x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Blowing its own trumpet: Jericho shows off

The city's walls tumbled down long ago, but it is eager to show off its ancient sites as it celebrates its 10,000th anniversary.

Jericho's walls may have come tumbling down a long time ago, but today, despite continuing occupation and political instability, the city is eager to show off its ancient palaces and biblical sites as it celebrates its 10,000th anniversary. Rachel Shabi reveals how people in this sunny West Bank valley are hoping to attract more tourists to join the party. Photographs by Philip Cheung. It's clear that my car - ageing and a bit crabby - is also reluctant to move from Ramallah. A dense fog hangs over the ancient hills surrounding this Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank, on one particularly rheumatic winter's morning. Fat drops of rain and hail are contributing to the zero visibility and the overwhelming urge to stay indoors.

It does not seem like the right sort of day to explore Jericho, but my Palestinian fixer assures me that everything will be clear and sunny once we get there. And it is - that is one of the many charms of the ancient city. By the time we approach the Palestinian checkpoint at the outskirts of the city, the drive down through the rolling limestone hills has made a distant memory of the grim Ramallah weather, and we're grinning when we arrive at the city's main square and take in the easy pace and sun-dappled streets bearing Palestinian flags and billboards of the West Bank president Mahmoud Abbas.

A mesh of falafel stalls, vegetable stalls, restaurants and cabs pull crowds into this roomy hub, while others just pause for a break against the cool ornamental stone in the square's centre. At 260 metres below sea level and just a short drive east of Jerusalem, the desert city of Jericho has always been a vaunted, coveted and frequently invaded site. It is referred to in the Old Testament as the "city of palm trees", a product of its natural wells, water springs and proximity to the Jordan river. The Canaanites are believed to have called it "City of the Moon" - in honour of the moon god they worshipped. Blessed with the sort of soft, sweet climate that melts the frostiest of temperaments, Jericho's name in Arabic means "fragrant" - a nod to the bounteous palms and vivid blossoms that perfume this city.

During the late Bronze Age, the Israelites conquered Jericho. According to the Old Testament, led by Joshua, they first marched around the city and then blew trumpets which caused the city walls to crumble. And in the mid-1950s, the British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon concluded that the mud-brick rubble remains excavated at the site of Jericho decades earlier were indeed remains of the city wall. So the story is at least in part elevated to reality.

Perched between two mountain ranges, the city has natural defences in addition to its own water sources, which made it irresistibly attractive to invaders such as the Romans, Babylonians and Byzantines. Jericho, the lowest city on earth, was a favourite of Ottoman rulers who used the city as a quiet winter getaway. It has also long been on the map for Christian missionaries following in the footsteps of Jesus.

But for years this West Bank treasure has been buried under the stifling layers of the Israeli occupation, and the travellers that should have piled into the city in droves arrived only in a slow trickle, if at all. Now, Jericho is preparing to lay on celebrations to mark the 10,000-year anniversary of its founding. The city is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited place in the world: a Neolithic settlement excavated at this site dates back to around 8000BC. There is a surge of finance-backed development in the city from Russian investors keen to establish ties with the region while a relaxing of Israeli checkpoints and a marginally calmer security atmosphere in the West Bank has had a positive effect on tourism generally, which has long been in decline.

It is possible that these various factors might collide and pull Jericho out of its tired demise, splashing the city on to the front pages of glossy traveller magazines where it belongs. So far, however, the city's workers don't seem too hopeful. "Maybe they will come this year, I don't know," says Saleh Ali Hassan, who has a stall selling kaffiyehs next to the ancient tree of Zacchaeus, which, according to the New Testament, this patrician of Jericho climbed so that he could get a better view of Jesus as he walked through the city. "This is the oldest city in the whole world and there are no visitors," he says. "It is politics. Sometimes, if a bus comes, the tourists stay on it and take pictures, and then they leave. It is a holy tree, 2,000 years old and they don't even get off the bus."

That has been a debilitating problem in Jericho since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2001 and Israel's military reoccupation of the West Bank. Jericho was under Jordanian rule and home to thousands of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that created Israel. In 1967, it was occupied by Israel and many of those refugees left for Jordan. Immediately after the Oslo Accords were signed by Israelis and Palestinians in 1993, setting a framework for political negotiations, Jericho was the first city turned over to the newly created Palestinian National Authority. it was the apex of what, in retrospect, were relatively stable, financially viable years - for tourism at least. Crowds packed the city's restaurants and shops and a casino at the Jericho Intercontinental hotel was thronged with Israeli weekend visitors, a flagship of the seemingly cordial relations (on the political surface) that prevailed during this period.

"Before the intifada it was brilliant - we had work, we received tourists from all over the place," says Fahmi Ghanem, the owner of the Green Valley Restaurant and Park. On the road leading to the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus is believed to have been tempted by the devil, this restaurant exudes a sort of washed-out, peeling charm. Omm Kalthoum's melancholic melodies drift over the courtyard speakers, where a centrepiece, three-tiered fountain now runs dry and yellowing tablecloths drape over faded pink upholstery. "This place used to be full, full of Jewish and Arab customers," recalls Ghanem. "But I don't know if things will improve now, no," he adds, shaking his head solemnly.

Even if the change is imperceptible to the locals, figures suggest that things are slowly improving. According to the latest statistics issued by the Palestinian tourism ministry, there was a surge of 24,000 visitors to Jericho during February this year, and a third of all visitors in one week during that month were foreign tourists. Certainly there are plenty of good reasons - besides the captivating landscape and climate - for visitors to flock to this city.

Jericho is home to several ancient churches, such as the Church of St George in Kosiba as well as the biblically signposted Zacchaeus tree and Mount of Temptation, a beautiful site accessible only by cable car. It also boasts an archaeological park at Tel Es-Sultan, considered to be the original site of ancient Jericho. And there are more magnificent ancient remains at Hisham's Palace (an Umayyad winter retreat) including a large floor mosaic, year. Take a road across a moonscape-like desert a few miles south of Jericho and you'll reach the tomb of Nabi Musa, where the Prophet Moses is thought to be buried. Travel another southerly drive and you get to the Dead Sea, the world-famous salt lake that borders Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Jericho's mayor, Hassan Saleh Hussein, says that one million tourists came through the city last year, but the trouble is that none of them stay. "It is a huge number yes, but they sleep somewhere else," he says. "Now we are working to build more of the infrastructure for tourism, so that people will spend more time here. We will have two new hotels built by the end of the year." And some of this new investment in development, he says, is coming from Moscow.

"Russians are number one in tourism development in the Middle East," he says, showing us plans for a new, rouble-funded Jericho museum and gardens. "They are showing an interest in the land that they own, everywhere." In Jericho, the Russian state manages around 12,000 square metres of land that once belonged to tsars, but the deeds were ceremoniously handed back the city's mayor a few years ago. The Russian tsar bought the plots of land two centuries ago and built a nunnery on it, but the site was abandoned after the Bolsevik Revolution of 1917. Now, Russia is taking a renewed interest in its biblical real estate, not just because of the religious resonance of the land, but because it wants to encourage links with the Palestinian people.

During a tour by senior Russian officials in the city earlier this year, Sergey Kozlov, the Russian representative, told the local press: "Russia has special historical ties with the Palestinians and the Arabs... Russians were not invaders in this region, which dye the relations between the two sides with mutual respect and appreciation, based on the slogan of peaceful coexistence between peoples."

As the first stone of the museum complex was laid down last month, Vladimir Kozhin, head of the presidential property management department of the Russian Federation said: "The Russian museum in Jericho proves that Russia returns to the Holy Land after a long period of absence, and contributes to the cultural and spiritual life of people living there." In another gesture of good intent, last month Russian scientists saved the tree of Zacchaeus. It had been riddled with termites, and Russian experts got rid of those, cut down dry branches and now report that the tree is in much better health.

But while the city council might celebrate this surge of cash, development and attention given to ancient lumber, workers in the tourist industry still fear that not enough is being done to promote Jericho during this anniversary year. "We should have started making preparations for the celebrations years ago," says Raed Abdelrazek, general manager of the "Abu Raed" Mount of Temptation Restaurant. "The way I see it, time is running out. We are not talking about something local - it should be worldwide, but I haven't seen anything that shows there is going to be a big promotion for the year 10,000."

Abdelrazek explains that, since the second intifada, Jericho fell off the tourist trail. "We are no longer a stop-off point between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea" he says, referring to the Israeli tourist trade on the Dead Sea road that, since 2000, has mopped up the tourists that used to pass through Jericho. After years of experience working in the hospitality industry, Abdelrazek's father set up the restaurant in 1967, at which point it comprised "five tables and 10 bathrooms and people told him, 'You are crazy!'" But such facilities are precisely what travellers seek out; now the Temptation is a cavernously large restaurant and tourist centre across the road from the biblical Elijah Spring - albeit with few customers milling between the olive-wood carvings and Dead Sea salts.

Like other tourism workers, Abdelrazek is encouraged by the relative calm that enables more visitors to come to Jericho, but is apprehensive that the situation could reverse at any time and at Israel's whim. Without a political agreement, those lifted checkpoints could just as swiftly be reimposed. The restaurant manager says that plans to expand to maximise the anniversary year potential are not supported by the city's tourism ministry.

In fact, some of the officials involved share these concerns. "We want to rehabilitate Jericho as a city of tourism during this 10,000-year anniversary," says Wiam Ariqat, head of the public relations and culture department at Jericho Municipality. She explains that all the plans for the city's celebrations are awaiting approval from a cross-ministerial department convened to co-ordinate events. "I don't know what the problem is, but we are still trying to get budget approval," she says. "I am also confused about the event and how we will manage to prepare for it in time. I don't have any answers right now."

Ariqat says that international friends from Jericho's twin cities, such as Pisa in Italy and Lyon in France, have already committed to take part in the celebrations, scheduled for October this year. Meanwhile, the tourism industry could be given a further boost by a recent announcement that Israeli tour guides may be permitted to lead trips to Bethlehem and Jericho, for the first time since 2000. Citing a relative calm and improved security, an Israeli army official told local newspapers that such permits may be piloted soon, and, if successful, could mean that Israeli tourists return to these occupied West Bank cities.

Ariqat says that, inevitably, this is what the future holds - mutual tourism co-operation across open borders that welcome visitors to the entire region. "When people decide to visit this part of the Middle East, they want to see all of it," she says. "The future for the region is to be open and offer one programme. People will be able to come and visit Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Syria - all on one ticket."