The city of Jerusalem which is smaller than a square mile has been conquered on 40 occasions and been overrun and destroyed 18 separate times. This controversial holy land and ‘city of peace’ (meaning of Jerusalem) has had walls surrounding it to keep off invaders and with its walls comes its gates. The walls of Jerusalem are two and a half miles long and can be walked around briskly in two hour.
Most of the walls of Jerusalem as we see them today go back to the early 1500 when Suleiman the great undertook the urban renewal of Jerusalem. When the Turks took control of it, the city was in poor condition and so Suleiman began to renew the walls. He maintained the holy places and improved the water system
However the work was done quickly and often carelessly. It is obvious that many of the large stones displaced when the Roman destroyed the city of Jerusalem in the first century, were hap hazardly set in place by Suleiman’s workers. Sometimes old Roman engravings can be found upside down or out of place.
The first ones to build a wall around Jerusalem were the Jebusites and they did these 4500 years ago. However they inadvertently left the Gihon springs outside the walls. They then cut an underground secret tunnel to the spring in order to be not cut off from water supply should they be attacked by an enemy. It was near the spring that they also cut the first gate of Jerusalem so that in times of peace the water could be easily carried into the city.
Over a period of time Jerusalem had more than 50 gates each named for the everyday commerce they allowed, such as the sheep gate or horse gate and even the water gate. There were gates named for prophets and tribes of Israel and there were gates named to the places to which they lived. Over the centuries new gates were cut which later disappeared. The ruins of new entrances are constantly being located in excavations in the city.
In the early 1980’s work was begun to renovate the plaza in the Muslim quarter. During the construction the ruins of a magnificent second century Roman gate was exposed. As the workers dug further they found Roman ruins along with relics from the crusades.
The portals of history have stories to tell, each one unique. Of the eight gates that stand today, seven are in use while one, the beautiful gate is walled up today. The Golden gate or the beautiful gate is a double entry gate which was bricked up by the Muslims determined to thwart Jewish prophecy. It was the belief that when the Messiah would come he would come from the East, the path through the Golden Gate. This was the very gate that Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
Among the other gates are the Zion gate in the south west which is riddled by bullet hole during the six day and other wars with Israels neighbours. TheJaffa gate in the west has welcomed the trade and ideas of empires. The new gate in the North West was cut to allow direct route into the Christian quarter.The Damascus gate in the north is the most dramatic and elaborately designed of all gates. It is the gateway to the Muslim quarter. Herod’s gate in the north east is an entry for the humble.The Lions gate in the east leads into the Muslim quarter and out to the Mount of Olives.
In the south, the dung gate takes us back to the days of Kings David and Solomon. The dung gate leads out to the Kidron valley and takes us back to the origins of Jewish settlement in this region.
While the current gate structure was built by Suleman the gate itself points back to a history stretching far back in time right to the point when the Jewish nation and old Jerusalem were forever entwined. It dates back to over 1000 years before Christ when then new King David captured the city from the Jebusites. At the time, the walled city was called Jebus and was considered one of the strongest fortresses in the area.
The Jebusites were confident of their defences and when David led his troops on the city they scoffed at him. But David’s chief general and nephew learned about the secret of the Gihon spring that was dug to protect the city’s water supply. David sent his nephew Joab to find a way beneath the walls and into the city. It is believed that the shaft Joab climbed to enter the city is the one now called Warren shaft named after Charles Warren the British explorer.
The stories behind the gates that protect the spirit of the city; these are the doorways that lead us to some of the holiest shrines in history.
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.