Walking the walls

The psalmist in Psalm 48 encourages us to

Walk about Zion and go round about her;
      count all her towers;
   consider well her bulwarks; pass through her citadels. (Psalm 48.12)

I took that verse with me today and set out to do just that.  Since I’ve been here in Jerusalem I have walked along sections of the wall and have walked on the ramparts from Jaffa to Herod’s Gate, but I have never walked the complete circuit of the walls. I wanted to correct that omission and take the psalmist with me.

Compared to many other sets of city walls the walls of Jerusalem are impressive.  Jerome Murphy-O’Connor in his book ‘The Holy Land’ says of them

[The walls] enclose without dominating, limit but do not define. The impression of strength is an illusion; the city is not a fortress and its walls are not a barrier but a veil.  The visitor is drawn forward, challenged, and finally embraced.

They are certainly the most magnificent gift of the Ottomans to the city of Jerusalem.  It was under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent working with his chief architect, Kosa Sinan Pasha that the walls as we see them and can enjoy were constructed between 1537-1541.  But the walls and the city that they enclose have a long and complex history that I won’t go into here, save to say that the city has expanded and contracted numerous times since the City of David was first enclosed by walls when the Ark of the Covenant arrived.

However, so that there is no confusion neither the City of David, nor Mount Zion are contained in the present walls.  The story goes that Suleiman wanted all the Christian holy sites within his walls.  But the Franciscans were not prepared to pay the architect the cost of extending the wall to take in Mount Zion where the Cenacle is located.  So it stands outside the wall.  Suleiman was so angry, so the story goes, that his architects had not done what he wanted, that he had them executed.

Herod’s Gate – my starting point


I thought I’d take you on the journey. My route round the walls began at the gate nearest to where I’m staying – Herod’s Gate.  It’s a smaller gate than some but like most of them retains the original L shape construction which is fine for animals carrying loads but not for cars or lorries!  The gate is a very good access point for the Via Dolorosa.  Going through this way brings you out close to Stations I & II.  I walked from that gate down the hill and past the Rockefeller Museum on my left in the direction of the Mount of Olives.

Before the junction is a set of steps which lead to a path between a rubbish dump on your right and a Muslim graveyard on your left.  The path would be lovely if it were cleaned, but it does take you alongside the wall and to the next gate.

Between a graveyard and the wall


This is St Stephen’s Gate or Lion Gate.  It’s now called St Stephen’s Gate because of a more recent tradition that the first Christian martyr was killed outside this gate.  In fact, what we now call Damascus Gate was the place where Stephen’s martyrdom was first remembered and the fact that his traditional place of burial is a few hundred yards away up the Nablus Road at St Stephen’s Church, which I visited, suggests that this more recent name is wrong.  The alternative, Lion Gate, is given because of the relief depicting lions above the gate (but these are actually panthers, the emblem of the Mamelukes).  So its all rather confusing.

St Stephen’s Gate


This gate leads to the Via Dolorosa and the Birthplace of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Anne’s Church and the Pools of Bethesda are just the other side of the gate.  But I was walking the walls.  If you are doing this you have to head down the steep hill and away from the walls at this point.  The reason is that from here onwards access to the walls is not possible because all the way along there are graveyards.

The belief is that the Messiah, on his return, will enter Jerusalem through the now blocked up Golden Gate. Judgement and resurrection will begin from there, so, its best to be at the front of the queue whilst the Messiah is at his most merciful – there are a great many dead to be judged!  So Muslims and Jews are buried as close as they can be to the Temple Mount.  Christians are further back in the judgement queue it seems!

Awaiting judgement


But it’s easy to follow the walls.  At the bottom of the steep hill turn right, then take the right fork where the Monastery of St Stephen is and continue up the hill.  The route you take is actually the opposite slope of the Kidron Valley to where the Garden of Gethsemane is.  Some walkways have been constructed above the footpath level and from these you get fantastic views of the Kidron, of the sea of graves, of Absalom’s Tomb and the other ancient tombs down there and of the Garden of Gethsemane and beyond. You can easily see the progression up the hill of the four great churches – the Church of All Nations, the church of St Mary Magdalene, Dominus Flevit and, poking out at the top, the steeple of the church of the Pater Noster.  These are set in a sea of intense green, of cypresses and olive trees.  The view is fantastic.

In the wall you can see the bricked up Golden Gate, waiting for the arrival of the Messiah.

The Golden Gate


The path continues.  Now, of course, the City Wall has become the enclosing wall that forms the Temple Mount.  You can spot the Herodian stones with their ‘framed’ design, huge stones which form the base of this monumental platform. Turning the corner you walk past the archaeological remains of the Ophel, the section of the city that linked the Temple and the City of David.  As you walk, on your left is the road that leads sown to Silwan and the pools of Siloam as well as the archaeological site of the City of David itself.

The Ophel


The next gate you arrive at is the Dung Gate, so named as this was the way that the rubbish was cleared from the Temple (there was a lot of dung as a consequence of a lot of animal sacrifices).  This is the entrance to what is now the Western Wall Plaza and the route many people take to get to the Wall and the Temple Mount.  It is heavily policed and heavily used.  Beyond it is a section of archaeology which includes a Crusader tower and what they called the ‘Leatherworkers Gate’. That gate no longer exists.

Dung Gate


The path is now quite steep but as you are beyond graveyards and the Temple Mount you can once again walk along a path that is next to the wall.  This next stretch takes you up to Zion Gate.  As you approach the gate you see to your left the conical dome of the Dormition Abbey (good for a coffee) and signposts to David’s Tomb and the Cenacle.  This is the area that Suleiman wanted included in the walls.

Zion Gate has a fantastic L shape which is just big enough to take cars.  As it is both an access point for the Armenian and Jewish Quarters it is very well used and there are always long streams of pilgrims on their way to the holy sites outside the wall.  There are always cars and motorcycles also trying to use the gate!  The outer wall of the gate is marked with the evidence of fierce fighting here in 1948.

Zion Gate – spot the bullet holes!


Don’t go through the gate, though that’s what everyone else is doing, but go up the street alongside the wall where no one seems to walk.  On your left is an Armenian Convent and then at the end what is called ‘Ascent to Zion’ – but it was a descent for me. The walls turn right and you enter an area that has become a park celebrating the generations of wall-builders.  It’s great to see the wall close to and all the different levels of construction at this point.

Ascent of Zion


To your left is the Valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, which leads down to meet the Kidron Valley and the Monastery at Hakeldama.  Across the valley you can see the famous King David Hotel and the buildings of West Jerusalem.

Jaffa Gate – the old entrance


This stretch leads you to one of the major gates, Jaffa Gate.  Before you arrive at the gate you pass the Citadel of David with its distinctive tower.  The wall that connected the citadel to the actual gate was demolished in 1898 to allow Kaiser Wilhelm II direct access in his motor cavalcade to the Old City.  The result is that this is an access point for taxis and the tourist ‘train’, a place where guides tout for trade and the whole world seems to come and go.  It is the gate through which the Christian and Armenian Quarters can be reached and the souq which is directly ahead of you.

Jaffa Gate – opened up


The actual gate is beautiful and contains inscriptions in Arabic as well as stones and capitals reused from elsewhere.  The wall continues up the hill and again, it is possible to walk close to it.  At the junction with Jaffa Road the wall turns to the right and you begin the long descent towards East Jerusalem. First though you pass by New Gate.

New Gate


As the name suggests this is the newest gate and was not part of Suleiman’s original plan.  It was let into the wall in 1887 to give access to the Old City from the newly developing residential districts close by (places lived in by people like Holman Hunt). It provides access to the Christian Quarter and is tremendously busy given that it is such a small gate.  Just the other side is a school – so its best avoided when children are arriving or leaving!

Damascus Gate


The wall continues down the hill and a path goes though lovely parkland that takes you away from the busy road.  At the end of the path is an ancient flight of steps that goes down to the level of the Damascus Gate in Roman times when this was a major gathering place.  It still is but at its new level.  The Damascus Gate is always busy.  It’s the access point to the Muslim Quarter and the main route from East Jerusalem to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.  There are stalls inside and outside the gate, soldiers at the top and bottom of the steps, pilgrims, shoppers, people loitering, people hurrying.  Its a tense place where things can go wrong.  But it is fantastic.  The actual gates have the moist wonderful decaying woodwork overlaid with decaying ironwork – but what a story they tell.

The wood and the iron


I diverted off at this point as I noticed that Zedekiah’s Cave was open to visitors.  This is often called ‘Solomon’s Quarries’ and in fact is an enormous quarry that descends over 750 feet down below the Old City, as far as the Ecce Homo Convent.  At it’s highest it’s said to be as tall as a 4-storey building.  It’s believed the stone quarried there was used to build parts of the Temple at some stage (no one is completely certain) and there is a tradition that Zedekiah hid in the cave whilst escaping the city and that the water that drips into a pool within it are his tears.  It is enormously atmospheric – particularly if, like me, you have the place to yourself!

Amazing quarries beneath the Old City


From the Cave it’s a short walk then to where we began, Herod’s Gate.  The fruit and veg stalls had ben set up inside it since I left and there were more people about.  With all these walks its good to begin as early as you can, its the intense sun you miss, not necessarily the crowds.  Very few people do this walk and there are sections where you are the only person.  But it was a wonderful experience, just two and a half miles, up and down hill, past eight gates (seven that are open), and a Citadel but taken at a gentle pace and making it meditative, thinking of Psalm 48, it is a real gift.

Back to Herod’s Gate


In the Book of Nehemiah, the account of one rebuilding of the walls, the message arrives to the exiles

‘The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.’ (Nehemiah 1.3)

The walls hold the history of this city in a remarkable way and to walk them is simply a great experience. If only all the walls in this land had such a good story to tell.

Holy God,
may the walls we build include not exclude,
protect not threaten,
embrace not reject,
create a home and not a prison,
speak of your love, not of our hate.