The West Bank town of Jericho is part of the land controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Inside the West Bank, it is probably the biggest tourist and pilgrim attraction after Bethlehem. With good reason I believe, as the history of Jericho is one of a kind that you find nowhere else in the world. In the following article I describe the most important archaeological sites, in chronological order.
Tell Es-Sultan (Tel Jericho)
Jericho is thought to be the oldest city in the world. How old? About 11,000 years old. It was before pottery had been invented. Archaeologists call that period PPNA, short for Pre-Pottery Neolithic A. A later period of Jericho falls into PPNB. To see this most ancient part of Jericho, we need to visit the Tell Es-Sultan archaeological park near the cable car station. A modest entry fee lets you climb the “tell” or settlement hill.
Jericho was built and destroyed and rebuilt – repeat that 23 times and you got it. That’s how a “tell” is created. The first thing to go for on that tell is right on top where the metal bridge is. From there you look down into the trenches that were excavated by archaeologists. The first archaeologist to dig was Charles Warren in 1868, famous for the discovery of the Warren shaft in Jerusalem’s most ancient part now named the “City of David”.
But Warren ran out of luck (or money) and stopped digging a few feet (meters) before reaching what would become the most famous discovery: the stone tower. Later in 1952 to 1958, while the West Bank and Jericho was under Jordanian control, Kathleen Kenyon excavated Tel Jericho and discovered both the stone tower and the earliest city wall.
Jericho was settled even earlier, about 10,000 BCE, by Natufian hunter-gatherers. What drew these people as well as later civilizations to settle at Tell Jericho was the spring known as spring of Elisha, one of the largest in the region. Abundant water at the settlement mound was an essential precondition for permanent settlement.
With Jericho regarded as the oldest city in the world, a question begs asking: “What defines a city?” Kenyon and other archaeologists explain: Around 8000 BCE the inhabitants built a massive stone wall of up to 5m / 17ft high surrounding the town. Inside the wall they also built a massive stone tower of almost 9m / 30ft height, the highest in the world at its time. This massive stone tower had a staircase that led up to the top. It is estimated to have taken about 11,000 working days to build the tower.
If that was not enough, outside along the wall they dug a 600m / 2000ft long and 8m / 27ft wide ditch into the bedrock. According to Kenyon the “labor involved in excavating this ditch out of solid rock must have been tremendous.” The function of the tower isn’t clear and may have included defensive purposes too. But more likely it served a social and religious purpose. Back then it was definitely an awe inspiring sight. (For more on that, see Arieh O’Sullivan’s article in the Jerusalem Post.)
Such massive building projects necessitate an organizational structure and division of labor, which is what makes a city a city and not another mere settlement. Back in PPNA times people inside the city built round houses about 5m / 16ft diameter. In there they also buried the dead (being close to the ancestors takes up a new meaning). Moreover they plastered their ancestors skulls to make them look alive and put them on the dresser (forgive me getting carried away a little).
These people also started to cultivate barley, pulses, and wheat, making them one of the first agricultural societies. However, things didn’t last forever and the city was eventually abandoned, to be resettled again later by PPNB folks. Settlement continued throughout the Bronze age until the late Bronze age, about 1500 BCE. Archaeologists are divided about the historicity of the biblical event of the conquest of Jericho. Using carbon dating methods, scientists date the black destruction layer – probably caused by an earthquake – to the 15th century BC. This does not match the time of Israelite settlement. I haven’t been there back then and excuse myself from the battle of wits.
The mound was once more settled by Judahites in the 9th century BCE Iron age, only to be finally destroyed by the Babylonian invasion in the early 6th century.
Tulul Abu al-‘Alayiq (a.k.a. Hasmonean Royal Winter Palaces)
At the outskirts of Jericho, next to Wadi Qelt and near the ancient road to Jerusalem, lie the Hasmonean winter palaces as well as the Herodian palaces. Excavations first began with Charles Warren, but he wasn’t looking for the Roman period Jericho. Several other archaeologists followed, but large scale excavations started only in the 1970s, led by Ehud Netzer. Today the archaeological site is not protected, and more and more of it is turned into agricultural land or worse – destroyed. It doesn’t help that the site in question is divided between Palestinian control (area A) and Israeli control (area C):
Jericho falls into Area A, but the areas around it belong to Area C. To make things more complex, some archaeological sites such as Tulul Abu el-ʿAlayiq, located less than 2 km west of the Jericho city center, are divided between Areas A and C.Hamdan Taha: Two Decades of Archaeology in Jericho, 1994–2015
The first of the Hasmonean palaces – built by John Hyrcanus I before 100 BCE – is located North of Wadi Qelt. The Hasmoneans began by building an aqueduct through Wadi Qelt, collecting the water of three springs. Later another aqueduct was added to bring water from springs along Wadi Na’aran. The water was mainly used to irrigate the “Royal farm”, some 110 acres large. The Greek geographer Strabo writes:
“Hiericus [Jericho] is a plain surrounded by a kind of mountainous country, which, in a way, slopes towards it like a theatre. Here is the Phoenicon [palm grove], which is mixed also with other kinds of cultivated and fruitful trees, though it consists mostly of palm trees; it is one hundred stadia in length, and is everywhere watered with streams and full of dwellings. Here are also the palace and the balsam park. The balsam is of the shrub kind, resembling cytisus [Medicago Arborea] and terminthus [terebinth tree], and has a spicy flavour. The people make incisions in the bark and catch the juice in vessels. This juice is a glutinous, milk-white substance; and when it is put up in small quantities it solidifies; and it is remarkable for its cure of headache and of incipient cataracts and of dimness of sight. Accordingly, it is costly; and also for the reason that it is produced nowhere else. Such is also the case with the Phoenicon, which alone has the caryotic palm, excepting the Babylonian and that beyond Babylonia towards the east. Accordingly, the revenue derived from it is great. And they use the xylo-balsam as spice.”Strabo: The Geography (translation by Horace Leonard Jones)
Building a sophisticated water system to irrigate the land paid for itself. During the first century BCE Jericho developed into a wealthy city thanks to the balsam and the dates. The latter were processed into products like date wine and date honey. The balsam was used as medicine and in the cosmetic industry.
Presumably Alexander Jannaeus then extended the palace by a swimming pool complex. Later he filled in the “old” palace and built on top of the mound a new, elevated and fortified palace. His widow, Alexandra Salome, added twin palaces to the southern side of the compound.
While the summer months are hot, Jericho enjoys a mild winter climate. And Jericho lies only 25km / 15 miles from Jerusalem. In winter the rulers of Judea preferred the splendor of the desert oasis over frost bites in the capital. As the “garden city” developed, they were joined by wealthy families of their kingdom.
Jericho also lay on a major crossroad: between Jerusalem and Philadelphia (Amman in Jordan); Petra in the South-East; and Galilee and the Decapolis to the North. In 63 BCE the Romans conquered the land and welcomed this new jewel in their collection. Some decades later Herod was appointed by the Romans to rule the country.
Herod’s father was Antipater, a Jewish convert of Idumean origin, who rose through the ranks while serving the Hasmoneans and then the Romans. He rescued Julius Caesar in Egypt and was appointed to procurator of Judea. Herod’s mother Cypros was a Nabatean noblewoman related to the Nabatean king Aretas.
It was here at the Hasmonean palace that Herod invited his brother in law Aristobulus III, the young and popular high priest from royal Hasmonean descent. Aristobulus tragically drowned in the swimming pool (perhaps by a helping hand?), making Herod weep for hours.
One day Mark Antony – the Roman ruler of the East – gave Jericho to his lover Cleopatra of Egypt. On her way home from Antony, Cleopatra dropped by at Herod’s to inspect her newly gained possessions. At the occasion she did her best to seduce Herod, but he stood faithful to his wife Mariamne (if walls could talk). However Herod, having been deprived of his Jericho possessions, wouldn’t give up and leased the land from Cleopatra, though at a high cost. Some years later it would be returned to him.
An earthquake in 31 BCE destroyed most of the palace buildings. Herod then built his own, one after the other, three in total. They were only a small part of Herod’s gigantic building projects throughout the country. Herod was able to enlarge his territory toward the East and became one of the greatest kings of Judea. (Not without reason he is called Herod the Great.) Yet, he was despised by the people. Eventually he died right here in his palace in Jericho.
Khirbat al-Mafjar or Hisham palace, as it is known by the locals, is a magnificent desert palace from the early Islamic period. Recently the bathhouse has been renovated and covered with a huge dome to protect one of the largest mosaic floors in the world. This site is well worth its small entrance fee!
First excavations started in the early 1930s by Dimitri C. Baramki, a Palestinian inspector for the British Mandate Department of Antiquities. He worked together with Robert W. Hamilton who later published a novel on the Umayyad. Baramki soon understood the significance of the find.
The palace was built in the first half of the 8th century during the Umayyad period. There is much controversy among archaeologists and historians over who built it. Perhaps the caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, the son of the caliph who built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem? A marble slab was found bearing the following inscription:
“To the servant of God , Hishām , Prince of the Faithful,from ‘Ŭbaidullah, son of ‘Umar, Peace be upon you . I praise for you God ,whom there is no other God but He. May God keep the Prince in his care and render his troops victorious. I wrote this epistle to you while I …”Dimitri C. Baramki in “The Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities in Palestine, Vol. VIII”
Baramki explains: “On the other marble slabs human beings and animals were roughly sketched. It appears that some of the laborers amused themselves during their spare time, possibly their lunch hour, scribbling and sketching on discarded fragments of marble; later their efforts, together with a large quantity of mosaic chippings, were dumped outside the south-east round tower on the conclusion of the work on the pavements and dado. This inscription is important as it dates the construction of the Palace during Hishām’s Caliphate ( A.D. 724-43).”
However, no further written mention of the place was discovered, nor by whom exactly it was built. The second possible candidate, as proposed by Hamilton, is caliph Al-Walid ibn Yazid a.k.a. Al-Walid II, a nephew of Hisham. He was said to have led a life more congruent to the findings in this palace (see further down).
Whoever it was that built this palace, he did have a taste for exquisite mosaic art and stucco. For many years the mosaic floor had been covered with sand to protect it. Finally in October 2021 it has been brought to light and is now visible in all its glory.
Throughout the Muslim rule over this region (west of the Jordan), the Umayyad dynasty stood out with the most intensive construction and development. The Umayyads built the city of Ramla from scratch as their administrative center. In addition to the Hisham palace, remains of Umayyad palaces can be found in Jerusalem, at the Sea of Galilee and other locations.
In the same year Izid, who had been Caliph of the Arabs for four years, died. His brother Isam [Hisham] became Caliph and started to build palaces in the country and in towns, to lay out plantations and gardens and to channel water.Chronicles of Theophanes the Confessor
Similar to the Jewish returnees from Babylon, the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great, the Umayyad rulers understood the unique benefits of Jericho. North of the palace and bath complex is a vast agricultural area, including a wine press. Did I say wine press? Oh yes – at least Al-Walid II is said to have been consuming those beverages (his rule as a Caliph was short).
The palace presents arts and crafts that – to some extend – had been imported to the region. For example the use of gypsum plaster. According to Hamilton, the craftsmen were local Greek- or Arabic-speaking Christians.
The extensive use of brick vaulting and of gypsum plaster, both materials better adapted to the mud or rubble architecture of alluvial lands than to the rocky landscape of Palestine, must be classified as foreign to local traditions of building.Robert W. Hamilton, quoted from “Khirbet al-Mafjar” by Mag. iur. Michaela Mammerler
The buildings may have never been fully completed, but rather abandoned before use and shortly afterwards damaged by earthquakes .(There were a series of major earthquakes between 746-749, commonly referred to as the Galilee earthquake. They also led to the destruction of Scythopolis / Beit Shean.)
Soon after the earthquakes, a new dynasty of rulers – the Abbasid – took hold of the place and gradually rebuilt and expanded the compound, as seen in excavations to the north of the palace. All in all the compound was in use until the 13th century when it was destroyed.
The highlight of the tour through the palace compound is the bathhouse complex.Today the visitor can marvel at the beauty of the mosaic floor, one of the biggest in the world. In the north-western corner of the bathhouse complex lies the “Diwan” or reception chamber. In there is the most famous of all Umayyad mosaics: the “Tree of Life”.
During the excavations of Baramki and Hamilton, many of the finds have been brought to Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum. Back then and now it is home to the archaeology department. The Rockefeller Museum holds a prominent exhibit on the finds at the Hisham palace, with the most unique examples of Islamic art. Take for example the magnificent dome cap below that was taken from the Diwan chamber.
The walls at the palace were covered in beautiful stucco which are on display in the Rockefeller Museum. Baramki writes:
The plaster on the walls was decorated with human, animal, floral, and geometric patterns, in a style that is reminiscent for the most part of Sassanian and Helleno-Syrian rather than Byzantine art. … Most of the masonry used in the West Block bears names, Christian as well as Moslem, in Arabic, painted in red, as well as masons’ marks.Dimitri C. Baramki in “The Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities in Palestine, Vol. VI”
The depiction of humans in particular is quite unique in Islam and only found during the early years. In 695 CE Abd Al-Malik introduced a new currency – the gold dinar – that bore the image of the caliph (the coins were soon replaced by coins showing Islamic inscriptions). Human images eventually disappeared in the Islamic world, much like in Christianity during the roughly parallel time of the iconoclasm.
While the mosaics and stucco are fascinating, the most incredible items found at Khirbat al-Mafjar / Hisham Palace are the human statues. For example what is believed to be a statue of the caliph Hisham himself.
The statue of the caliph can be likened with the image on the dinar gold coins, though the robe differs somewhat. Archaeologists and art historians perhaps recognize the Sassanian influence. But what about the female sculpture below?
While some researchers see no similitude with either the (locally prevalent) Byzantine art nor with the female sculptures of the East, others do:
The artistic traditions behind these works of art – be they late Roman or Sasanian – must also have appealed to the taste of early Islamic society. This is particularly evident if we compare pre-Islamic with eighth-century early Islamic representations of the female body which, following a common ideal canon of beauty, had to be voluptuous, with full breasts, fleshy buttocks, and sloping hips.Eva Baer, “The Human Figure in Islamic Art”
One of the explanations for the scarcity of Byzantine secular art (which may have served as model to the female figures at the Hisham palace) is the iconoclasm – the destruction of human images and sculptures during the time of Byzantine emperor Leo III.
The Hisham palace offers a fascinating view into early Islamic art. But there is very little research into this subject, particularly concerning the (female) sculptures. Perhaps the palace decoration was just the craze of a single prince and ruler? Who knows.