JERUSALEM (RNS) A huge sycamore tree that some believe was climbed by Zacchaeus the tax collector to get a better view of Jesus is the centerpiece of a new tourism campaign by the Palestinian government.
The tree is located in Jericho, the first city conquered by Joshua when the Israelites crossed into Canaan. The city, sometimes touted as the world’s oldest town, is a rich oasis of greenery in a desert landscape.
Once the winter home of the wealthy elite thanks to its balmy winter weather, Jericho has seen hard times in recent years, especially since the start of the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s.
The West Bank city has been subject to Israeli security closures and subsequently high unemployment. An ultra-modern casino, popular with Israelis during quieter times, was shut down years ago.
The current Palestinian administration, which has brought greater economic stability and security to the troubled territory, is working to reestablish Jericho as a tourism destination. It is placing the Zacchaeus tree at the core of the town’s 10,000 birthday celebrations, part of a year-long series of events that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plans to kick off on Oct. 10.
In addition to a museum complex, the tourism authority hopes to build a resort on the shores of the Dead Sea, a popular spot for sick travelers.
Tourism officials hope to take advantage of a sharp increase in tourism since the second Palestinian uprising ended about four years ago. Although Israeli citizens are prohibited from entering Palestinian-ruled areas over security concerns, about a million other tourists visited the West Bank in the past year.
Although no one can say for certain whether the gnarled old tree is the very one cited in the New Testament—the local Greek Orthodox church venerates the remnant of another ancient tree, for example—experts who have examined it say it may very well date back to the time of Jesus.