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Introducing Jericho & Around

The oldest continuously inhabited city on earth is also the lowest, at 260m (1200ft) below sea level. Half the fun of Jericho is the drive from Jerusalem, where the stubby green and chalky white topography gives way to smooth caramel mounds and brown velvet moonscapes. Keep an eye out for camels and Bedouin tent dwellers (who’ve been selling their tents and living in open metal boxes).

The West Bank’s largest and, in ways, most contentious Jewish settlement, Ma’ale Adumim, sprawls atop the hills outside of Jerusalem. A glance at its magnitude and permanence makes it obvious why a final two-state solution with this as Palestine is so complex – especially with Israel’s plans to annex the colony. In so doing, Israel will radically re-draw the boundaries of Jerusalem to include this confiscated Palestinian land, stretching its de facto Jerusalem jurisdiction deep into the West Bank. Some say the plan is to extend ‘Greater Jerusalem’ to the Jordan River. Furthermore, the Jordan Valley along the Jordan River amounts to 28.5% of the West Bank, which Israel has no intention of relinquishing given its proximity to a national border (Jordan).

Jericho is a place to warm up and slow down. The population ebbs in hot summer months and flows when rest of the West Bank shivers with rain and occasional snow. Tourists come in summer, nevertheless, to ascend the Mount of Temptation and continue on to float in the salty waters of the Dead Sea. Palestinians allowed to travel gather here or pass through on their way across the river to Jordan. The pace is conspicuously relaxed, and security is so tight since the second intifada that heads of state come here to confer. After a four-year lull, 40, 000 tourists visited Jericho in 2005. As Hezbollah rockets fell in northern Israel in 2006, Palestinian-Israelis took cover in Jericho. But the Austrian-owned casino that was a magnet for Israelis before the intifada was closed at the time of writing.

Jericho has changed hands repeatedly but is known by the biblically astute as the first city the Israelites captured after wandering 40 years in the desert. Addled by horn blasts, the walls came down with a shout (Joshua 6). After Joshua followed his divine command, the city fell to the Babylonians, then the Romans destroyed it, the Byzantines rebuilt, earthquake struck, the Crusaders took hold, then Saladin settled in. Christians celebrate Jericho as the place where John the Baptist received his own baptism in the Jordan River and where the temptation of Jesus took place on the mountain. Ordinarily, this gathering place to remember Jesus’ baptism is open to visitors only during the Greek Orthodox Epiphany and the third Thursday in October for Roman Catholics. Contact the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies (02-274 8590; www.sirajcenter.org) to find out if these exceptions are being honoured. While disparate claims are made as to the specific location of the baptism, the one most agreed upon is Qasr al-Yahud, which is located in a minefield.

In March of 2006 the Israeli army rammed and pummelled the Palestinian Authority prison and security headquarters in Jericho with bulldozers, tank artillery and helicopter guns. The US and UK prison monitors were told of the plan and left the premises for a constellation of reasons. After the nine-hour siege, two guards were dead and the six wanted Palestinian prisoners were captured, including one accused of the 2001 assassination of the Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi, who boisterously espoused the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.