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25. Jericho: the City of Palms – and a Sycamore Tree

Located twelve kilometers North west of the Dead Sea and nine kilometers west of the Jordan river, Jericho holds two world records: it is the lowest city on earth, and it is also the oldest fortified site on earth. Its unique topographical location derives from its proximity to the Dead Sea, which is 422 meters below sea level. The city itself is some 250 m below sea level, set near a perennial spring. The spring attracted various groups of people, from the dawn of history, and at the Biblical mound of Jericho (“Tell el-Sultan”) archaeologists recovered 20 layers of occupation, the oldest dating to the Neolithic Period. The Old Testament titles Jericho as the “City of Palms” (Deuteronomy 34:3), and indeed palm trees are a common sight in the oasis to this day. But more famous is the biblical description of how the city was captured by the Israelites. According to the Biblical text (Joshua chapter 6), Jericho was circled seven times by the ancient Children of Israel until its walls came “tumbling down.” In the first century BCE Jericho was a profitable estate where dates and balsam groves were cultivated. The Roman emperor Augustus granted the estate to Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt, but king Herod desired it too, and so he leased it from Cleopatra. Herod also built a lavish royal complex inJericho, on both sides of Wadi Kelt, and not far from it he constructed a unique entertainment complex of a theatre combined with a stadium and a hippodrome.

An isometric reconstruction of the Herodian palace complex set on the banks of Wadi Kelt in Jericho. Photo © E Netzer

An isometric reconstruction of the Herodian palace complex set on the banks of Wadi Kelt in Jericho. Photo © E Netzer

A view of the reception hall at the Herodian palace complex in Jericho

A view of the reception hall at the Herodian palace complex in Jericho. Originally tiled with coloured marble stones (“Opus sectile”), nearly all of the tiles were looted in antiquity. Yet the form of the floor design can be seen clearly. Photo © E Netzer

Being along the main road of the Jordan valley, all the synoptic Gospels record Jesus passing through Jericho on his way from Galilee toJerusalem. The most detailed account is given by Luke (chapters 18-19): “As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadsidebegging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, ”What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord, I want to see,” he replied. Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God. Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.””

By Christian tradition the sycamore tree on which Zacchaeus climbed can still be seen at Jericho, on the side of the main road crossing the city. It is one of the oldest and biggest sycamore trees known in Israel, although its exact age cannot be known, as sycamore trees do not create annual rings. Clearer evidence from the days of Jesus at Jericho can be seen at the palace complex of king Herod south of the Biblical mound (at “Tululel-Alaiq”). The complex is comprised of an elaborate bath house next to a reception hall and a triclinium, all built against the northern bank ofWadi Kelt. Opposite it, on the southern bank of the Wadi, a sunken garden was constructed next to a big rectangular pool, and both flanking a watch tower. The northern and southern sides were linked by a bridge built over the wadi. I have not visited Jericho since 2000, and being under Palestinian control, Jericho is not accessible for Israelis. However, the Archaeological Diggings tour visits Jericho each year.

A view of the Sycamore tree in Jericho, believed to be the tree on which Zaccheaus climbed to see Jesus

A view of the Sycamore tree in Jericho, believed to be the tree on which Zaccheaus climbed to see Jesus. The fence around it is used to display Arab head cover (“cafia”) by local merchants. Photo © M Browning