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Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan

Date of Submission: 20/10/2020
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Palestine to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Governorate of Jericho and Al Aghwar, Jericho
Ref.: 6545

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Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan is one of the oldest towns in the world, dating back to more than 10,000 BP. It is located 10 kilometres northwest of the Dead Sea and 1.5 kilometres north of the modern Jericho (Ariha) city in the lower part of the Jordan Rift Valley at 250 meters below sea level, making it the lowest ancient town in the world. The area’s diverse geological formation and unique tropical and sub-tropical climate zones, alluvial soil, and perennial springs made it an attractive fertile oasis to hunter-gathers, whom had settled down to a sedentary way of life in the Late  Epipaleolithic period, and subsequently their descendants, the Natufians, whom might have started the domestication process during the tenth millennium BC.  In the Neolithic periods, Jericho witnessed the development of agriculture and a complex and thriving community.

Ancient Jericho, identified with Tell es-Sultan, is known by many names: the City of Palms; God’s Paradise; the City of the Moon; the City of Giants (Jabareen); and the capital of the Ghor. Its ancient Canaanite name “Ariha”, derived from the name of ancient Canaanite God of the moon, “Yeriho”, and from “Ruha”, which means “scent”, “perfume”, and “Ar-Riha” (in Arabic). The current Arabic name unites both referential values of the Canaanite word, that of fragrance and the name of the moon God. The ancient Canaanite name “Ruha” was recently discovered at Tell es-Sultan on an Egyptian carved stone scarab from the second millennium BC, indicating the continuity of Palestinian heritage for millennia. 

Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan is one of the key places in the ancient map of the Middle East, labelled as the cradle of civilization. It has a rich and long lasting cultural heritage, spanning from prehistoric eras, attested by diverse material culture found and still visible in the excavated trenches at the site. Archaeological investigations documented 23 layers of ancient civilizations from the Natufian period (10th millennium BC) until the end of Byzantine period (7th century AD), comprising urban centres of the Neolithic and Bronze ages, as well as substantial occupation during later periods.  The water from spring ‘Ain Es-Sultan has been the source of the Jericho’s life since millennia and played a major role in shaping its history. In addition, Jericho has functioned as a cross-point for ancient road networks running north-south and east-west, serving as intermediate place for culture and trade.

All of the above cultural traits qualified Tell es-Sultan to be recognized as one of the oldest towns on the planet, evidenced by the earliest fortified agricultural settlement built in human history.  During the 9th-8th millennium BC, the town was enclosed within a stonewall, a tower, and a ditch.  Its community practiced a significant cultic feature of Neolithic life associated with ancestor worship, evidenced by a number of plastered skulls, on which the features of the human face have been portrayed in painted plaster.

During the Bronze ages, (from early 3rd to mid 2nd millennium BC) Ancient Jericho reintroduced again city life and became one of the strongest fortified and most glorious Canaanite city-states with developed a urban centre, streets flanked by residential houses, and rich domestic furniture found inside excavated residential houses and tombs. Its mighty fortifications lasted for more than a thousand years until their final destruction in 1550 BC by the Egyptian Pharos’ campaigns against Canaanite city-states. This destruction is also associated with the Biblical narrative of Joshua’s attack against Jericho. Though archaeological excavations apparently show that Jericho’s mighty fortifications had collapsed around 1550 BC, at the end of the Middle Bronze age, before the time assumed for Joshua’s conquest. After the Middle Bronze age, Jericho was abandoned and sparsely inhabited. Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan no longer served as an urban centre of the oasis and later Jericho developed elsewhere within the oasis. From the Persian period onward, Jericho was known as a winter resort for rulers and wealthy people in Palestine.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan is well known as the oldest and lowest town in the world, located at a green oasis within the Jordan Valley in close proximity to the River Jordan, the Dead Sea, and Jerusalem. It embodies 10.000 years of human development, evidenced by its vertical stratigraphic sequence that consists of roughly 23 archaeological layers, housing the remains of several civilizations, including fortification systems, residential houses, impressive public architecture, and examples of Neolithic ancestor worship that has long disappeared.

The occupation of the site started in the Late Epi-palaeolithic era (Late Natufian period), roughly 10.500-9.000 BC. The availability of water and fertility of soil attracted hunter-gathers to settle down and begin domestication of plants and animals. By the 8th millennium BC, Jericho was an agricultural town fortified by a stonewall, tower and a ditch. Its round tower has an internal staircase of twenty two steps leading to its top surface, making it one of the oldest known monumental building and fortification systems in the world, as well as one of the main Neolithic centres of agriculture in human history. Jericho not only provides a documented testament to the development of the fortification system, but also provides physical evidence of the development of domestic house layouts, from simple rounded shapes in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) period to more complex rectangular forms in later periods, which are unparalleled at any other contemporary site. The developed Neolithic architecture and technologies at ancient Jericho are a decisive testament to a rudimentary level of social communal organization accompanied by political, religious, mythological, construction, and handicraft developments. Furthermore, the ritual and funeral practices are especially important in Neolithic Jericho. Burials were found under house floors and the skulls treated with plaster, paint, and shells placed into eye cavities, characterizing special ritual beliefs and identities for that community over millennia. This practice is one of the oldest examples of the ancestral worship in the world. During the 6th and 5th millennium BC, pottery production became common in ancient Jericho. 

In the 3rd millennium BC, Jericho became again one of the strongest and most glorious Canaanite city-states. Its fortifications lasted for more than a thousand years. In the middle Bronze Age (2nd millennium BC), it was surrounded by a mud-brick wall and three successive ramparts, which lasted until 1550 BC, when it was violently destroyed by fire during the Egyptian Pharos’ campaigns against Canaanite city-states in Palestine. Afterward, Tell es-Sultan was sparsely occupied and no longer served as an urban centre for the Jericho oasis.    

Ancient Jericho is associated with the Biblical narrative of Joshua’s attack against Jericho. However, archaeological excavations apparently show that Jericho’s mighty fortifications had collapsed at the end of the Middle Bronze age before the time assumed for Joshua’s conquest. The spring of 'Ain es-Sultan, known as Elisha's spring, is also associated with Biblical prophet Elisha, who miraculously made the water of 'Ain es-Sultan spring healthy and productive by casting a handful of salt into it, bringing to end the infertility of its land and women. This belief has been perpetuated in the oral traditions of Jericho until today.

Criterion (ii): Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan exhibits the interchange of cultural and spiritual ideologies with civic living, creating developments in architecture, technology, arts, and the domestication of plants and animals, particularly during the Neolithic and the Bronze ages (Early Bronze age II-III; Middle Bronze age I-III). All of these elements made Jericho a major cultural, ritual, and economic centre of the Levant for millennia. The surplus of agricultural production, development in architecture and art, ritual practices and invention of pottery indicate a flourished cultural and commercial site that served as a centre for local, regional and long-distance trade significantly contributed to an interchange of human values, ideas, experiences, innovations, and possibly genes through marriage interactions.

The strategic location of ancient Jericho, in the lower part of the Jordan Rift Valley close to the Dead Sea, made it a flourished regional and international trade station of the old world. It connected Asia with Africa, contributing to an exchange of cultural values, ideas, and beliefs, as evidenced by a variety of imported cultural material found in Jericho, such as the obsidian. The existence of obsidian in Jericho in large quantities during Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B, indicates long-distance trade with Anatolia, located 500 miles from Jericho. On the other hand, exported Jerichoian objects and goods were found in other sites in the Levant. Jericho exported bitumen and other natural sources of the Dead Sea, especially to Egypt, which used the product mainly for mummification and the coating of boats. A variety of Egyptian items such as the marble mace-heads, schist palettes, lotus vases, nacreous shells, and scarabs were also imported to Jericho during Bronze ages.

This cultural interchange is also obviously visible in the ritual material culture of Jericho during Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B, attested by un-plastered, and plastered skulls with inlaid shell eyes as well as plaster statutes buried under residential floors. These ritual practices demonstrate the transmission of the earliest ancestor worship practices in the world to other sites in the Levant. Alternatively, the presence of this practice in Jericho might exemplify a shared common cultic heritage. Although archaeological excavations revealed a small area of Neolithic Jericho, a large number of Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B ritual skulls (ca. 45 skulls, 14 of them coated with moulded plaster) have been found to date, indicating that Jericho was one of the main ritual centres for ancestor worship in the Middle East. 

Moreover, Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan is recognized as a pioneer site for the development of new methods of archaeological investigations and terminology that tremendously contributed to the development of archaeological studies worldwide. Kenyon’s 1950s excavations at Tell es-Sultan made it the first excavated site in the Middle East to use the ‘'Wheeler- Kenyon method of excavation’' that is based on vertical stratigraphic sequence, attested by excavated trenches. It is also a key site for Kenyon’s terminology and classification of the Neolithic chrono-stratigraphic sequence based on basic four-fold subdivision of periodization (divided into PPNA, PPNB, PNA, and PNB) of the Near Eastern Neolithic, which are still in use.  

Criterion (iii): Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan bears an outstanding testament to cultural traditions and ancient civilizations. As the oldest fortified city in the world that has been continually inhabited, it is a fundamental milestone in the history of humanity. As the first settled society based on domestication of plants and animals, ancient Jericho signifies the emergence of one of the main centres of the Neolithic revolution. It demonstrates the development of human culture over more than ten thousand years, demonstrated by its unique vertical stratigraphy, consisting of 23 archaeological layers, which are visible evidence of one of the oldest cities in the world. They house attributes of several civilizations, including fortification systems, residential houses, impressive public architecture, and examples of Neolithic ancestor worship that has long disappeared. The long-lasting cultural and spiritual features of Jericho have continued to influence the Middle East and the rest of the world throughout historical eras and provided an exceptional opportunity to investigate the development of human civilization over ten thousand years.

Criterion (iv): Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan is an outstanding example of Neolithic urban development that strongly contributed to the development of settled lifestyle and sedentary occupation. It is a main milestone of the development of human civilization and a principle feature of the Neolithic revolution. Of ancient sites worldwide, ancient Jericho best illustrates the development of permanent urban centres, fortification systems, and architectural patterns and styles of residential houses during the Neolithic periods, which are shown in the vertical stratigraphic sequence of the excavated trenches at the property. During the Pre- Pottery Neolithic A era (9th millennium BC), Jericho was the only fortified Neolithic town in the world unparalleled at any other contemporary site, as evidenced by a stone tower, walls, and a ditch. This achievement serves as outstanding documented evidence of the first defensive architecture in human history, marking the emergence of urban planning, communal structures, building technologies, mason’s craftsmanship, the use of dressed roof stone slabs (lintels), and internal stairs. Such cultural and technological achievements are an exceptional testament to one of the earliest thriving agrarian sedentary communities that created the first communal socio-economic and political system in the world. These achievements enabled the early Jerichoian community to administrate and manage large-scale communal works, such as building fortification systems, granaries, demographic growth, division of labour, trade, and craft specialization.

Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan also well demonstrates the emergence of permanent domestic houses at the very beginning of Neolithic period (“proto-Neolithic”). It shows the development of PPNA early houses from oval to round layout, similar to the beehive shape, built of loaf-shape mud-bricks, and sunken in the ground. These are compared to the larger and rectangular pre-pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) houses, also present at the site, which consist of different sized rooms grouped around a spacious courtyard, built of elongated mud-bricks with herringbone patterns.  

In the Pottery Neolithic A (PNA) Jericho witnessed an architecture regression of the house layout and building materials. The pit dwellings that dug into earlier layers (previous PPNB strata) characterized the living houses of this period. However, during Pottery Neolithic A (PNB), Jericho’s houses returned to the rectangular (rectilinear) layout and built of a new type of mud brick (bun-shaped).

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

As per the Palestinian law on Tangible Cultural Heritage (No. 11, 2018), the property is managed by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in close cooperation with the Municipality of Jericho and the local community. Following the transfer of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority in 1994, large restoration and rehabilitation programs were carried out by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Tell es-Sultan, in cooperation with UNESCO, Italian Cooperation, and others. The main attributes of potential Outstanding Universal Value of the property are well protected and preserved. The property has a modern interpretation centre and interpretation routes and panels. Most of the attributions of the property that represent the diversity and richness of Jericho’s cultural heritage for over 10,000 years have been retained. The authenticity of monuments and main features have also remained intact. Nevertheless, the property has been affected by complex varieties of anthropic and atmospheric deterioration agents, including degradation caused by rainfall, drainage problems, vegetation, use of incompatible restoration material, wind, temperature variations, wildlife activities, negative visitor behaviours, urban expansion, etc. These agents relatively affect the mud-brick works and stratigraphic sections in Tell es-Sultan.  

Several conservation programs have been carried out to preserve the main attributes of the site. In 1997, a joint Italian-Palestinian Expedition was established to cooperate in the field of archaeology. This partnership led to the complete scientific re-appraisal of Tell es-Sultan, and to a full preservation of the site after it had been neglected for more than 50 years, since Kathleen M. Kenyon’s last season there in 1958. The expedition succeeded to preserve, study, and promote this world-renowned site. Nonetheless, the site might be slightly affected by tourist development projects established in its surrounding area. At the end of the 1990s, some tourist projects were established in the environs of Tell es-Sultan, including a hotel, souvenir shops, restaurants, and a cable car connecting Tell es-Sultan with the Mountain of Temptation, which passes through the skyline of Tell es-Sultan. Likewise, the Temptation Tourist Centre was built south of Tell es-Sultan, partially affecting the south horizontal view of Tell es-Sultan. During the 1990s, the Municipality of Jericho rehabilitated the water system of the ‘Ain es-Sultan spring. The traditional irrigation system had been partially replaced by the dripping system, resulted in abandoning the ancient water channels in favour of metal and plastic pipes. Currently, the Ministry of Tourism and the Municipality of Jericho are looking for practical corrective measures to mitigate their impact on the site.

All components and cultural material of the property, documenting more than ten thousand years of human historical development, are well preserved, remain intact, and are protected by buffer zones indicated on the regulation plan of the Jericho Municipality. Archaeological excavations carried out at property in the mid-twentieth century discovered 23 layers of ancient civilizations from the Late Natufian period (10th millennium BC) to the Byzantine period. All layers and material culture are still intact and well preserved at the site and its environs, including the oldest fortification system in the world, development of house layouts, attributions for handicrafts, invention of pottery, Bronze Age fortification systems, etc.

Comparison with other similar properties

The long and diverse history of Jericho narrates the undisputed story of 10.000 years of human civilization. It witnessed some of the most significant cultural milestones of human history, is one of the oldest towns on Earth, and is unparalleled in all human history. Jericho is a unique example of well-documented settlements of different development stages of human civilization, and it is quite different from other Neolithic sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. In the PPNA (9th to 8th millennium BC), Jericho was a flourishing agricultural town with round houses built of mud brick and surrounded by a stone wall, preserved to a height of 5.75 metres in one section, and supported by a round stone tower with an internal staircase, preserved to a height of 7.75 metres, with 8.5 metres in diameter. This creative invention brands it as the oldest preserved example of a fortification system from the 9th and 8th millennium BC and distinguishes ancient Jericho from other contemporary Neolithic sites in the Middle East, including Ain Ghazal, Jerf el Ahmar, Göbekli Tepe, and Çatalhöyük.  

Jericho was also one of the largest Neolithic farming villages in the Near East, reflecting the transformation from a mobile society based on hunting and gathering to the first settled society based on the domestication of plants and animals coupled with architectural, technological, social, and spiritual developments. In the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B era (9th to 7th millennium BC), similar to other Neolithic sites in the Middle East, such as Ain Ghazal, Jerf el Ahmar, Göbekli Tepe, and Çatalhöyük, farming communities were more socially complex and better coordinated than their predecessors. They lived in rectangular shaped buildings, larger in size and made of mud bricks resting on stone foundations. Their internal spaces have coloured plasters—mainly white, red, and pink—the concentration of which attests to strong cultural and artistic traditions. This is unique to this period in the development of art and craft traditions, religious or spiritual beliefs, and daily practices.

PPNA and PPNB Jericho was also one example of a specialized technological centre for lithic industries, handicrafts, pottery, dried mud-brick, etc. This might have led to initiating long-distance trade, which suggests commerce, and social interaction and communications with other Neolithic sites in the Middle East. For example, obsidian lithic tools were found within the PPNA stratigraphy of Jericho, which came from the central Turkey, located 500 miles from Jericho.

Notably, Neolithic Jericho shares similar elements with many sites of the Middle East. For instance, plastered skulls that featured the human face have been modelled in painted plaster and most burials in Jericho were in domestic structures buried beneath the floors of domestic houses, in the living area. These practices have parallels in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Middle East, such as at Eynan, Ain Ghazal Hacılar, Höyüçek, Suberde, Mureybet, Abu Hureyra, Jerf el-Ahmar, Göbekli Tepe, and Çatalhöyük, suggesting common and shared customs and religious beliefs.

During the Bronze ages, Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan became again a distinguished fortified urban centre. It was one of the largest and most flourished Canaanite city-states in Palestine. Archaeological evidence demonstrates the strong relations between the site and Egypt as well as other sites in the region. At the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, a flourished urban culture once more appeared in Jericho. It became a mighty fortified town again, with its walls many times rebuilt. Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan witnessed a unique growth of architectural elements such as fortification systems and palaces and houses, and the technique of construction rampart and glacis at ancient Jericho was exceptional. They consisted of the skilful method of using a series of earthen-filled layers, keyed back by a series of thick soft-crushed lime tongues, thus forming the glacis. Similar Middle Bronze age rampart building techniques have been found in other sites in Palestine and Levant, such as Tell Balatah (shechem), Tell ‘Ajjul (Ancient Gaza), Tell Beit Mirsim, Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish), Tell el-Far'ah North, Tell el- Mutesellim, (Megiddo) Qal‘at Amman (Jabal al-Qal‘a/Rabbath-Ammon), Jubayl/Gebal (Byblos), Tell Mardikh (Ebla).  

For all the above reasons, Tell es-Sultan is undoubtedly unique, with no other site in the Middle East holding the same characteristics of the fortification systems of the Neolithic period of Ancient Jericho/ Tell es-Sultan. In the Bronze ages, it shares characteristics with other sites in the Levant with relatively similar urban qualities, taking into account its continuous occupation, preservation, and management, coupled with its social and architectural complexity.