Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, a brilliant military strategist as well as a 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 which have 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 Bedouin 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 by tooth-like projections called crenellations.

Bustling Damascus Gate market offers everything from tennis shoes to electric teapots. This area is the hub of East Jerusalem commerce, and Damascus Gate is the loveliest of all entrances to the Old City. And while the walls are almost always capped with crenellations, it is only at Damascus Gate that these are replaced by decorative statuettes.

Called Sha’ar Scechem 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 known as Bab el 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 called St. Stephen’s Gate for, according to one 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.

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.

A stone pedestrian walkway leads from Damascus Gate to Zedekiah’s Cave, an enormous cavern over 200 meters long and chock full of labyrinths and inner grottos. It is thought that 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 B.C.E., 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. How else would he have been able to escape from Jerusalem?

According to some sources, Flower Gate as we know it was added in 1875. The original Turkish entrance dating back to Suleiman is on the side, featuring 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 bestowed upon the entrance yet another name: Herod’s Gate.

Lions' Gate (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Lions’ Gate (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The lions on both sides of Lions’ Gate probably gave rise to the legend about Suleiman and his dream. A careful look reveals, however, that the “lions” are really panthers — the emblem of a 13th-century Muslim conqueror named Baybars. It is at Lions’ Gate that Israeli paratroopers broke into the city during the Six-Day War.

Unlike the other gates, Golden Gate was not built by the Turks. Instead, it was constructed in the 7th century over ruins dating back at least to Nehemiah (5th century B.C.E.) and possibly even to the time of Solomon. At the time, it opened directly onto the Temple Mount.

The Golden Gate also faces the Mount of Olives, which contains 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 to follow, 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.

A pillar sticks horizontally out of the wall. According to a Muslim tradition, Muhammad will one day sit on top and pass judgment on the people below.

Dung Gate 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. Just past Dung Gate stand the ruins of a tower from medieval times with a rear wicket for the tanners to use. That’s why some people believe the gate’s name derives, instead, from the horrid smell of tanners tanning their hides.

Zion Gate 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 when Suleiman repaired the walls. 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. For 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.

Jaffa Gate, 19th century entrance  (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Jaffa Gate, 19th century entrance (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Jaffa Gate has two entrances: a wide road leading into the city that was prepared especially for the visit of Emperor Wilhelm II in 1898 and the smaller, original gate from which a road once led directly to Jaffa. The 16th-century Arabic inscription over that 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 el Khalil, the Gate of the Friend.

New Gate appeared at the end of the 1880’s to make it easier to travel between Old Jerusalem and the French Christian institutions built across the street. Ironically, until 1967, the road from New Gate to Damascus Gate was strewn with twisted barbed wire and remnants from scorched armored vehicles. Again, ironically perhaps, today this is one of the most heavily traveled byways in the city — and part of the route followed by the Jerusalem Light Rail in a united Jerusalem.

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Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.