First published at the Gates of Vienna.
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Note from the author: The people who appear in these photos are tourists who just happened be present when the photos were taken.
The Walls of Jericho
Israel’s two largest cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, are very different in both setting and atmosphere. They are almost like two separate countries, even though Israel as a whole is quite small. As a matter of fact, Israel is so tiny that it must be hard for the Israeli Air Force to get proper practice.
I like Tel Aviv. It has a relaxed, secular atmosphere and a beautiful beach front. It is actually a suitable party city, for those who like that sort of thing. Jerusalem is very different. First of all, the locals are much more religious. That goes for the Jews as well as for the Muslims and the Christians.
Tel Aviv is attractive in many ways. From a slightly different point of few, it’s just another Mediterranean city, only with more kosher restaurants. In contrast, Jerusalem is truly unique. Due to the special status and religious significance of the city, it has a different appearance, too. The buildings are usually covered in a distinct white stone. Finally, Jerusalem is situated inland at an elevation of nearly 800 meters. This makes it colder in the winter than Tel Aviv or Haifa. Jerusalem is not a ski resort, but it sometimes has a couple of days with snowfall during the winter.
It was a cold winter morning in February 2013 when I took a day-trip from Jerusalem to Jericho. I had seen most of the major sights in the region before, often several times. One of the exceptions was Jericho, however, so I decided to pay the city a visit.
For those so inclined, a trip to Jericho can easily be combined with a swim in the Dead Sea. I’ve done this before, it’s somewhat of a tourist trap. Everything you read about it is true: you can read a newspaper without sinking and even fall asleep in the water. Which is fun for about five minutes; after that it gets boring. Women can also buy Dead Sea mud, which is reputedly good for the skin. I can’t verify whether or not this is true.
Jericho is located 258 meters below sea level, near the northern end of the Dead Sea (but not directly on the shore of the Dead Sea). It bills itself as the lowest-lying city in the world. If you make the trip from Jerusalem, you have to descend more than 1,000 meters. On the way there, it is customary for tourists to make a stop at the sign marking sea level.
This photo was taken on the road from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea and Jericho. It is common for tourist buses to make a short stop at the sign indicating sea level.
On this particular day, the desert was slightly green. This is something I’ve seen before: on rare occasions when a little bit of rain has fallen, the desert turns green for a short while.
Jericho was warm and sunny, and certainly a lot warmer than Jerusalem was in February. This climate makes it an excellent place for agriculture, which is one of the reasons why it has been inhabited for so long.
It is nearly impossible to determine exactly which is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city or urban settlement. The answer hinges both on the definitions of “urban settlement” and of “continuously inhabited.” What we can say with certainty is that Jericho is on the shortlist of candidates for the title “the world’s oldest city.”
The oldest archaeological traces of permanent settlements at Tell es-Sultan in Jericho date back to at least the ninth millennium BC. That is about nine thousand years before anybody had ever heard of Islam or its founder Mohammed. It is because of these extremely old ruins that tourists like me visit the city today; it is not in order to see some more Arab Muslims. If so, we might just as well visit the Gaza strip.
Christian tourists might like to make the visit to see the nearby Mount of Temptation. This could be where Jesus, according to the Christian Bible (Matthew 4:8), was taken to a mountain top and tempted by the devil. Yet even this site dates back to the pre-Islamic era.
There are a few other Christian sites in the city such as a Greek Orthodox church at the presumed site of Zacchaeus’ sycamore-fig tree. Yet the major draw of most visitors is the archaeological site of Tell es-Sultan. Here one can look down at traces of a succession of settlements in the same spot, stretching back more than ten thousand years, within a city that still exists today. There are few, if any, other places on Earth where the same span of habitation can be seen. At the time of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, as described in the Hebrew Bible, the city was already extremely ancient.
Tell es-Sultan is the main archaeological site in Jericho. The earliest documented settlements here go back to at least 8500 BC, well over ten thousand years ago.
I found some locally produced dates. However, figs and dates are grown all over the Middle East. What surprised me somewhat more was my encounter with locally produced bananas. Bananas are grown in hot places, usually in tropical regions. Yet, as stated before, Jericho is a very warm and sunny location. If a steady supply of water is available as well, bananas can be grown there.
I bought some from one of the local fruit sellers, who was almost certainly a Muslim. They were quite acceptable. On the other hand, I’ve tasted excellent bananas produced in Thailand by local Thai Buddhists. Nobody called them Buddhist bananas because of that.
This realization made me thoughtful while my bus was returning to Jerusalem. I liked visiting Jericho. Maybe I will go back some day and take the cable car to the Monastery of the Temptation. I wasn’t able to do so this time. However, it struck me that none of the reasons I had for visiting the city had anything to do with Islam. I was there to visit the ancient sites. I went there in spite of Islam, not because of Islam, even though Islam is the dominant faith in the city today. I realized that the same was true for many other places in the region as well.