Sha'ar HaGai – Bab el-Wad in Arabic – means the “Gate of the Valley." It is the point at which Route 1, from Tel Aviv or Ben-Gurion International Airport to Jerusalem, leaves behind the rolling hills and farmland of the south-central Shefelah region, and – in an instant – thrusts into the rugged, forested Judean Hills.
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Orientation: The spot is 4 km. east of the Latrun Interchange with Route 3, and at the Sha’ar HaGai Interchange with Route 38. Traveling in the opposite direction, west from Jerusalem, your last landmark is the Shoresh Interchange with Route 3955, 6 km. of a winding descent before Sha’ar HaGai.
Look for the Paz gas station on the north side of Sha’ar HaGai – to your right (and accessible) if you’re coming down from Jerusalem; to your left (and inaccessible) if you’re heading up from Tel Aviv. On the opposite side (south) of the highway are two stone buildings, renovated some years ago but still unused.
This route once constituted an arduous three-day journey between Jaffa and Jerusalem. In 1867, the Ottoman Turkish authorities completed the upgrade of the road, making it “carriageable” – usable by wheeled vehicles – and cutting the journey to a “mere” two days, one day traversing the longer but flatter section between Jaffa and Sha’ar HaGai, the other braving the climb to the Holy City (or in the reverse order, of course). The two renovated buildings opposite the gas station were part of the inn or caravanserai where you would have put up for the night.
November 1869 saw the grand opening of the Suez Canal, a project that changed the trade routes and the geopolitics of the Near and Far East. It was well-attended by Europe’s royalty and aristocracy, in particular the French empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III. Some of the dignitaries were keen on exploiting their visit to the eastern Mediterranean for a short excursion to the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem. Concerned about protecting their illustrious guests against the brigands that infested the roads, the Turks erected a series of 17 watchtowers, each in sight of the next. One of the last four to survive is clearly visible in the trees, about 100 meters behind the gas station.
Among the royal travelers was Queen Victoria’s son, Albert Edward (Bertie), Prince of Wales and eventually King Edward VII of England; her son-in-law, Frederick William (Fritz), Crown Prince of Prussia and future Emperor Frederick III of Germany; and Franz Josef I, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor.
Frederick, married to the English crown princess, was a very un-Prussian liberal democrat. He came to the German throne quite late (his father died at age 90), and succumbed to throat cancer just three months later, aged 56. Twenty-six years later, his aggressively militant son, Wilhelm II, led Germany into World War I. It is tantalizing to speculate whether history might have been different if Frederick had reigned for another few decades, possibly softened the military mindset of his country, and perhaps avoided the Great War altogether. (And if that war had not taken place, perhaps we would have been spared World War II as well.)
As you begin the climb to Jerusalem, or descend toward Sha’ar HaGai in the opposite direction, look for the light-greenish-gray shells of small supply trucks and armored cars on the road-divider and on the northern shoulder. These have been positioned here as memorials to those who tried to run the blockade of Jewish Jerusalem in the spring of 1948, and died in the attempt.