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Last One Hundred Centuries in Jericho

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 02.01.2010:

Herod, Hisham, and Ein el-Sultan Reflections on the Last One Hundred Centuries in Jericho

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

Spring in Jericho begins as early as mid-February and drowns the oasis in the aroma of the subtropical flora of citrus blossom, oleander, franchepan, sassafras, jasmine, rose, and chamomile throughout the summer and long into December. Its citrus and banana orchards and its legume fields provide a thin coat beneath which lies one of the longest continuously inhabited cities on earth, dating to 10000 BC.

The Arabic appellation of the oldest city on earth, Ariha, is derived from Yarikh, the name of the Canaanite god of the moon. Among his many attributes Yarikh is the provider of nightly dew. Married to the goddess Nikkal, his moisture enables her orchards to bloom in the desert. From the same root the Canaanite word reah is derived with the referential value of fragrance. The modern Arabic Ariha unites both referential values of the Canaanite word, that of fragrance and the name of the moon god.

Ein el-Sultan perennial spring played a major role in shaping the history of the oldest city on earth. The water associated with Jericho came in time to symbolise life. Myth and ritual rites of purification and regeneration associated with “water” reach their apogee in the person of Elisha and John the Baptist in Jericho. The biblical prophet restored fecundity to the city by casting a handful of salt at Ein el-Sultan and brought to end the infertility of its women, thus revitalising the city.

In Tel el-Sultan, adjacent to the spring, lie the traces of the lowest city on earth. The archaeological mound marks the site of the Neolithic revolution where Stone Age foragers made their first hometown. After millennia of hunting and gathering, early wheat was planted and people encamped on their fields to guard their crops from animals and other intruders. In Jericho our ancestors first domesticated goats and learned to have stable homes with watchdogs. Ten millennia later King Herod the Great spent his last years in Jericho. His infamous swimming pools were lavishly replenished by Ein el-Sultan and Wadi Qelt. The meeting of Jesus with the Good Samaritan is associated with Jericho. Jesus came to the prosperous Roman town and cured the blind and installed piety and fear of God in the heart of Zacchaeus, the ruthless Roman tax collector. The Mount of Temptation, which overlooks Jericho, was the site associated with the forty days of fasting and the third temptation of Jesus just before the beginning of Passion Week. The water of the nearby Jordan was used by John the Baptist to purify sinners in preparation for the new life. Within sight of the spring, the Umayyad Caliph Hisham built his famous palace – a water fantasy with pools, water fountains, and open canals – which was splendidly decorated with unprecedented Muslim sculptures of nude women and men dressed in black. Until recently Jerusalemites would retreat every winter to Jericho drawn by the murmur of the water of Ein el-Sultan as it flows down the open canals to irrigate the evergreen orchard.

Nothing remains of these great monuments but dust and rubble. Hisham’s Palace collapsed within forty years of the initial stage of its conception. Of the great Neolithic town nothing stands except for the “watch” or “sacrificial” tower rising mysteriously from the bottom of an archaeological pit. Of the splendour of Herod’s Palace only a few mosaic fragments remain scattered here and there. Even the villas of the modern Jerusalemites have fallen into various degrees of disrepair.

Jericho is located 258 metres below sea level in the Jordan Valley. The abundant perennial water spring Sultan produces 1,000 gallons of water per minute, the red alluvial soil and the temperate weather provide ideal agricultural conditions. In this unique eco-system Neolithic man experienced a major cognitive revolution with the realisation that once the seeds of wheat were covered with earth and sprinkled with water they would come to life, would sprout. He had learned that a hundred days later the dry dead seeds would become saplings that would mature to give an abundant harvest. In this moment, as archaeological finds reveal, Neolithic man domesticated wild goats and practiced animal husbandry. If only the male goats are eaten then a huge surplus of meat would be available all year round. Agriculture and animal husbandry proved to be more efficacious for survival than the previous hunting and gathering mode of subsistence.

“Here” (for neither the name of these Neolithic people nor that of their city is known), surplus carbohydrate and protein allowed for the division of labour to start and specialisation to develop. Whereas one could make pottery, another would protect the city, and another could be devoted to rituals placating the dead and ensuring the fertility of the land and the people.

In Jericho we glimpse the first intimations of the Other. Human society expressed the uncanny sense that death was a passage to another existence. Archaeologists uncovered bones of the dead neatly packed in a foetal position within individual jars, resembling the uterus, evidently in anticipation of the afterlife.

We observe compassionately the first fumbling for architecture in Jericho long before writing was invented and centuries before the great civilisation in Sumer appeared in Mesopotamia. Inside the archaeological dig we stand in awe facing the formidable 10,000-year-old, 7-metre tower; a monument to that first majestic step on the planet earth towards urban settled life.

In the silence, meditating on the dusty archaeological mound, one hears the murmur of the water of Ein el-Sultan still pumping life into the modern orchards of Jericho, now a Palestinian winter retreat.

Conquered by Mark Anthony and wrestled from the Seleucids, Jericho was Mark’s royal gift to Cleopatra thus becoming a Ptolemaic estate for decades to follow. A sea port and one of the main sources of potassium, which was essential in the process of mummification, Jericho was a highly coveted trophy.

It is reputed that Cleopatra spent a season in Jericho; the local natives of Ein Diuke (the settlement next to the second major water spring of Jericho), who bear finely chiselled faces and blue-black complexion, still trace their descent to the Nubians, courtiers who stayed behind from these glorious days marked by the visit of the Egyptian pharaoh. Their features and petite size are distinctly different from the Jericho African population, with chocolate-colour complexion and bigger bodies, the Sudanese renegades from the army of Ibrahim Pasha on his hasty retreat from Acre back to Egypt via the Sultan’s road on the other side of the Jordan.

King Herod the Great originally leased Jericho from Cleopatra. Following her suicide in 30 BC, Octavian assumed control of the Roman Empire and granted Herod free rein over Jericho. Herod’s rule oversaw the construction of a hippodrome (Tel el-Samrat) and new aqueducts from Wadi Qelt and Ein el-Sultan to irrigate the area below the cliffs and reach his winter palace built at the site of Tulul al-Alaiq.

Jericho functioned not only as an agricultural centre and a crossroad, but also as a winter resort for Jerusalem’s aristocracy – a tradition which survived until recently only among Palestinian Jerusalemites and which now exists among many other Palestinians. The story of the dramatic drowning of Aristobulus III, Herod’s brother-in-law, in a swimming pool at Jericho, as told by the Roman Jewish historian Josephus, took place during a banquet organised by Herod’s Jewish mother-in-law on a Sunday afternoon.

As one walks in the debris of Herod’s Jericho palace during a night lit by a full moon the very air feels haunted by his inconsolable grief. One visualises Herod, sleepless in Jericho, pining in grief for his beloved Mariamne, whom he had killed, driven by passionate irrational jealousy. Overcome with anguish, weakened by gangrene, his body covered with ulcers and blisters, the painful feeling of loneliness must have been overwhelming. Yarikh, rising from the mountains of Moab partially hidden behind the thick plumage of palm leaves, was his only companion and confidant.

Mariamne was a great beauty, a descendant of the Jewish Hasmonean Dynasty whose last king the Romans had replaced by the Edomite Antipater (Herod’s father). She wanted to place her Jewish brother Aristobulus, a Hasmonean, in a position of power as high priest. The political trajectory was designed by her mother. King Herod obliged and placed the barely eighteen-year-old Aristobulus in the coveted position. Within one year of the appointment of her equally beautiful brother, Aristobulus was killed. In the following years Herod was in a tragic position and had to kill his children from Mariamne lest the Herodian Dynasty move over to the Hasmoneans.

King Herod, the chieftain of the Edomite tribes and the nephew of the Nabataean King Arethra III (Al-Haretha in Nabataean and Arabic) was a Roman chief satrap. He controlled the Jewish rebellions and though he rebuilt the second temple, on its gate he installed the Roman eagle. Once the rabbis of Jerusalem destroyed it his rage was boundless and he killed many of them. The Jews complained of his excesses to Cleopatra, and Alexandra (Mariamne’s mother) wrote to Cleopatra asking her to punish Herod, who then had to travel to Egypt to explain himself. Jealous lest he may be killed and lest his beloved Mariamne survive him and marry another, he entrusted her to the custody of his uncle Joseph with the order to kill her should he die first.

The secret pact was disclosed and upon his return Mariamne rebuffed him. He did not truly love her, but loved her body she said. Herod’s sister Salome (there are many Salomes and many Herods in the Herodian Dynasty) insinuated to her brother that Mariamne had betrayed him. To gain favour with Herod, Mariamne’s mother even implied that Mariamne had committed adultery with Joseph, lèse majesté, a crime against the monarch. In a fit of irrational jealousy he had her convicted and sentenced to death.

In this context Herod the Great emerges a tragic figure, an Edomite/Nabataean Othello.

The Edomite cum Nabataean tribal origins of Herod the Great demystify the much-maligned image of the founder of the Herodian Dynasty as presented by Josephus and the biblical narratives. After the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the Edomites, one of the Canaanite tribes, were allowed to settle in the region of Hebron now known as Dora. They prospered in this new country, called by the Greeks and Romans “Idumaea” or “Idumea,” for more than four centuries. Strabo, writing around the time of Christ, held that the Idumaeans, whom he identified as of Nabataean origin, constituted the majority of the population of Western Judea. Judas Maccabeus conquered their territory for a time around 163 BC. They were again subdued by the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus (c. 125 BC), who forced them to observe Jewish rites and laws. They were then incorporated with the Jewish nation but were resented by the observant and nationalist Jews of Judea for their Edomite ancestry, their Hellenized culture, and their collusion with the Roman invasion.

Herod the Great spent his last years grieving his lost love. But this did not stop him from dividing his kingdom among his three Edomite/Nabataean sons assuring that Palestine would not fall under Hasmonean control and ensuring the triumph of the Herodian Dynasty.

A Canaanite whose people a century earlier were forced into following Jewish laws, Herod struggled for the sovereignty of Palestine, which pit him against the Hasmoneans and the Jews. His political conflict with the Jews led him inevitably to be satanized by Josephus and the biblical narrative.

Hisham’s Palace stands six kilometres to the north of Herod’s Palace. Every time I enter the Umayyad Palace I am haunted by the nostalgic verses of Maisun bint Jandalah al-Kalbiyeh, the Bedouin wife of the first Umayyad Caliph Muawiyah ben Abi Sufian. Encumbered by her new life in the sumptuous palace in Damascus and longing for her poor Bedouin cousin with whom she was in love she wrote of the joyless court life. For the pleasure of the Arab reader I quote the first three verses.

لبيت تخفق الارياح فيه احب الي من قصر منيف

ولبس عبائة تقر عيني احب الي من لبس الشفوف

وكلب ينبح الطرقان دوني احب الي من قط الوف

In her poem Maisun al-Kalbiyeh expresses her preference for life in a tent, in which the wind blows from all directions, rather than a sumptuous palace, a coarse wool garment rather than silk dresses, and the sound of dogs barking at desert travellers rather than a pet cat.

The poem is metaphoric of the lure of the desert to the early Umayyad Caliphs and explains the numerous hunting lodges (palaces) in the greater Syrian Desert. Hisham’s Palace in Jericho stands witness to the transitional nomadic Muslim Caliphate before it became fully urbanised in Andalusia.

Water from Ein Diuke forms the running theme in the hunting palace built by Hisham ben Abd al-Malik (724-743). In the last year of his reign the tenth Caliph ordered the building of a hunting lodge three kilometres north of Tel el-Sultan. He died before its completion and was succeeded by his nephew Al-Walid Ben Yazid (743-744). Al-Walid had the reputation of being a debauched hedonist. The Caliph’s irreverent attitude to Islamic canons outraged even his political allies. A poet, musician, singer, and self-indulgent libertine given to endless bouts of drinking, his indiscreet sexual excesses were scandalous. It is narrated that he had set off on pilgrimage to Mecca to drink alcohol on the Kaaba’s roof. He was accused of heresy and was killed a year later. To this iconoclast, paradoxically the Caliph of Islam, are attributed the exquisite nude female stucco sculptures, the men dressed in black, and the exquisite mosaic and finely carved water fountains all housed in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. The Tree of Life, a naturalist mosaic portrayal of the strong overpowering the weak, the lion eating the gazelle, may be seen in situ; an ironic metaphor of Al-Walid’s own victimisation for his very human vulnerabilities.

The displaced star from the window of the second floor of the palace stands in the place of the central water fountain now on display in the Rockefeller Museum. The Palestinian Municipality chose the Umayyad star as the symbol of the city together with the ancient appellation Jericho, City of the Moon. Ariha Madinet el-Qamar (Jericho, the City of the Moon) is written on the modern sculpture at the entrance to the city. The artistic composition is constructed to resemble the map of Palestine and includes the token reference to Hisham’s Palace. Whereas the moon god Yarikh is associated with the moon depicted as a sickle it is interesting to note that the moon in the composition metamorphoses into a Muslim closed crescent. In the combination of the two symbols contemporary Palestinians have justly appropriated ancient Canaanite history in Jericho as their national patrimony.

Jericho is heavily indebted to Ein el-Sultan, and its scenic beauty has exerted a great appeal and extended a warm welcome to all those who took it as their home or who have made it their home.

Following the Nakba many refugees from the Palestinian coast resettled in various refugee camps. Those with money built new homes. Um Husam, a refugee from the coastal village of Yazure, chose to make Jericho her new home.

“Cut off from our hometown and longing for our orange orchards in Yazure,” Um Husam explains her special attachment to Jericho in spite of the unbearable summer heat, “the orange orchards of Jericho provided consolation for our grief. We have the illusion that we are still home. Once inside our garden, we are surrounded by the citrus trees and with the aroma of the franchepan, oleander, and jasmine, our Palestine remains alive in our heart.”

In Jericho “history” lurks behind the fragrant aroma of its citrus orchards. Joy and grief, love and jealousy, passion and spiritual harmony, lust and asceticism, vanity and compassion, greed and magnanimity, hate and intrigue: all the elements of tragedy were played out with the peaceful oasis as its stage. History masks the scars of the individuals who make it. For over one hundred centuries, for men and women from all races and from all places, Jericho offered a temporary home, a haven and a vision of paradise on earth. In the turbulent lives of these peoples we recognise the frailty, vulnerability, transience, and nobility of our own humanity.

In Jericho we glimpse the sublime in our humanity.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and the recently published Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilizations. His filmic documentary about French cultural identity, Le Regard de L’Autre was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at


January 2010

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