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.
Jericho itself came into fuller view from the summit where Herod’s castle was perched. The city occupied a flat plain and the castle towered above it from the south.
In the ancient world the development of roadways over difficult stretches of land occurred according to need. Footpaths were acceptable in societies where the chief preoccupation was the acquisition of food for family and livestock and the beasts of burden were wild asses, donkeys, and mules. But the appearance of the horse for riding and the camel as a beast of burden necessitated roadways that were adaptable for both the horseshoe and the wide, sensitive foot of the camel. It was at this point that pathways were turned into roadways, and later into more complete roads that could accommodate trade and military movement. Expansion of a road network was thus a clear indication of the growth and prosperity of a region. The roadway between Jerusalem and Jericho experienced such expansion during the first century A.D. when the area prospered from both trade and pilgrimages.
Despite the fact that the climate and mountainous terrain were quite unsuitable for road making, more roads were built here than in any other part of the country, including regions with greater populations. The reason is clear: proximity to Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem lay near main mountain road junctions where routes from the four points of the compass met, it was a strategic commercial and military site. Pilgrims also converged on the city. In the time of Herod the Great’s second temple, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims made the journey three times a year on feast days. The main road from Jericho to Jerusalem became a natural conduit connecting the trading caravans, Roman military convoys, and pilgrims. In fact, the quantity of travel and the status of the travelers made the road an inviting target for the many bandit gangs that roamed the countryside.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Romans judged the strategic roadway to be unsafe. Sentry posts were established along the route, most probably to act as protection against bandits who recognized that the surrounding desert allowed for easy escape and provided a secure place for hiding. Many persons who traveled the road were attacked, as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan indicates.
It should also be noted that the mountain road between Jerusalem and Jericho was not fully engineered until the war of A.D. 66–70. The Romans undertook the rather complex effort in order to make the road serviceable for the siege machines they were bringing up for use against the Jerusalem city walls. But during the time of Jesus’ ministry, many parts of the Jerusalem‑Jericho road were based on a soft, flaky, limestone surface that eroded rapidly. During and after the war the Romans paved the main roads in Palestine and marked them with milestones along the way. To prevent erosion of the surface of mountainous roads like the Jerusalem‑Jericho one, retaining walls of stones laid vertically over each other were often built on one side of the road.
The fame of this road, however, did not begin with the Romans. The strategic and historic importance of the route reaches well back into Israelite history. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is discussed in several biblical narratives. One of the more famous accounts (2 Sam 15.23–16.14) chronicles the story of David and his followers who escaped Jerusalem along this route after David’s son Absalom had declared himself king. King Zedekiah of Judah used the road when he tried to escape the advancing Chaldeans in 586/587 B.C. (2 Kgs 25.4). Some six hundred years later, Jesus traveled along this road when he advanced his ministry towards Jerusalem (Mark 10.46–11.1). And Josephus tells us that the Tenth Roman Legion used this Jericho‑Jerusalem road on their way to besiege Jerusalem in A.D. 69.
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