In episode 15 we went from Bethlehem through Beit Sahour, Wadi Nar and Ma’ale Adumim to the Good Samaritan Inn mosaic museum and maqam Nabi Musa.
This episode we are continuing our tour to Jericho, the city of the Moon.
Desert and Dead Sea
We are going down the road towards the lowest point on earth, where the Dead Sea is, 300 meter below sea level. Around us is the rocky desert. In the desert there IS life, the animals we find in the desert are for example the Nubian Ibex, which is a goat that dwells in the desert. It has a light color, with a white underbelly; males also have a dark brown stripe down their backs. Nubian ibexes have long, thin horns that extend up and then backwards and down. In males, these reach around one meter in length, while in females they are much smaller (around 30 cm ) They mainly eat grasses and leaves.
In last week’s episode with Rana about wildlife in Palestine we mentioned the hyrax and I said I thought the one I saw was about half a meter, but then I wasn’t sure. Well, I checked it and they are usually between 30 to 70 cm. They look like big desert marmots but actually and this is very unexpected, the hyrax holds the unique honor of being the elephant’s closest living relative — on land, that is. The elephant and hyrax descend from a common ancestor from the group of mammals known as tethytheria, who died out some 50 million years ago. So there you go. Quite a special animal to spot!
And if you are lucky you can spot a Jerboa, Jerboas look somewhat like miniature kangaroos and have some external similarities. Both have long hind legs, very short forelegs, and long tails. Jerboas move around in a similar manner to kangaroos, which is by hopping. The tail can be longer than its head and they use the tail to balance while hopping
You can see the Jerboa also in the computer-animated comedy film the Star about Bethlehem and the Nativity story, for children but also nice for adults, it is from 2017.
Jericho, city of the moon
We are still on our way to Jericho. In Arabic Jericho is called ar-Riha.
The name of the city is explained in several ways. When you reach the beginning of Jericho there is a roundabout on which a pillar with an inscription says “Jericho, city of the moon” This would be explained by the Canaanite word Yareah for moon and Yarikh, the name of the god of the moon. Jericho was an early center for worship of the moon. And you can imagine that here in the desert the moon, that is pretty big here in Palestine anyway, would light up brightly and reflect in the water of the Dead Sea and was looked upon as a deity.
Jericho is also called the city of palms, because Jericho has a great climate for palm trees and it has enough water. The rainwater that comes down from the mountain ridge to the lowest point, so Jericho has lots of springs.
Riha in Arabic means fragrance, or smell. Imagine the smell here of all the flowers, the blossoms of the fruit trees, it is a place rich in citrus trees, banana trees, date palms, but also corn and all kinds of vegetables. The warm climate and abundance of water makes that in this area there are two harvests per year for certain crops. And for example the olive harvest starts at least a month earlier than in the mountain areas.
Warm winter resort
Jericho itself is about 280 meters below sea level. It is usually at least 10 degrees Celsius warmer than in Jerusalem. (that is 50 Fahrenheit)
That’s why Jericho was and is very popular as a winter resort. We know that King Herod the Great, the one that lived during the time of Jesus’ birth, had a big winter palace close to Jericho. With pools, a palace and a big bath house, introduced in Palestine by the Romans. He also had a summer palace, the Herodion, close to Bethlehem.
And nowadays a lot of Palestinians from other parts of the Westbank and from Jerusalem, buy a piece of land in Jericho and build a house with swimming pool to spend some time away from the city and to enjoy the mild climate in winter.
Water springs in Jericho
Jericho is the only city that has its own water source under Palestinian control. And the springs are natural, based on rain water. That’s why this is the only place where you can find so many swimming pools.
Don’t expect a city like Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Nablus, with a city center. This was my mistake when I came first time. Jericho has about 30.000 inhabitants but they are living in houses that are quite spread around. There is a town center but it is not an old city center. There are two refugee camps in Jericho, the biggest one is Aqabat Jaber, with around 7000 people and the smaller is Ein es Sultan camp with around 3.500 people. Many of the original Palestinian refugees fled to Jordan during the 1967 hostilities.
But Jericho IS one of the or maybe THE oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Excavations showed at least 20 layers of civilization.
Around 11.000 years ago people were living as hunters and gatherers and they used the natural caves that existed int this area to live (listen to podcast number 2 to learn more about the importance of caves!)
They were collecting food, hunting animals and going up and down to their caves higher up in the mountains. One day a smart person said, why are we going down to bring water from the spring and back every day. Let’s just move down and live by the spring. We can make huts to live in and we can grow our vegetables by ourselves. So they started to build huts, they collected seeds and started with the first attempts of agriculture. And they succeeded!
Tell el Sultan
Around 10.000 years ago they had managed to grow into a larger community that even protected itself with a city wall AND archaeologists found a tower of about 7 meters high with an internal staircase that dates back to that neolithic period. And you can go and see that because the site of the excavations can be visited. It is called Tell el Sultan. Tell means a man made mound, it has superimposed cities, so that means that it is layer on layer of towns. The house were built with mud bricks and stones. Over time there have been earthquakes, attacks, famines and other reasons for destruction and the houses became rubble and new houses were built. So in total this tell is about 15 meters high. Which means that the neolithic tower of 7 meters high is actually dug out from this mount and you are looking from up down into the area that was dug out and you see the tower BELOW you. Imagine, the tower that those people 10.000 years ago used to look UP to.
It is not clear what it was used for, for protection, as watch tower, protection against wild animals, floods, maybe storage. Even suggestions are made by scholars it was part of the worship of the moon or had to do with the quick sunset and warning the people of the coming dark which was often associated with evil spirits and doom, to hide in the houses for protection.
Did the walls of Jericho came falling down?
Of course Jericho is known by many people from the story of the Bible in which Joshua and the Israelites come from across the Jordan river after they left Moses behind and they entered into what they called ‘the promised’ land. Their God had said they should take the land and not leave anybody alive. The story of Jericho is that the Israelites walked daily around the city for seven days in silence and then on the seventh day they had to walk seven times around the city and then blow their trumpets. And the walls came falling down and the Israelites took the city and killed everyone except for one woman, a prostitute called Rahab, because she had helped some of the Israelite spies when they were checking out the city and were almost caught.
And according to my teacher at the Bible College it is believed that Rahab later married an Israelite and she was the mother of Boaz. And Boaz married Ruth and they lived in Beit Sahour, close to Bethlehem. And from their line was Jospeh, the husband of Mary.
No evidence in archaeology
Of course the archaeologists who were excavating this site were very eager to find out if this story from the bible really happened or not. And of course scholars are not always in agreement. But generally among archaeologists it is clear that around the time that the Israelites entered into the land, which was around 1400 BC, the city of Jericho was already plundered by other invaders, the wall was already down and there were hardly any people living there.
My teacher at the College says that the story of Jericho was written down in the time that the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon under difficult conditions and that this story was written in a very heroic way in order to give the people courage. That the entrance of the Israelites into this land was probably much more graduate and friendly than the stories written down and collected in the Bible.
Archaeology in this land did not show that around that time there was a large scale destruction of towns and cities.
Jericho’s cable car
Over the Tell el Sultan archaeological site you will see the cable cares moving up to the Mount of Temptation and back down. This cable care made it into the Guinness book of records as the longest cable car operating below sea level. It is 1330 meters in length.
The sugar mills
From the cable car you can see the excavated old city of Jericho but also you can see the remains of the sugar mills for the sugar cane industry that was popular in Jericho from the time of the Umayyads and continued during Crusader time, Ayyubid and Mamluk time.
The spring of Elisha
You can also see the spring of Elisha, one of the many fresh water springs in Jericho but this one was appointed by the early christian pilgrims as being the spring that prophet Elisha purified. You can read this story in the Bible in the book of 2 Kings chapter 2. The people complained that they had water but it was bitter and not drinkable. Then God commanded Elisha to put salt in the water and by miracle the water source became fresh and drinkable.
And as in many many occasions in Palestine, the holy land, the pilgrims who knew the bible stories very well, wanted to appoint places, to say, HERE, look THIS is where it happened. And then they’d built churches and monasteries and hospices for the pilgrims who were visiting and needed a place to sleep.
In Jericho there are several more of these kind of places.
Mount of Temptation
The cable car goes up to the Mount of Temptation. This is according to the tradition the place where Jesus was tempted by the devil when he spent 40 days fasting in the desert. The devil was trying to make Jesus follow him, but Jesus resisted these temptations.
The Crusaders decided it must have been this mountain and called it Mons Quarantana because of the 40 days. In Arabic the Qurantana slowly changed into Quruntul and now it is locally known as Jabal Quruntul, the mountain of Quruntul, which obviously doesn’t mean anything.
The cable care will take you to half way the mountain and you can continue the walk up to the Greek Orthodox monastery of the Temptation that is built partially into the rocks. Quite spectacular. In the monastery, that is usually open for visitors. There is a cave inside the monastery that is said to be the cave where Jesus stayed when he was tempted. And there is a stone that is indicated as the stone he sat on. The monastery itself dates from the late 19th century. There is also a Cafe / Restaurant and some souvenir shops at this location. My kids always love the cable cars and the ice cream on the mountain.
The Sycamore tree of Zaccheus
Another example of a location appointed to be part of a bible story is the tree of Zaccheus closer to the center of the city.
This tree is very big. It looks a bit like a crossing between a fig tree and a mulberry tree. It is not a very common tree in this area. Which may actually be part of that bible story in which a toll collector who is not really loved by the people, because besides taking money from them for the Romans, he is also stealing money from them, he is also very short. Thus very different from the people. Just like the tree. And when Jesus comes through Jericho and a lot of people are out to see him, Zaccheus climbs in this tall tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. And then Jesus stops and looks up and says to Zaccheus that he wants to come to his home to eat with him. Of course the people around them are shocked. Why would Jesus choose THIS man’s house to eat with him. But Jesus says that he came for those who were lost, to save them. And Zaccheus then decides to give everyone back what he stole from them, four times the amount.
If you visit the tree you will find Palestinian fruit stalls around selling bananas, fresh from the plantation, fresh fruit juices, dates and other local produce.
The Russian museum in Jericho
And on the other side of the garden in which this Sycamore tree stands, is the Russian museum. The garden itself is also maintained by them. It is very beautiful. The museum was built in the late 19th century after the Russians purchased the land from the French. Inside the museum there is a photo exhibition showing how Russian pilgrims used to spend up to 6 months to reach the holy land over land, by trains and by walking, until they reached here to celebrate Christmas and Easter and then return again over land. They came with hundreds of people together.
Also in this museum archaeological findings such as oil lamps, jars and mosaics.
Hisham palace, in Arabic khirbet al Mafjar, is an 8th century Ummayyad desert palace. Palestine had become part of the expanding Muslim world since the 7th century, in 638 Jerusalem was under the Muslim rule with Omar ibn Al Khatab. And it remained so under different dynasties until the Crusader Kingdom.
In the time of the Umayyad dynasty in the 8th century many of these desert palaces have been built in the area of Syria, Jordan and Palestine. And scholars do not have one single theory for why these palaces were built in the desert and what their use exactly was. It is obvious that they had walls and towers to protect the palace. That they had water reservoirs to collect and keep rainwater. That they had indicated places for agriculture, to grow their own food.
Maybe they were used as winter palaces for the caliphs to enjoy the warm climate. They could have been used to have meetings with tribal leaders of Bedouin clans to make treaties.
For sure Hisham’s palace was a place of luxury. The palace is often attributed to the 10th caliph Hisham ibn Abd al Malik, but scholars say he was a very pious man and they think it is unlikely that he would have spent so much money on the embellishment of this palace. His nephew however who ruled for a year after him, Walid the Second, was known for his love for a more lavish life. Scholars now believe that the palace grew out to be so decorated and lavish under Walid’s short rule. He was actually assassinated. He went into history for his love for women and drinking.
Hisham’s palace bath house
And here in this palace there was a big bath house with a spectacular mosaic floor and a pool, surrounded by niches where people could sit and relax. These bath houses were not only to become clean and to relax but often also used for social meetings and getting guests to be comfortable enough to make good deals and treaties. The floor of the bath house was warmed by a hypocaust system, underfloor heating. Hot air would be channeled under the floor. The floor is decorated with 38 different mosaic carpets. Its walls were covered with stucco panels and human figures, making it the most attractive feature at the site.
Hisham’s palace has a unique style of decorative arts, including mosaic floors, stucco, sculpture, frescos, and carved stone, combining Byzantine and Sassanian Persian influences outstanding example of the development of secular early Islamic architecture and arts.
The diwan and the mosaic of the gazelles and lion
Close to the bath house is a special reception room, called the diwan, where the caliph could receive special guests. It has an incredible mosaic of the tree of life, a tree with gazelles and an attacking lion.
The gazelles are innocently eating from the grass, but a lion is coming from their back to attack them. Some people think this was a warning to the visitors, to remind them of the power of the caliph. Others think that Walid used to bring his female guests here. In his poetry he often referred to women as beautiful gazelles. He may have thought of himself as the strong lion.
Palestinian archaeologist Dr Baramki
The site was discovered in 1894 but it was not until 40 years later that big archaeological excavations happened. This was in the time of the British Mandate and the Palestinian archaeologist, one of few famous Palestinian archaeologists, was Dr. Baramki. The British colleague of Baramki, Robert Hamilton, published an important work on the findings at Hisham’s Palace called Khirbat al-Mafjar: An Arabian Mansion in the Jordanian Valley. BUT, in this publication, the archaeological research of Baramki was not included. So obviously that made Baramki very disappointed and upset. And it is good that he published his research on the archaeological aspects of the site in reports and articles in the Quarterly of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, because Hamilton’s publication was only art historical and did not include much of the archaeological findings.
Many of the finds are in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. This is the first Palestinian archaeological museum. It was founded by a rich American philanthropist, called John Rockefeller
Hisham’s Palace is currently under renovation. With help of the Japanese they are installing a big protection shelter to cover the site. Until now the site was open to the winter rains and not very well maintained. But they are working on restoration and on making it possible to exhibit the mosaics and keep them safe from the elements, wind, water, sun.
Hisham’s Palace, the Tell el Sultan and the Monastery of Temptation are on the Tentative List of UNESCO world heritage sites.