According to the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites conquered the Canaanite city of Jericho when they arrived in the Promised Land. The walls of Jericho collapsed at the sounds of the people shouting and the ram’s horns of Joshua’s army (Josh 6:20). Their fall echoed through history, making the site of ancient Jericho, at present-day Tell es-Sultan, one of the first places to be explored during the pioneering era of biblical archaeology. Four archaeological expeditions between 1907 and 2014 have focused on the site, searching for the walls of Jericho. Archaeologists have discovered a complex system of fortifications, destroyed and rebuilt many times.
In the early third millennium B.C.E., the people of Jericho took a decisive step and constructed a massive mudbrick wall surrounding the city. This impressive Early Bronze Age fortification consisted of an inner wall about 4 meters thick and an outer wall 2 meters thick, both built of sundried reddish mudbricks on stone foundations. Blind rooms in the corridor between the parallel walls were sometimes filled with soil or whitish crushed limestone. This filling was not white ash from Joshua’s attack, as was previously thought, but was intended to strengthen the double wall system. An external ditch gave the wall added protection.
In the 24th century B.C.E., a dramatic conflagration destroyed the city wall and the entire city. (The cause of the blaze, perhaps an enemy attack or an earthquake, remains under debate.) The ruinously burnt and collapsed city wall, still visible centuries after its destruction, was so impressive that the later biblical author identified it as the wall of Joshua’s attack, as did the earliest archaeologists who explored the site (for example, Frederick Jones Bliss and John Garstang).
Several centuries later, in the second millennium B.C.E., Jericho became a powerful Canaanite city, again well fortified with mudbrick walls strengthened by three successive plastered ramparts. These powerful fortifications were brought to an end by another major conflagration (caused by an earthquake or Egyptian forces).
Between 1952 and 1958, British archaeologist K.M. Kenyon showed through stratigraphic digging that the wall, which Garstang and others claimed was part of Joshua’s conquered city, was actually far older than the hypothetical date of Joshua’s conquest (the end of the Late Bronze Age, in the late 13th century B.C.E.). Jericho’s world-famous fortifications permanently collapsed around 1550 B.C.E., at the end of the Middle Bronze Age and well before the time assumed for Joshua’s conquest. They were never reconstructed. No archaeological evidence corroborates the biblical account of what happened in Jericho.
The ruins of the Bronze Age walls were apparently so impressive that they inspired the biblical author to place Jericho at the heart of the narrative of the Israelite conquest. In fact, the profile of the ancient burnt city wall is still visible today as a protruding red edge along the summit of the mound, showing apparent traces of the fierce fire that destroyed it.
To quote Eric Cline, professor of ancient history and archaeology at The George Washington University, “It would seem that the only mystery still remaining about the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho is how it came to be written in the first place” (From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible, p. 120).