Water of past legends is source of inspiration today: Sarah Helm in Jericho examines the links between a spring at Ein Sultan and Moses, Herod and Mark Antony

IF YASSER ARAFAT finds his new capital of Jericho too small, hot and grubby when he arrives, he should pause, as others did thousands of years ago, for inspiration besides the cool waters of Jericho's most ancient spring.

For although the size of Jericho is only a paltry 62km square, the chairman of the new Palestine National Authority has won perhaps the only prize that matters: the water at Ein Sultan.

It was this same glistening water, which pounds out of the desert ground at 1,000 gallons a minute, that persuaded early 'diaspora man' to settle here 11,000 years ago. Ein Sultan, along with other nearby springs, brought the city all its past glories, lifting the spirits of many a despondent leader, giving them power and wealth.

It was the green of Jericho, watered by these springs, that Moses spied when the Israelites sat atop Mount Nebo, across the bank of the Jordan, after wandering in the desert for 40 years. Moses never got as far as Mr Arafat, however, as God forbade him entry to the promised land. Centuries later the same springs were greening the surrounds of Herod the Great's massive Winter Palace, the rough remains of which sit just along the road from Mr Arafat's new bungalow office block, where yesterday a gardener was hastily hosing parched pot plants.

The water of Ein Sultan nourished Jericho's famous balsam plantations, which perfumed all the Roman Empire and which Mark Antony, pursuing Cleopatra, gathered up to give his lover as a gift. Suher Arafat, however, can hope for no such gift, as the plantations have long ago disappeared, nowadays it is largely Israelis who make the desert bloom around Jericho, sinking wells along the Jordan Valley.

In the 8th century, Islamic leaders made use of Jericho's spring water, building the splendid Hisham's Palace. The Omayyad prince who lived there ensured that his haven was equipped with a huge bath-house, and an underground 'cold room' with a pool.

For truly meaningful inspiration Mr Arafat should take his mind back many years before Moses, Herod, or King Hussein, to the days when the first people settled down at Ein Sultan to build the oldest city in the world.

Early man built Jericho out of nothing but pebbles, dust and water - a fact that Mr Arafat may care to note as he contemplates how to build his Palestinian institutions, how to allocate his patronage, and prepare for his Palestinian state. Mr Arafat may also care to inquire of the historians for details of the distribution and arbitration system, apparantly devised by Jericho's first inhabitants, to share out the water. By 8000 BC a community had already been created in Jericho, surrounded by a wall - the Biblical one that Joshua and his men allegedly brought down in 1200 BC.

Bearing in mind Jericho's illustrious past, Mr Arafat would do best to wipe the Ein Sultan spray from his brow and feel more confident about the future of his state. History, he should tell himself, comes knocking on Jericho's door every few thousand years, so why not now?

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