The City of the Moon
Yericho, Al-Rihaa, the City of the Moon…the city of Jericho has many names but is decidedly unique in many ways. In a previous blog, I wrote about my tours of Wadi Qelt in the Jordan Valley. This week, let us continue down the path towards Jericho and discover what awaits us in one of the world’s oldest most continuously inhabited cities of the world.
The city of Jericho holds a unique place in both world history, but also Palestine.
It is here that human civilization truly began as hunter-gatherers built permanent structures near the Jordan River over ten millennia ago. It is also here that the famous Tel Jericho, the archaeological site of what is believed to be the Biblical city of Jericho, can be found (and visited!) just a short distance from the city center of its modern-day manifestation. To the immediate west of the city lies Jabal-al Qarantal, the looming Mount of Temptation where Christ was tempted by the devil during his 40-day fast in the wilderness, an event where a Greek Orthodox monastery built into a side of the mount maintains a chapel built around the very stone that Christ stood on, overlooking Jericho and the Jordan River, where Christ met his venerable cousin, John the Baptist, and so was baptized in the waters.
Jericho is the only major city that exists on the Palestinian side of the Jordan River, or to be precise, the “West Bank” of what was once considered to be Transjordan, today the Palestinian Territory of the West Bank and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. All other major cities in the West Bank are either built into the hills of Judea and Samaria or straddle the 1948 border with modern-day Israel. With an extremely low elevation, Jericho’s climate ranges from warm to sweltering hot almost year-round. The fertile lands of the valley have contributed to its triple success as a city of pilgrimage, agriculture and an affordable holiday resort for local Palestinians seeking refugee from the winter cold of cities such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus, and Ramallah. But it was not until the mid-1990s that the city grew exponentially as a center for the newly established Palestinian Authority, which both helped bring in much-needed government jobs as well as tourism development projects.
Things to see
Besides Tel Jericho and the Mount of Temptation – accessible via a cable car – one such development project has been the creation of a visitor’s center around the complex of Hisham’s Palace. Considered to be one of the greatest archaeological sites of historic Palestine, the ruins of this 8th-century estate of the family of Ummayad dynastic caliph Hisham Ibn ‘Abd al-Malik includes one of the largest floor mosaics in the world (825 square meters), the iconic Tree of Life mosaic, known for its beautiful rendering of a lion and three gazelles under a tree, and a treasure trove of ornate stone masonry and statuary, some of which is now on display on-site, others of which is at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.
The delightfully easy-going, laid-back nature of the Rihawii – the Palestinian name for the people of Jericho – is well known and generally attributed to their need to pace themselves in the extreme heat of the Jordan Valley as peddlers sell fruit, the famous Jericho dates, and locals sit and drink tea or smoke from waterpipes known as argileh. The city itself feels more like a small town along the Nile Delta in Egypt than a significant historical city. Few buildings have more than two stories, and very few are historic, in part due to the city having periodic earthquakes.
Another unique feature is the presence of a substantial number of Palestinians of sub-Saharan African ancestry, whose ancestors are said to have come from Chad during an outbreak of Cholera during the later centuries of Ottoman rule. A modest-sized Christian community, most of whom belong to the Arab-speaking parish of the Greek Orthodox Jerusalem Patriarchate, whose local church includes the stump of what is held to be the original Sycamore Tree of Zaccheus as recalled in the Gospel of Luke 19 1-10. Another local tradition holds that a living centuries-old Sycamore tree a short distance away from the church may be from the seed or sapling of the original. The tree is now enclosed within the Palestinian National Museum, a beautiful new structure built as a donation by the Russian Federation, and is by far the most visited of the two sycamores. Other signs of the international Christian presence within Jericho include an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery as well as a Romanian Orthodox guesthouse for pilgrims, while outside the city, the Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint Gerasimos has blossomed into one of the most expansive centers for pilgrims and tourists in the Holy Land. One should also not hesitate to visit the Jordan River, which makes for a fascinating cultural experience through witnessing the traditions of the different baptismal rites and celebrations of the pilgrims.
The 10,000-year-old city is not all that distant from Bethlehem, Jerusalem, or Nablus, but it is truly a place unto its own, an oasis of history, religion, culture, and relaxation under a baking sun.
Michael Tours coordinates tours to Jericho, Wadi Qelt, and the Jordan River as well as tours of all principal sites of the West Bank and Jerusalem; to book this tour or other Holy Land destinations, check our tours.