General Charles George Gordon was a devout Christian and an avid student of the Bible. In 1883, four years before he was killed in Khartoum while defending the British-Egyptian conclave from Sudanese rebels, Gordon went on extensive leave in Jerusalem. He lodged with the American Colony – a deeply religious Christian society from Chicago that was immersed in good works. They were housed in a building whose upper portion jutted above the Old City walls.
One day, while relaxing on the porch and gazing to the north, his eyes caught sight of a Muslim cemetery perched on top of a cliff. Directly below, in a rocky knoll, there were two caves. In the late afternoon sun, the cliff with its gaping “eyes” seemed to resemble a skull, and he became certain that this was the Golgotha (Calvary), the site of Jesus’s crucifixion described in the Gospels: “Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull [which in Aramaic is called Golgotha],” [John 19:17].
Last week we took an extraordinary walk on the northern and eastern ramparts — wide walkways above the Old City walls. Somewhere between Damascus Gate and Herod’s (Flower) Gate — a portion of the ramparts that visitors don’t often traverse — we came face to face with the American Colony building from which Gordon had made his momentous discovery. And across Suleiman Street — once a moat dug over a thousand years ago — we saw what he had seen: the gaping blackness of the skull-like caves.
Accompanying us was Gura Berger, spokesperson for the East Jerusalem Development Company (PAMI). She led us past Flower Gate and all the way east to Lions’ Gate on ramparts that had been closed for years because their steps and railings were unsafe. Newly reinforced and repaired, the route had just opened to the public and offered all kinds of surprising vistas.
We began our jaunt at the Roman Square beneath Damascus Gate, a site that also recently reopened thanks to PAMI and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage.
Damascus Gate as we know it today was built by Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Great when he restored the walls of Jerusalem in the 16th century. Suleiman’s workers erected the gate above an earlier entrance to the city, a magnificent triumphal arch constructed in the early second century by Roman emperor Hadrian Augustus.
Intended to flaunt his army’s victory over Jewish rebels during the three-year Bar Kochba Revolt, the victory gateway consisted of a fabulous central arch over 40 meters wide and 20 meters high. It was flanked by two smaller ornamental openings and two massive towers.
Back in Roman times, the gates led to what we call the Roman Square, an enormous plaza whose central feature was a column nearly 22 meters tall that was used as Point Zero to measure distances measured to cities outside Jerusalem. A statue of Hadrian stood on top, meant to remind all that it was he who had squashed the Jewish revolt. It was this column which gave the gate its Arabic name: Bab el Amud: Gate of the pillar.
Fortunately, one of Hadrian’s modest side gates is remarkably well preserved, standing well below street level, to the left of the Suleiman’s Damascus Gate. As Berger led us through the gate into the plaza beyond, she pointed out Herodian-era (Second Temple period) stones that were re-used in Hadrian’s constructions. These stones are huge rectangular blocks, featuring flat, projecting central portions framed by narrow, evenly chiseled margins. They are seen on the gate, the adjacent tower walls and on the ramparts, along with decorations that had once proudly graced ancient buildings.
The floor of the Roman plaza is made of the original Roman bedrock floor, with grooves hacked within to prevent slippage by chariots and wagons. Etched in one portion of the floor was an original 2,000-year-old board game, presumably used by Roman soldiers stationed in the tower to alleviate their boredom.
To reach our section of the ramparts, we ascended the same steps that the soldiers would have taken and ended up on an extension of the tower that was probably added by the Turks. The view from this vantage point is glorious, extending from the red roofs of Musrara and well into the bustling commercial centers of East Jerusalem. Standing out among the Arab-built stores are sumptuous 19th-century European buildings like the Schmidt Catholic guesthouse, today home to the German Association for the Holy Land.
Where other portions of the ramparts bordered the Jewish, Armenian and Christian Quarters, this stretch followed along only the extraordinarily congested Muslim Quarter. And no wonder it is so crowded: the entire city inside the walls is only one square kilometer in size, with the Moslem Quarter taking up 1/3 of the area and housing 30,000 residents — three quarters of the total population.
Past the electric wires, antennas and solar heaters, however, we were rewarded with a unique view that took in all three monotheistic faiths. We could see, in the distance, Islam’s Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, the lofty, restored Hurva Synagogue, and the two large domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Soon the landscape began to change. Down below were schools, a hostel that only takes in Muslim pilgrims from India, and wide open spaces featuring green playing fields, beautiful parks, and modern playgrounds.
Only the top of the building where Gordon lodged for a time is visible from the sidewalk. Seeing it up close, however, two features on the façade stood out: extremely large hooks, and an architectural element common the Middle East known as “kizan.” The “kizan” consists of hollow clay pipes embedded into concrete or cement on the upper railing of a building. Ideally, they provide residents with fresh air and wind.
The hooks on the exterior walls were probably added as reinforcements after the Jerusalem earthquake of 1834. Although it only lasted a few seconds, that earthquake was intense: part of the city wall near the Dome of the Rock collapsed, along with several Jerusalem minarets. Large Jerusalem homes were damaged by the quake, which also cracked one of the domes in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Once we passed over Herod’s Gate, we were treading on the newly opened section of the ramparts. From here, we enjoyed a panoramic view that began with Saladin Street across the way, and in the distance French Hill, the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, stunning Rockefeller Museum, a sprawling Brigham Young Mormon University, and the Augusta Victoria complex on the hills of the Mount of Olives.
Before turning towards Lions’ Gate, we stopped for a moment on Storks’ Tower, situated on the wall’s northeastern corner. No one really knows how it got its name, but Berger had a rather unusual explanation. It seems that for some obscure reason the Ottoman Turks decided to pay homage to Godfrey of Bouillon, the first ruler of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.
According to medieval legend, an ancestor of Godfrey’s requisitioned a boat driven by a swan in order to save a young lady in distress. Godfrey became associated with swans but swans are not endemic to Israel. However, since swans vaguely resemble the storks that fly over Jerusalem in hordes during migration, the Turks named this Storks’ Tower — in Arabic Burj al Laklaq.
A most unusual doodle was carved into the rampart wall. According to Berger, it is a stonemason’s mark – the only one of its kind that she had ever seen on the ramparts.
Tribes’ Gate, which leads to the Temple Mount, is located just inside and to the left of Lions’ Gate — where we left the ramparts. It is through Tribes’ Gate that Israeli paratroopers entered during the Six Day War of 1967, reached the Temple Mount, and raised the Israeli flag over the Western Wall.
Note: Most sections of the ramparts are fairly easy to traverse. This particular jaunt, however, requires you to walk up and down dozens of steps and is particularly hard on creaky knees.
Tickets to the Roman Square are NIS 10; for a two day ticket to the Square and all of the ramparts you pay only NIS 20.
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.
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