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Sacred and The Profane

Gate-197 The Damascus Gate

Photos by Bill Strubbe​

Walking Jerusalem's ramparts

Leaning against the warm stones, I gaze down at the stream of humanity eddying beneath me: Abyssinian clerics in frayed robes, Arab children heading home from school, Orthodox Jews heading towards the Western Wall, wizened women in embroidered Palestinian dresses peddling pomegranates and sabra fruit, green-clad soldiers posted below the portal, and camera-toting tourists from every corner of the world. It's a sight I never tire of and to this favorite perch of mine above the Damascus Gate I'm always drawn, whenever I visit Jerusalem.

Glowing rose and golden at sunset and ethereal by moonlight, Jerusalem's stone ramparts encompassing the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters are steeped in history, legend, and myth. Once, there were eleven gates, but now each of the eight breaching the Old City's walls bears Arabic, Hebrew, and English names reflecting the turbulent annals of the city. For a small admission fee, the fortifications, covering about two miles, can be circumnavigated in four or five hours.

Completed in 1537 AD, the portal, above which I sit, is known both as Damascus and Shechem Gate because it led north towards Syria's capitol through Shechem, or Nablus. New governors entered Jerusalem under this graceful Saracenic arch carved with the inscription "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet." The opening is also known in Arabic as Bab al-Amoud, Gate of the Pillar, because the Romans measured distances to other towns from a column erected inside the former gate.

As the sun dips low in the western sky, I set off towards the New Gate accompanied by the aroma of baking bread wafting up from the Christian Quarter, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre rising above the undulating roof tops. Rainbow hued laundry flaps on lines strung across courtyards, a baby cries below, and several mangy cats scoot across my path. Looking down through the wall's crenellations, the municipal efforts to beautify the environs immediately surrounding the Old City are clearly evident. The accumulated rubble of centuries was cleared away—in some places 40 feet deep—down to bedrock, and walkways now meander through lawns and palm trees.

The New Gate is exactly that. The French Government, wishing to have easier access to the Notre Dame Hospice and new suburb just outside the walls, appealed to the Ottoman Sultan Abd al-Hamid II, who obliged by constructing the New Gate in 1887. Falling in the No-Man's Land after the 1948 War, the gate was sealed off until the Old City was captured by the Israelis in 1967.

Continuing along the lengthy stretch towards Jaffa Gate, off to the right above luxury condos, rises the King David Hotel, a beautiful example of British Mandate architecture with its adaptation of Middle Eastern motifs. Opened in 1931, it has hosted an impressive list of royalty, statesmen, and celebrities, including Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Nearing Jaffa Gate I notice the stones high up near the turrets are pock-marked with bullets, no doubt from the 1948 and 1967 wars. This gate, built by Suleiman the First (or the Magnificent) in 1538 (the lintel bears his inscription), its Arabic name is Bab al-Khalil, Gate of the Friend, because the road led to Hebron, the resting place of Patriarch Abraham. When Kaiser Wilhelm II visited in 1899 on a white charger, the Turkish rulers permanently breached a section of the wall adjoining Jaffa Gate to allow his entourage to enter.

As the sun lowers I descend the ramparts at Jaffa Gate in search of dinner, my nose leading me to the Armenian Tavern on Patriarchate Road where I choose from the salads, soups, kebab, and pizzas. Armenia, the first country to adopt Christianity in the 3rd century, early on established a presence in the Holy Land, hence their claim to their own quarter in the Holy City.

View from the ramparts

Returning the next morning, I re-mount the walls across from Jaffa Gate at the imposing Tower of David, one of three erected by King Herod the Great. In 70 CE Emperor Titus left the tower as a silent witness to his destruction of Jerusalem, and today it houses the Tower of David Museum, tracing Jerusalem's eventful and bloody history through displays, models, and an impressive Sound and Light Show.

Continuing south along the top of the parapet wall is a view of the Montefiore Windmill built in the 1880s as a flour mill for the residents of Yemin Moshe, the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City. After turning the SW corner, I approach Zion Gate, known in English and Arabic as the Gate of the Prophet David. It still bears the ravages of the 1948 War, and it was from here that the Jewish survivors of the 1948 siege were exiled by the Jordanians.

Roughly at the line of demarcation between the Armenian and Jewish quarters, I continue east serenaded by the rhythmical voices of yeshiva pupils studying the Talmud and children playing in the courtyards of the lovingly renovated Jewish Quarter.

From the stretch of wall running downhill from Zion Gate to Dung Gate is a bewildering array of remnants of foundations, walls, ancient roads, and excavations from Biblical, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader eras. Among the many relics is a fragment of the Lower Aqueduct, built in the first century BCE, which conveyed water from Solomon's Pools to the Temple, and was in use until the turn of the last century.

Mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah, the Dung Gate, decorated with carved flowers, was where rubbish was hauled and dumped into the Kidron Valley. During Turkish rule it was opened only during times of drought to bring water from the Spring of Siloam below the city walls. After the 1948 War, Dung Gate was enlarged by the Jordanians to allow motor traffic. Now buses pull up and disgorge tourists by the thousands coming to visit the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock Mosque.

Due to the sacredness of the Mosque atop the Temple Mount, the ramparts walk terminates at Dung Gate. Here, I descend and head towards the throng of Jews praying and celebrating barmitzvahs at the Western Wall, the lower course of stones remaining from the Second Temple compound.

From the Western Wall I pass through the arched and narrow passages of the Muslim Quarter lined with tourist shops selling olive wood boxes, red and white keffiyahs, colorful spices spilling from bags, and huge platters of gooey baklava. By now, I'm ravenous, and when passing a narrow door on Suk Khan Ezzeit Street, I'm enticed by the aroma of baking bread. A man making Arab pizzas stands in a pit in front of an old-fashioned stone oven. Children stroll in, hand him money, and pass the wait giggling at my cowboy hat. Soft cheese or a meat paste is spread on round bread, two eggs broken and scrambled on top, and then returned to the oven with a long wooden paddle. Ten minutes later mine emerges. I smear tomato paste and sprinkle salt on top,and congratulate myself for discovering such a fine lunch.

Heading up the Via Dolorosa, the portal at the end of this famous way is known commonly in English as both Lion's Gate and St. Stephan's Gate because of the pair of lions—the symbol of Jerusalem—carved on either side; the latter name in honor of the Christian martyr who was stoned to death in the vicinity. Muslims also call it Bab Sitti Mariam, St. Mary's Gate, because it leads towards the Church and Tomb of the Virgin Mary in the Valley of Jehoshapat.

Walking again on the ramparts, as I round the NE corner, off to the right are the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus. In this section of the Muslim quarter, far away from the noise and bustle of the shuk, are several large expanses of open spaces with playgrounds, basketball courts, and a field where several boys kick about a soccer ball. Growing in soil on top of a roof is a bustan, a small grove of trees that Arabs traditionally cultivated in their village: a dusty fig tree, a mulberry, a pomegranate tree just ripening, a sour orange, and a trellis, heavy with grape vines.

The relatively serene Herod's Gate in the northern wall, sealed for 150 years until the British conquest of Jerusalem, is also called Bab al-Sahira -- Gate of Flowers. Following details in the Quran, some Moslems believe the site of the final resurrection to be a hill to the north called al-Sahira, which means, "awake at night." But, due to the Palestinian mispronunciation of zahira, meaning "flowers," it became known as Gate of the Flowers.

The last of Jerusalem's eight gates is permanently sealed: the Golden Gate. It was through the Golden Gate that Christians believe Jesus entered Jerusalem after his descent from the Mount of Olives, though the Palm Sunday procession now enters via the Lion's Gate further north.

In Jewish tradition it's also called the Gate of Mercy. During the destruction of the Second Temple it was believed that through this gate the shechinah, the Divine Presence, departed Jerusalem, and through which one day it will return in the form of the Messiah. Muslims believe that at the end of the world, the angel Gabriel will blow a ram's horn and all mankind will assemble on the Mount of Olives for the final Judgment Day.

Though Jerusalem in Hebrew means "City of Peace," its history has been anything but tranquil. It has been besieged over three dozen times, each conqueror altering the fortifications and gates. In its current incarnation, pilgrims of many faiths and tourists from around the world continue to flock within the walls of the Holy City in search of inspiration, solace, and shopping among the endless array of souvenirs.

Walking the Ramparts

Visiting the Ramparts Walk

Comfortable walking shoes are a must, as well as wearing a brimmed hat and sunglasses to cut the glare, and carrying a water bottle. Don't forget your camera.

Tickets can be purchased in the office beside the information office at the Jaffa Gate.
Telphone: 02-627 7550
Ticket Prices: Adult: NIS 16; Child: NIS 8

Hours: Sunday – Thursday:9am-4pm; Saturday:9am-4pm; Friday:9am-2pm. 

Postcard of the Jaffa Gate

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Monday, 18 October 2021

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