It is a place both mythic and all too real, a place thought to be the site of one of our oldest human settlements and known to be a center of ancient cultures and annihilating conflicts. It sits at the bottom of a malarial valley, the lowest place on the surfact of the earth--"the overheated, earthen basement of the world," as Robert Ruby describes it. And yet, long before the world's modern religions began scrapping over its bones, Jericho was home to waves of colonization and floods of destruction. Fought over by the succeeding epochs of ancestors, the place we call Jericho is as old as the first remnants dated at 9,000 B.C.--and as current as the daily headlines.
In this unorthodox biography of the first eleven thousand years in the life of a legend, Robert Ruby takes us back through time to those early settlements, then forward to the often crude but ultimately successful latter-day attempts to locate Jericho, to unearth and map and catalog its history. Beginning with the geography of place, he weaves together his own intimate knowledge of modern-day Jericho with stories of the lives and work of those explorers and archaeologists of the past whose courage often bordered on madness and whose dedication sometimes seemed the purest kind of human folly. Soldiers, scholars, engineers, adventurers--dilettantes and professionals alike, they were all dreamers drawn to this parched and dusty spot where so much of human history took place.
Matching biblical accounts to araeological evidence, sifting myth from science, phantoms from reality, Robert Ruby teases out the complex strata of the past, helping us to make sense of what exists today. With the flair of a novelist and the enthusiasm of an amateur archaeologist, he offers a tale that is part detection, part epic adventure. Above all, he gives us a work of great literary panache: witty, fact-filled, and uterly, subversively compelling.
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About the Author
Robert Ruby, author of Jericho and Unknown Shore, has worked as the Baltimore Sun bureau chief in Paris and in the Middle East. He now lives in Baltimore and is an editor at the newspaper.
Read an Excerpt
Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms
By Robert Ruby
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1995 Robert Ruby
All rights reserved.
Almost everything was low and small-scale and the color of the sandy landscape, and remains so. There were irrigated pockets of green—palm trees and thorn bush—but Jericho was mostly flat bare earth, like migrant land from an African drought. In the extreme dryness, even the vegetation appeared to be a species of dust.
Charles Warren was new to Jericho and to Palestine; and Palestine was a land famous, revered, and unkempt. Lieutenant Warren, of Her Britannic Majesty's Royal Engineers, had arrived in February 1867 on a mission that seemed noble—to explore the city of Jerusalem foot by foot, above and below ground, to find traces of it from the days of the Bible. Disputes with authorities consumed much of his time, and he wanted a respite from the wintry rain. By April he was sufficiently frustrated to give up on Jerusalem, at least temporarily, and organize a trip to Jericho.
It lay at the bottom of a malarial valley about to turn suffocatingly hot. Nothing had the energy to rise above the dun-colored flatness except a lumpy earthen mound—a stunted mountain like half-baked bread, long and brown.
Everyone of course had heard of Jericho. Not many people had willingly traveled there, whether Arab or Westerner. Still fewer of the Westerners could reconcile their expectations, all that they had imagined, with what they found upon arriving. Magic name, but a dismal settlement. In Charles Warren's day it was the most benighted place in a backwater slice of the Ottoman Empire. The village was isolated and it had nothing but the ramshackle, the small, the coarse: a scattering of hovels, a place always hot. The inhabitants were said to be mentally dull, a characteristic travelers attributed to the great heat, and also leering and uncontrollably licentious. There was nothing else to remark upon except the lumpen mound—that long, brown loaf—rising next to a freshwater spring. One of Warren's fellow officers had recently determined the valley in which Jericho lay to be the lowest place on the surface of the earth. You could sink no lower than Jericho or the Dead Sea. Odorous, obscured by haze, the Dead Sea was six miles to the south; at the edge of that lake, the Jordan River valley was 1,346 feet below sea level.
Warren was a draftsman, gunnery expert, tunneler par excellence, and anxious to work. On a bright April morning he stood near that large rounded mound. He was gifted with a sense of the practical and was not without ambition. Pick raised in the air, he was about to find another, older Jericho. A connection between the distant human past and the odd, stunted mountain was about to be made.
Warren prided himself on being an officer, not an archaeologist. In 1867 archaeology was known, to the extent it was known at all, as an endeavor largely indistinguishable from digging a pit. It had little to do with the orderly or precise. But Warren uncovered some of the secrets of the mound and some of the general principles of the semi-science that did not yet exist—which is remarkable. He correctly guessed that the remains of another settlement were in the mound. He suggested they were recoverable.
His conclusions were less obvious in the mid–nineteenth century than they sound at the end of the twentieth. Warren had a limited understanding of what he saw and was unsure how the actual work should be performed. If his field had been medicine, his suggestion would have been that important diagnostic uses might be found for a penetrating ray; his advice would be that someone more learned and less pressed conduct the search for it. Nonetheless, he realized he had found a promising place to look: there, next to the freshwater spring.
Jericho was both a place and a hieroglyph, the deus ex machina of an action-filled story in the Bible. In Warren's day the village consisted of perhaps a dozen huts. The mound was where villagers went to obtain stones for repair of the huts or the making of a fence. A century-plus later, archaeologists are still attempting to reconstruct the history imperfectly preserved there. There is no shortage of contradictory theories. You can read the flat hot land in different ways. An oasis, a pocket hell, crossroads, route to nowhere. But freeze Warren there, pick suspended in the air. The digging is yet to begin. For Warren, Jericho was a spare-time excursion. Jerusalem was the site of the work he was assigned to do and also the source of his early fame. He wandered to Jericho as an escape, and I begin with him because he led me to make the same trip to the overheated, earthen basement of the world.
* * *
Like everyone else, I had heard of Jericho. The city is part of the basic curriculum of every Sunday school. My mother was the Sunday school principal when I was growing up, so I was fated to have nearly perfect attendance year after year. I heard the story at least once in every grade. I never tired of it. Clever, heroic Joshua, leader of the wandering Israelites, sending spies across the Jordan River to the city; Joshua leading his men around and around the city walls; the blare of trumpets on the seventh lap; the walls tumbling down. It was a conquest a child could understand. Even a child could have led it, for surmounting the walls had required no weapons or feats of athleticism. All the many books purporting to show the city as Joshua found it seemed to be inspired by a child's mind.
A friend once found for me a nineteenth-century biblical picture book: it was a handsome, rare volume that had as its centerfold a hand-colored drawing of the Jordan Valley. The panorama obeyed all the conventions. In that book Jericho was a metropolis of castles protected by crenellated walls sprouting towers and following a perfectly circular course—Jericho as Mont-Saint-Michel. To the east the Jordan River flowed as a thin blue line that was perfectly straight. To the north a small puddle of blue represented the Sea of Galilee. Jerusalem was a larger hill of fairy-tale castles, lying across a mountain range to the west. The Dead Sea spilled off the southern edge of the page, and the hills leading up to its shore were a rich, fertile green.
No one warned me about the heat. The temperature was more than a hundred degrees when I went for a first visit. Summer was not for another month. Jeff was a newspaper correspondent writing about the Middle East and living in Jerusalem. I was a correspondent living in Paris and relying on his hospitality for part of a vacation.
We left Jerusalem in a tired Renault and drove down steep hills and past a sign marking sea level. The road continued downhill. Everyone's ears popped, so sudden and large was the change in altitude, as voluptuous hills gave way to desiccated plain. The car was packed with children and all the accessories for a day at what was grandly called the "winter house." Jeff and his wife, Anne, talked of it being heaven.
My view was partially obscured by having a bouncy five-year-old girl on my lap, and a thick layer of insects was smeared across the windshield. But we had arrived in Jericho. I saw weedy yards that surrounded flat- roofed houses made of stucco, and every house stood at a different angle to the road. The road was lined by low, crumbly walls, where a few dark- skinned men sat in small corners of shade. The cloudless sky was bleached to a flattening white; everything looked as if it had been frozen in the painful brightness of a camera flash. We saw donkeys nibbling at weeds and passed a line of fruit stands selling oranges and tomatoes. It was not the picture I remembered from Sunday school.
Nothing seemed to move, or to be capable of it. Jericho looked heat-stroked and in deep sleep.
Jeff drove the car onto a gravelly path that had a steep drop to the left, where an irrigation pond was ringed by palm trees. A wall of white hills stood as a backdrop. He turned again, and we were on a narrow ledge between the pond and the craggy hills. The house, a small box of mud- brick covered by stucco, stood at the far end of the ledge. It overlooked the irrigation pond and a banana grove lower down the slope. The most important feature, as shown by where the children headed, was a big concrete tub adjoining the house and shaded by a pomelo tree. Part of the neighborhood's irrigation system, the tub was the estate's swimming pool—algae-filled but cool, and long enough to accommodate a half-dozen strokes by a child.
There was a long iron key that unlocked one of the three doors. A firm shove would always open the others. The house—the trim painted bright blue—ruled over the ledge like a castle. It was sunny in the front rooms, and in back were a dark kitchen, a toilet in need of fresh air, and a small loft. We sat outside with a view of the palms. Jericho was hot, buggy, lush.
When Jeff left the Middle East, his tour as a correspondent over, I was his successor. A fringe benefit was inheritance of the little stucco house. My castle, my buggy overheated kingdom.
I made the trip from Jerusalem to Jericho as often as I could. I lived in the area for five years during the sporadic violence that the Palestinians called the intifada. For most of that time, Jericho was a shelter from the turmoil. Most of the time, it was the town where almost nothing happened. It seemed becalmed. Or apolitical, addled by heat—no one could ever fully explain the quiet.
But then the changes began. Jericho became a headquarters for political experiments, and at least for a time a Palestinian capital. It was busier, though by no means a metropolis. By then I had learned of social experiments that had occurred there in the past. They were no less significant than those I was watching. They had begun in approximately 9000 B.C. and continued for a long, long time.
I kept driving into the valley, a thirty-minute trip from Jerusalem. On the outskirts of East Jerusalem, the Palestinian half of town, one or another young man would sometimes stand on the shoulder of one or another road, and gaze at me for what felt like a very long time, and throw a stone, shattering a window of the car. Except for the stones, the trip was always a comfort. I had never seen more beautiful desolation.
From the edge of East Jerusalem, the bare hills of the Judean desert were laid out for inspection like a fine carpet with a sensual pattern. A green coat of vegetation, as thin as a varnish, always appeared after the first winter rains. The sheep and goats consumed it by midspring. Their trails etched the hills, gave them the wrinkles of someone wise from great age. Closer to Jericho, the only danger in the trip came from herds of sheep idling in the road.
At first, all my attention was concentrated on the heat. I used the "winter house" mostly in summer, though no one really wanted to be in the valley then. But it was the time I had. Jericho would be fully awake by 7:00 A.M. but after midmorning would go back to sleep. The insects thrived. At the house I relied on the shade of the pomelo tree.
I learned of Charles Warren by reading about nineteenth-century explorers. They were my escape, like the trips to Jericho, from the calamitous news of the moment, and their stories were as stirring as the one of Joshua leading the Israelites. I found Warren's book Underground Jerusalem, which was published in 1876 and was the frankest and most entertaining of the several accounts he wrote about his travails. In Underground Jerusalem he almost never bragged and since by then the work was finished he made everything sound a jaunt. When I began to retrace his steps, they led me back to Jericho.
Warren set off into the relative unknown, demonstrated great resourcefulness, and sometimes acted bravely. He did not always realize he was in every sense breaking new ground. At this early point in his career, he was an imperialist of the least offensive sort. There was no planting of foreign flags or energetic pillaging. He was in Palestine in part for the glory of Great Britain but mainly for himself, to have more fun than he could foresee having as an officer stationed at home. He wanted the luxury of working on his own; in Palestine he had it.
He introduced me, so to speak, to Charles Tyrwhitt Drake and to Claude Conder, both of whom he inspired. They were several years younger and would prove no less adventuresome. When I left Warren, I wandered through the Jordan Valley with Drake and Conder. Conder was joined later by Horatio Herbert Kitchener, who was at the beginning of a career that would make him Britain's most famous officer, though perhaps not its most likable. The lives of these men crossed and recrossed: for a generation, the explorers were held to be the experts on Arabs and Jews, and on what might become of Palestine. I came to understand them better through the letters they sent to their families and to the organization that had dispatched them to the Middle East. While in their twenties, they were obsessed by money or terribly anxious about love or wanted at any cost to make a "name." When they reached Jericho and the Dead Sea, they became desperately afraid of falling ill.
They traveled together for years at a time. They were not saintly and, I suspect, not easy companions. They were ferociously ambitious. What they wanted most was fame. They traveled to Palestine for the sake of their careers and shared an enormous capacity for jealousy, especially when any one of them seemed a step ahead of the rest. But unlike the white men who explored Africa, or those who traversed the remotest parts of Afghanistan or Persia, they expected no commercial reward and received none. And though this was not necessarily what they wished, no territory changed hands.
Charles Warren and his successors explored territory with which every reader of the Bible could claim general familiarity. But the actual country was largely unknown. Palestine was only slightly less foreign than the remotest African river basin; no one had yet closely examined the landscape or fully mapped it. Warren's sponsors hoped he would find artifacts to confirm the words of the Bible and in that way show the land and the book to be perfect reflections of each other. The explorers had the mission of finding ancient roads, the battlefields known from Scripture, inscriptions, and ancient cities—like the castled Jericho of the picture book.
My inherited estate was a fifteen-minute walk from Warren's old campsite. He had camped at the freshwater spring alongside the odd earthen mound. Many people had come there before him, during more centuries than Warren might have believed. After his time, people searched again for remnants of the city described by Joshua, sought fame there, in some cases encountered disaster, occasionally solved mysteries about the long history of Jericho and the valley, in the process discovered others, and made Jericho something more than the subject of a hand- colored panorama or the topic of a Sunday school class. They made this ancient place modern and real.
Gradually, I expanded my horizon beyond my little stucco house. I could see Warren's campsite and, straight ahead of me, the high mound baking on the rocky plain.
* * *
Charles Warren had recently turned twenty-seven. He was the son of an army general who had gained fame by fighting hand to hand in China with a bayonet and living to tell the story. The younger Warren was a survivor of Britain's Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. One braved Woolwich because it was the only gateway for would-be officers of the Royal Engineers. They were the logistical experts for empire building. Royal Engineers mapped territory that was either conquered or about to be; had fought at Bunker Hill in Massachusetts in 1775; and in 1814 had set fire to the White House and the Capitol. They designed fortifications, erected bridges, and supervised the building of whatever else an officer demanded. Part of their motto was Ubique—Everywhere.
But Woolwich was a place of notorious difficulty, both academic and social. Combine young men, officially approved hazing, and a rigid sense of class, and you have Woolwich. You have young men and mean-spirited games. The unofficial curriculum gave seniors the right to strike the junior cadets with belts and bats. So they did. A few years after Warren graduated, the cadets mutinied against conditions, then mutinied a second time.
Excerpted from Jericho by Robert Ruby. Copyright © 1995 Robert Ruby. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
I. Winter Castle,
II. In a Postcard,
IV. Digging Down,
V. Sheep Trails,
VI. "Working Like Smoke",
VII. Pious Ambition,
VIII. Dead Sea, Dead Land,
IX. Last Rounds,