For many people, the city of Jericho is remembered for the role it played in the Bible. The Book of Joshua describes how the Israelites marched around its walls seven times before blasting their horns and causing the powerful walls of the city to come crumbling down. This is considered an ancient tale, taking place in ancient times, but before the Israelites arrived, the city was far older than the stories in the Bible.
Jericho had already existed for millennia and was one of the first cities humans ever built as they transitioned from hunter-gatherer societies to sedentary civilizations.
Excavations at Jericho
The archeological site at Jericho has been the subject of many expeditions and excavations. Under the guidance of Charles Warren, the first excavations were made in 1868. The hill on which the ancient city was located, Tell es-Sultan, was the location for the focus of these excavations. Warren’s team uncovered significant portions of Temple Mount and discovered a water shaft, now known as Warren’s Shaft. Later discoveries would solidify the claims that Jericho was an extremely well-situated settlement, with natural defenses and an ample water supply in the form of several natural springs across the tell. This first excavation also ushered in an era of Biblical archeology.
Between 1907 and 1911, the Germans were the next to investigate the site. An expedition under Ernst Sellin and Carl Watzinger uncovered more parts of Biblical Jericho, adding additional discoveries to the burgeoning knowledge of Jericho. They knew they had only scratched the surface, but to what extent could not have been predicted.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox
Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Between 1952 and 1958, the British archeologist Kathleen Kenyon headed the work at the Jericho site. Her discoveries astonished the world, as Jericho was discovered to be extremely old, dating back to the Neolithic, thousands of years before even the invention of writing. Her discoveries led academics to believe that Jericho was the oldest settlement in the world, with settlement dates going back as far as 10,000 BCE. This distinction of being the oldest settlement holds today, although it is not considered the first city in terms of the academic requirements for what constitutes a city. That honor goes to Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey, which was founded around 7500 BCE.
A joint Italian-Palestinian team led by Lorenzo Nigro, Hamdan Taha, and Jehad Yasine led the excavations from 1997 to 2015. These excavations led to significant discoveries of defensive towers that had been built on Tell es-Sultan.
The Natufian culture of the Levant was notable in that it was not a strictly nomadic culture like many other hunter-gatherer societies around the world. From around 15,000 to 11,500 years ago, Natufian culture was widespread in the Levant. These people lived a semi-sedentary life, even before the development of agriculture, and it was these people that began the first settlement that would later develop into the city of Jericho.
During this time, the world was gripped by the Younger Dryas, a glacial period that caused cold temperatures and recurrent drought. This made permanent settlement in any single area very difficult, if not virtually impossible. The site where Jericho would arise was fed by several freshwater springs that made it a popular spot for temporary habitation. Around 9600 BCE, the period of the Younger Dryas finally ended, and a warmer, more hospitable climate came to dominate the region. As such, the site became more attractive for extended habitation, which eventually evolved into a permanent settlement. By around 9500 BCE, permanent structures had been built, and the people there had given up any notion of a nomadic lifestyle.
The Next 3,000 Years: “Pre-Pottery Neolithic”
The period between 9,500 BCE and 6,500 BCE is classified in Jericho’s archeology as Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN), which is further subdivided into Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B according to date, with “PPNA” being the older of the two.
During this period, as suggested by the title of the era, pottery was absent, and most tools were made of stone or wood.
At this time, life in “proto-Jericho” was still defined by a hunter-gathering lifestyle. There was a heavy reliance on wild game for survival, but as the centuries passed, wild grains were domesticated, and massive steps in agriculture were taken. Emmer wheat, barley, and pulses served as the main crops.
The structures around the site were circular and made of dried clay mixed with straw, including the roof. Hearths were located both inside and outside of these houses.
From 8350 BCE to 7370 BCE, the site is characterized by what is known as the Sultanian settlement, which covered an area of 430,000 square feet (40,000 square meters). The settlement at this time was surrounded by a 12-foot (3.6 meter) high wall, which was 5 feet 11 inches (1.8 meters) at the base. In the center of the western part of the tell was constructed out of stone, a 28-foot (8.5 meters) high tower – an incredible feat of engineering for the time.
It has been suggested that the walls served mainly as protection against flood waters rather than defense against human threats. It is extremely difficult to tell how many people lived in this settlement during this time, and estimates range from as much as 3000 to as low as 300. It is possible both these numbers are correct, as the population may have fluctuated wildly over the course of the centuries.
The period between 7220 BCE and 5850 BCE is known as Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, although in the first few centuries of this period, the site was abandoned until around 6800 BCE. The period is characterized by an overall growth in technology and population of the site. During this time, a wider variety of plants were domesticated and cultivated, while attempts were made to domesticate animals, most specifically, sheep.
Religion was also apparent in the form of a cult that made use of the skulls of the dead, plastering them with mud to recreate faces, in a similar way to the practice in Çatalhöyük at the same time. The plastered skulls in Jericho also often featured shells pressed into the eye sockets. Also similar to the practice in Çatalhöyük was the practice of leaving the dead to decompose outside for a time before interring the bodies, either beneath the floor of the family building or the rubble fill of abandoned buildings. The skull, however, was kept in the home. These people likely believed that the head was the significant spiritual center of the human body, while the rest of the body existed as little more than detritus when the owner had passed.
While stone tools were still used, the quality of what was created from stone appears to have increased as a variety of new inventions have been discovered. These include quern stones for hand grinding, spatulas, drills, and spindle whorls for hand-spinning fibers.
The Bronze Age
From around 4500 BCE to the late Bronze Age (around 1400 BCE), Jericho was inhabited by a succession of settlements. Around the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, the city reached its greatest extent in size and possibly population as well. Large walls encircled the city, and a substantial palace was built. By the end of the third millennium BCE (Late Bronze Age), the city was a small but powerful and prominent entity within the Canaan region.
Evolving to be particularly thick and defensible, the walls, however, collapsed, and the city was destroyed between 1617 BCE and 1530 BCE, with carbon dating putting the precise year at 1573 BCE. This coincided with an Egyptian campaign against the Hyksos and not, as many would assume, the destruction of Jericho by the Israelites, as attested to in the Book of Joshua. This destruction was several centuries earlier than the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. In the 13th century BCE – the supposed time of Joshua’s battle – archeologists have proven that site was abandoned.
The Iron Age
At the time of the Bronze Age Collapse, and for centuries, the site of Jericho was completely unoccupied. It wasn’t until the 10th and 9th centuries BCE, during the Iron Age, that the city was rebuilt. During the 6th century BCE, this iteration of Jericho was destroyed by the Babylonians during their invasion of Judah.
Forty-seven years of Babylonian rule came to an end when Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 598 BCE. Jericho was subsequently earmarked for reconstruction, and a city once again sprang up from the ashes. Two hundred years later, it changed hands again when Alexander the Great conquered the Persians. Alexander used Jericho as his personal estate from 336 BCE to 323 BCE, after which it became part of the Seleucid Empire – a successor state to Alexander’s empire.
From 140 BCE to 37 BCE, the Hasmonean dynasty ruled over Judea, first as a semi-autonomous region within the Seleucid Empire and then as an independent entity. During this time, Jericho served as a garden city. After the Roman conquest, Jericho was given to Cleopatra by Marc Anthony, but after their joint suicide, ownership of Jericho passed to King Herod, who ruled Judea under the Romans.
King Herod built a hippodrome and added aqueducts to Jericho, in part to service one of his new palaces, which he had built nearby. Jericho became a high-profile city filled with rich individuals.
Jericho would pass into full Roman control, and like the rest of the Holy Land, it would change hands many times long past the ancient era, from the Byzantines to the Umayyads, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, and many others.
Today, Jericho is a town with just over 20,000 residents and is located in the Palestinian West Bank.
With a history that spans almost 12,000 years, Jericho occupies an extremely important place in human history.