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Jericho: Oasis Town

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 18.02.2007:

By Delia Khano

Jericho is a sleepy agricultural town, which is actually an oasis in the great rift that runs from Galilee through the Dead Sea, Eilat, and Aqaba and down into Africa; it is known here as the Jordan Valley. Being below sea level, it is several degrees warmer than the hill country and is considered a winter resort by families from East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Beit Sahour. Several springs feed the irrigation channels and are the lifeblood of the town.

Many people have been reluctant to go there since the checkpoint was put up, but this is really only a problem at Christmas and on some other holidays, when there is an excess of cars to be processed. It is certainly not true that the Jericho checkpoint has been removed, whatever may have been promised. The town, with its good restaurants, used to be a natural stopping-place on the road from Jerusalem to Galilee, but a highway has been built that bypasses it, and there are impassable roadblocks to the north of the town.

So the economy of Jericho, as in other West Bank towns, is depressed-but the vegetation is so luxuriant that I would say that at this season, at least, all could find sustenance, whether from the last of the oranges or from the greenery springing up from the ground-the rocket (gigieh), mallow (hubeiseh), hindbeh, haiwerneh, and other nutritious plants. But this in no way excuses the adviser to Sharon, Dov Weismann, who so cynically said, ‘We may not starve the Palestinians, but we shall make them a lot thinner’. His policy is apparently being followed by Olmert.

Citrus is the main produce of Jericho, though it was only cultivated there after 1948, when the Palestinians could no longer reach their groves in Jaffa. Some of the larger orchards have their own Artesian wells, but usually water comes from Elisha’s Spring and is ‘bought’ with the house; it rushes along the channels by the side of the road, and the house-owner or gardener is allowed to open the sluices of his garden for twenty minutes per week, whereby soaking the ground around the trees.

The Jericho orange is one of the most delicious to be found: ovular rather than spherical, it has a very thin inner skin and a taste that is neither too tart nor too sweet. Some people call it a Cleopatra, after the enchanting Egyptian queen who was given land in the Valley by her Roman lover Mark Anthony. But there were no oranges there in her day: sweet-smelling balsam was the prevailing product and gave its name to the town: Riha in Arabic means ‘fragrance’, which can be applied now to the heavenly scent of the orange blossom in springtime.

There is a sign that producers in Jericho are finding vegetables more profitable than oranges. One enormous field, where once there was citrus, has been entirely given over to the mundane potato; the owner must have a market for it-perhaps the US troops in Iraq. More modest farmers produce bananas, which are small but sweet and mellow. Devastated some years ago by a rare frost, the banana groves have been replanted and are doing well. Sometimes one sees a gazelle peering shyly from among the huge frayed leaves.

To the east of the town are the River Jordan and the Allenby Bridge, which is one of the crossing-points into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. But a little way down the languid waters of the river towards the Dead Sea is the Place of Baptism, the most likely spot where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, its authenticity supported by many ancient monasteries and baptisteries built along the banks. Unfortunately this region has been designated a military area, and it is only opened up on January 19, when busloads of Palestinian Christians come to picnic and worship. The Israelis have named another spot, with no tradition to support it, ‘the Baptismal Place’. It is where the river emerges from the Sea of Galilee, and it is only temporary-geared to tourists.

Visitors to Jericho can take a cable car from Elisha’s Spring over the Tel es-Sultan excavations, where Kathleen Kenyon uncovered the tower and fortifications of the pre-Canaanite city dated approximately 7000 BC! With a wonderful view of the oasis town and the valley around it, one arrives halfway up the mountain known as the Mount of Temptation. Nearby is the Greek Orthodox monastery, called Qarantina (forty days), which commemorates Christ’s sojourn in the wilderness (another name for these barren Judean hills) and the temptations he endured there. It is true that there were at one time wild beasts in these hills: in 1960, a hyena was run over on the mountain highway; a little later, a leopard was shot by a Bedouin who was fearful for his sheep; jackals were often heard; and in the town, the last of the wolves was reported to have been shot during the Mandate in 1920.

When visiting Jericho, one should not miss seeing Hisham’s Palace, built for the eighth Caliph-an Omayyad-in the eighth century. It had not been inhabited very long before it was partly destroyed by an earthquake, but what remains indicates a luxurious and beautiful dwelling. The most impressive room is the small guest room where a perfectly preserved mosaic depicts an allegorical forest scene: on one side of the Tree of Life, gazelles are frolicking and eating the foliage; on the other, a ferocious lion is attacking the unfortunate gazelles; the two sides represent good and bad fortune. Its colouring, stylized depiction of the tree, and characterization of the animals make this one of the finest mosaics in the world.

One should visit the Rockefeller Museum after seeing this palace to view the stone tracery and plaster figures that have been recovered from the building. As Hisham was an Omayyad Caliph, he was liberal and did not ban the representation of the human form. There are servants represented and even animals and birds, which must have given the palace a very lively appearance.

Between October and April-and sometimes in the hotter months too-we leave the hectic traffic and the tensions of Jerusalem, drop down from 2,500 feet, and come to the greenness and peace of Jericho at 800 feet below sea level. The citrus is picked in November, December, and January, but some oranges stay on the trees like baubles on a late Christmas tree. In January and February, the bougainvillea sheds its petals, and the vines and the frangipani their leaves. By mid-March, Riha is at its peak; the vines are sprouting anew, the weather is warm and balmy, and the scent of the citrus blossom is truly heavenly. Sombre bulbuls, the mundane blackbird, the occasional pair of hoopoes, and the little darting purple sunbird flit from lemon tree to yellow flowering shrub.

Our house is on a side road off the main road from the checkpoint, but we see the world go by: cars old and new, lorries, many bicycles, many people walking, sometimes a donkey cart, and sometimes a man leading a herd of goats that are grazing as they go. Once as we left our gate to go for a walk, there was a deafening roar as an Israeli warplane flew down the valley, low over houses and palm trees. A man with a fine crop of spinach clamped to the back of his bicycle stopped to look up.

‘Is it a Palestinian plane?’ asked my husband innocently.

‘Come on’, said the cyclist, ‘We don’t have planes. We have bicycles’.

Delia Khano is a long-time British resident of Palestine. She arrived in 1960 and married Gabriel Khano from Bethlehem. Together they started a tour company-Guiding Star Ltd. (www.GuidingStarLtd.com).

This Week in Palestine

February 2007

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