Jericho, Palestine: Old as all hell

You know Jericho.  Seriously, you do: it’s one of those Old Testament stories that we’ve all heard of.  The Israelites invade Canaan, sweeping all before them until they reach the grand city of Jericho, thick-walled and belligerent.  Joshua pulls his stunt with marches and trumpets and the walls come down, and that’s that.  Suddenly and briefly this unknown city of a barely known people is thrust onto the world stage, and then disappears from the Biblical narrative.

To be fair to Jericho though, the Israelite invasion is barely an eyeblink of its time.  Excavations at Jericho in the early 50s by the fantastic Kathleen Kenyon, whose work pioneered archaeological principles like stratigraphy, took the site of Tel-es-Sultan just north of modern Jericho, and what she found made it abundantly clear that Jericho was a damn sight older than Joshua, the Bible, Canaan, Egypt or the concept of monotheism.

This tower, some four metres tall, dominates the defensive walls of its period.  This period, incidentally, is the pre-pottery Neolithic – approximately 9400 BC.  The defensive structures enclosed what was a sizable city-state, comparable to Catal Hoyuk.  Indeed, the Palestinian Authority goes so far to market it as ‘the oldest city in the world’, celebrating its 10000th anniversary in 2007.  Claims of ‘oldest’ are never possible to substantiate, as radiocarbon dates (also pioneered by Kenyon, in fact) still give error margins of +-400 years for such old material, and of course we’ve not excavated everywhere: Jericho can, however, make a reasonable claim to oldest continuously occupied city, which is also pretty cool.

There’s a number of significant phases on Tel-es-Sultan, which is the site of Jericho until its destruction in approx. 1550 BC (Biblical archaeologists love to insist that this marks Joshua: the ash layer is thick enough to imply total destruction and ash deposits are pretty datable).  This Bronze Age city is certainly very grand, and a key Canaanite power: the pottery finds alone evidence a city with serious regional trading links, including overland into Asia proper.

The word ‘Tel’ is bandied around Israel-Palestine to refer to these sorts of multiple phase settlements built directly on top of each other, and is part of the popular lexicon – Tel-es-Sultan is the public name for the hill that towers over the modern city, indistinguishable at a distance from the real hills that surround it, made almost entirely from the detritus of human lives.  I’m not a religious man, but places like this almost have a spiritual quality to me; with some eight thousand years of almost continous human occupation, the weight of their works and their existence is almost ancestral, if we ignore for a minute the fact that I’m fairly certain I have no ancestors east of Edinburgh.

The other thing that is pretty sweet in Jericho would be Hisham’s Palace, some 3km out of Jericho as the rental bike rides.

This large palace complex is the work not of Caliph Hisham, but his nephew and successor Al-Walid idn Yazid (743 – 4 CE) during his uncle’s reign.  It didn’t last, having been devastated by an earthquake soon after.  Designed as a winter palace (Jericho’s the hottest place in Palestine: it hit 40C when I was there), much of the piping for hot water remains in the structure, as well as an absolutely fantastic mosaic in the bathhouse that remains in goddamn perfect condition and is essentially crack to me.

This is the famous Tree of Life mosaic.  Some interpreters see this image as depicting the statesmanship declared by Mu’awiyah, one of the earlier Umayyad caliphs: “I apply not my sword where my lash suffices, nor my lash where my tongue is enough. And even if there be one hair binding me to my fellowmen, I do not let it break: when they pull I loosen, and if they loosen I pull.”  The contrast on one side with the peaceful deer and the lion feasting on the other can be taken as peace versus chaos: a ruler, of course, aims for the former.  Something worth contemplating as you relax, I suppose.

I skipped the Mount of Temptation as cycling through the mid-day heat nearly gave me heatstroke: instead, stay tuned for the next entry, where I actually dig something (!).


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2 responses to “Jericho, Palestine: Old as all hell”

  1. Gerry says :

    Get that trowel out of its holster!

    • cdougan says :

      That’s what it’s for! I still need to get permission from the folks I’m working with to cover the dig (they’ve not published yet and I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder), but the latest that’ll happen is next month when they do publish.

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