Northeast of Jerusalem, just west of the Jordan River, was the ancient city of Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world. It sat low in the Jordan Valley, 258 meters (846 feet) below sea level, surrounded by mountainous terrain. The weather there was hot, with little rainfall each year, but plentiful freshwater springs made the area exceptionally fertile. It was renowned for its palm trees and was an attractive site for human settlement. A ford of the Jordan River nearby put Jericho at the intersection of major highways and trade routes.
Like many ancient cities in the Middle East, Jericho has been built, destroyed, and rebuilt numerous times, and multiple settlements have been unearthed in its vicinity. Jericho’s first and most notable reference in the Bible was during the beginning of Israel's campaign to conquer Canaan. The book of Joshua records that God told Joshua, Moses’ successor, that the Israelite army should march around the well-fortified city for seven days, whereupon it would be miraculously delivered to them. Sure enough, Jericho’s virtually impenetrable double walls collapsed on the seventh day and Israel destroyed the city. Unbeknownst to the Israelites at the time, Jericho was built in a seismically active area, experiencing earthquakes every few generations. Rahab, a Canaanite ancestor of Jesus, lived in the city at that time. Joshua then cursed the city, stating that whoever rebuilt its walls and gates would suffer the loss of his oldest and youngest sons. However, it wasn’t until hundreds of years later that the curse was fulfilled, when “Hiel the Bethelite built Jericho; he founded it at the loss of his firstborn Abiram and stood its gates at the loss of his youngest Segub, according to the Lord’s word spoken through Joshua son of Nun.” (1 Kings 16:34) The city was allotted to Benjamin when the land was divided among Israel’s tribes.
Further conquering and rebuilding of Jericho occurred under the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. Following them, Alexander the Great (leading the Greek army) captured the area and lived there between 336 and 323 BC. It was later ruled by the Jews after the Maccabean Revolt. By New Testament times, Jericho had been acquired by the Romans and restored by Herod the Great, who eventually died in his palace there.
Starting high in the Judean mountains, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was 27 kilometers (17 miles) long and included a huge descent of 1040 meters (3300 feet) to the bottom of the Jordan Valley, 258 meters below sea level. It was a notoriously dangerous highway, with rocky terrain providing innumerable hideouts for armed robbers waiting to ambush any travelers that passed by. However, despite the danger, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well-travelled for several reasons: Galilean Jews from the north journeyed on the east side of the Jordan River to avoid passing through loathsome Samaria, while travelling to and from Jerusalem; the residents of Jerusalem had limited options for bathing in large bodies of fresh water – the Jordan River at Jericho was one of the closest; and finally, the regular traffic of pilgrims, merchants, and soldiers going to and from Jerusalem kept this road well-trodden.