World's Oldest City Retains Lure : Biblical Jericho: Winter Oasis for the West Bank

Times Staff Writer

Cursed be the man before the Lord that riseth up and buildeth this city. . . . .

--Joshua 6:26.

If any of the revelers at the Seven Trees Restaurant on a recent Sunday were aware of Joshua's biblical condemnation, they didn't show it.

Young people danced energetically to Middle East favorites played by "The Candles," a university band from Nablus. Older Palestinians enjoyed lavish lunches of lamb chops, shish kebab, roast chicken and traditional oriental salads, all served under fruit-laden orange trees in a large and sunny courtyard.

The scene was the same at half a dozen other restaurants along Ein Sultan Street, while on the road itself mostly young motorists fought a losing battle for space with hundreds of other youths on foot or on bicycles, all drifting back and forth in the West Bank equivalent of "cruising" the main drag on a Friday night in small-town America.

"I like Jericho, especially in the winter," said a pretty young woman from Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. "You see all kinds of people. Sometimes you meet friends. Boys come here to catch girls."

"You dropped something," a passing teen-age boy called out to the Beit Jala girl a few minutes later. "My heart!"

It was all part of the typical winter weekend scene in the world's oldest city. Like King Herod, the 8th-Century Caliph Hisham, or Jordan's King Hussein before them, these West Bank Palestinians had come to Jericho for a sunny reprieve from the seasonal chill and rain of the highlands a few miles to the west and 3,000 feet higher. Jericho is 820 feet below sea level.

"The unique thing about (Jericho) is that it's 12 miles from Jerusalem and there's a 10-degree temperature difference," commented Sami Houlila, a Texas A&M-educated; native and manager of the Younes Restaurant.

The weather and the spring-fed waters that make this patch of otherwise parched Jordan Valley desert perpetually green attracted what modern archeologists describe as mankind's first town-builders 10,000 years ago. And while Jericho has had its ups and downs through the ensuing centuries, its attractions have always proved more powerful than any conqueror's curse.

A Gift to Cleopatra

Known in the Bible as the "City of Palm Trees," Jericho was so special that Mark Antony is said to have given the town to his beloved Cleopatra as a gift.

When the devil tried to seduce Jesus with promises of the Earth's bounty, he is said to have taken him to the Mount of Temptation, which overlooks the lush oasis of Jericho.

The modern town is located about a mile south of what archeologists have identified as its ancient namesake. The archeological site is a primary tourist attraction, where visitors can see remnants of city walls scientifically dated back thousands of years before Joshua's arrival.

Whatever the story's historical accuracy, it is symbolic that the sound of Joshua's trumpeters was reputedly enough to bring down Jericho's fabled walls. In fact, the flip side of this city's almost magical lure seems to be its tragic vulnerability.

The Crusaders captured it without much trouble in 1099, and Saladin reportedly took it back "without a struggle" less than 100 years later. The late Moshe Dayan, who was Israel's defense minister at the time, described in his autobiography the "panic flight" of Jericho's Jordanian defenders when Israeli tanks burst into town during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Blame it on the Heat

In his classic 19th-Century study, "The Historical Geography of the Holy Land," Old Testament scholar and lecturer George Adam Smith suggested that Jericho's infamous summer heat had something to do with its historic weakness.

"Her people seem never to have been distinguished for bravery, and indeed in that climate, how could they?" Smith wrote. "Enervated by the heat which degrades the inhabitants . . . and unable to endure on their bodies aught but linen, they could not be warriors or anything but irrigators, paddlers in water and soft earth.

"We forget how near neighbors they had been to Sodom and Gomorrah," Smith added. "No great man was born in Jericho; no heroic deed was done in her. She has been called 'the key' and 'the guardhouse' of Judea; she was only the pantry. She never stood a siege, and her inhabitants were always running away."

Jericho's population has varied from about 2,000 when prehistoric men first fortified the site to well over 100,000 between 1948 and 1967, when it was ruled by Jordan and filled with Palestinian refugees who had either fled or been evicted from their homes in Israel during the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli War.

Uprooted by War

Most of those refugees were uprooted again during the 1967 war, fleeing across the Jordan River. So today Jericho's permanent population is only about 15,000.

Smith's unflattering portrait aside, these modern Jericho residents are a mixture of refugees from 1948 and descendants of earlier settlers who have shown considerable determination.

"We made one mistake in 1948," said a Palestinian who fled that year from Jerusalem to Jericho. Referring to 1967, the man, who requested anonymity, added, "I wasn't going to make the same mistake again."

Jericho is also home to a unique group of black Palestinians whose roots are lost in history. The most common theories are that they are descended from Nubian slaves, possibly from the time of Herod, or from a Nubian regiment left behind by the retreating Egyptian commander Ibrahim Pasha early in the 19th Century.

Reputation as Trouble-Free

The city's modern residents are mostly Muslim, conservative and quiet, which is one reason the town has a reputation as perhaps the most trouble-free on the politically volatile West Bank.

From Monday through Thursday, most of Jericho's bustle comes from traffic passing over the nearby Allenby Bridge, which is one of two principal land links between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on the east side of the river and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

About 600,000 people cross the bridge annually, and virtually all of them pass through Jericho. So does a steady stream of special green trucks authorized to carry goods from the West Bank to markets in Jordan.

Jericho's main business is agriculture. Local farmers cultivate bananas, citrus, dates and vegetables. Merchants sell what produce they do not export from outdoor stands that dot both the central square and busy Ein Sultan Street, the principal thoroughfare, which leads north to the rest of the Jordan Valley.

"We are not trying to stick our nose in politics," said Mayor Jameel S. Khalaf. "People don't have time to sit in the coffee houses discussing politics. The farmers' main concern is how to export his products."

Khalaf said in an interview that he warns Jericho's young people that acts against Israeli security forces only mean trouble for everyone. He compares their situation to that of ants. "If an ant bites you, you won't search for the one that bit you. You'll be all over, stepping on hundreds of ants."

Because of its location so near Jordan, Jericho is in a restricted Israeli military zone. There is an Israeli base on the south edge of town, and non-resident Arabs are forbidden to enter or leave the city limits between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily. Even residents can move freely in the surrounding Jordan Valley only until 8 p.m.

Relaxed Atmosphere

Jericho has no universities, which are hotbeds of Palestinian political activity in such other West Bank towns as Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus. It also has no Jewish settlers, though the zealous Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) organization has targeted it for future settlement.

Despite a large Israeli military and police presence, the atmosphere in Jericho is much more relaxed than elsewhere on the West Bank--particularly on a winter weekend, when the population swells.

During festivities connected with the Greek Orthodox commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan in mid-January, for example, about 45,000 people were in town, according to Mayor Khalaf.

"Jericho wasn't crowded like this for maybe 1,000 years," bubbled an enthusiastic, if inaccurate, restaurateur.

The influx typically begins on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, when the visitors are mostly from the West Bank Muslim towns like Nablus and Hebron. Sunday is the time for Christian Arabs from Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Ramallah. And Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, brings a mixture of West Bank residents who have the day off because they work in Israel, foreign tourists and some Israelis.

Jericho's pleasant climate also makes it a favorite site for winter weddings. It is traditional for the wedding party to pay a visit and sing ceremonial songs at a spot called "Bride's Hill."

Tame Merrymaking

By Western standards, the weekend merrymaking here is tame indeed. Bicycle riding is a favorite activity because the area is so flat.

A couple of pool halls in town stay busy, but there is almost no drinking. In the Muslim tradition, the swimming pool is for men only, as are the sidewalk cafes. Young Arab men and women may flirt on Ein Sultan Street, but they do it in sexually segregated groups. It is rare indeed to see an unmarried couple walking alone.

Festivities center on the restaurants, all of which feature bands on the weekend.

"I've been coming here since before 1948," said Andria Younan, a retired Jerusalemite who was enjoying a Sunday meal with his extended family.

"Because we are under occupation, people come here to get relief," added his son, Michael, an engineer.

Younes Restaurant manager Sami Houlila, back only six months after spending eight years in the United States, complained about the military restrictions and said things were much better under Jordanian rule, before 1967.

"A lot of famous singers used to come here," he said. "And right by the Dead Sea (about five miles south) there used to be a camel rodeo. King Hussein used to go there all the time. I think Jericho is in reverse gear since 1967. I think we've been knocked out of the saddle." But then, apparently worried that he had painted too black a picture, Houlila told his departing visitors:

"Still, we're a lot better off than many people. I don't feel sorry for us. Look at all our fat stomachs!"

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