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Although Jericho is northeast of Jerusalem, travelers go “down” to Jericho. The Jewish historian Josephus (A.D. 37–93) explained that the first-century road was approximately one hundred and fifty Roman stadioi, or about eighteen miles long. A traveler descended from Jerusalem’s height, approximately twenty-five hundred feet above sea level, to Jericho’s depth, some eight hundred twenty-five feet below sea level. In that short geographical space, the descent was approximately six-tenths of a mile. Travelers, merchants, pilgrims, and soldiers have for centuries gone down to go up (traveling north to Jericho) and gone up to go down (traveling south to Jerusalem).
Such a dramatic change in height brought with it a startlingly rapid shift in environmental conditions that must have proven exhausting for anyone making the journey. The steep and confined slope encouraged the formation of a “rain-shadow.” While Jerusalem received about twenty inches of rainfall a year and experienced a Mediterranean climate, Jericho received only eight inches of rain a year and was more African in its climatic orientation. In fact, Jericho was (and remains) an oasis situated in the midst of a desert; it would have been desert itself except for the presence of the water source commonly referred to as “Elisha’s Spring.”
The climatic changes produced unique environmental markers. After the point along the journey where rainfall amounted to sixteen inches annually, there were no more trees. After the twelve-inch rainfall line, vegetation was reduced to a cover of steppe shrubs, and finally, at the eight-inch line and beyond, only desert plants found enough moisture to survive. Even without the ever present threat of bandits, it was a precipitously arduous, dry, and dangerous trek.
A traveler departing Jerusalem on this road first circled past the Mount of Olives. A glance back from this point would have been rewarded with a parting glimpse of the city temple-scape. The road then skirted past Bethany and proceeded forward by way of a rather sharp descent. At a point approximately thirteen miles out of Jerusalem and five miles from Jericho, the traveler arrived at a pass that is approximately eight hundred and eighty-five feet above sea level and sixteen hundred and fifty-five feet above Jericho. In all likelihood the Roman road went through here; it is the shortest route between the two cities. The name of the pass in Arabic is tal `at ed-damm, which means Ascent of Blood. The Arabic corresponds to the Hebrew that means Ascent of Adummim (Josh 15.7 and 18.17). Adummim means red objects, which in this case most likely referred to the red rock found at the site. The Christian historian Eusebius (A.D. 260–340) argued that there was a castle here, and the church patriarch Jerome (A.D. 347–420) rendered the name Maledomni and argued that it was equivalent to Greek terminology that meant Ascent of the Red. He explained that the name was given because of the blood that bandits repeatedly shed at this place. Jerome also argued that a castle or inn was located at the site and that it was strategically placed to aid travelers. He went even further and offered the conclusion that the traveler in Jesus’ parable was most likely attacked at this site. The site continues to be traditionally understood in this way even though Eusebius, who wrote earlier than Jerome, did not connect the location to the parable incident.
Approximately two miles later, a traveler approached Jericho. Now the Wadi Qelt (Wadi el-Kelt) came into better view. The route approached from the southwest and ran right along the south wall of the wadi for more than three miles. Wadi is an Arabic word for a stream or stream bed. Since many streams in ancient Palestine only flowed seasonally, the wadis were often completely dry. They could also be quite cavernous as was evidently the case with the Wadi Qelt, because Herod found it large enough to build an aqueduct and bridges in and through it. Herod used the water that flowed through this system to supply the city of Jericho, where he had built his winter castle, and to enhance the irrigation of the plain surrounding the city. In fact, the name Qelt is said to derive from the Latin cultus or “cultivated.” This was certainly one of the few places in the region where cultivation could be found.