Jerusalem, Asharq Al-Awsat- Approximately two kilometers away from Jericho’s city center lies Tel es-Sultan (Sultan’s Hill), the oval-shaped mound that the oasis of Jericho, the oldest city in the world, is famous for. The world’s earliest settlement was located at Tel es-Sultan, which stands in the form of several layers of habitation that make up today’s mound.
And yet despite its importance and its ability to attract the world’s greatest researchers, it is not included on the World Heritage List, which is precisely what the Palestinian Authority’s Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage is striving to accomplish presently.
Director of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Hamdan Taha, has announced that the department has started the procedures to register Tel es-Sultan, the town of Bethlehem and the ancient al Mahd Church (Church of Nativity) on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Church of Nativity is considered to be one of the most famous churches in Christian tradition, as it is built on the area where, it is believed, that Jesus was born.
The department has sent documents to the relevant parties who are also backing the process; which are both the Arab and Islamic communities, in addition to the European Union group that is part of the World Heritage Committee.
Perhaps Tel es-Sultan is less famous than the Church of Nativity in the eyes of the world. The story of Tel es-Sultan began with the pioneering work of British archeologist, Dame Kathleen Kenyon of the Institute of Archeology in London, who arrived at the site in 1951. She stunned the world with her discovery of the earliest human habitation dating back to 9000 BCE.
Although Kenyon’s work was the most substantial, she was by no means the first to arrive at the small hill that lies in the town known today as ancient Jericho. Many had preceded her as part of a large-scale excavation campaign launched in Jericho and other Palestinian cities launched over four centuries ago by foreign dispatches sent to trace the geographical biblical route and the places referred to in the holy book. However these research missions did not provide explanations to their discoveries that was required by the archaeologists despite the fact that they discovered a multitude of sites.
A German-Austrian group started excavating in Tel es-Sultan in 1911, but they did not achieve any tangible results. However, the excavations between 1930 and 1936 undertaken by the British School of Archeology unearthed important discoveries, which were announced by then-Director of the school and the head of the excavation mission, John Garstang. The excavations found trenches and archeological layers that dated back to 6000 BCE, in addition to finding intricately made tombs dating back to the Middle Bronze Age, known in Palestine as the Hyksos era.
Garstang, who was the first manager of the Palestinian antiquities department, was appointed to his post in 1920. Like many others, he was one who supported the Torah and a biblical approach towards the excavations in Palestine. He encouraged those adopting the Zionist approach to work, granting them the necessary capabilities – his work not any different from the British Mandate’s political goal that supported the Zionist plans for a Jewish ‘national home’ in Palestine, as was stated in the Balfour Declaration.
When Kenyon arrived to resume what her fellow national predecessors had began, she had hopes that Tel es-Sultan would not disappoint her, and she was right. The significance lies in the fact that her approach was different, especially to the one adopted by Garstang. She knew from the start that the rigid and arbitrary manner of linking all the discoveries to the Old Testament was erroneous. As such, it can be said that Kenyon had a profound impact on a generation of archeologists and was considered to be their mentor. They, in turn, were fully devoted to their work and followed her guidance with utmost dedication. Working on the site of the hill until 1961, the discoveries made were published in two reputable journals.
Kenyon indicated that Tel es-Sultan was composed of layers upon layers of over 23 ancient civilizations sequentially ranging over the space of three hectares. Among her discoveries was a trench that measured nine meters in width and was three meters deep which was dug in rock, and over 100 tombs and seals and cereal grains [domesticated wheat and barely], in addition to what is considered the world’s most ancient circling wall and tower. The tower was used as a fortress for protection against enemies and is the oldest one known to the world, dating back to 8000-9000 BCE.
All these discoveries are what led Kenyon to publicly announce that Jericho was the oldest city in the world, while specifying the different ages of human settlements unto the Byzantine era and the early Islamic era. Kenyon possessed evidence at the time that proved that ancient Jericho had a centralized authority, in addition to being the first civilization to domesticate animals, cultivate crops and make pottery. The discoveries of the fortress wall and tower, she stated, predated the Pyramids by approximately 4000 years.
It could be said that what Kenyon staged was no less than an antiquities revolution when she rejected the approach that analyzed everything in Jericho through a biblical lens and upheld that there was no archeological evidence of the biblical account of the demolition of Jericho’s fortified walls by Joshua [Yehoshua] and his army. Kenyon maintained that the excavations refuted these claims, which is matter that to present day is still a subject of heated debate.
Today, the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage is arguing the importance of including Tel es-Sultan on the World Heritage List saying, “Tel es-Sultan has cosmological significance by virtue of being the oldest city in the world. It has the most ancient fortress system, walls and tower. The Neolithic monuments and artifacts that have been discovered and are well preserved indicate the beginnings of a sophisticated social and political system.” It also stated, “The city of Tel es-Sultan has been a unique Neolithic example of religious and agricultural evolution for over 10,000 years, in addition to being the oldest building of its kind throughout the world. It will continue to stand as an exceptional example of cultural traditions that have become extinct and as an example of [early] civilizations unto the 6th century BCE. This has been proven by the plastered skulls that have seashells in the place where the eyes had been.” [There have been studies that indicate that the skulls of the dead were exhumed for secondary burial].
And yet despite the global significance of Tel es-Sultan, locally it does not command the same attention as Ein es-Sultan does. Ein es-Sultan, or the Sultan’s spring, is located by the hill. It flows at a rate of over 17 gallons an hour and still supports the town’s agriculture making Jericho the fertile oasis that it is. Ein es-Sultan invoked Kenyon to write, “In this dazzling expanse, the oasis of Jericho stands rather as one imagines the Garden of Eden did in the book of Genesis.”
After drinking and bathing in its water, Kenyon left the town for Jerusalem in 1961 and although excavations were still revealing significant discoveries, she could no longer remain. This all dramatically and abruptly changed in 1967 with the defeat of the Arab armies. The city fell under the occupation, which arrived in the city with set plans. Many of these plans concerned antiquities, such as canceling the permits that the Jordanian government had granted archeologists from around the world to excavate and research; only allowing Israelis to excavate. They were awaiting the fall of Jerusalem to launch intensive archeological missions, which have yet to take place and which are overshadowed by political and ideological suspicions.
Kenyon returned to London where she had been born in 1906, the daughter of Sir Frederic Kenyon who was a renowned British paleographer and biblical and classical scholar as well as the director of the British Museum for over 20 years. Kathleen Kenyon continued to face various refutations and debates over her discoveries. In 1981, she was part of a particularly heated debate over the figure of Joshua, which prompted her to write her responses in American and British journals. Despite the attacks, Kenyon continued to share her scientific discoveries with the world. Because of her exceptional accomplishments, Queen Elizabeth II named Kathleen Mary Kenyon DBE (Dame of the Order of the British Empire), the female version of knighthood.
Perhaps it can be said that the inclusion of Tel es-Sultan on the World Heritage list has been delayed too long. It is a monument that stands to represent the different civilizations and their development, in addition to presenting a turning point and controversy in the subject of biblical archeology that has long combined religion and politics with antiquities. This lethal combination has made peace, progress and prosperity a price paid by the Middle East for long years of suffering.