Letter from Jericho: Lost in time in the world’s oldest city

Ali Qleibo picks oranges in the orchards surrounding his home in the West Bank city of Jericho, winter 2010.  (Mati Milstein)

Ali Qleibo picks oranges in the orchards surrounding his home in the West Bank city of Jericho, winter 2010. (Mati Milstein)

JERICHO, West Bank (JTA) — The only thing I really knew about Jericho before I went there a few weeks ago for the first time was that when the second intifada began in 2000, a friend of mine stationed there as an Israeli soldier came under heavy Palestinian gunfire.

Returning fire, he hit a transformer near the casino, inadvertently but indefinitely knocking out electricity to the entire town.

A decade passed during which I ignored the place. It was easy, with Jericho being so out of the way in the Jordan Valley. 

Then, one day recently, I found myself heading there.

Though Israeli civilians are forbidden from entering Palestinian cities in the West Bank, journalists are exempt from the ban. I tried several times to coordinate my visit with the Israeli army, but it took so long to get back to me that I became fed up with waiting, climbed into my car in Jerusalem and headed east.

The stark desert landscape through which travelers pass between Jerusalem and Jericho looks increasingly otherworldly the further east you go and the lower the highway drops in elevation. Indeed, Jericho is known as the City of the Moon.

I pulled off the Jerusalem-Dead Sea highway and headed toward Jericho’s southern entrance. The road was under construction, and I was diverted onto a rough dirt track, advancing well into the city’s outskirts before finally spotting a checkpoint. The soldiers manning the checkpoint wore Israeli combat vests, uniforms and boots and appeared to be from the Golani Brigade. I readied my identification as I approached.

Only when pulling to a stop did I spot the Palestinian flag and notice that the soldiers were carrying Russian-made Kalashnikovs. These were no Israelis. The Palestinian troops asked where I was from, glanced at my passport, smiled and waved me through.

“Welcome to Palestine,” they said.

Heading north, I passed a giant sculpture of a key topped with a Palestinian flag and painted with the slogan “We Will Return” — a reminder that the Palestinians have not given up on their right to return to the homes they occupied inside Israel before fleeing in the 1948 war.

Jericho, which is celebrating its 10,000th anniversary and claims to be the oldest city in the world, always has been somewhat removed from the tumult of other West Bank cities.

Lying on a flat plain, the small city is perfect for bike riding, and the bicycle repair shops that line the central square where vendors sell delectable fruit will rent you wheels for just a few shekels.

To avoid giving the impression that I was an Israeli settler who had taken a wrong turn, I plastered my car windows with strips of white tape spelling “TV,” stuck a sign in the front windshield reading “Foreign Press” and, once on foot, carried two cameras to identify myself as a photojournalist.

The precautions proved unnecessary, as I never felt an element of threat in the city. Locals were mostly curious, intrigued that I had bothered to make my way down to their backwater town.

By far the most impressive site in the city is Hisham’s palace, built during the eighth century Umayyad period and called by some archaeologists the Versailles of the Middle East. Though destroyed by an earthquake not long after construction, the complex remains largely intact and includes a number of elaborate mosaic floors.

One of the city’s most popular cites is the tree of Zacchaeus, which Christian tradition holds was climbed by a fellow named Zacchaeus in order to get a better view of Jesus as he passed through town. I passed the tree three times during my visit to Jericho, and each time a different tour bus was idling while a group of Nigerian tourists milled about and photographed themselves in front of the tree.

Ancient Jericho, or Tel es-Sultan, which is still being excavated in a joint project of the Palestinian Authority and students from Rome’s La Sapienza University, shows hints of what Jericho was like 10,000 years ago. To me it looked like a lot of holes in the ground and a few really old walls. At the site you can hop a cable car for a short ride up the Mount of Temptation, but be prepared to be packed into a dangling red pod with thousands of screaming schoolgirls.

The Israeli Ahava cosmetics company, based not far from Jericho, was the target recently of a boycott in the United States by a group that says Ahava’s products are manufactured in an Israeli settlement and made from stolen Palestinian natural resources. At the Tel es-Sultan visitor center and gift shop, a huge sign above the main entrance read “AHAVA Temptation.” Money trumps politics, I suppose.

The Jordan Valley’s year-round warm weather has made Jericho a destination for Jerusalem snowbirds, and many aristocratic Palestinian families traditionally have maintained winter homes here.

Anthropologist and artist Ali Qleibo is from one such family, which he says has lived in Jerusalem for hundreds of years. Qleibo invited me and a journalist friend to lunch at his walled compound on Sabra and Shatila streets. His teenage daughter and a visiting Swedish diplomat joined us.

Qleibo says he bought the property specifically for its orchards. Inside, row after row of orange, grapefruit and pomelo trees were heavy with juicy fruit.

As we sat with our host and the consul general on the front veranda in the late afternoon sun, surrounded by the citrus trees and sipping red wine, discussing art and gossiping about foreign diplomats, Jericho seemed lost in time and place. There was no talk of politics or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it was easy to imagine we were in the British Mandate period before Israel’s founding.

As the shadows grew longer and the deep orange sunlight filtering through the orchard began to wane, I reluctantly prepared to head home. Fortified with an overstuffed bag of just-picked fruit from Qleibo, I bade farewell and got in my car. I drove back slowly through the center of town, past the checkpoint manned by Palestinian soldiers and up through the desert moonscape toward Jerusalem, back to the year 2010. 

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