in an earthquake in 747. Then, the Umayyad rule ended in 750 and was followed by the Arab caliphates. Under Islamic rule, the city flourished until 1071.
Jericho was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1517 with all of Palestine. In 1596 Jericho had a population of 51 Muslim households. A village list from 1870 showed that Jericho had 36 houses and a population of 105, although the population count only included men. Later, according to the 1922 census of Palestine, Jericho had 1,029 inhabitants, consisting of 931 Muslims, 6 Jews, and 92 Christians.
Jericho came under Jordanian control in 1948. In mid-1950, Jordan formally annexed the West Bank and Jericho residents became Jordanian citizens. Jericho has been occupied by Israel since 1967 along with the rest of the West Bank. As such the fate of the ancient Canaanite site is now being fought over by Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews. Only time will tell what the future has in store for what could be the oldest and most important city on the planet…