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Explorers 'Docudrama' Digs Into Jericho's Past


By Robert Ruby

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Henry Holt & Co.

350 pp., $25

It's a pity that the word docudrama has become synonymous with frivolous diversion. Docudrama should be a term of praise, used to commend works that responsibly animate the historical record.

In this wishful sense, "Jericho" is a docudrama. Robert Ruby takes up the story of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), the mid-19th-century British endeavor to survey Biblical Palestine.

At first, the PEF does not seem a likely cache of enjoyable tales. But Ruby augments facts and dates with a convincing re-creation of the explorers' intricate personalities.

And, shifting from the past to the present, he reminds readers of the region's contemporary global significance. Years as a Middle East correspondent seem to have fostered in Ruby a fondness for the descriptive rabbit punch. He renders arid, below-sea-level Jericho as "the overheated, earthen basement of the world."

For centuries, the large loaf-shaped mound near Jericho has been a central archeological focus. Situated beside the ancient fresh-water spring of Ein es Sultan, the mound's surface rubble suggested it concealed remnants of Biblical Jericho. To the Victorian public of the early days of exploration described in Ruby's book, Jericho was a castle whose steep walls were brought down by Joshua and his followers with shouts and trumpets.

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Charles Warren, among the first PEF explorers to investigate the Jericho mound, arrived at a time when the spot was an insect-infested backwater of the Ottoman Empire. Digging at Jericho for more than a month, he concluded that the great mound was either the platform for a fort or for the many-towered castle of Victorian imagination.

Warren's successor, Claude Conder, set out from England for the Holy Land at a time when ordinary folks thought Biblical cities existed only in the Bible.

Courageous, vain, and stubborn, Conder resisted the idea that the mound contained strata of previous civilizations. He wrote to his PEF funders that "there is hardly anything to be found in Palestine; all is smashed to powder."

Jericho's principal 20th-century archeologist, Kathleen Kenyon, profoundly revised excavation techniques. Before Kenyon, sites were stripped off in broad layers; she insisted on digging deep, narrow, square holes. Her technique led to the discovery of the complex culture she dubbed Pre-Pottery Neolithic.

About 8,000 BC, these Jericho inhabitants built a settlement with elaborate religious practices and advanced public-works projects. In the layer above, Kenyon found evidence of a society that raised crops and domesticated animals. The earliest settlers had been followed by less-sophisticated peoples. Settlement, destruction, and resettlement characterized Jericho's prehistory.

And where in that sequence was the Biblical Wall of Jericho? So far, physical evidence for the sudden destruction of Jericho has been inconclusive.

"Jericho" culminates in an effective delineation of the Dead Sea, a few miles south of Jericho. Lying more than 1,300 feet below sea level, this sea emits sulfurous odors. Its early explorers were forced to slog through a wicked mixture of blistering mud and salt that rimmed the shore. Occasionally, car-sized lumps of asphalt bob to the surface. How appropriate that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which have not been located, were thought to stand nearby.

Leaving "Jericho," one senses that the region still withholds as much as it reveals - that there will be more installments in this docudrama.

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