The Most Mysterious Gate in Jerusalem's Old City Is Still Puzzling Researchers

Why was the Golden Gate sealed, and who built it?

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The Golden Gate in al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 2019.
The Golden Gate in al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

After a rainy night in April 1969, the American archaeologist James Fleming came to study the Golden Gate, which is sealed and the only one of the gates in walls of the Old City of Jerusalem to directly face the Temple Mount. Fleming was walking outside of the Temple Mount, near the gate - which faces a Muslim cemetery - when the ground beneath him opened up. He fell into a large hole.

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“I was disoriented but uninjured” he later wrote in Biblical Archaeology Review. “I picked myself up and tried to focus my eyes in the dim light that came through the hole above my head. I suddenly realized that I was standing amidst the bones of 30 to 40 human skeletons apparently thrown together in a mass burial. Some of the bones were still connected by cartilage, which indicated interment within the last hundred years or so.”

Fleming believed the bones were connected to one of the waves of violence that visited the area in the century before his visit: World War I, the Arab Revolt against the British, or Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. When he returned the next day, he found that the hold had already been repaired. Before leaving he looked around again and saw an old arch, which he believed was connected to an old gate which existed in that location, before the Golden Gate was built.

The Golden Gate in al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

The mystery of the skeletons was never solved and the old arch became a topic of dispute among archaeologists, art researchers and historians, revolving around one of the most mysterious structures in the Old City - the Golden Gate, whose names in Hebrew and in Arabic, Sha’ar Harahamim and Bab al-Rahma, respectively, translate to the gate of mercy.

The gate and the adjacent building on the Temple Mount, also called Bab al-Rahma, has made headlines recently in the wake of a clash between the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that oversees the Temple Mount, and the Israel Police. In a unilateral action around a month ago, the Waqf opened the building for Muslim worship.

Police arrested Waqf guards, removed dozens of people from the Temple Mount and arranged for an order closing the structure. Jewish extremists who are working toward rebuilding the Temple and right-wing organizations are demanding that the government shut down the building. Muslim worshippers reject any compromise, while the governments of Israel and Jordan are trying to reach an agreement.

This is not the first crisis around this gate. Scholars cannot agree on any of the important questions around this structure: Who built it? When? Why was it sealed? What purpose did it serve over the years? In fact, the ambiguity surrounding the Golden Gate is linked to its eschatological role in all three monotheistic religions, but particularly in Judaism and Islam.

The Holy Cross

Most scholars accept the link between the gate and other ancient structures on the Temple Mount, believing it was built by the Umayyad caliphs who built Jerusalem and the mosques on the Temple Mount at the end of the seventh century.

Others place it earlier, arguing that it was built by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, at the beginning of that century. Arguments in favor of dating the building to the Islamic period are based on the fact that Byzantine rulers took great interest in Jerusalem, but not in the Temple Mount. Leaving the compound in its desolation was an important part of the Byzantines’ faith, since it was proof of Christianity’s victory over Judaism.

“The destruction was proof of defeat and they had an interest in keeping the area desolate” says Prof. Rina Talgam of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who specializes in the art of the Middle East from the Hellenistic period to the early Islamic period.

“There were two great periods on the Temple Mount, the Herodian and Umayyad periods,” she says. “The Umayyads sometimes fool us since they made secondary use of Byzantine elements, but here there is no evidence of this. The column capitals are not Byzantine, they’re from the early Umayyad period, in the early seventh century.” This is also supported by Shulamit Gera, who wrote her doctorate on the gate, by archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov and by most researchers of the Temple Mount.

A Palestinian Muslim walks toward the Golden Gate in al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 1, 2019.Credit: AFP

The fact that the Byzantines didn’t build anything there, and the similarity of the gate to other structures on the Mount strengthen the Umayyad camp in this argument.

But Dan Bahat, a professor of archaeology who is among the most important Jerusalem scholars, suggests a different and very interesting interpretation that gives the gate a specific historical context. The Golden Gate’s position is illogical in relation to other structures on the Temple Mount, far from aligning with the axis leading to the Dome of the Rock. Therefore, believes Bahat, it’s unlikely that anyone building on the Temple Mount would have put a gate at this location. But In contrast, when looking westward from the gate, one sees that it is aligned with another important structure in the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Golden Gate, according to Bahat, was built by the Byzantines before the Umayyads showed up, with the restoring of the Holy Cross to Jerusalem.

In 614, the Persians conquered Jerusalem and the Holy Cross, on which Christians believe Jesus was crucified, was captured and taken to Persia. Fifteen years later, Emperor Heraclius led the Byzantine army to victory over the Persians, recapturing the cross. Heraclius, as depicted in innumerable Christian icons, returned the cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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However, Bahat clarifies, he didn’t do so right after the battle ended. “He first took it to Constantinople, on October 14, 629, which to this day is celebrated as a holy day. The cross was returned to Jerusalem only in March of 630. He therefore had more than six months to build this gate — he may not have completed it, but it’s clear that he started to build it.”

According to tradition, it was important to bring it in through an eastern gate, following the route Jesus took before his crucifixion. This is why the gate is aligned with the church. “The measurements and decorations are Byzantine, the only reason to build it was Byzantine,” says Bahat. “In Muslim periods it was closed. How could that be?”

So, what was the arch Fleming saw when he fell into that hole? Some believe it’s an older arch, possibly from the Second Temple era. Bahat thinks it’s part of the foundations for the Byzantine gate.

Why was it sealed? Perhaps the Umayyads sealed it when they built the whole compound. Another possibility is that the cemetery outside it blocked access to it, so it was closed. Another explanation is that Muslim rulers wanted people to approach the mosques from the west, to strengthen that part of the city. Bahat suggests that it was a result of the destruction of all fortifications by Saladin’s nephew, who ruled Jerusalem, to prevent any returning Crusaders from having a strong base.

The prolonged closure produced myths associated with the coming of the Messiah, upon which it will reopen for the Messiah, according to Jews, or for Muslim worshippers who will march there from the Mount of Olives, according to Muslims.

Prof. Amikam Elad, a researcher of Islam, says the gate had an important role in early Islamic traditions associated with the end of time.

The current name was given at the end of the 10th century, whether by Muslims or Jews is unknown.

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