A highly agreeable history of the ancient city of Jericho and its surrounding countryside, from the earliest recorded times to the present. Ruby, former Jerusalem bureau chief of the Baltimore Sun, organizes his book loosely, sometimes idiosyncratically, around the 19th-century activities of the Palestine Exploration Fund, a group in London interested mainly in the links between archaeology and biblical revelation. But he wanders back and forth across the centuries, from the Early Bronze Age to the present, with easy nonchalance to tell the story of a small city that, despite its location on a barren patch of near-desert land, has played an important role in history from the time when Joshua made the walls come tumbling down to the current negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. (As to the veracity of the biblical account of Joshua, Ruby goes no further than to say that evidence does ""seem to appear"" in the archeological record.) Through these pages parade luminaries like Captain Richard Burton, who spoke 29 languages and translated the Arabian Nights, and who described the area as ""a luxuriance of ruin""; Herbert Kitchener, later ruler of Egypt and secretary of state for war, who was brought in as a youthful assistant and assumed command with some insouciance; Thomas Cook, who offered the first tour of the Middle East in 1869, reporting that Jericho was ""filthy and uninteresting""; and contemporaries like Awad Njum, with two wives and 15 children, loudly bemoaning his inability to provide for a third wife. Ruby covers his material with great humor and flair, as in his description of the successors of the prophet Muhammad, who established sumptuous quarters north of Jericho in the style of ""High Boudoir. To wander now among the fallen masonry is to have the sense of intruding into a disheveled bedroom."" All in all, as cheerful, well written, and diverting a personal excavation of Jericho as one could expect to find.