Most of our travels in the West Bank involved stark emotional insights into the realities of the occupation. Jericho, fittingly given that it’s an oasis, is comparatively light relief.
It’s an hour or so’s drive from Bethlehem, through proper hot, dry, rocky desert. The further below sea level you go (Jerico is 250m below and the Dead Sea 430m) the hotter it gets; on the day we visited temperatures peaked at 41C. The surrounding landscape grows increasingly barren until eventually opening out onto a green plain containing Jericho, the Dead Sea and the River Jordan, with the nation of the same name visible on the far bank. It is an area defined by fertile agriculture – dates, oranges and bananas are grown here, irrigated from the spring at the nearby Mount of Temptation – and captivating archaeology.
Jericho brands itself as the oldest city in the world. Agriculture blossomed here before anywhere in the world, around 12,500 years ago, and by 8,000 years ago a thriving mud brick town complete with a large round watchtower had been established on the site of what is now known as Elisha’s Spring. The remains are visible and, for archaeology nuts like myself, unmissable, although we made the mistake of visiting during the hottest part of the day and there is no cover whatsoever.
We’d spent the marginally cooler morning at Hisham’s Palace, a well-preserved Ummayad dynasty residence likely constructed during the 8th century AD. The scale of the palace is hugely impressive even now that it’s mostly partially-reconstructed ruins, and the site is home to the famous Tree of Life mosaic. Sadly, however, the bathhouse containing that piece was cordoned off for refurbishment when we visited, but the superb condition of the remaining ruins means they merit a visit in their own right.
Having had our fill of archaeology, we continued further down into the basin towards the Dead Sea, stopping en route for some of the party to take a spiritually cleansing dip in the River Jordan. There is evidently enough demand for in-situ recreations of Jesus’ baptism to drive a healthy tourism trade, including branded T-shirts. The Dead Sea itself, however, puts the tourist infrastructure of most of the surrounding areas to shame; the minerals and purported healing properties of the thick silt that lines the sea itself fuel a cosmetics industry that services spas the world over. The done thing is to change into swimming gear and sit in a shaded deck chair on the shore while photographing your mates floating around in the world’s lowest, saltiest body of water.
Though buoyancy is the sea’s stock-in-trade, it really is surprising however pre-prepared you feel. Once you get in deeper than chest height it becomes all but impossible to touch the bottom. The advice given is threefold: enter the water by squatting in it then gently leaning backwards; don’t stay in longer than ten minutes to prevent your skin from drying out; and don’t get any of the hyper-saline fluid in your mouth or eyes. Sadly and all too predictably I leant overzealously when following the first of these, rolling my head back in delight at the bouncy cushion the water provided. As soon as I leant forward again damp salt streamed down my face and I had to run to the shower on the shore wailing like a small child, to the delight of my mates (poised, ready, with their own cameras for just such an eventuality).
After the novelty of gimmick #1 (floaty water) wears off, gimmick #2 (sticky mud) is an entertaining if slightly pointless way to spend the remainder of one’s time in the sea. Basically, the floor and shore are formed of a rich, soft clay-like mud that someone once claimed is great for skin, and thence sprang a global industry of Dead Sea beauty products and the bizarre pastime of photographing one’s friends covered head to toe in mud. You sort of… enjoy being covered in clay for a minute or two, then plod back to the shower that washed water-salt from your eyes earlier on and it rinses off surprisingly easily.
By this point the sun was beginning to dip in the sky, and the mercury was plummeting back down to the high 30s, so when we were told that all the women in our party had to leave the bar area in which we’d sat down for a post saline-dip drink we all decided it was time to hop back in the taxis we’d rented for the day and start our return to Bethlehem.