Jericho is mentioned more than one hundred times in the Bible, often as a symbol of peace and wealth. Most famously, Josh 6 describes Jericho as an important Canaanite city that the Israelites conquer upon their arrival in the promised land.
Indeed, the archaeological site of Tell es-Sultan (ancient Jericho), located about five miles northwest of the Dead Sea in the Jordan Rift Valley, has revealed one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the entire ancient Near East. Already at the end of the ninth millennium B.C.E. Jericho was a heavily fortified settlement that gradually witnessed the birth of agriculture and animal husbandry, the first use of modular mud-brick architecture, and the invention of pottery. More meaningfully from the point of view of human religious origins, excavations at Jericho have produced evidence of an early ancestor cult and family religion: plastered skulls buried beneath house floors and two groups of clay statues possibly depict a divine family (a man, a woman, and a child).
Did the walls of Jericho really tumble down?
Biblical scholars and archaeologists have searched for the material remains of Jericho’s supposed destruction, which, in the biblical account, marks the arrival of the Israelite tribes in Canaan.
Indeed, the ruins of Tell es-Sultan include massive collapsed and burnt mud-brick structures. These ruins were once a flourishing Canaanite city, built in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages (third to mid-second millennium B.C.E.) upon the remains of a major fortified Neolithic settlement. The ruins are far older than the date of Joshua’s conquest (that is, the end of the Late Bronze Age, around the thirteenth century B.C.E.). In fact, there is no evidence connecting the remains of this impressive city with the Jericho described in Joshua.
Amazingly, though, these remains appear directly on the surface of the mound, giving the visitor the impression that a fierce fire was only recently extinguished. We have to imagine that, when the biblical author included Jericho in the conquest story, the site was already a heap of burnt and ruinously collapsed bricks. These ruins must have seemed to prove the story and were thus exploited by the biblical author: everybody could see that the city of Jericho had been violently destroyed by fire. The author thus ascribed this event to the arrival of the Israelites in the promised land.
Was Jericho the “oldest city in the world”?
Jericho/Tell es-Sultan was first settled around 10,500 B.C.E., making it one of the earliest Neolithic sites in the Fertile Crescent and one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in the history of humankind. In the early Neolithic period, Jericho grew from a rural village of farmers, so that by the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (8500–6000 B.C.E.) it was a large, organized settlement approximately 2.5 hectares in size and fortified by a wall and an 8-meter-high stone tower. Scholars have posited various theories to explain the function of the city wall—the earliest in the Near East—and tower; but whatever the intent of these impressive structures, they bear witness to the organization and mobilization of a large community.
After a gap during the Chalcolithic period (4th millennium B.C.E.), Jericho again sprang to life as a major center in the Early Bronze Age. At the beginning of the third millennium B.C.E., the settlement was fortified by a monumental mud-brick city wall that was successively widened and strengthened with an outer wall and a series of bastions and towers. A temple and a palace were also built, marking the city’s status. In the second millennium B.C.E., Jericho became the stronghold of Canaanite rulers who were closely connected to the Egyptian pharaohs of the Second Intermediate period. In fact, a scarab from this period bears a hieroglyphic inscription with an Egyptian title connected to the Canaanite name of the city: Ruha.
Lorenzo Nigro, "Jericho", n.p. [cited 17 Nov 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/jericho
Lorenzo Nigro is professor of Near Eastern archaeology and coordinator of the Oriental Section of the Department of Sciences of Antiquities of Rome “La Sapienza” University. He is a field archaeologist in Levantine and Mediterranean archaeology and directs excavations in Sicily, Jordan, and ancient Jericho. He has published extensively on Levantine, Phoenician, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian archaeology and history of art. Currently, he coordinates a project on the use of drones, sensor nodes, and 3D simulators in archaeology.
Cult of ancestor worship; religious practice.
A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.
A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.
Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).
The deep valley, with modern Israel and the West Bank on one side and Jordan on the other, through which the Jordan River flows. The valley contains the Dead Sea, the surface of which is the lowest elevation on earth. The Jordan Rift Valley is a continuation of the Great Rift Valley of Africa.
The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.
An alternate spelling for "tel" meaning a mound or hill-shaped site containing several occupational layers one on top of the other over milennia.
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Attributed authorship. ("Tradition ascribed the Pentateuch to Moses, even though he probably did not actually write it himself.")
The stage of development during which humans used copper or bronze weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 3300 to 1200 B.C.E.
Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.
An archaeological era defined by the advancement of stone wares and tools; generally a late part of the Stone Age and an early stage in the development of a civilization. In the ancient Near East, the neolithic period lasted from about 8500 to 4300 B.C.E.
The Copper Age of human development, which fell between the Stone and Bronze Ages. In the ancient Near East, it lasted from the late 5th to the late 4th millenium.
An archaeological designation for the period from approximately 3500 B.C.E. until 2200 B.C.E.Characterized by the appearance of bronze tools and objects.
The crescent-shaped region stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Its fertile land made agriculture easy, making it the location of many early human developments.
An inscribed object in the shape of a beetle, popular in ancient Egypt. Scarabs often contained the owner's signet, in hieroglyphics, on the underside.
The period between the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt, dated to 1650–1550 B.C.E.
A site where older artifacts are dug up or otherwise revealed.
The stage of development during which humans used iron weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 1200 to 500 B.C.E.