Jericho: Bible Archaeology

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Joshua and Jericho

Did it happen?

The tumbling walls

King Herod's Jericho



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One of the Fayum coffin portraits showing a beautiful young woman with jewelry

'If Jericho was already run down, the area between the walls would have been quite seedy - the natural location for a brothel or inn... '
Rahab the prostitute














Stone Tablets














What happened at Jericho? It is one of the earliest cities in the world, starting in about 9,000BC, but somewhere around 5000 BC everything went quiet. The city died, and no-one really knows why.

Jericho: The solid (not hollow) stone tower in the lower levels of excavations at Jericho

An ancient watchtower found at the lowest levels of the city, from the Neolithic period of the town's history. The tower was solid,  not hollow as medieval towers were

Jericho: Palestinian family members pose in front of a watch tower in their fields in this 19th century photograph

A 19th century photograph of a watchtower in Palestine, built to guard against crop thieves; the bases of these towers are solid stone, just as the ancient tower at Jericho was

Jericho: Photograph of excavated mud brick walls already suffering from erosion, at Jericho

Excavated mud brick walls at Jericho from the Neolithic period


Joshua and Jericho

Then people came back to the site and re-settled it. But something was still wrong. At the end of the 14th century BC there is evidence the city was destroyed and then abandoned - again. 

The question is: was this destruction linked to the famous Bible story of Joshua's capture of Jericho? 

Jericho is famous as the first town attacked by the Israelites under Joshua after they crossed the Jordan River (see Joshua 6). After its destruction by the Israelites it was, according to the biblical account, abandoned and then later re-established in the 9th century BC (1 Kings 16:34). 

Was this evidence of the invasion of the Hebrew tribes, as described in the Bible? 

Jericho: 19th century photograph of the walls of Jericho, with human figure showing the scale of the walls

The excavated walls of Jericho. 
See the human figure at bottom right of photograph, to gauge the scale

Jericho: A drawing of the assault by Joshua's troops in the city of Jericho, with horns blowing and walls crumbling

A drawing based on the photograph above. It reconstructs the moment when 
the trumpet players blew their horns, and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

Did it happen?

Hard to say, at least if you are depending on archaeological evidence. The Hebrews were semi-nomads, with little or no material culture. They were only lightly equipped with the sort of objects that survive the centuries, or that can be dug up by archaeologists. Certainly they infiltrated the area over a period of time that may have begun in the 14th century BC, but they only gradually took possession of villages and towns. 

When this happened, they adapted to Canaanite culture - there is no break, for example, in the production  and design of pottery and domestic articles throughout this period. Moreover, Canaanite religious rituals keep popping up in Bible references - Jericho had been an early center of worship for the moon goddess and her cycles - which suggests that the Israelites were never able to completely suppress the Canaanite culture, or the people whose land they had infiltrated.

The tumbling walls

Jericho: Shofar' by Roie Galitz, man blowing a shofar

'Shofar' by Roie Galitz

Did the walls of Jericho come tumbling down at the sound of Joshua's horn? 

Again, hard to say. In Joshua 2:1 he commands his soldiers to reconnoiter the city, and it is subsequently destroyed. And the walls certainly did come tumbling down. There is evidence of a collapsed stone and mud brick support wall. 

There is also evidence of destruction by fire. Archaeological teams have discovered a number of storage jars containing charred grain from the last Canaanite city that existed at Jericho. This seems to indicate that the city was conquered at harvest-time and then burned. This evidence matches the biblical account of Joshua 6. 

But it is impossible to tell whether this destruction was caused by invasion or earthquake. Possibly both occurred and both were responsible - and why not? Both were part of God's unfathomable plan for his people. 


King Herod and Jericho

Recent excavations revealed later buildings in Jericho from the time of Herod the Great. 

Jericho: Scale drawing of Herod's palace at Jericho, with explanatory key

A reconstruction of one of the palaces built by Herod the Great at Jericho, 
where he had his winter palace; a key gives locations of various areas

Jericho: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra; the Egyptian queen quarreled with Herod the Great over ownership of Jericho; she won, because she was able to influence Mark Antony, who was the Roman ruler of the Eastern provinces at the time 

A magnificent facade on Wadi al-Qult, a mile south of Old Testament Jericho, is probably part of a palace complex build by this mad, brilliant ruler. Its style is completely Roman, in keeping with Herod's admiration for all things Roman. 

Jericho: Aerial view of excavations of one of the palaces at Jericho

Excavations of the winter palace of Herod the Great 
at Jericho

Jericho: Excavated frigidarium in the baths of the palace of King Herod at Jericho

Excavations of the frigidarium or cold room in the baths of the palace at Jericho; see its position in the palace (above)

Traces of other fine buildings can be seen in this area. Herod had a no-expense-spared winter palace there, where he died in horrific circumstances in 4BC. 

'A fire glowed in him slowly... his entrails were exulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon... an aqueous and transparent liquor settled itself about his feet and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly...his privy member was putrefied and produced worms...he had difficulty breathing...he had convulsions in all parts of his body...' (Josephus Antiquities 17:6:5). 

For Herod's death at Jericho and for full coverage of Jericho, its walls and fortifications, Joshua's conquest, and King Herod's luxurious Winter Palace, see The ancient city of Jericho 

For  information on Jericho in later centuries, see Islamic Architecture 

See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible




History of Jericho

Extract from Cornfeld, G., Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia, 1964

In the south of the Jordan Valley, about 10 km. (6.5 miles) north-west of the Dead Sea, an oasis fed by a number of sweet-water springs marks the site of Jericho, the earliest town so far known in the world. Dating back to about 9000 BCE, it was first built a millenium or two before the appearance of farming villages in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Syria or in the upper Jordan Valley and elsewhere in Palestine during the 7th and 6th mill. BC. Ranking as the oldest fortified town yet known in Palestine with a record of about 5 millennia before Joshua's Conquest, Jericho's long period of existence before biblical times is of especial interest.

Pre-biblical Jericho

A series of excavations showed that the site of Jericho had moved at different periods. The Canaanite and Old Testament town stood near the rich springs of Tel el-Sultan (Elisha's spring), some 4.5 miles west of the Jordan, while the Hellenistic-Roman town had shifted to Talul Abu-Alaiq, further west at the point where the canyon of Wadi el-Kelt opens out into the plain of Jericho. The later Jericho of Byzantine-Arab times stood at a third site, Ariha (modern Jericho), some 2 km. south-east of Tel el-Sultan.

The Evidence of Archaeology

A number of expeditions have excavated Tel el-Sultan seeking, among other things, scientific evidence for the story of the Israelites' conquest of Jericho. The first work there was done by the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1873 but it was not until the expedition led by John Garstang in 1930-31 that a coherent chronology began to emerge. 
Garstang found four walled towns, the first, Town A, dating from the Early Bronze Age (first centuries, 3rd mill. BC); Town B dated from the Early Bronze Ages II and III (second half, 3rd mill. BC); Town C dated from the late Middle Bronze Age (1750-1550 BC) and Town D dated from the Late Bronze Age, mainly the 15th and early 14th CS. BC. He also found traces of a fifth, later town which he attributed to the period of the monarchy, but which had no wall. In the north-eastern part of the tel, Garstang dug a deep ditch which revealed seventeen layers of settlement, dating from the pre-pottery Neolithic Age (7th mill. BC, the lowest stratum, resting on virgin soil) to the Early Bronze Age.

The Oldest Town in the World

Garstang's work was extended and, in places, corrected by the expedition led by Dr. Kathleen Kenyon of the Institute of Archaeology of the University of London in 1952-57. By deepening Garstang's ditch and digging another in the western part of the tel, it was possible to reach natural rock in two different places. This showed that Garstang had mistaken a continuation of the watercourse for virgin rock. Carbon dating could not be applied to the very lowest strata but the material which could be tested gave a date between the years 6250-5850 BC. This led Kenyon to the conclusion that the lowest strata could be dated from the 9th-8th mill. BC, that is that habitation had begun around 8000 BCE or earlier. Although pottery was unknown at the time, the first inhabitants were sufficiently well organized to plan and erect a walled city with an effective defence system. Since there is no evidence for fortified towns elsewhere before the late 4th mill BC, this established Jericho as the oldest fortified town so far known in the world as shown by the great stone tower of the pre-pottery Neolithic defences.

Continuously inhabited by different groups of people, the first town developed into a town of the pre-pottery Neolithic period (ca. 7000 BC). No less than 11 building stages were distinguished from this period, 22 plastered floors to buildings being found in one place, one on top of the other. The record of Jericho, in Dr. Kenyon's words, "provides evidence of the process for which archaeologists have long been looking, of the transition from man as a hunter to man as a member of a settled community." 

Jericho: Excavatons of an ancient house in Jericho

This is an excavated house in Jericho, dating to the pre-pottery Neolithic B period.

It is not yet clear whether there was a gap in occupation before the arrival of the Neolithic people (to whom pottery was known) or, after them, before the proto-Urban groups established themselves in Jericho.

The Jericho Clay Figures and the Myth of Creation

Jericho: A clay-covered skull from Jericho

One of the clay-covered skulls found at Jericho

Although the earliest inhabitants of pre-pottery Jericho did not make clay vessels, they did produce life-size human figures and images of faces modelled in clay. Dr. Kenyon discovered about ten such heads, modelled over a skull, as shown in this illustration. Parts of limbs modelled in clay over a framework of reeds or canes which formed a kind of skeleton were also found. 

In the opinion of Ruth Amiran, the significance of these discoveries lies in their very close conceptual relationship to the much later Creation Epics of Babylonia and Israel. Man in each case was formed of clay, in the Genesis story of the creation of Eve, around Adam's rib. 

The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic tells how the hero Enkiddu was "built" of clay and the Hebrew story of Eve uses the same word for "build". The pre-pottery Neolithic B clay figures from Jericho appear to be a material expression of this same theme of later eastern mythologies. "There seems to be an intrinsic affinity between Near Eastern myths, according to which man was created from clay, and the clay figures and plastered skulls discovered in Jericho." (Ruth Amiran)

Prehistoric Trade of Jericho

The pre-pottery people who built the enormous stone walls of Jericho around the 8th Mill. BC had very little knowledge of other urban arts. They lived in temporary structures and left no evidence behind them of any great agricultural or economic advance which could explain the growth of the town. The only thing which can explain the existence and expansion of the town, in the opinion of E. Anati, is trade; trade in the salt, bitumen and possibly sulphur in which the Dead Sea was rich and which were all essential products in the ancient Near East. 

Salt was a necessity of life and, as the evidence shows, also very important for religious ceremonies and sacrifices as early as the Early Bronze Age (4th mill. BC; compare Job 6:6; Nu. 18:19 and Mk. 9:49). Some of the oldest trade routes of the Near East began with the traffic in salt; the Jericho people may have been the earliest to develop this trade from the Dead Sea. Bitumen was needed for fastening sickles and other flint tools to their handles, for boat-building and as a necessary raw material. Sulphur was in demand for medicines and fire-lighters. 

All three materials are perishable, so few traces of them have survived in the town, although evidence of trade has been found. This remains the most logical explanation for Jericho's early development.

The Walls of Jericho

After a gap in occupation which followed the Neolithic period, Jericho was continuously occupied all through the Early Bronze Age. The town was walled throughout this period (3100-2100 BC), although in the course of a thousand years the wall was destroyed and rebuilt 17 times. Defences were obviously a major concern of Jericho's inhabitants, for the town was very vulnerable to attack from the east. The walls were made of unbaked mud bricks and stood 16-17 metres high. This made a substantial barrier to attackers but it needed constant care to prevent water erosion and to repair the effects of
the earthquakes which appear to have occurred on an average of some four times per century.

During the Middle Bronze Age A (2100-1900 BC) while semi-nomadic elements lived in Palestine and intensive building activities were going on elsewhere in the country, Jericho was an open town. In the course of Middle Bronze Age B the town was fortified by a smooth earthwork and later this was replaced by smooth stone walls. These walls and the whole town were apparently destroyed when the town was occupied by the Egyptians in 1580 BC. 

For a century and a half the site lay abandoned but around 1400BC a new town was built and it was this stratum (Late Bronze Age) which was presumably the town Joshua captured. Unfortunately, the last expedition led by Dr. Kenyon showed that almost all traces of it had been eroded and had served as a quarry for stone and earth for later building. The expedition was even able to demonstrate that one of the lines of the town walls which used to be attributed to this period had actually belonged to the Early Bronze Age. 

In fact, apart from a few potsherds of the Mycenaean period, and a number of scarabs inscribed with the names of different Pharaohs, the only traces of the Late Bronze Age town were a few fragments of houses, probably dating from the 14th C. BC. This town was abandoned about 1325 BC and left unoccupied for some 400 years, during which time erosion obliterated almost every trace of it.

The Riddle of Jericho's Fall

This situation has left undecided the question of the date of Joshua's conquest, a problem which has exercised the minds of eminent archaeologists such as W. F. Albright, J. Garstang, B. Mazar and many others. The 400 years of desertion seem to fit in with the biblical account of Joshua's curse of Jericho and its abandonment for a similar period, but Joshua's conquest must have taken place at least a century later than 1325. The biblical record may have compressed events which took place over a comparatively long period into a chronological sequence which it is difficult to confirm today in view of the limited archaeological evidence available. The dramatic capture of Jericho as recorded in the Book of Joshua was probably written down many years later, on the basis of popular recollections of a memorable event. The exact relation between the abandonment of Jericho in the 14th c. and the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land remains uncertain.

Evidence of Jericho's People

Outside the walls of the Early Bronze Age town, numerous mass graves were uncovered which yielded important evidence of the vessels and tools used at that time. During the Middle Bronze Age A, tombs were uncovered for the first time, of single burials, and held few vessels and tools.
The following town (Middle Bronze Age B) revealed a large structure in the eastern part of the tel, which the excavators labelled "The Palace". Nearby were storehouses containing numerous bottles and jars filled with carbonized grains. Outside the town, many tombs were uncovered and were found to contain not only a large variety of vessels and tools but also wooden objects tables, chairs, bowls etc. which, thanks to the dry climate, had been preserved in excellent condition.

Biblical Jericho

In the late Bronze Age (14th C. BC), Jericho stood to the west of a ford used by all travellers crossing that section of the Jordan. It plays an important role in the biblical narrative of Israelite penetration of the country from the East. The book of Joshua (2-6) records that the Israelites camped before the town, which was surrounded by a high wall with houses built into it. The story of how Joshua's spies were hidden in such a house is well known (Joshua 2) as is the tradition that the walls sealing the town fell on the seventh day of the Israelite attack, at the sound of the trumpets. 

After its capture, the town was destroyed and its inhabitants slaughtered, with the sole exception of Rahab the harlot, who had harboured the spies, and her family. Finally, Joshua laid a curse on anyone who should attempt to rebuild Jericho. The available archaeological evidence has not so far made it possible to solve the riddle which the -biblical narrative represents.

In the distribution of the land among the tribes, Jericho was assigned to Benjamin (Jos. 18:21); but it was lost when the king of Moab captured it with the help of the Ammonites and the Amalekites (Jud. 3:13). The area was apparently inhabited during David's reign, (II Sam 10:5) but during the reign of Ahab, Hiel Beth Ha'eli brought down Joshua's curse on his head by "rebuilding" Jericho, (presumably fortifying the town, I K. 16:34).

An extensive structure, called the "Greek house" by its German excavators, was discovered from the 10th century BC town of the period of Judges. In fact it is a typical Israelite building of the time, built in four sections. Over its ruins buildings had been erected during the late monarchy and these may conceivably represent the town built by Hiel Beth Ha'eli.

Jericho was a meeting place for the prophets. Both Elijah and Elisha stayed there. Elijah was taken up to heaven nearby, (II K. 2:4-11) and Elisha purified its water (11 K. 2:19-22). The Judean prisoners released by the Israelites after their defeat of King Ahaz were returned to Jericho (11 Ch. 28:15), while in the Plain of Jericho, Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, was captured as he was fleeing from the conquering Babylonians (Jer. 39:5). Jericho was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and its inhabitants deported with the Jews from the rest of the country.
In the list of the exiles who returned from Babylon, Nehemiah (7:36) records 345 "sons of Jericho" who re-settled in their native town. Some of them took part in the reconstruction of Jerusalem (Neh. 3:2).

Post-Exilic Jericho

During the Persian period, Jericho was ruled by the Satraps, a fact attested by the discovery of seals of the period inscribed "Yhud" (the name of the Persian province of Judea). In 352-351 BC, the town was destroyed by King Artaxerxes III (Ochus) of Persia as a reprisal for a rebellion by the Jericho Jews. Later on, the town and its surrounding territory were taken over by the Nabateans.
The site at Tel el Sultan was abandoned during this (the Hellenistic) period and the settled population moved west to Talul Abu-Alaiq. This site was excavated in 1950-51 by J. L. Kelso and J. B. Pritchard. They found the ruins of a Hellenistic fortress, attributed either to Bacchides or Simon the Hasmonean. It is known that during the Maccabaean revolt, Jericho was fortified by the Seleucid general Bacchides (I Mac. 9:50) and Simon the last of the five Hasmonean brothers was killed just outside the town (I Mac. 16:14-15). John Hyrcanus took over the town and he and his successors built palaces there and two small forts, Taurus and Thrax. Later (ca. 63 BC), these were destroyed by the Roman general, Pompey.

Herodian and Roman times

Jericho: A luxuriant date palm full of fruit

During the Roman period, Jericho's reputation stood high as a centre for the cultivation of balsam and other perfumes. When Cleopatra was intriguing to take control of Judea and Arabia, Mark Antony compromised by awarding her the palm and balsam groves of Jericho. Herod perforce agreed, but he leased the plantations from her and "farmed" out the rent to his advantage, (i. e. acquired the right to collect the Queen's royal revenues).

Following the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus restored Jericho to Herod. Josephus records that Herod enriched the town with a number of public buildings, including a hippodrome, and an amphitheatre, together with a winter palace for himself and villas for the Jewish upper class in the new town west of ancient Jericho. He also built a new wall with two towers around the town, one tower named Kypros after his mother and one named Phasael for his brother. When Herod died, his palace was burned down, but his son, Archelaus, rebuilt it and improved its palm plantations.

New Testament Times

Jesus was familiar with all the district. The scene of the Temptation may have been in the desolate mountains above the town, and the place of his baptism by John was not far away. He made the road leading to Jericho the scene of his parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30). 

Jericho: Old photograph of the road to Jericho

The road to Jericho, 19th century photograph

The road he took on his last visit to Jerusalem led Jesus to Jericho where he stayed at the house of Zacchaeus, a rich publican (tax collector, Lk. 19:1-9), and restored the sight of the blind beggar, (18:35-43).

Jericho, in Jesus' time, was a thriving, prosperous city, the centre of development of the Romanized Jericho Valley. It contained a small wealthy middle class and a great number of poor people who lived in hopes of better things to come.

The town was destroyed by Vespasian during the first Jewish-Roman war, although later on a garrison was stationed there. Hadrian rebuilt Jericho and it continued in existence throughout the Byzantine period.




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