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Jerusalem’s largest and most beautiful gate

Posted on June 15, 2017 in Articles

By Father Eugenio Alliata, OFM
Archaeologist, Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Jerusalem

The Damascus Gate, Jerusalem’s most beautiful (and perhaps the best known), is today one of the city’s principal gates, just as in ancient times. There is no pilgrim or traveler who doesn’t remain impressed by its imposing architecture. It is undeniably one of the most recognized symbols of the Holy City.

Its name says this opening in the wall marks the beginning of the road to Syria. It is characterized by two towers with slightly inclined walls. The current Turkish wall recaptured an ancient Roman element.

Seen to the right of the current access bridge to the gate is the wall built by Agrippa (37-41 A.D.). Flavius Josephus said that Agrippa built a third wall for the defense of the city (The Jewish War, V, 147). A cistern is at the same site, but it is still debated if the existing wall is the third or second wall.
The foundation is crosswise. The stones used are huge (perhaps coming from the so-called Nea, the Basilica of Holy Mary, Mother of God, built during Justinian’s reign following the Council of Ephesus in 431). The level of the current lower pavement could be the level of the gate during the Crusader era.

Its design, predating the Crusader era, is rustic. The Crusaders, upon arriving, found walls from the Muslim Shiite Fatimid dynasty and perhaps reinforced them. On the site, the Crusaders also built a church dedicated to St. Abraham, a sign that pilgrims were being welcomed. Along with this they may have built a system of roadways for access to the city.

To the left of the current gate is the Roman gate of the Aelia Capitolina (the Roman name for Jerusalem), built by Hadrian in 135 in Old Jerusalem. The trend today is to think that the Jewish rebellion came after, and not before, the building of the new city. According to Roman tradition, Hadrian may have plowed under the perimeter of the new city, including the sacred spot of the temple and this could have provoked the rebellion.

The gate must have been triple in size and grandiosity. The remains of the columns – only the pedestals are left – are valuable for calculating the height of the columns. According to classical tradition, the height is nine times the diameter of the columns. There were three entrances. The central one was the biggest and the two side ones, smaller. One is still conserved. Notable are the molded bases and the stones coming from Herod’s temple. The interior stones are from ruins while the exterior ones are prettier.

The Madaba Map shows a semicircular plaza surrounding the Damascus Gate, at the start of the important roadways of Cardo and Tyropeion. The fact that it was a gate doesn’t prove the existence of walls during the time of the Aelia Capitolina; the gate was a pure symbol. The walls were built only in case of real danger. If the Legion was enough to defend the city, there was no need for walls.

As we already said, the gate was called the Damascus Gate by Westerners, but its traditional name is the Shechem Gate. In more ancient documents it is called the Neapolis Gate because it led from Palestine to Flavius Neapolis, “the new city of the Emperor Flavius,” today’s Nablus. The Arabs call it Bab el-Amud, gate of the column. In fact, seen in the Madaba mosaic is the presence of a large column in the center of the semicircular plaza. Also, the drawing of the pilgrim Arculfus shows, in front of the main gate, a column crowned by the bust of Christ, where before there was a statue of Hadrian.

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