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Ancient Jericho: Tell es-Sultan

Date of Submission: 04/02/2012
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Palestine to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Coordinates: N31 50 16 E35 20 55
Ref.: 5704
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Tell es-Sultan, the ancient city of Jericho, is the lowest (258 m below sea level) and the oldest town on earth. It grew up around a perennial spring, Ain es-Sultan, in an area of fertile alluvial soil which attracted hunter-gatherer groups to settle down, and to start a process of plant and animal domestication. Archaeological excavations carried out in the mid-20th century evidenced 23 layers of ancient civilizations at the site. The earliest remains date back to the Natufian period, 10th-8th millennia BC (see number 10 below). By the 8th millennium BCJerichobecame a big fortified town surrounded by a stone wall supported by a massive round tower. These are the earliest urban fortifications known in the world, later several times replaced. Their early date took the history of urbanity and domestication back several millennia at the time of their discovery in the 1950s. The Neolithic population ofJerichodeveloped a complex society where house construction, crafts, such as weaving and matting, and mythological and social conception of burial and religion were practiced. The Neolithic houses were built with dried mud bricks: the initial round shape of their construction developed into the rectangular form.

During the Early Bronze Age, Tell es-Sultan was a fortified town and one of the most flourishing Canaanite City-States inPalestine. It lasted more than a thousand years before being demolished by nomadic groups in the last centuries of the second millennium BC. Afterwards, the site was rebuilt again at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age, and surrounded by a mud brick wall that lasted until 1580 BC, when it was violently destroyed by fire. However,Jerichowas probably scantily re-occupied in the late Bronze Age, since few remains of this period were found. Throughout the Iron Ages, Tell es-Sultan was re-occupied again, especially in the 7th century BC, a phase which lasted until the end of Iron Age II (586 BC). Thereafter, the tell was no longer occupied, although Byzantine remains were found on its eastern side close to the spring of Ain es-Sultan. The surrounding area, however, today’sJerichoand environs, was continuously occupied in a fluctuating history over the last two and a half millennia.

Numerous religious events and beliefs are associated with the site and area. For example, the spring of Ain es-Sultan is biblically called Elisha’s spring, in which the prophet (Elisha) made the water atJerichohealthy. Luke narrates that Jesus visitedJerichomore than once; on one such occasion (19:1.4), “Jesus enteredJerichoand was passing through it. Now a man named Zacchaeus was trying to get a look at Jesus, but being a short man he could not see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him”. High above the site, perched on the cliff facing the west, is the monastery of the Mount of Temptation, traditionally built at or close to the place where Jesus, fasting for 40 days after his baptism, was offered by Satan the kingdom of the world in exchange for his homage.

The archaeological methodology applied to make these discoveries is also regionally significant. It involved the use at Tell es-Sultan of techniques associated with the English archaeologist, Mortimer Wheeler, developed by him in the 1930s and passed on to his associates and students such as Kathleen Kenyon. She followed his precepts at Tell es-Sultan with large, deep, horizontal trenches designed to expose stratigraphy rather than merely find ‘remains’ or objects. Thus the wall and tower, and indeed the evidence of domestication, were found in a secure cultural and chronological context. The well-preserved trenches remain as witnesses to the development of archaeological research methods inPalestine. Visitors can still see some of the layers in which lies the history of the tell.

Geographic location

The site is situated in the plain of the Jordan Valley, circa 10 kilometers north of the Dead Sea and 2 kilometers northwest of the actual centre of Jericho city. It is a large artificial mound, rising 21m high and covering an area of about one acre.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Tell es-Sultan is universally important because it is the oldest town in the World, housing the earliest fortification system, supported with a tower and an internal staircase. These rather well preserved Neolithic monuments point to the early development of a sophisticated social and political system.

Criteria met:

criterion (i) The Neolithic town of Tell es-Sultan, and its fortification system including the tower, represent a unique example of a farming and urban development some 10,000 years ago, the earliest such structure known in the world and, as such, a work of creative genius. These features also indicate the early development of a strong communal and political system.

criterion (ii) Tell es-Sultan shows an important interchange of human values during the Neolithic period on the development of architecture, particularly urban architecture and planning, and of construction technology.

criterion (iii) In that it is better-excavated than other tells, Tell es-Sultan provides a unique, and will always provide an exceptional testimony to now disappeared cultural traditions and civilizations up to the 6th century BC. An outstanding example of this is its famous plastered skulls with inlaid shell eyes, one of the earliest instances of ancestor worship in the world.

criterion (iv) The site provides valuable information about architectural and craft development, especially during the Neolithic period, including the development of the house layout from round to rectangular, and the development of various handicrafts such as masonry, pottery, basketry, using natural field stones and unbaked mud-bricks for construction, all, because of their early date, illustrating significant stages in human history.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Four major excavations were carried out on Tell es-Sultan. These foreign excavations were undertaken during the 19th and 20th centuries: the major ones were the Austro-German excavations of 1903-1909 and those by theBritishSchool of Archaeology, between 1952 and 1958, under the direction of Kathleen Kenyon. Currently, a joint Palestinian-Italian assessment work is carried out on the site, aiming at protecting and preserving the values of the site. Other than these intrusions, the site bears almost no modern development (though an overhead cable-car system is obtrusive), nor has it been subject to extensive conservation or reconstruction work.

Comparison with other similar properties

As a tell, Tell es-Sultan is a common type of archaeological site in south west Asia; its distinction lies in the results of excavation and in the scholarship applied to their publication. Fifty years after its principal excavation, and despite much work on other sites, notably at Catalhoyuk in South westTurkey, it remains an outstanding place of world significance for its evidence of early domestication and urbanisation. Comparisons can be made in Jordan with sites such as Beidha, Basta and Ain Ghazal, and in Iraq with sites such as Ur.