Jericho, Biblical City on the West Bank (2010)

Jericho, Biblical City on the West Bank (2010)

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Driving through the wastelands towards the proverbial nadir of the earth may not be everyone’s idea of travel, but that’s what we embark upon when we undertake our journey to biblical Jericho, a couple of hours’ drive from Ramallah, the Palestinian capital. It is a vantage location to get the best worm’s-eye view of the world. For, Jericho is situated on the lowest point on planet earth. And every worm would have loved the view!

The town is full of leafy neighbourhoods and sprawling bungalows peeking through a profusion of palm fronds. Jericho sprawls on a flat plain abutted by ruddy-hued hillocks on one side and the grey sliver of Dead Sea shimmering on the horizon. The town perches on the infamous West Bank of Jordan river. What we come across though, is a dried up ditch with nary a drop, which we presume, is only a canal or tributary leading to the river. The settlement is an oasis nourished, no doubt, by many springs and fresh water sources. Even in the Bible, Jericho was referred to as the City of Palm Trees.

Biblical town

Old Jericho or the Biblical town is situated on the slopes of the hillock with its warren of caves. You can huff and puff your way up the 1.3 kilometre trekking track to reach the Greek Monastery of the Temptation atop the cliff or you can simply glide up on a cable car for an astronomical fee.

With temperatures on the wrong side of 40 degrees Celsius and one of us on the wrong side of 50 , there was little choice but to cough up the unconscionable fare and ride on the dangling contraption. Nevertheless, once you’re in the car, you get spectacular views of dense banana plantations and emerald squares of orange trees.

But the cable car deposits you mid-way to the old town and you still have more winding slopes to conquer before you reach the entrance to the cave where Jesus Christ is believed to have fasted for 40 days. There are more caves and canyons beyond, but in this heat, all one can do is to escape into the cool and cavernous interiors of the monastery carved into the hillside. It was to this piece of real estate on earth that Joshua, successor to Moses, first led the Israelites when they escaped from bondage in Egypt.

The monastery was first constructed in the 6th Century AD on the hillock identified as the Mount of Temptation because it was here that Jesus undertook penance to resist the temptations held out by Satan.

Then came the Arabs who overran Palestine and conquered most of these areas including Jericho sometime around 630 AD. And 460 years later, the Crusaders came to rescue Jericho from the Arabs and built two churches on the slopes. But the Arabs reclaimed Jericho from the Christians and demolished these churches. Towards the end of the 19th Century, the Greek Orthodox Church purchased the land from the Arabs and built this monastery around the cave in which Jesus is believed to have stayed.

Cave tales

At this time of the day, we’re the lone visitors to the monastery and we’re allowed to roam freely around the premises although warned not to take photographs. The cave where Jesus fasted is bare and cool. There is a Greek chapel with exquisite frescos of biblical scenes. A stone slab with a cross cut out of its middle hangs from a balcony perched on the cliff side. It offers a tantalising view of Jericho through the slits.

Jericho never lets you forget it is the oldest continuously inhabited town on the planet although Damascus in Syria also lays claim to the same fame as do many other cities across continents.

Archaeological remains unearthed in Jericho point to a settlement as early as 8000 B.C. In later periods too, Jericho seems to have been a hot favourite of emperors and conquerors. Cyrus the Great, the Persian king re-founded the city and returned the Jewish exiles after conquering Babylon in 539 BC. Alexander the Great had once made Jericho his personal estate way back in the 4th Century B.C.

Mark Antony had given Jericho as a gift to Cleopatra. Subsequently, Herod who got suzerainty over Jericho built a hippodrome in the town.

The town draws upon its religious heritage and archaeological relics to make up for its otherwise unremarkable contemporary character. We stroll through shops packed with Biblical mementoes and touristy kitsch. A buffet spread of local bread piled with shredded carrots and beetroot constitutes our lunch although we top it up with a glass of freshly-squeezed juice of Jericho oranges — truly a drink fit for the gods.

Naif, our Arab taxi driver, engages us in constant chatter as we whiz past bleak countryside to reach the Dead Sea. We don the regulation Dead Sea mud pack and slosh around a bit in the mucky, oily broth. Naif drives us to another historic site, the Tomb of Moses before depositing us at the barbed wire barricade with machine-gun toting Israeli guards at Bethlehem from where we would make our way back to Jerusalem

(Published in The Hindu dated  July 26, 2010)

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