Jericho, whose name probably means “Moon (City)” (Hebr. yārēaḥ), is located 12 km (8 mi) north of the Dead Sea at the foot of the western escarpment of the Jordan valley (Map 1:x5). At 258 m (840 ft) below sea level it is the lowest city on earth. Today a thriving market town, its ten‐thousand‐year history has been documented principally by the excavations of Kathleen Kenyon at Tell es‐Sultan.
Mesolithic hunters were attracted to the area in the ninth millennium BCE by the abundant perennial spring of Ein es‐Sultan. By about 8000 BCE a permanent settlement of some two thousand people had been established just beside it. Its irrigation system and the large tower and defense wall imply a social organization that justifies Jericho's title as the oldest city in the world. Sometime around 6800 BCE the original settlers were displaced by another Neolithic people, whose most distinctive cultural achievement was a series of skulls with individualized features restored in plaster. This group, however, had not yet discovered pottery, which first appeared around 4500 BCE when another group took possession of the site. The site was then occupied more or less continuously until the middle of the Late Bronze Age, when the city was devastated. This destruction is too early to be attributed to Joshua (Josh. 6; see Conquest of Canaan), but in harmony with his words (Josh. 6.26) the site was abandoned until the seventh century BCE, a date that is too late to coincide with the reoccupation mentioned in 1 Kings 16.34 as having occurred in the ninth century BCE. The Iron Age city visited by Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2) was known as the city of palm trees (Deut. 34.3).
After the Babylonian exile Tell es‐Sultan was abandoned, but there must have been a settlement elsewhere in the oasis (cf. Ezra 2.34), because in the late sixth century BCE Jericho was a Persian administrative center, a role it retained in later periods (Josephus, War 1.8.170). In the Hellenistic period the area was considered a private royal domain, and this inhibited any real urbanization; its fortifications guarded the eastern frontier (1 Macc. 9.50; Strabo, Geog. 16.2.40).
The Hasmoneans extended the cultivated area by building an aqueduct from Ein Qilt. The agricultural wealth of the enlarged oasis is extolled by Josephus (War 4.8.459–475) and Strabo (Geog. 16.2.41). The delightful winter climate inspired Alexander Janneus to build a palace on the north bank of the Wadi Qilt. Herod the Great had Aristobulus III, his last serious rival for the crown of Judea, drowned in its great swimming pool in 35 BCE (Josephus, Ant. 15.3.55). During the years 34–30 BCE, when he was forced to rent the plantations from Cleopatra to whom they had been given by Mark Antony (War 1.18.361), Herod built a winter residence south of the Wadi Qilt. Once Octavian (Augustus) had transferred Jericho to Herod's control in 30 BCE, the latter remodeled the Hasmonean palace, constructed the theater‐hippodrome complex at Tell es‐Samrat, and later erected more buildings on both sides of the Wadi Qilt (War 1.21.407). The vast quantities of water required by the palace were supplied by three new aqueducts, two on the south wall of the Wadi Qilt and the third coming from Ein Duk at Naaran. Security was guaranteed by Kypros, a fortress on a cliff to the west.
Herod lived in the palace during his last terrible illness, but the medicinal springs of Callirhoe on the east side of the Dead Sea gave him no relief, and he died in Jericho shortly before Passover in 4 BCE (War 1.33.656–673). Josephus's reports that the palace was burnt by Simeon (War 2.4.57) and rebuilt by Archelaus (Ant. 17.13.340) have not been confirmed by recent excavations.
After the dismissal of Archelaus in 6 CE, a garrison occupied Kypros (War 2.18.484). Burials in the cliffs north of the palace continued to 68 CE. Wealthy families from Jerusalem presumably returned each winter to their villas, some of whose foundations have been traced in the plantations south of the palace. This provides the background for the preaching of John the Baptist in this area, for the plantation slaves who were the only permanent population are unlikely to have been his primary audience. The presence of Jesus in Jericho (Mark 10.46 par.; Luke 19.1) is explained by the fact that, to avoid passing through Samaritan territory, Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem followed a route down the Jordan valley to Jericho.