Jericho, with its flourishing oasis, was a strategic crossroads in the road network of ancient Palestine. The road leading to and from Jericho—used by merchants, armies, and pilgrims—has been important throughout history.
From as early as the Hellenistic-Roman period, Jericho was a winter resort for rulers and rich people in Palestine. Roman generals, including Pompey, passed through Jericho, and Herod the Great built his winter palaces there. The oasis attracted bustling activity, and historians from the Hellenistic-Roman era (Strabo, Pliny, and Josephus) stressed Jericho’s economic, administrative, and military importance. In the time of Jesus, Herodian Jericho was flourishing with the construction of numerous villas, the cultivation of date palms, and the production of wine, spices, and perfumes.
Jesus is said to have passed through Jericho twice: when he cured the two blind men (Mark 10:46-52, Matt 20:29-34) and when he converted Zacchaeus, the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). The historical Jesus would have walked the Jericho road on the final stretch from Galilee to Jerusalem through the Jordan Valley and across the Judean Desert. In ancient Israel, this important road was also the border between two tribes: the tribe of Judah (along the route and to the south of it), and that of Benjamin (north of the route).
In Jesus’ time the 25 km-long Jericho-Jerusalem road was notorious for its danger and difficulty. The road is most renowned for its appearance in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), which is commemorated today by a building known as the Good Samaritan Inn, or Khan al-Ahmar. This building is an Ottoman hostel (caravanserai) located on the south side of the main highway from Jericho to Jerusalem, 10 km east of Jerusalem, on the site of an earlier, sixth-century Byzantine inn that also marked the place of the parable. In fact, the earliest archaeological findings on the site date back to the days of the Second Temple period (first century C.E.). In Jesus’ time, the site had apparently functioned as a way station for travelers, which it remained through the Byzantine era, the Crusades, and the Ottoman era.
Three kilometers east of the Good Samaritan Inn, a narrow path to the left leads to the Wadi Qelt (the “valley of darkness,” Ps 23), a natural rift in the hills between Jerusalem and Jericho where the renowned Byzantine Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George stands along with the aqueduct and water system of the Hellenistic-Roman period. Since the dawn of the Byzantine era in the fourth century, the Jericho area, and above all the surrounding hills of the Judean Desert, became a place of flourishing monasteries, laurae, and coenobitic life: several Christian communities of monks (Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, and so forth) lived there. The mosaics, frescoes, and stuccos of their monasteries and churches epitomize Byzantine art. Pilgrims also started to travel to this area because of its religious significance. Many of them left written accounts of their journeys: the earliest known is that of the Anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux, dating back to 333 C.E.
After the arrival of the Arabs in 638, the Jerusalem-Jericho road became one of the main routes used by the Arab travelers in their pilgrimages to Mecca (hajj). Pilgrims passed by the place of the Mausoleum of Moses (Maqam an-Nabi Musa), traditionally the first stop on the caravan road to Mecca. (Originally, it was simply a point from which pilgrims could look across the Jordan Valley and catch a glimpse of Mount Nebo, where the tomb of Moses was thought to be located.) The Mamluk sultan Baybars al-Bunduqdari built a many-domed building there in 1269, and it was soon confused with Moses’s tomb itself. Along with the nearby Maqam Hasan al-Ra‘i (tomb of Moses’ shepherd), the so-called Moses tomb remains one of the main monuments that the traveler to Jericho can still visit on the Jerusalem-Jericho road.
The Jerusalem-Jericho road was and is one of the main paths across the Judean Desert. It is where Christian monks and hermits came to meditate and pray in the silence of the desert since the dawn of the Byzantine era and where Bedouin tents and camps still line the roadside today.