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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Truely Beautiful Gate

Walk through Jaffa Gate and you are entering an entirely different world. This is true of any gate in any walled city - the wall built to defend the population from an enemy outside, served also to defend the way of life within. And if today the former function has become redundant, the latter one seems to have become all the more evident. The wall defends not the inhabitants, but the enclosed and sequestered world in which they live. It is not as isolated a world as it had been in the past - there are no guards at the gate, it is hardly ever locked, and even if it is one can easily walk around it. The city itself is no longer detached in the countryside, but is now a city within a city. Nonetheless, the walls and gates prevent what is within from becoming the same as what is without. The Old City of Jerusalem has by no means become a suburb of Jerusalem, but has retained its entirely independent character.

When I was seventeen and newly arrived in the country, a relative, Dr. Walter Pick, a historian by profession, introduced me to this still mystical, though already very much tourist-oriented place. It was just two years after the Six Day War. The city had opened up not only to local visitors but to an increased number of foreign tourists. I was spellbound by the crowded bazaars, the strange smells, the noise and colour, the remains of a distant past, all the more so for being in the company of a vastly knowledgeable man who seemed to have a warm personal relationship with every Arab, Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Orthodox Jew we encountered, who knew all the unknown places, all the histories and legends, and where to buy the most delicious cakes (which he requested I be careful not to mention to his wife when we got back). Not all that much has changed in the intervening five decades. Some memorable characters have disappeared - the old man wearing a fez and seated at his stall a short way down from the gate, who sold antique coins on a tray, his crimson headgear an already vanished fashion, and consequently his coins that much more interesting and desired. Today one rarely sees the once common salep seller with his tall, spouted jug slung over his shoulder. And the more authentic Middle Eastern market goods sold in the shops; items of leather, Bedouin embroidery, cheap jewellery, crowns of thorns, sheep-skin slippers, incense, postcards and oriental sweets; are now augmented by endless unimaginative and unattractive examples of Judaica and somewhat more interesting but equally vulgar Christianica, such as luminous statues of the Virgin Mary and photographs of Jesus that appear to shed tears when held at a certain angle.

David Street, the ancient Decumanus that takes you into the heart of the city from Jaffa Gate, changes its name halfway along. After intersecting with the Cardo it becomes the Street of the Chain, and at its far end is the Gate of the Chain, Bab as-Silsilah (باب السلسله). The chain referred to is from a legend of unknown origin, according to which, King Solomon suspended a chain between Heaven and Earth in order to solve points of litigation. If two men approached the chain, only the honest man would be able to grasp hold of it and it would move out of reach of the dishonest litigant. The gate had a different name in the past - the Beautiful Gate.

The names of Jerusalem’s gates have a tendency to move about, trying out once this location, then that. For example, St Stephan’s Gate, the name of the main northern city gate in the Middle Ages (now Damascus Gate), moved to the east, to what is better known today as the Lions Gate (where it appears already on the fifteenth century Comminelli Map), and the present day Zion Gate is a fair distance west of the medieval Gate of Mount Zion. The medieval name of the Gate of the Chain - Porta Speciosa, the Beautiful Gate, had formerly belonged to a gate on the eastern side of the Temple Mount. According to the Acts of the Apostles, one of Jerusalem twelve gates, was "the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful".* Scholars disagree as to which of the gates on the Temple Mount this name referred to, though all agree that it was on the east. Some say it was another name for the Nicanor Gate between the Women's Court and the Court of the Israelites in the temple proper, others connect the name to the lower outer gate, the Shushan Gate, near to or on the eastern city wall, the location of today's Golden Gate or Gate of Mercy. It was still located there in the Byzantine period. The sixth century account by the so-called Piacenza Pilgrim gives the name Beautiful Gate to the gate reached in the city wall when approaching the city from Gethsemane.** In the twelfth century, however, the name moved right across the Temple Mount and settled on the western wall, and so it appears on all the medieval maps of Jerusalem.

The source of the name Beautiful is not known. Was the eastern temple gate a particular beautiful structure? Perhaps. Of all the gates entering the Temple Mount today, the only one that displays distinctive elements of the Crusader period, and remarkable beautiful ones at that, is indeed the Porta Speciosa, but it was probably not the Franks who placed them there. The gate is most likely of Ayyubid date, though the decorative elements it contains on either side of the two portals and in the arches before them are Romanesque pieces in secondary use that had probably formerly beautified the buildings constructed by the Templars on the Temple Mount.

* Acts 3.10

** F.E. Peters, Jerusalem, Princeton, 1985, pp. 83, 169.

Reused capitals in the Porta Speciosa (Collection of Zahava Jacoby, Younes and Soraya Nazarian Library at the University of Haifa. Photos by Z. Radovan)

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