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Though the ruins of Jericho predate the biblical date for its destruction, the site is one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the world.

A view of Tell es-Sultan
A view of Tell es-Sultan

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

    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.