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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Walls and Gates

Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem

City walls are like the wrappings gifts come in - rarely as exciting as their contents, though sometimes, in which case they inevitably disappoint, more so. A wall raises our expectations and the more remarkable the wall, the more we expect of the treasures we will find within.

The walls of Jerusalem are largely those constructed in the sixteenth century by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman I, but they incorporate substantial remains of earlier walls and reuse large quantities of earlier stones. Walking along the length of the city from its north-west corner to its western gate one can "read" the wall, and it has much to tell us. At its base are large and roughly-shaped fieldstones - stones taken from the moat as it was excavated in the mid-eleventh century. These shows us that the first wall in this position was not Hellenistic, not Roman, and not Byzantine. It was a new line of fortifications built by the Muslims under the Egyptian, Fatimid sultanate - a curtain wall with salient towers, a forewall and a moat. This was the wall that the army of the First Crusade encountered during its siege of June-July 1099 and it served the Franks and the Ayyubids who succeeded them until it was largely dismantled in the early thirteenth century. When Suleiman rebuilt the wall on top of the ruined Fatimid one he used whatever stones he could find. And so, we see that the wall above is an assortment of stones from all periods, and includes for example an inscription of the Roman tenth legion which had been camped nearby during the Jewish revolt, along with ashlars of varying quality from Byzantine, Early Islamic and Frankish buildings. Among the latter are many of the pale and finely cut stones worked with distinctive European diagonal tooling and the ubiquitous Frankish masons' marks.

And, if you will indulge me, here is another simile. The city gate is like the curtain that parts before a play is about to be acted out. Walking through, in an instant you enter an entirely different world. You might almost expect a drum roll or applause.

Even today, entering the old city of Jerusalem you sense this. The gate, Jaffa Gate as it is now called, is not quite a gate any more, not in the real sense - it doesn't keep you out. Its doors are rarely if ever closed, and even if they are they will present no barrier. In 1898, in honour of the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II and in order to allow him to ride into the city on horseback, the moat that passed through the wall and encircled the adjacent citadel just to the south was filled in. Today you are able to pass through the gate or simply walk around it. If that says something positive about the state of security, it also clearly detracts from the drama of the former and more restricted entry. But the gate is still a point of transformation.

That might not have been. In 1967, shortly after the Six Day War, David Ben Gurion in one of his rare less-astute moments, came up with the unfathomable idea of entirely dismantling the walls of the Old City in order to establish an irrefutable unification of East and West Jerusalem. Fortunately, no one appears to have taken him seriously, and as he was no longer in a position of power his suggestion was very correctly ignored. The walls remained intact, and so did the gates.

Approaching Jerusalem in the twelfth century along the vicus ad civitatem, the road that led down to the medieval gate, a traveller could already see above the walls, the rooftops and towers, the dome rising over the Templum Domini and the vast conical roof above the Holy Sepulchre. Anticipation was already building. Stepping through the gate, past the sentries and customs officials, in the looming shadow of David's Tower the traveller probably experienced an even greater eagerness and sense of adventure than does the modern tourist and pilgrim. The transition and hence the drama was magnified by a function that gatehouses performed for military purposes. The traveller entered from the brilliant light into darkness. An enemy attempting to do so was momentarily blinded, a disadvantage that gave the guards within a clear advantage. But for the non-aggressive visitor this ingression from light to darkness and into light again was part of the show.

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