Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, a brilliant military strategist, cunning politician and eloquent poet, was having a very bad night. He tossed and turned, dreaming that lions had chased him in a field and greedily fed upon his body. Waking up in a sweat, he called frantically for his advisors. "What does it all mean?" he asked shakily. "You must do a good deed," he was told. "Why not rebuild the crumbling walls of the Holy City of Jerusalem?"
Scholars have a different explanation for the Turkish walls that have surrounded Jerusalem since 1538 and never been breached. Some say that Suleiman heard rumors of a new Crusade in the making – and that’s why he decided to fortify Jerusalem. Others think he repaired the walls to ward off Beduin marauders.
Whatever the reason, the Old City of Jerusalem has been completely enclosed in strong, decorative walls since the 16th century. Four kilometers in length, the walls are 12 meters high, studded with towers and topped with crenellations.
A wonderful half-day outing takes you on a circular stroll around the Old City walls with stops at seven Turkish gates, each with a very special name and design, and one that is far more ancient. Take into account a fairly steep ascent between the Golden Gate and Zion Gate. There is a nice little park along the northern wall.
Begin at the colorful and bustling Damascus Gate market, where you can buy anything from tennis shoes to electric teapots. This area of the city is the hub of east Jerusalem commerce, and Damascus Gate is the loveliest of all entrances to the Old City. As you walk around the walls, you will find them topped by continuous crenellations – tooth-like projections. It is only here at Damascus Gate that they are replaced by decorative statuettes.
Called Sha’ar Shechem in Hebrew, the gate faces north, and in the past a road led directly to Nablus (Shechem) and from there to Damascus. In Arabic, it is called Bab al-Amud – Gate of the Pillar – because in Roman times a giant column topped with a full statue of the Emperor Hadrian stood in the center of its inner plaza. During the Byzantine period, this was known as St. Stephen’s Gate for, according to Christian tradition, the martyr Stephen was dragged out of the city through this gate and stoned to death somewhere on the other side of today’s road.
There is a small entrance to the right of the gate below today’s street level. Flanked by two massive, broken columns, it was part of a monumental triple victory arch built in 135 after Emperor Hadrian crushed the Bar Kochba Revolt and turned Jerusalem into the Roman city called Aelia Capitolina.
Five different parapets are built into the walls and towers as a defensive measure. Their floors contain machicolations, openings from which soldiers could dump boiling oil or hot tar on an enemy invader beneath the walls.
FOLLOW THE stone pedestrian walkway to Zedekiah’s Cave, an enormous cavern over 200 meters long and chockfull of labyrinths and inner grottos. Early masons quarried stones from inside this cave to build the Second Temple – and perhaps even the first.
During the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, King Zedekiah managed to flee the city, only to be captured in Jericho. Since he is believed to have run straight for this cave, tradition holds that at the time it stretched all the way to Jericho. Inside, you can explore its depths and study the art of quarrying. At the far end, a little spring drips Zedekiah’s tears.
Soon you reach Flower Gate, which was added in 1875. The original Turkish entrance is on the side, where you will see the flower decoration that may have given this gate one of its names. A few centuries ago, pilgrims who mistook a fancy Muslim house for Herod’s Palace gave the entrance yet another name: Herod’s Gate.
Continue east, not forgetting to examine the walls and towers for unusually decorative elements. Just before the traffic light at the corner, climb two short flights of stairs to reach a monument to Jordanian soldiers who fell during the Six Day War. This spot offers a dazzling view of the Mount of Olives and northern Jerusalem – especially if it has recently rained.
Directly across from you a sprawling Brigham Young (Mormon) University covers the slopes. To its right, the beautiful Augusta Victoria Church tower reaches to the heavens, while on its other side you can easily make out the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. The university’s architect, who also planned Brigham Young, designed it to resemble the Old City with its crowded buildings and uneven skyline; the result is meant as a kind of architectural dialogue.
Turn around to view Stork’s Tower, situated on the wall’s northeastern corner. Until 1948, when the Old City Walls marked the Jordanian border, hip Arab hostesses liked to serve fancy moonlit dinners on the stone floor of the massive, square tower. A Star of David from an earlier period is set into the wall.
NOW RETURN to the pedestrian walkway. Your next stop is at Lions’ Gate, where the lions on both sides probably gave rise to the legend about Suleiman and his dream. A careful look will reveal, however, that the "lions" are really panthers – the emblem of a 13th-century Muslim conqueror named Baybars. This is where Israeli paratroopers broke into the city during the Six Day War.
By now you will have reached the spectacular Golden Gate, which opened directly onto the Temple Mount. Unlike the other gates, this was not built by the Turks. It was constructed in the seventh century over ruins dating back at least to Nehemiah (fifth century BCE) and possibly even to the time of Solomon.
The Golden Gate faces the Mount of Olives and is the oldest continuous Jewish cemetery in the world. The popularity of this cemetery derives from its proximity to the Golden Gate, through which Jews believe that the Messiah will pass when he enters Jerusalem. And, of course when the dead are resurrected and return to the city, they want to be first in line to follow him in.
Muslim rulers knew about this Jewish tradition, and they sealed the gate permanently shut. But they were afraid this might not be enough. So, aware that the Messiah would be of priestly lineage and unable to come anywhere near a cemetery, Muslims began burying their dead in front of the gate.
During the Middle Ages, and for some years afterward, Jewish pilgrims to the Holy Land would walk all the way around the walls of Jerusalem. When they reached this gate, so close to the Temple Mount, they would stop and beseech the Almighty to show His people compassion. And that may be how the gate got its second name of Sha’ar Harahamim: Mercy Gate.
Look up to see a pillar sticking horizontally out of the wall. According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad will one day sit on top and pass judgment on the people below.
Around the corner, a grayish black dome protruding above the wall tops the al-Aksa Mosque. Al-Aksa means "the edge" – and according to the Koran, Mohammed undertook a mysterious night journey to "the edge." While Jerusalem is never mentioned by name, Muslim tradition places "the edge" right here, making Jerusalem one of Islam’s holy cities.
Your next stop is Dung Gate, which leads to the Western Wall. For thousands of years, residents of the city took their trash out through this gate, which offered easy access to an even better refuse site in the valley below. Some people believe the name derives, instead, from the horrid smell of tanners tanning their hides.
Just past Dung Gate stand the ruins of a tower from medieval times. It had a rear wicket for the tanners to use and now leads to Jerusalem’s Ophel Excavations and Davidson Center. From the sidewalk, look inside and you will see Romans doing their shopping on a Cardo that originally stretched from Damascus Gate to the Temple Mount and from there to the City of David. (You are actually looking at a painting but, believe me, for a moment it can seem real.)
SOON YOU reach Zion Gate, which leads to the Jewish Quarter and stands between Mount Zion inside the walls of the Old City, and the portion of Mount Zion that was left outside. The gate’s scarred exterior, riddled with bullet holes, offers mute witness to a battle that could have changed the course of Israeli history during the War of Independence.
Although Israeli forces conquered Mount Zion on the night of May 18th and broke the Jordanian siege of the Jewish Quarter, the following night most of the soldiers were withdrawn. And the handful of exhausted Jewish defenders that remained could not hold out against the might of the Jordanian army. Less than two weeks later, on May 28, the Jewish Quarter was forced to capitulate to the Arab Legion and the Old City fell to the Jordanians.
Just before a ceasefire was scheduled to make the situation permanent, Israel made a last-ditch attempt to break into the Old City. Continue about 100 meters to reach a large cone and a concrete slab inscribed with the date 18.7.1949. Soldiers lugged a 150-kilogram homemade cone-shaped bomb up Mount Zion stretcher-style, and set it down against the wall. Although the bomb caused a deafening explosion, it only scratched the surface. Jerusalem was doomed to remain a divided city for the next 19 years.
Turn at the corner and walk towards Jaffa Gate. Just past a tower built on Hasmonean and Herodian ruins, you will see 2,000-year-old steps that probably led to Herod’s palace. What makes this theory so logical is the Herod family tomb located across the valley to your left and above Yemin Moshe. Climb the steps and turn left and you will be walking towards Jaffa Gate on what remains of the Hasmonean wall.
You may wonder about an incongruous hill of brown dirt, left here after tons of debris were cleared away from the walls in 1967. Believe it or not, until that time the top of that hill was street level and all these ancient ruins were buried underneath.
The Tower of David, actually a minaret from a mosque built for Muslim troops in the 14th century, now bursts into view in all its glory. The wide road leading into the city is new, and was prepared especially for the visit of Emperor Wilhelm II in 1898. Ottoman rulers breached a gap in the wall that connected Jaffa Gate with the Citadel, plugged up the adjacent moat and created a second and wider point of entry suitable for the emperor and his extensive entourage.
Exit through the smaller, original gate, from which a road once led directly to Jaffa. The 16th-century Arabic inscription over the entrance gives Suleiman’s name, the year of construction and the following words: "there is no God but Allah and Abraham is his friend." That’s why the Sultan’s name for this entrance was Bab al-Khalil, the Gate of the Friend.
Follow the walkway to IDF Square (Kikar Tzahal) and then turn right. In back of the garden, at the bottom of the wall, stands the base of a tower. Legend has it that King David buried Goliath’s head on this site – giving rise to the name "Goliath Tower." It is also called Tancred’s Tower, for the Crusader commander who attacked the city from this direction on July 15, 1099.
Your last stop is at the New Gate, built at the end of the 1880s to make it easier to travel between Old Jerusalem and the Christian institutions built across the street. Until 1967, when Jerusalem was reunited, the road from here to Damascus Gate was strewn with twisted barbed wire and remnants from scorched armored vehicles. This was the border between Israel and Jordan called No-Man’s Land.
One day, a terminal patient at the French Hospital across the road leaned out a window and coughed, her false teeth dropping right into No-Man’s Land. It took meticulous maneuvering, and the good will of Israel, Jordan and the United Nations for a nun from the hospital to retrieve the set of teeth!
For permission to enter Zedekiah’s Cave call: (02) 627-7550 ext. 4. The cost is NIS 16 per person (in a group).