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17 Jun, 2008 01:51

Tsars’ biblical land handed back to Russia

A piece of land in the town of Jericho in the West Bank, which once belonged to Russian tsars, has been handed back to Russia.

A ceremony in Moscow saw Hassan Saleh, the mayor of Jericho, hand over an ownership deed for the area to Sergey Stepashin, the head of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society.

Russia hopes to develop the 12,000 square metres of land and boost tourism in the area.

Jericho is thought to be one of the oldest towns on earth and has significant biblical links.

It contains the biblical tree which, according to St. Luke's Gospel, the tax collector Zacchaeus climbed up in order to get a better view of Jesus Christ.

Two other plots have been transferred to the ownership of the Russian Orthodox Church. One of them is located in the district known as Moscovia to many citizens of Jericho.

Two centuries ago, the Russian tsar bought this land and built a nunnery on it. For many it was a place where pilgrims came to visit.

But after the 1917 revolution when the country turned to socialism and then communism, the place was abandoned and the buildings left to rot. Today four graves with the names of Russian women and some old ruins are all that remain.

Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian autonomy negotiator, hopes the land will be developed and rejuvenated for tourism.
He said: “I hope that now the Russian government realises now that they have 12,000 square metres in the best located commercial area in Jericho, the oldest city on earth, with Zacchaeus street where Jesus spoke to the tax collector, and it’s up to them. They’re the owners, they can build whatever they want, either alone, or through partners with Palestinian business people. I believe any project will really help foster relations.”

For Russia, it is a chance to regain a religiously symbolic foothold in Israel and the West Bank.

For the Palestinians, it is a sign of friendship and a new breath of economic life.