Ancient Jericho pins hopes on tourism boom after Unesco listing

Palestine's prehistoric site of Tell es-Sultan was added to the World Heritage List last month

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In the ancient city of Jericho in the occupied West Bank, a prehistoric site has raised Palestinian hopes of a tourism boom after Unesco declared it a World Heritage site.

The midday sun is high in the sky and only a few dozen visitors brave the walk around Tell es-Sultan, where archaeologists have unearthed evidence of community life dating back about 10,000 years.

Passers-by may not spot the inconspicuous mound tucked away on the edge of Jericho, but it drew international attention last month when it was added to Unesco's World Heritage List.

Residents celebrated with fireworks, well aware that such recognition could change their fortunes.

“For the first time, I felt that there was justice in the world,” said Jericho mayor Abdulkareem Sider.

“Hopefully it will have a significant positive impact on the number of tourists,” he added at his office in city hall, where paintings of Jericho's heritage adorn the walls.

Jericho boasts a wealth of ancient sites, including the extensive mosaics of Hisham's Palace, an early Islamic site that Palestinian officials hope will be next to get a Unesco listing.

A monastery clings to the Mount of Temptation, where Christians believe Jesus struggled with Satan for 40 days, while other biblical sites are dotted across the landscape.

But, despite such cultural treasures, visitor numbers remain relatively low.

In the first half of this year, there were 32,535 hotel guests in the Jericho area, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

That compares with 221,377 in Bethlehem, the West Bank town celebrated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.

A Chinese tourist outside Tell es-Sultan admitted she had no idea about the ancient site, saying she was only brought to the adjacent restaurant as part of a bus tour.

Despite the fanfare surrounding the Unesco announcement, only a few signs at Tell es-Sultan explain the historical significance of the site where a permanent settlement had emerged by the ninth to eighth millennium BC.

Maddie Oto, 22, an American student on an educational tour, suggested the site needs better labelling to make it accessible.

“You have to come here with a guide, to learn the things that we're learning,” she said, while a cable car overhead carried visitors to the Mount of Temptation.

Mohammed Mansour, in charge of developing Jericho's archaeological sites, is mindful of the shortcomings but says improvements are on the way thanks to funding from Italy.

“We will make a new museum with a new entrance, with a walkway for visitors, and also to protect the site, putting some shelters in some areas,” he said.

Mansour's face lit up as he talked about the 29 layers of ancient civilisations found at Tell es-Sultan, where thousands of years ago residents were able to build steps up a tower and begin community living and a belief system.

But while domestic and international funding will go some way towards promoting tourism in the city, Palestinians have no actual capacity to issue tourist visas.

Neighbouring Jordan can be seen from Tell es-Sultan but the nearby crossing is controlled by Israel, which has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 War.

Both Mansour and the mayor lamented that many tourists come to Jericho as a stop on a broader tour led by guides with Israeli licences and, as a result, visitors often believe they are in Israel rather than the Palestinian territories.

The city also draws visits by Israeli Arabs, descendants of Palestinians who stayed on their land after Israel's creation in 1948.

Shadia Dahamshi, from Kafr Kanna in northern Israel, was wowed by the “unbelievably beautiful” Hisham's Palace, which was recently restored with Japanese funding.

“The place is really, really marvellous,” said Dahamshi, amazed by the skill of the eighth-century craftsmen who built the fortified residence.

Her relative, however, pointed to the lack of air conditioning in a region where summer temperatures regularly top 40 degrees Celsius.

The mayor aspires to improve the visitor experience by lighting up the ancient sites so they can be toured after dark, as well as encouraging tourists to explore more of the Jordan Valley.

“One day is not enough,” said Sider, who wants to develop tours of the date palms surrounding the city and walking trails through the valley.

Tourists can travel to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea or discover local cuisine, he added.

Jericho is the oldest city in the world, so it is the right for all people to visit, said the mayor.

Updated: October 04, 2023, 7:26 AM