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The Moleskine Notebooks: Edition XLII
Named after Bruce Chatwin’s beloved moleskine notebooks, in these posts I share an artwork, a poem, a literature excerpt, an antique map, and some photography - all centred on a particular place.
Settled and abandoned perhaps as many as twenty times in its 11,000 year history, Jericho is the oldest known walled city in the entire world.
In both Modern Hebrew and Arabic, the names for the city, Yeriẖo and Arīḥā respectively, derive from the Canaanite word rēḥ — meaning ‘fragrant’. Mentioned in all three holy books of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, Jericho’s holiness actually predates the Abrahamic religions by some distance — it was once an important site of worship for an early moon god called Yarikh.
Since its earliest days, Jericho, which now sits within the Palestinian-administered Zone A of the West Bank, has seen war, peace, conquest, empire, art, bloodshed, construction, destruction, achievement, loss — even the advent of agriculture itself.
A history of Jericho, then, is the history of all human civilisation.
I. In Art
According to the sixth book of the Tanakh and the Old Testament, Joshua, leader of the Israelites, brought his people across the River Jordan and into the Promised Land. It was ordained by Yahweh that they should take this country, then known as Canaan, by force, and fulfil the promise made to Abraham in the Covenant.
Seeing the Israelites cross the river, the Canaanite King of Jericho ordered the gates to the city be shut. God commanded Joshua to march his people around the walls once a day for six days, and then seven times on the seventh day. At the front of this procession, seven priests were to blow horns with the Ark of the Covenant before them.
“When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.”
— Joshua 6:20
In the painting above, the English Romantic painter, John Martin —famous for his vast and wildly dramatic compositions— depicts this event. Joshua holds his arms aloft in triumph as the trumpets sound to his left. The walls come tumbling down in a suitably biblical fashion.
Interestingly, archaeologists have been unable to uncover any evidence of a conquest of the city of Jericho from the time period this event was supposed to have occurred (c. 13th century BC). In fact, Jericho was probably deserted at this time. Historians today generally agree that this story comes into the record much later — probably during the reign of King Josiah, when the Israelites were codifying some of their early scriptures and the stories of their origins (c. 6th-7th century BC). There have been similar sparse findings for many, though not all, of the supposed sites of conflict in the invasion of Canaan, meaning the Israelites may have been far more peaceful than they later claimed.
II. In Verse
“If this road is long there is work for me in mythology; I was alone on the bridge on that day after the Messiah withdrew to a hill in the suburbs of Jericho, before the Resurrection. I walk, and I cannot go in or out. I turn like a sunflower. At night, I am awakened by the voice of the soldier on night watch as she sings to her lover: Promise me nothing, do not send me a rose from Jericho!”
— Mahmoud Darwish, the last few stanzas of With the Mist So Dense on the Bridge (2008)
Mahmoud Darwish, a poet and author, was regarded as the Palestinian national poet before his death in 2008.
Born in a Palestinian Arab village in Western Galilee, Darwish and his family fled to Lebanon after the outbreak of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. They found their village destroyed when they returned to Israel a year later, but eventually became citizens of the new state. Later, while living abroad, Darwish was banned from re-entering Israel after he joined the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He would eventually sit on its Executive Committee during the Oslo Accords process.
Darwish’s poetry played a key role in forging a Palestinian national consciousness, and touched on themes such as anguish, dispossession, and exile — though somehow, against all the odds, retaining a sense of optimism. A secular man, he criticised both Israeli and Palestinian leadership (especially Hamas), but believed peace was possible to the end — “the Jew will not be ashamed to find an Arab element in himself, and the Arab will not be ashamed to declare that he incorporates Jewish elements.”
In the poem above, the female soldier character remains purposefully vague (whose side is she on?) as she refers to the Jericho Rose. This plant, also known as the Resurrection Plant, is known for its ability to survive in completely arid conditions, drifting across the desert as tumbleweed for years at a time. If and when it finds a water source among the sands, it blossoms into a green and flowering plant once again. This soldier, it seems, has had enough of hope.
III. In Cartography
On 3rd January 1916, Colonel Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot signed a memorandum in secret. This agreement, which would come to bear their names, defined the spheres of influence in the Middle East for the United Kingdom and France in the event of a partition of the Ottoman Empire. Presupposing their victory in the ongoing conflict of WWI, the plan worked in tandem with promises made to the Russian Empire (for Constantinople, the Bosphorus Straits, and Western Armenia) and the Kingdom of Italy (for Southern Anatolia).
As shown on the map, the area bordered in red —what is today southern Israel and Palestine, Jordan, southern Iraq, and the ports of Acre and Haifa (for access to the Mediterranean)— was allocated for British control. Shown by the blue border, France was to receive what is now southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
The border separating the British and French areas came to be known as the Sykes-Picot Line — part of which still makes up the borders between Syria and Jordan, and Syria and Iraq, today. The line’s straightness is rather typical of European colonial delineations and spared little thought for existing cultural, religious, linguistic, and/or ethnic boundaries.
When the Bolsheviks leaked the details of the plan to the public on 23rd November 1917, it caused an uproar among Arab nationalists, who saw it as a great betrayal. It clearly contradicted the promise of British support for an independent Arab state in the Greater Syria region, made in exchange for the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. The leak also came just a few weeks after the Balfour Declaration had promised British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
The Sykes-Picot agreement made no allowance for either Arab independence or a Jewish national home. Instead, the region was to be split between the two European powers, except for the area shown in brown. The original plan for this territory of what is now northern Israel and Palestine, including Jericho, was for it to be internationalised. This never materialised. Instead, France ceded the area to the British after the end of the war, whereupon it became part of the British-governed Mandatory Palestine, which lasted until 1948.
IV. In Literature
“The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC. But nobody realised what was happening. Every generation continued to live like the previous generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way things were done. Paradoxically, a series of ‘improvements’, each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of these farmers. Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason that people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions. Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.’ It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan. The first part of the plan went smoothly. People indeed worked harder. But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared between more children. Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty.”
— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011)
Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian and the author of several bestselling books on humanity’s past and its future.
In this passage, Harari lays out his theory that humans’ lives actually got worse with the advent of agriculture, which required us to spend every waking moment toiling in the fields. He uses Jericho as the example settlement given its age and location within the “Fertile Crescent” — the boomerang shaped region stretching from Israel/Palestine up north into Greater Syria/southeastern Turkey, and back down again into Mesopotamia, where agriculture is believed to have first begun.
Jericho is so old it predates agriculture.
V. In Photography
“One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.”1
— Martin Luther King
✍️ Vote or comment below: where should the Moleskine Notebooks go next?
The Jericho road metaphor is a reference to the Good Samaritan parable from the Bible, which was supposed to have taken place on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.