Monday, October 3, 2011

The Gates of Jerusalem, Part IV: The Golden Gate -- Sha'ar Harachamim

Exterior of the sealed Golden Gate. (circa 1860)
The Golden Gate (Sha'ar Harachamim, Gate of Mercy) of Jerusalem's Old City wall has special significance on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.  If the gate were opened, it would lead directly onto the Temple Plaza.  The outside of the gate would open to the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives beyond.  In Talmudic literature the gate was also known as the Shushan Gate because of its eastern direction (toward the Persian city of Shushan) and perhaps because of the role played by the Persian leader Cyrus in the Jews' return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. 
The Golden Gate viewed from within the Temple Plaza (1860)
According to Jewish tradition, on Yom Kippur a messenger (usually a priest) took the sacrificial lamb from the Temple through the gate to the desert.  The Red Heifer purification ceremony also involved taking the sacrifice through the eastern gate to the Mount of Olives.
Interior chamber of the
Golden Gate (1900)

Unlike most of Jerusalem's other gates, the Golden Gate was originally built at least a millennium before Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in 1540.  Indeed, some archeologists believe that the original gate, dating back to Herod's construction or even Nehemiah's period (440 BCE), still exists beneath the current gate.  Perhaps because of the great religious significance of the gate to Jews and Christians as the Messiah's route into Jerusalem, it is believed Suleiman sealed the gate and permitted the construction of a Muslim cemetery in front of the gate.

Hebrew writing on the internal walls of the gate's chamber is believed to have been left by Jewish pilgrims at least 1,000 years ago. (See study by Shulamit Gera, Catedra, in Hebrew.)

Diagram of the two levels of the
Golden Gate (with permission of the
Biblical Archaeology Review)


The ancient subterranean arch and the pit
 of bones. (James Fleming)
The theory of an ancient gate received support in 1969 when an archeological student named James Fleming was inspecting the current gate. Suddenly the rain-soaked ground beneath him opened and he found himself in a pit of bones looking at the top of another gate eight feet beneath the surface.  Fleming photographed his discovery. When he returned the next day, the tomb had been sealed with a cement slab by the Islamic custodians of the cemetery.

See previous photo essays on the Zion Gate, Damascus Gate, and Lions Gate.

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