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Suzanne F. Singer, “The Winter Palaces of Jericho,” Biblical Archaeology Review 3, 2 (1977).

Jericho Synagogue MosaicFor at least 10,000 years, on the plain of the Great Rift, bordered by the mountains of Judea on the west and, on the other side of the Jordan River, the mountains of Moab, there has been a city at Jericho.

The earliest settlement at Jericho—in the Late Stone Age—arose on a hillock close to the spring Ein el-Sultan. This spring, which still gives the city of Jericho its lush appearance amid the otherwise desolate landscape of the Judean Wilderness, made life possible where average annual rainfall is less than four inches a year.

After the Late Stone Age city at Jericho, other civilizations came and went on the same spot, adding debris to the growing mound which today we know as the tell of ancient Jericho. Kathleen Kenyon who excavated at the tell in the 1950’s found life concentrated principally in the area of the tell. Here she also found some of the earliest evidence of cultivation.

In the second century B.C. the Hasmonean kings of Israel, descendents of the Maccabees, came to Jericho. They were the first to efficiently harness the water from the several rich springs in the nearby Judean mountains to take advantage of the agricultural possibilities of the wider Jericho plain. The Hasmoneans built a series of aqueducts from the springs in the hills to the plain of the Great Rift. A network of subsidiary aqueducts threaded across the flat plain and brought life to miles of formerly barren soil which previously sustained growth only after the scant winter rains. This new source of water meant trees, crops, and gardens; dates, figs, persimmons, vegetables and balsam. The balsam was prized for its perfume and medicinal use and was soon to be supplied by Jericho to the whole Roman empire. Palaces were built near the new agricultural estates, luxurious retreats from Jerusalem’s winter cold.

The Hasmonean dynasty was succeeded in 37 B.C. by Herod the Great. Herod incorporated the Hasmonean accomplishments into an expanded plan of palatial buildings, pools and gardens, carefully situated to capture the beauty of the mountain-rimmed plain and the winter fullness of the Wadi Kelt—the wadi which runs from Jerusalem to the Jericho Plain, dry except when it flash floods during the winter rains in Jerusalem.

Not long after Herod’s time—certainly before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.—the palaces were apparently abandoned to an occasional farmer or wanderer. Some late Roman, Byzantine and early Moslem remains were found and then the site was returned to the wilderness.

For about 1700 years the site lay undisturbed—protected from human intrusion by the parched barrenness. The first we hear of explorations at Hasmonean and Herodian Jericho, today called Tulul Abu el-Alayik (or Alayik for short), are in the reports of the famous mid-19th century British explorer of the Holy Land, Capt. Charles Warren. Warren probed nine tells in the Jordan Valley near Jericho, including the two mounds north and south of the Wadi Kelt which are the prominent features of Alayik. At the beginning of this century two Germans, E. Sellin and C. Watzinger, the first excavators of ancient Jericho, took additional soundings at Alayik. But not until 1950 were large-scale excavations carried out by a team led by James L. Kelso and D. C. Baramki, who were searching for New Testament Jericho. They believed, as did their predecessors (mistakenly as will be seen) that the pair of tells at Alayik were the remains of the two towers which, according to the first century historian Strabo, were destroyed by Pompey on his way to conquer Judea in 63 B.C.a Kelso and Baramki had in fact uncovered impressive remains of Herodian structures and decorative gardens. Their excavations were continued a year later by James B. Pritchard of the University of Pennsylvania who exposed a large building near the southern mound which he identified as a “gymnasium”—again mistakenly as we shall see.

Only in 1973 were excavations begun which would reveal the true scope and magnificence of the site. Directed by Israeli archaeologist, Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University, the dig still goes on. These excavations have untangled the historical sequence of the various buildings on the site; they have exposed the complicated water system that served the site and they have uncovered a vast range of details of the royal residence and agricultural estates which served a succession of Jewish rulers of Palestine for close to two centuries.

Netzer looks across his treeless site toward the distant orchards of modern Jericho and toward the nearby banana plantations which today cover Pritchard’s “gymnasium”, and explains why he must press on with the excavations. He points out that even during the few years he has been excavating at Alayik the Arabs of Jericho have become noticeably more prosperous—irrigating wider areas, cultivating more dunams of land. The unwatered, untended expanse which still stretches like a long apron from the foot of the Judean hills may soon again be green. And then the thin earth cover protecting unknown remains will be disturbed and the ancient story lost. It is ironic that for almost two millennia the site was protected because during that period no civilization brought together the technical ability, the economic need, and the energy and imagination which fired Herod and the earlier Hasmoneans.

The story which Netzer has thus far exposed begins during the Hasmonean kingdom in the second century B.C. The Hasmoneans built an elaborate aqueduct system which carried water from the springs of Ein Nueima (four miles away), Ein Duq and perhaps Ein Auja (ten miles away),—all in the Judean mountains north of Alayik—to every corner of the Jericho plain. Alongside the large, prosperous royal estates, the Hasmonean kings built their winter palace which enjoyed the splendid advantages of climate, proximity to Jerusalem less than 15 miles away, an abundant supply of water, and a majestic view. From the edge of the wide plain on which the royal Hasmonean family lived, they looked west to the cliffs and peaks marking the end of the hills of Judea. To the east they saw the mauve furrowed mountains of Moab beyond the Jordan River which lay in a gorge out of sight.

Netzer found the remains of the Hasmonean palace on the mound north of the Wadi Kelt which had previously been identified—wrongly—as one of the towers referred to by Strabo. Some of the walls of the Hasmonean Palace, made from sun-dried mud brick, now stand exposed almost 20 feet high. The palace probably contained two stories and was built around a central court. Fragments of painted and molded stucco suggest the actual appearance of the palace walls (see illustration). We do not know exactly when the Hasmoneans built their palace, although Netzer thinks that the archaeological evidence suggests the reign of Alexander Yannai (103 B.C.–76 B.C.). It was clearly occupied during all of the late Hasmonean period and during the early part of Herod’s reign. This we know from pottery, from coins, and from clear signs of renovations and overlapping additions to the many pools and channels surrounding the base of the palace.

This palace is apparently referred to by the first century Jewish historian Josephus as the “former palace” in Jericho, in contradistinction to the later Herodian palace (Josephus, The Jewish War, Book I, 407).

Northeast of the Hasmonean palace at the foot of the mound (see plan), Netzer discovered a huge pool more than 100 feet long and 60 feet wide. At places it is as much as 12 feet deep. It is divided into two parts by a wall (or podium) about 18 feet wide, but only half as high as the pool itself (see illustration). The pool was apparently used for swimming and bathing. When the pool was only half full, it could function as two pools separated by the podium. Wide, comfortable steps lead to the bottom of each half of the pool. The pool is built of cobblestones covered with lime plaster. It is surrounded on three sides by a courtyard (see reconstruction drawing). Parallel with the southern edge of the pool Netzer uncovered the foundations of a building, about 60 × 50 feet in size, probably the remains of a poolside pavilion built at the same time as the pool itself.

A famous murder by drowning very likely occurred in this pool. After Herod took the kingdom from the Hasmoneans, Herod appointed as high priest a man named Hananel who had been an obscure priest in Babylon and of no great family lineage. This greatly offended Herod’s Hasmonean wife Mariamne and his Hasmonean mother-in-law Alexandra, because Mariamne’s 17-year-old brother (Alexandra’s son) was due to become high priest. As a result of Mariamne’s and Alexandra’s machinations, Herod relented dismissed Hananel, and appointed his 17-year-old Hasmonean brother-in-law, Aristobulus III, as high priest. When Aristobulus appeared before the people for the first time, dressed in the ceremonial garb of the high priest, on the Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth) in 36 B.C., he was welcomed with cries of joy and undisguised affection. Herod saw the Hasmonean Aristobulus as a threat to his own power. So he had him murdered. The story is told by Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XV, 53–56:

“… Herod decided to carry out his designs against the youth [Aristobulus]. When the festival [of the Feast of Tabernacles in early autumn] was over and they were being entertained at Jericho as the guest of Alexandra [Herod’s mother-in-law and daughter of Hyrcanus II], he [Herod] showed great friendliness to the youth … As the place was naturally very hot, they soon went out in a group for a stroll, and stood beside the swimming pools, of which there were several large ones around the palace, and cooled themselves off from the excessive heat of noon. At first they watched some of the servants and friends [of Herod] as they swam, and then, at Herod’s urging, the youth [Aristobulus] was induced [to join them]. But with darkness coming on while he swam, some of the friends, who had been given orders [by Herod] to do so, kept pressing him down and holding him under water as if in sport, and they did not let up until they had quite suffocated him. In this manner was Aristobulus done away with when he was not yet eighteen years old and had held the high priesthood for a year.”

Herod then reappointed his lackey Hananel as high priest.

The drowning episode is especially significant because it so closely corroborates what archaeology has uncovered. We see Alexandra, the Hasmonean, “entertaining” Herod at her palace, confirming the archaeological evidence that the Hasmonean residence at Jericho continued to be occupied in the early part of Herod’s reign (37 B.C.–4 B.C.). We read of large “pools” and now as we stand on the mound of the palace we look down on the two large pools, separated by an 18-foot podium. It is easy to imagine the drowning described by Josephus.

North of the Hasmonean palace mound is an area divided into a large number of ritual baths (Hebrew: mikvaot) and small bathing pools fed by branches of the aqueduct system. Built during three phases of the Hasmonean residence, this area is remarkable for the number and variety of bathing arrangements. It is apparent that the mikvaot were a vital part of everyday routine of the Hasmonean family, a family which included both kings and high priests. Each of the six mikvaot (which are the earliest mikvaot ever discovered) complies with religious law that water for a mikveh must come either from rain falling directly upon it or from water flowing directly from a spring (the water cannot be drawn and carried). Here the aqueduct system conducts the spring water into the mikvaot. Each mikveh has two parts: a storage pool into which the free-flowing water comes via an aqueduct branch, where it is temporarily retained, and the stepped bathing pool itself. A channel between the two parts permitted the bathing pool to be cleaned and new water introduced even when the flow from the springs was scant.

The most elegant of the ritual baths (see illustration) is just yards from the edge of the patio of the large swimming pool. This bath is bordered by a mosaic which is the earliest mosaic ever found in Israel (see illustration).

Unfortunately, it was vandalized shortly after its discovery and can no longer be seen. In an adjacent room is the base of a stone bathtub which may have been used for washing before immersion in the ritual bath. Netzer speculates that perhaps the Hasmonean Kings used this mikvaot complex to purify themselves. (If a ritually unclean person used the swimming pool, this would have contaminated all the bathers.)

The Hasmonean palace complex, grand as it was, was far surpassed by the master builder of them all, Herod the Great. After the first year of his reign, Herod lost ownership of Jericho when in 36 B.C. Mark Antony gave the area to his lover, Cleopatra. Cleopatra promptly leased the rich agricultural land back to Herod who held it in this way for the next six years. (According to Josephus, Cleopatra “had some passion for Herod” and “seemed overcome with love for him.”) When Cleopatra committed suicide, the area was returned to Herod outright.

Herod’s first building activity was on the south side of the Wadi Kelt, about 400 yards from the Hasmonean Palace. Here Herod built his palace (Pritchard’s “gymnasium”) and simultaneously carried out major irrigation and land development projects, carrying water in aqueducts from the three rich springs to the west, in the Wadi Kelt (in addition to the springs to the north, previously used by the Hasmoneans). About 350 yards east of the palace there is an ancient reservoir called in Arabic Birket Mousa, measuring approximately 600 × 500 feet with the impressive capacity of more than 2 million gallons. Netzer suggests that the similar orientation of this pool, which lies outside the plan below, with Herod’s first palace means that they were probably built at the same time.

But this first palace did not suffice for Herod. Later in his reign, Herod constructed an entirely new and magnificent complex on the northern bank of the Wadi Kelt (and an additional villa atop the massive walls of the earlier Hasmonean Palace).

As Josephus tells us:

“The king constructed new buildings, finer and more commodious for the reception of guests, and named them after the same friends [that is, Augustus and Agrippa].
The Jewish War I, 407.

The new Herodian Palace complex on the northern side of the Wadi looked out over an elaborate ornamental garden on the southern bank of the wadi (see reconstruction). On the same side of the wadi as the garden is a small mound which Kelso and Baramki called a “Hellenistic” tower but which Netzer identifies as an artificial tell on which Herod built an older and smaller version of the round palace fortress he was to build later on the giant artificial mound known as Herodium where the great king was, according to Josephus, buried. One can only guess what the original purpose of the Jericho building was. Perhaps it was an elaborate reception hall. Parts of bath installations were found on the artificial mound which suggests that either a small Roman bath was attached to the reception hall, or perhaps, the entire elevated structure was a bathhouse complex.

The ornamental garden, on the south side of the wadi, was part of the same master-plan. On the wadi side of the garden was a terraced slope. On the other side and above it was a 360 foot long facade interrupted by 24 decorative niches—possibly for statues (see illustration). Major sections of this long wall and its stepped, central hemicycle still stand. Netzer’s investigation now permits him to reconstruct double colonnaded stoas at either end of the garden. The stoas were elevated almost six feet above the garden level. The back walls and ceiling of the stoas were decorated with frescoes and molded stucco. Looking out from the stoas one could look across the wadi to the northern palace wing, undoubtedly the most important area of the entire complex. Many flower pots were found in situ in the sunken gardens.

The northern wing of the Herodian Palace was built on a large natural plateau, leveled slightly before construction began. This northern wing is divided by a small tributary wadi which empties into the main flow of the Wadi Kelt. The large section of this northern wing east of this tributary wadi contains two open courtyards, a huge reception hall, a bath complex and groups of smaller rooms for storage and living. The large reception hall measuring 90 × 60 feet is one of the outstanding finds of Netzer’s excavations (see illustration). The walls were decorated with frescoes, painted to resemble marble. Along three sides of the room ran a colonnade. Although the stone columns were looted in antiquity, their negative impressions in the floor testify to shape, size and position. Impressively long wooden beams must have once spanned the 43 feet between the two long rows of columns.

Just as we know the columns from their negative impressions, so we know the reception hall’s floor design, which is preserved in the mortar of the floor bedding (see drawing). Small scattered fragments of the imported marble and colored local stone which had once been set into the floor bedding still hint at the original elegance of the floor. The marble and colored stone were laid in sections about the size of modern tiles and known as opus sectile. The large entrance to the reception hall, 18 feet wide, looked out over the sunken gardens on the other side of the wadi.

There were two open courtyards in the northern wing, both colonnaded on three sides—one in Ionic and one in Corinthian style. The western court had on its fourth side a semicircular apse almost 30 feet in diameter which was probably covered with a half dome (see reconstruction). All the column cores were built of carefully carved small stones, plastered over and then carved to resemble stone fluting.

The bath of the northern wing consisted of five rooms—including an entrance hall to undress, two warm rooms, a hot room and a cold room, all in traditional Roman fashion. The “frigidarium” is the most striking room, and also the most confusing until explained (see illustration and plan). As it appears today, the room is round, 26 feet in diameter, with 4 semicircular niches, each 6 feet wide. The original floor of the room is intact only in the niches.

Below floor level—and exposed in the illustration—is a central column, about 6 feet in diameter, and two concentric channels about 4 feet deep around the central column. Netzer believes that this below-floor-level construction was the support for a basin or pool in which the actual bathing occurred.

Note the patterns in the walls of the frigidarium. It is part of a wall building technique known as “Roman concrete.” Although widely used in Italy, it is quite rare in the Middle East. However, it has been extensively used here at Jericho. Both Netzer and earlier excavators believe that Roman building crews were brought to Jericho to construct the Roman concrete. Perhaps, says Netzer, the Roman government lent these crews to Herod as an expression of gratitude after Agrippa’s visit in about 15 B.C.

The two patterns on the wall are known as opus quadratum and opus reticulatum. Strangely enough, these lovely patterns formed only the inner core of the wall; they were not visible when the wall was complete. The opus quadratum and opus reticulatum were a lattice formed from uniformly cut stones. Concrete was then poured over the opus quadratum and opus reticulatum to strengthen it and fill the core of the wall. Finally plaster and colored frescoes were applied. This kind of construction was especially suitable for curved surfaces. At Jericho, Roman concrete is used side by side with mud brick throughout the northern palace wing, depending on the function and design of the area. (The solid black lines on the plan of the northern palace wing indicate Roman concrete, as opposed to mud-brick walls from local adobe.)

Familiar now with the outstanding features of Herodian Jericho on the banks of the Wadi Kelt, an area which Herod developed on virgin soil, let us return to where we began—to the Hasmonean palace-pool complex. It is now clear from Netzer’s excavations that Herod built a structure (probably a villa) on top of the old Hasmonean Palace. The Hasmonean Palace had already been built on a mound, but Herod covered the building to form a much higher artificial mound, using the Hasmonean palace walls as part of the foundation supports for his new villa. In addition Herod built new stone foundation walls inside the old building. Then fill from the wadi was poured into the rooms of the old building and a massive new superstructure was built on top. Thus Herod’s new villa commanded a view above the highest trees and caught the most delicate breeze. Unfortunately, almost nothing of the villa has survived.
Herod covered the deck beside the Hasmonean swimming pool with earth into which flower pots were inserted to make a garden; some of these flower pots were found still in place (see illustration).

In this earth cover was discovered a hoard of 20 coins minted by Mattityahu Antigonus, the last Hasmonean king (40 B.C.–37 B.C.). Antony (persuaded by Herod) had Antigonus murdered and thus the kingdom was transferred “to Herod, the son of Antipater, who was of a common family and of private extraction … And thus did the reign of the Hasmoneans cease, a hundred and twenty six years after it was first set up.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XIV, 490.)

Herod’s tumultuous 33 year reign ended in Jericho. Herod succumbed to a horrible illness, but not before giving final confirmation to Josephus’ description that he was “a man of great cruelty to all men alike, a slave to his anger, and indifferent to justice …” While in the throes of his final sickness, Herod ordered all the principal men of the nation to be brought to him. He then proceeded to have them locked into the hippodrome which was on the plain near the palace. Next he ordered that when he died instructions should be given to the soldiers to kill all the leading citizens who were in the hippodrome. In this way, Herod quieted his own fear that he would die without being lamented, “for then the whole nation would mourn from their very soul, which otherwise would be done [for Herod] in sport and mockery only”. (Antiquities of the Jews, XVII, 177.)

At the time of this writing, Netzer is investigating a horseshoe shaped mound, called Tel el Samarat, north of the palaces, which he believes contains the remains of the infamous hippodrome. He reports that it appears to be a unique, multi-purpose structure combining an oval race course with a tiered, elevated theater at its northern end.

After the Herodian dynasty ended in the first century A.D., the economic demand for Jericho’s rich crops diminished. The population of the country dwindled, mainly as a result of the First Jewish Revolt which ended in 70 A.D. with the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. The Roman Procurators no longer maintained the elaborate and widespread aqueduct system from the wadi springs, so the channels were eventually damaged during the often violent winter floods. Finally, the aqueducts ceased to function at all. From the archaeological evidence it seems that by the middle of the first century intensive use of the site ended and a gradual process of decline set in; by the end of the 8th century no one remained. The desert reclaimed its original portion. Again the boundary of green moved close to the single spring, Ein el-Sultan, near the tell of ancient Jericho. Sand drifted thinly to cover the Hasmonean and Herodian palaces and pools; the network of aqueducts and plantation walls became vague interruptions in the flatness, visible only when shadows gave them form.

(For further details, see E. Netzer, “The Hasmonean and Herodian Winter Palaces at Jericho”, Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 25, p. 89 (1975), J. L. Kelso and D. C. Baramki, “The Excavation of New Testament Jericho, Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 29–30 (1955), pp. 1–49; J. B. Pritchard, “The Excavation of Herodian Jericho, 1951,” Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 32–33 (1958), pp. 1–58).

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