In 1300BC Joshua carried out the first Jewish invasion of Jericho when he blew his trumpet and the walls came tumbling down. Rebuilt and invaded repeatedly, the oldest - and lowest - city in the world has again achieved independence; on 5 July Yasser Arafat rode triumphantly through Jericho on his first visit to Palestine since the 1967 Six- Day War.

If you have a chance, visit the city soon, before its impending facelift. Tall flame trees arch over the low-slung buildings and mud roofs of the main square and the small clutch of streets leading from it. It is the sort of place where you can sit and talk to the locals, who are charming and hospitable.

Now, more than ever, there is a lot to talk about. The buzzword is contracts, and Jericho will probably change considerably in the next few years. The Palestinians may not have much at present, but they are rich in heritage and keen to exploit it.

It is difficult to avoid biblical associations in Jericho. On the road from Jerusalem you pass a small, low building; it is said to be the inn of the Good Samaritan. In the flourishing gardens of the oasis, you can find the fig trees that Zacchareus climbed to see Jesus pass by and the thorn trees from which Christ's crown was made. The locals call the thorn tree sidr and use it for hedges.

For a spectacular view of all this, climb to the top of Jebel Quruntal, to a Greek Orthodox monastery founded in AD326. There is a simple chapel in the monastery enclosing a rock on which Christ is said to have sat, for it was here he allegedly spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and being tempted by the devil.

Get there early to avoid the heat, though the top, 1,130ft above Jericho, is pleasantly cool. From this height you look down on the oasis, a green splash in the huge, cracked expanse of the Judaean wilderness.

The strategic importance of Jericho came from its position near the river Jordan and its control of caravan routes. It also has an abundant water supply from five springs, one of which, Elisha's spring, was purified by the prophet when he threw a handful of salt into it. Today, it still produces more than 1,000 gallons a minute, which partly flow into the irrigation rills around the town and partly into a series of unsightly blue pipes for drinking water.

The water supply is a boon: at 825ft below sea level, Jericho (Ariha to the Arabs) is extremely hot. In summer, temperatures can reach above 45C; in winter they never fall below 14C, making the city a winter playground. Herod had a winter palace there, and more recently, in the Fifties, King Hussein of Jordan and his cabinet used to enjoy the gambling hall of the Hisham Palace Hotel (currently Jericho's only hotel, and looking very sorry for itself).

The war in 1967 dented Jericho's reputation as a pleasure haunt and, until the first peace accord was signed, the intifada more or less put an end to independent tourism. Now, non-package travellers are returning. I noticed two grey-haired Englishwomen sipping tea in a cafe on my first visit, four days after the Israeli troops pulled out.

The celebrations had taken their toll and there was an atmosphere of tired, bewildered festivity. Youths drove up and down pointlessly in Jeeps festooned with Palestinian flags, or had their photographs taken next to the new Palestinian police force. Occasionally, they played with their guns. (Tragically, a child was killed because a safety catch had not been fastened properly.)

The town hall was covered in graffiti that mostly wished long life to 'Abu Amer', as they describe Arafat (an Arabic term of respect is to refer to someone as the father of his eldest son). There were aerosol-can images of him everywhere. A school, now a police base, boasted two studies of those great Arab champions: Arafat and Saddam Hussein.

Politics may permeate everything in Palestine, but it is possible to relax there. Along Ein Al Sultan Street visitors can dine beneath the vines of open-air restaurants, listening to the water bubbling through the rills, or to local singers.

The new regime has got off to a shaky start and each day presents a new stumbling block. A typical incident occurred a couple of weeks ago, when Palestinian police objected to West Bank settlers driving to the synagogue armed with machine-guns. The police tried to confiscate the guns, and the Israelis retaliated by closing off all roads to Jericho.

I visited the synagogue next day and was greeted by four Palestinian policemen with guns (all smiling charmingly); and upstairs were four Jewish settlers with machine-guns. As for all tourists, the purpose of my visit was to see the 6th-century mosaic floor depicting Jewish symbols and the Ark of the Covenant. Underneath is the Aramaic inscription Shalom al Israel, which gives the synagogue its ironic name, the Peace Upon Israel synagogue.

For an even more beautiful mosaic, visit the Omayyed Palace of Hisham Ibn Abd-al-Malek, about a mile from the centre. The palace was built in AD743 but destroyed four years later in an earthquake. A glorious mosaic in the Diwan, or Caliph's throne room, covers the entire floor and is dominated by an enormous apple tree. Beneath it, on the left, two gazelles graze; to the right a less fortunate gazelle is being mauled by a lion. The two contrasting images represent the good fortune, on the one hand, of the Caliph's guests and, on the other, the fate of his enemies.

Leaving the palace for the ruins of old Jericho, I could not help wondering who, in a modern context, would be considered lion and who gazelle.

The ruins of Tel Jehicho (as the excavation site of old Jericho is called) are disappointing. My first impression was of hillocks of mud intersected by small valleys of dirt. No fewer than 23 cities were built here, one on top of the other, over a 10,000-year period. What the nonplussed tourist actually sees, therefore, is seam upon seam of dead city, each a different shade of brown.

But there is no point in agonising over whether the heap you are looking at is neolithic (7th millennium BC), chalcolithic (4th millennium BC) or just plain old Bronze Age, as the signposts are confusing. It is not clear where those walls that Joshua destroyed are. So you wander around in the heat and dust, collapse in the shade of the viewing platform where several stalls sell fresh juice from Jericho's date, orange and walnut plantations and muse to yourself: 'So this is where it all started . . .'

Ten thousand years ago the water source at Jericho attracted nomadic hunters, and it was probably here that the transition from nomad to hunter- gather, which we regard as the beginning of civilisation, started. Today the political developments mean that for the first time in thousands of years the people of this land have the chance to govern themselves.

As a young professional man put it: 'First it was the Jews, then the Romans, then the Greeks, then the Ottomans, then the British, then the Israelis. The peace agreement may not mean much, but if the local policeman is my brother and the mayor my cousin, at least I'm likely to have a better life.'


Getting there: Cheap flights to Tel Aviv are widely available. Non-stop services on El Al cost pounds 284 plus pounds 9 tax through Superstar Holidays (071-437 9277). Flights via continental Europe can be cheaper: for example, Hamilton Travel (071-344 3344) has a fare on Iberia via Barcelona or Madrid for pounds 234 plus pounds 10 tax. From Tel Aviv, there are frequent buses to the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, where you can change to a bus for Jericho.

Red tape: Israeli visas are granted free of charge upon arrival; you must have a full passport valid for at least six months. According to the Israel Government Tourist Office (18 Great Marlborough Street, London W1V 1AF; 071-434 3651), foreign visitors can cross unimpeded from Israeli- held territory into Jericho, an area controlled by the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Further information: The best guidebook covering Jericho is Israel: a Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 10.95). The same publisher's Middle East on a Shoestring ( pounds 11.95) is more up-to-date (April 1994 rather than November 1992) but covers Jericho in much less detail.

The Foreign Office is not issuing specific advice for Jericho at present, but check before travelling on its travel advice line (071-270 4129) or BBC2 Ceefax page 564.

(Photographs and map omitted)