Nothing written or filmed adequately prepares the visitor for this little town in the rolling lowlands of the Judean wilderness.

A striking patch of vivid green in the midst of an arid wasteland of tans and browns and yellows, Jericho jumps out of the dusty landscape with the brilliance of a flower in full bloom. Flowers, in fact, aptly describe what strikes a visitor most when first you enter town, as I did after driving through the desolation of the surrounding desert. Flashing reds, blinding yellows, subtle blues and delicate pinks were the color of wildflowers growing everywhere along the sweet-flowing spring moving through Jericho down into the desert and beyond to the Jordan River.

Then there were carefully husbanded orchards. Oranges hanging lazily and fat in the hot afternoon sun, the first grapes of the season huddled in the shade of their vines. High palm trees and dates, lemon trees and squatting green fields of tomatoes, all basked under perfect blue skies and were greened by the spring that has nurtured Jericho since the beginning of time.

Down from the tumbling high granite hills surrounding the Sea of Galilee you drive before reaching what has been called the oldest city on the face of the earth. Here in Jericho, the archeologists tell us, one can trace a continuous line of human habitation for the past 10,000 years. In a land filled to overflowing with places of great physical beauty, as well as throat-catching monuments to man's loftiest ideals such as Jerusalem and Masada, Jericho in an odd sense exemplifies much of what is good about Israel today. It remains a place where one can come to a quiet understanding of its appeal after all the centuries.

But it's such a strange place at first. Driving in from the desert in my little rented car, the first thing I saw was block after block of abandoned houses. And not just any kind of houses but closely packed, one-room, cement-and-plaster buildings put up earlier this century when the Turks and British ruled here. There wasn't a blade of grass or the touch of human hands to be seen as empty ruins stretched for perhaps a mile on both sides of the road.

With caved-in roofs, collapsed front porches and desolation within, it looked like a Hollywood version of an Old West ghost town. Only this isn't Hollywood and the rusted-out hulks of wrecked tanks beside the nearby road tell you that the Arabs living here fled after Jericho was captured by the Israeli Army in the 1967 Six-Day War. Like the broken teeth of an old man, the gray ruins are all that remain of what was vital and real not so very long ago.

Jericho is still Arab now that Israel occupies the West Bank, but those who did not flee in 1967 have left the ghost town for newly built apartments and houses closer in town among the greenery. Electricity, plumbing, sanitation and other 20th-century features have transformed the broken-down Jericho of prewar days into a modern and functional rural center. There are new schools, religious buildings, food stores, municipal buildings, television antennas and a telephone exchange, all on a small very "unAmerican" scale and all neatly tucked into the lush vegetation of this ancient oasis.

So it is that a visitor can come to enjoy the slow-moving pace of provincial Jericho, perhaps putting up at either of its modest hotels, the Hisham Palace or the Park for $20 a night, and forgetting the hectic pace of sightseeing for a while. Jericho is perfect for such unhurried explorations. You can walk most anywhere or drive in minutes. Knowing your cool hotel is only a few minutes away and there are no distant "musts" tugging at your guilty conscience, you can relax a bit -- as I did while shaking off jetlag from the 12-hour flight from New York.

Another advantage to staying a while in Jericho is that there isn't the tourist crush here that you find elsewhere in Israel. Tourism is the biggest money-maker in this economy, with more than 1.1 million visitors streaming in to see the treasures of a nation numbering fewer than 4 million. It would be as if 50 million foreigners suddenly showed up in the United States to see the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument. Yet the Israelis manage the logistics of the crush with little difficulty. The hotels, buses, restaurants and rent-a-cars for foreigners are excellent, far better than I presumed anyway. But with so much comfort and modernity, I had the uneasy sensation of flying half way around the world only to bask in the ambiance so common back home.

Not so, Jericho. It's a small quiet town of 7,000 souls, with little donkeys clip-clopping through the streets nd rural Arabs wearing non-western clothing. You can stop walking and, after the beating of your heart leaves your ears, hear the faraway sounds of the animals and actually smell the orchards if the wind is right. And the Hisham Hotel, where I stayed, is a dinky little place more suited to a Humphrey Bogart movie than a tour of rich Americans. Generally, tourists visiting Jericho come in during the day on buses, march around a bit, then race off to their next stop or back to their hotels, where presumably they dine and share their traveling experiences with other tourists just like themselves.

Happily, Israel doesn't have to be this way. If you have the independence and money to schedule your own trip, rent a car (at a minimum of $200 a week) and make your own hotel arrangements, you'll be rewarded with a trip you can call your own and the opportunity to explore, learn and grow at your own pace.

To do this in Israel, first-time visitors, especially non-Jews, should invest a little time in reading before arriving. There are any number of tourist guides available at home or in Israel that describe the options on accommodations, shopping, historical sites and so forth. But anyone investing the money and time to visit would be wasting both without first reading "Jews, God and History," by Max I. Dimont. It's a paperback that brilliantly explores Jewish history and specifically touches on all the important events and places in Israel. I'd also recommend James Michener's "The Source," a fictional tour through Jewish, Moslem and Christian history that takes place in Israel. Both my copies are dogeared and tattered from flipping through at every site I visited; the books are ruined but the experiences are priceless.

Of course, no visit would be complete without the Bible. In Jericho, especially, it can do so much to make the trip worthwhile. Walk out of town with it toward the east, for example, until you find some high ground. It's a magnificient sight as the desert yields to the mountains of the north toward Galilee, and falls off to the south with the earth plunging downward to the Dead Sea. Far across you might see the dim outline of the rugged mountains of Jordan emerge from the waving desert heat; and if you stand still long enough your ears will pick up the sounds of the desert, the soft plying back and forth of the dry wind easing itself through the dunes and hollows.

Be still, and slide the book open to Joshua. Looking due east, try to imagine the scene 3,500 years ago when Moses' followers emerged from 40 years of wandering in the desert after fleeing Egypt. Now they finally are to enter the promised land. Moses has died and tens of thousands of his ragtag band are approaching the Jordan River out there, just beyond the hills where you cannot see.

"Now after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord," begins the King James version, "it came to pass, that the Lord spake unto Joshua, the son of Nun, Moses' minister, saying,

"Moses my servant is dead, now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, into the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel.

"Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses."

Then crossing the Jordan, it continues, God parts the waters as He did the Red Sea for Moses, and Joshua erects 12 tables of stone to mark the miracle, a stone for each of the tribes of the nation.

Jericho is the portal in Jewish tradition through which the nation returned after bondage in Egypt, and, indeed, curious Jews from all over Israel and the world wander in to view what remains of that remarkable passage. One imagines that if this were America the place would look like Gettysburg, with a neon strip of burger joints, wax museums, a 500-foot observation tower, a styrofoam reconstruction of the 12 stones and all the rest. Only this isn't Gettysburg, and there is nothing to mark the site but the magnificient sweep of desert and mountain and, in your hands, the fluttering pages of the Book of Joshua.

Every Sunday school kid knows or should know what happens next. The Canaanites already living in Jericho aren't happy to see the invading forces of Joshua and barricade themselves within the walled town. There's even a catchy little tune the Protestants sing, "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho," which I hum walking back toward town to the archeological dig.

An old Arab man collects five cents from you before you walk up to the sealed-off area of the dig. Atop this pile of sand, dirt and earth the color of shoe bottoms, you find what remains of old Jericho. In ditches 80 to 100 feet below the gray topping are the fragments of the city that once lived here. There are no signs describing it, no guides, no taped messages or diagrams. Just the naked rock and what you make of it.

"Joshua said unto the people," the book explains, "Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city..."

"And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and ass, with the edge of the sword."

Down in the pits you can see what remains of that slaughter. There are great pieces of the wall, delicate stairways leading nowhere, doorways and heaps of fragmented stone. You can still feel the humanity. Whose hand rounded these gentle arches, you wonder? What dreams filled the souls of the boys and girls treading those stairs? Did a wedding march this way? What stories did grandmother beguile the children with who sat on those stone ledges on a lazy afternoon?

Descending the dig you can, in a single glance, look to the north and west, to the mountains protecting the city on two sides. Up there other discoveries await you. For Jericho, like the strata filling the archeological dig, isn't one-dimensional but represents a layering of time, history, people, ideas and dreams.

For the Moslems this is a revered site because, according to their tradition, Moses is buried just up the road about five miles away. There's a 13th-century Mosque marking the spot and pilgrims from all over the Islamic world stop by to pay homage. The site also offers a good view of Mount Nebo across the River Jordan, where Moses saw the promised land before he died.

A little farther up into the hills some seven miles away stands a crusader castle and a Turkish fort, and right beside it the place Christian tradition holds the Inn of the Good Samaritan once stood.

Only 1 1/2 miles away in the hills to the northwest is Mount Qarantal, the traditional Christian site of the Mount of Temptation. Here, the New Testament says, Christ spent 40 days fasting and spurning the temptations of the devil. There's a Greek Orthodox monastery clinging to the cliffs and a cave the priests venerate as being Jesus' shelter during his fast.

A little farther west is a beautiful little oasis, or wadi, with the Monastery of St. George hewn into the side of the cliffs. It dates to 535 A.D. and is said to be the site of the prophet Elijah's cave, where the crows brought him food while he hid from his enemies.

In town is an old synagogue dating from the 5th century. You walk right past the Spring of Elisha, whose waters have sustained life here for 10,000 years, to find the old mosaic floor picturing the menorah (candelabrum) and the Hebrew inscription "Peace Unto Israel."

There are Roman ruins nearby, hermits' caves from the first centuries of Christianity, and the Dead Sea Scrolls were found only 14 miles away. But perhaps you've seen enough for a single day. Down from the dig is a convenient cafe and a fruit and vegetable market. A glass of fresh orange juice might help, and you can talk with the waiter a while. Like most everyone in Israel, he speaks the official languages of Arabic, Hebrew and English, so you won't have difficulty making conversation.

Ali, as he identifies himself to me, is pleased to speak with an American. You can quench your thirst with juice or the good local beer and watch the afternoon heat fade and the coolness of evening come on. Like most people in Israel, Ali's demeanor will move from utmost detachment to the warm friendliness of desert dwellers. And if you've had enough beer and he sees your politics won't preclude other opinions, he may confide in you upon leaving.

"The land," he gestures with a sweep of his hand, "belongs to the Arabs. Nothing the Israelis do can take it away from us forever."

And walking in the shaded coolness of the evening you can look up to the hills -- the Hills of Temptation, of Christ, of Moses -- knowing that the wars are not over and the story of Jericho is far from complete.