I wanted to visit Jericho because it would take me away from the cold rain in the mountains of Jerusalem and Ramallah and back towards the lovely warmth I had experienced around the Dead Sea.
Despite the two cities being less than 40 km apart, getting to Jericho from Jerusalem on public transport is a bit of a hassle: The Egged buses don’t go to the city. They only pass in a few kilometers distance along Routes 1 and 90. The Arab buses also don’t go directly from Jerusalem to Jericho; the quickest and most budget-friendly way is to change buses in Ramallah.
Since buses in Palestine don’t run on a regular schedule, I went for the less stressful option of staying in Ramallah and going to Jericho on a day trip. This was convenient but as I realized, not enough time to take everything the city has to offer in.
Getting to Jericho
The main bus terminal in Ramallah is only a few steps from my hostel, the Area D. Helpful guys at the station point me towards the bus to Jericho. I get in, and we wait for another 10 minutes for the bus to fill up.
We leave Ramallah behind and race through lands that are empty apart from some Bedouin camps here and there until we finally descend into the valley that’s also home to the Dead Sea.
After one hour, the bus drops its passengers in downtown Jericho, at a big round-about with the tourist information and a small park in the middle.
The city feels completely different from everything I’ve seen in Israel and Palestine so far. It feels very relaxed. It also feels old. The houses in downtown are rarely higher than two floors. The road is wide. There is traffic. But nobody seems hectic.
The weather helps the serene atmosphere: With the sun shining temperatures reach a comfortable 20°C — enough to strip down to my t-shirt, not too hot and nowhere near the freezing temperatures in the West of the West Bank.
I cross the main square, pick up a tourist map from a guy that also seems to be the gardener for the park, and sit down in a side street to enjoy a coffee while I study my map. As main sights to see I identify:
- Tel As-Sultan, the actual site of the oldest city in the world (also: Tell es-Sultan)
- Elisha’s Spring, the lowest and oldest still functioning freshwater spring in the World
- the Sugar Mills, remnants of the Jordan Valley’s medieval past as sugar (from sugar cane) producer for the Middle East
- St George Monastery (aka Deir al Krntl) built into the cliffs of Wadi Qelt (along with hermit monks’ caves)
- Qelt runs along the Mount of Temptation, where according to the Bible Jesus withdrew for forty days after his baptism and John’s arrest to resist Satan’s temptation
- the Sycamore Tree, a more than 2,000-year-old tree, which according to the Bible Zacchaeus climbed to get a better view of Jesus when he came to Jericho
- Herod’s Palace, a vast area encompassing not only ruins of the palace (along with gardens, baths, workshops, and storage) but also orchards and fields that were used in the times of Cleopatra and Herod as they are used today
- Hisham’s Palace, an 8th-century caliph’s palace that was only in use for a brief period before being destroyed by an earthquake, rediscovered only 100 years ago.
I decide to walk in a loop, starting by exploring first more of residential Jericho while moving towards Tel As-Sultan.
The roads are dusty. Some kids are playing on the empty lots between big houses with high walls. Eventually, I have to change onto the main road in and out of town so not to get lost in smaller streets that Google Maps doesn’t know.
Tel As-Sultan = Ancient Jericho
At Tel As-Sultan, a big shiny building with space for restaurants, hotels, and shops sits almost empty. The clerk at the shiny cable car up into the Mount of Temptation and to St George looks bored. I get my NIS10 ticket for the historic site and follow the arrows.
To be honest, it’s hard to see much more than a sand hill, where here and there some of the dirt has been scraped away to reveal walls of what used to be a watchtower or a residential house or the city wall. If you’re looking for impressive, this is not the place to go. The markers for the visitor path are old and flaking away, some of the ropes used to keep people off the digging sites have snapped and lie powerless in the dirt.
Only the idea of standing on grounds, which already more than 11,000 years ago enough people had chosen as their home to call it a city — not a homestead, not a palace, not a village, but a city — makes Tel As-Sultan impressive.
And the spring outside by the parking lot: Ein As-Sultan aka Elisha’s Fountain aka the Eliseus Spring has been providing water to the lowest city in the world (250 m below sea level) and a flourishing agriculture for as long as they existed. According to the Bible, St Eliseus threw salt into the water that had previously been undrinkable and said: “Thus says the LORD, I have purified these waters; there shall not be from there death or unfruitfulness any longer.” While I am not a Christian, I find it fascinating to stroll through all these sights that were put into the big book almost 2,000 years ago.
Instead of shelling out NIS60 for the cable car — which holds the Guinness World Record as the longest cable car below sea level — I opt for a foot-powered climb. The path is not marked. So I get lost a few times. But the locals are helpful, pointing me in the right direction, inviting me in for some coffee. I decline politely and press one.
Mount of Temptation / St George Monastery
Eventually, I reach the height of the upper cable car station and St George Monastery. I am sweating like crazy.
But the view makes the exertion well worthwhile. Below me, green fields, these days mostly of bananas and date palms, are stretching far, and in the distance, I can imagine seeing the Dead Sea.
Inside the monastery, a path leads between the monks’ dwellings and the sheer rock that rises for another 50m or so onto Qelt. The path is airy, yet protected from any weather.
My first stop is a small cave. I do as the people just leaving the spot and climb inside. It’s not much bigger than three cubic meters, not allowing me to stand upright. It’s moist and warm. The floor is tiled. Little nooks are filled with pictures of Saints, money, and letters.
I sit on the floor and take it all in.
After a few minutes, a monk pops his head in through the narrow opening. I leave him my place and continue to follow the path.
In a chapel — Or a small church? What is the difference? — I hear a choir of women singing in a Slavic language. This is a Greek Orthodox Monastery, but the ladies with the black head scarves could be Armenian or Serbian or Russian Orthodox,…
I listen to them for a while until they notice me and I get embarrassed.
I head back to the entrance. The guard asks me what I was doing here. He suggests asking at the Catholic Church in town for free shelter if I wanted to stay the night. I am tempted but ultimately decide against it.
Instead, I treat myself to a latte macchiato at the restaurant next to the cable car station. The view alone makes the beverage 5x as expensive as the Arab coffee I had hours earlier in town. Below me, monks are heading down the mountain one by one.
It’s already afternoon. So I decide to skip visiting the palaces, both of which would be a few kilometers in the opposite direction of the bus station, and head back downtown.
On the way, I discover a sign for ruins of a Roman horse track. The site is also marked on my map. I decide to follow the sign.
After 10 minutes, I reach the marked spot: I see a hill of compacted dirt. I climb up and around, looking out for the ruins.
I find nothing; just a few kids that beg me for money: “Give me one dollar!”
I decline, smiling. They eventually realize it’s not going to happen and bugger off. A moment later, one of the children returns and motions for me to take his picture. First I decline, but he insists. So I let him pose and take a photo. While he is delighted just to see himself on the small screen of my camera — he’s giving me the thumbs up — his friends are prompted to return and ask for money again.
Time to go.
My last stop on the way back is the Sycamore Tree. It’s a massive old tree in a bit of park right by the side of the main road. Bystanders are eager to explain the significance of the tree to me. I smile and move on, back to the bus stop, back to cold and rainy Ramallah.
Practical Info & Links:
- Getting to Jericho by Arab buses:
- From Jerusalem: Damascus Gate, either going to Ramallah (bus 18, change there to bus directly into downtown Jericho) or to Bethelem or Al Ezariya (in both cases you’ll have to change into a shared taxi, known as sherud or Caravelle, to get to Jericho)
- From Ramallah: Buses leave roughly hourly (fewer buses on Friday afternoons) from the main bus station in 31°54’20.7″N+35°12’26.5″E and drop you off smack-bang in the center of Jericho; let the driver know if you are going to any of the other sites and he’ll drop you off as close as possible (for example, Tel as-Sultan is about 2 km outside downtown on that same main road). In January 2017, the fare was NIS12 one-way. Pickup point in Jericho (across the square from the drop-off point!): 31°51’22.8″N+35°27’37.9″E
- If you prefer Egged buses: they are way more expensive and passing only near Jericho: Most buses going to Eilat (in the South) or Tiberias (in the North) drive along Routes 1 and 90, so you could go to Mitspe Yeriho from where you’d get a cab to Jericho. Click here for routes, schedules, and fares of Egged buses.
- Don’t be an idiot like me: Make sure you plan some time for at least one, Hisham’s or Herod’s palaces. Looking at the few pictures I found online, I think I really missed out on that. The easiest way (other than walking up to 4km) to get there, is to catch a cab from downtown. Click here for a Google image search on Herod’s Winter Palace in Jericho // Click here for a Google image search on Hisham’s Palace in Jericho
- Other things to do in Jericho and the surrounding area include a visit to the Dead Sea, the Banana Land Water Park, the Jordan River (baptism site), Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls, now in Amman, Jordan, were found). The Allenby Bridge border crossing to Jordan is also only a stone’s throw away (first, click here to learn more about the visa situation going to Jordan, though)
- Check out the Travel Palestine website with very basic info about sights in and around Jericho: travelpalestine.ps/jericho-attractions/
- To find out more about the Guinness-World-Record-worthy Jericho Cable Car click here: jericho-cablecar.com
- Accommodation: In Jericho itself, there are a couple of hostels and a resort, not much in between. The AuberginInn seems to be getting rave reviews. If you just want to spend a few relaxed days at higher winter temperatures than further West and have your own means of transport or don’t mind shelling out on cabs, I think Jericho is worth a few nights and a good alternative to the pricier options along the Dead Sea. As always, feel free to use the Booking.com search box below to look at the options.