Jericho PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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The Oldest City
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Jericho Road

The Oldest City Yet Discovered

Today we climb seventy feet to the top of Jericho's tell, but unlike other ancient cities in the land, Jericho was not founded on a hill. The whole mound consists of cities. Dame Kathleen Kenyon, digging here from 1952 through 1958, expected indeed to find a natural hill. Yet the deeper she went, the more cities she found. By the time she reached the level of the plain, she was back in what is known as the Neolithic period. Since this preceded the invention of pottery (5000 BC), she had to use carbon dating. Testing samples of burnt grain from houses built against a stone tower, she put the age of the city at more than 9000 years (3000 older than any other known city).  

The choice of this site for a city must have been influenced by the excellent spring (4.4 cubic meters per minute). At one time purified by the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 2:19-22,) it is to be seen just east of the tell.


The tower had been adjacent to mud-brick houses, 12 - 18 feet in diameter, on the pattern of round tents. The floors were bedded with stone, topped by clay plaster. The residents kept groups of jawless skulls beside them in the house, burying the headless bodies under the floor. Perhaps this was a form of ancestor worship: once there is a house to bequeath, the beneficiaries venerate those who bequeathed it.

After ascending the tell, we can look down on the Neolithic tower. Its function isn't clear: a defensive tower would project beyond the city wall, but this did not. Below we can see its entrance. On the inside, twenty steps lead to the top, which shows no trace of a defensive barrier. Since the town was so low, this may have been a watchtower -- not just to warn against an enemy, but to guard the crops against thieves or animals.

On the tower's west side, Kenyon discovered a succession of massive protective walls, rebuilt several times. They may have circled the town for defense, or their function may have been to ward off silt from a wadi on the west.

The tower has not been reconstructed. Although modest compared with the pyramids, it pre-dates them by as much time as separates us from them: 4500 years. It is the oldest public structure known. Its existence implies a number of things. First, people had the means and leisure to build such a thing. It was the age of horticulture (farming with a flint hoe). The largest hunting and gathering societies, in the best environments, never number more than a few hundred people (Lenski , p. 98), but this city covered ten acres, room for a thousand or more. Nor would hunters have had the leisure to build this structure, which required the import of 1600 cubic meters of stone. It reflects "the existence of social organization and central authority which could recruit, for the first time in human history, the necessary means and manpower for such building operations." (Mazar, p. 42.)

Underneath the level of the tower, Kenyon found a sequence of packed floors, on which hunters and gatherers had erected straw huts. Beneath them was the very first structure here: a mud platform with depressions around it (meant perhaps to hold cultic offerings), which she dated to 10,000 years ago. She also turned up a series of tools from the earliest level up through the time of the Neolithic town (on display at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem). Studying them, one can trace the transition to agriculture: from the kind of flint that is suited for cutting grain stalks one by one (wild grain) to a sickle-type suited for cutting several together (cultivated). (When and where did people start farming?)

In the first period ("A") of Neolithic Jericho, there were three major phases of cities, each maintaining the same urban culture for roughly a thousand years. According to the Italian expedition now digging at the site, a mud brick house cannot be relied on after twenty years: one must build a new one. The mud of dismantled houses became the ground on which the next group built, until the level rose 25 feet and buried the tower.

At the level of 6000 BC, a change appears. The houses become rectangular. People continue to keep skulls in their living rooms, but they fill out the features of some with clay, putting sea shells in for eyes and restoring the color with paint.

In one of the houses of this period ("Neolithic B"), there was a niche in a wall, with a flat stone at the bottom. Nearby Kenyon found a carefully hewn basalt pillar 17 inches high. With the flat stone as a base, it fit the niche precisely. Here then is a very early example of the matzeva, or standing stone .

From about 5000 BC (when pottery was invented), the settlement at Jericho dwindled to insignificance, reviving around 3200. The new culture was different, with distinctive pottery. People buried their dead in the slopes outside the city. Kenyon located their city wall, which was rebuilt at least seventeen times till destruction came around 2350 BC.

Logistics for a visit to the tell:

Opening hours:

April 1 through September 30, from 8.00 - 17.00. (Entrance until 16.00)
October 1 through March 31, from 8.00 - 16.00. (Entrance until 15.00)