Ottoman Jerusalem

In 1453 the Ottoman sultan Mohammed II captured Constantinople after a fifty-three-day siege, ending the Byzantine Empire. The historic capital of Christian Orthodoxy became the capital of Islam under the name Istanbul. In 1514, Mohammed II's grandson, Selim "the Terrible" forcibly added parts of the Persian Empire to his domain, and in 1517 he ousted the Mamelukes from Jerusalem. When Selim triumphantly entered the city, he was given the keys to the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aksa Mosque, and a delegation of Christian monks presented him with the original writs of Omar guaranteeing the priests jurisdiction over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and other Christian holy places. Salim kissed them and confirmed them by pressing them to his face and eyes in the Oriental manner. The fate of the Holy City was sealed for the next four hundred years.

But it was not Selim who impressed the Ottoman mark on Jerusalem, but his only son Suleiman (1520-1566)—known in the West as "the Magnificent" and in the East as "the Lawgiver." Suleiman came to power at the age of twenty-six, an untried ruler in the age of giants—Henry VII of England, Francis I of France and Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It was also the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation.

Suleiman's artisans improved Jerusalem's water supply, constructing the Sultan's Pool and placing public fountains throughout the city. They also repaired the doors of the Dome of the Rock, added stained glass windows and covered it with mosaic tiles from Persia (those seen today are a restoration). Furthermore, it was Suleiman who refortified Jerusalem. His walls, completed in 1541, still encircle the Old City today—and are very well-preserved.

Jerusalem's walled Old City, from the Mount of Olives

Through successive centuries of Ottoman rule, however, Jerusalem's fortunes declined with those of its masters, who took little interest. During the 17th and 18th centuries Jerusalem sunk to a low ebb. There were no roads to speak of and houses were ill-heated, ill-lit, decayed and crumbling, because their owners were burdened by oppressive taxes. Its maze of narrow streets became filled with sewage, rot and filth; cesspools bled into water cisterns, and hundreds died of disease. No one lived outside the walls. The deep valleys around the city and the stony hills beyond were haunted by wild animals and robbers. Memoirs of Western visitors reflect a deep disappointment over the city's fallen state. In 1838 Jerusalem had fewer than 16,000 inhabitants confined within Suleiman's massive walls. Of these, 5,000 were Muslim Arabs, 3,000 were Christian Arabs and 6,000 were Jews; there were also about 100 European missionaries and traders and 800 Turkish soldiers. By 1860 Jewish immigrants, mostly from Russia, turned the Jews into the largest single group in the city. By 1896 the population had risen to over 45,000, leading to the creation of housing and suburbs on the hills outside the walls.

Despite the transformation of Jerusalem from a dismal backwater to a modern city, much that was dirty and disagreeable remained. And the city's success in attracting Jews, Christians and Muslims in ever increasing numbers planted the seeds of future conflict...

Old City Walls and Gates

Right, detail of the splendid walls of the Old City built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent between 1536 and 1541, when the city was under Turkish control. They were built to protect the city from marauding Bedouins and, more urgently, against a crusade rumored to be in preparation by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519-56). But after years of conflict Charles agreed on a truce and Suleiman was able to redirect his builders to more pressing matters. As a result the interiors of around half the towers were left incomplete.

Suleiman's walls were constructed on the foundations of medieval ramparts, which themselves stood on the ruins of still earlier walls built on bedrock from the Second Temple period. Their total length is 2.7 miles and their height ranges from 17 feet to 50 feet. At some points they are nearly 10 feet thick at the base. There are 35 towers at corners and other points of vulnerability. The builders included some 400 firing slits or loopholes for rifleman, as the bow-and-arrow was already obsolete.

Visitors can walk along the top of two sections of the walls, from the Jaffa Gate clockwise via New Gate and Damascus Gate to St. Stephen's/Lions Gate, and counterclockwise from Jaffa Gate past Dung Gate into the Ophel Archaeological Garden south of the Temple Mount (the Dung gate/Ophel segment is a recent addition). Only the section south of St. Stephen's Gate, on the east side of the Temple Mount, is excluded. The walkway is protected by railings and provided with explanatory displays.

Jerusalem's fortress-wall is pierced by eight gates, but one, the Golden Gate, is no longer passable. Some are named for their location and they are (listed clockwise, beginning at the west wall):

Jaffa Gate - The Jaffa Gate is so named because it was on the end (or beginning) of the road to the ancient port city of Jaffa or Joppa (now part of Tel Aviv). Arabs still call it by its official name, Bab el-Khalil ("the Gate of the Friend") in reference to Hebron, which takes its Arabic name ("Al-Khalil er-Rahman," meaning "the beloved of [God] the merciful) from Abraham, "the Friend of God." Built in 1588, it originally had an L-shaped internal structure with a 90° bend to prevent a direct breach by invaders. The wall between the gate and the Citadel to the south was torn down by the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II for the 1898 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II so he could drive through without having to leave his carriage. Here, too, General Allenby, the leader of the British forces liberating Palestine from Ottoman rule, entered the city in 1917, but he dismounted his horse and came through on foot, pausing at the gate to say, "We return to you." The original gate (above) can still be seen north of the opening. It has two access staircases for those wishing to take the Ramparts Walk on top of the walls. According to legend, the two graves behind a wrought-iron fence just inside the gate are those of the architects executed by Suleiman for not including Mount Zion within the walls. Another story has the two put to death to ensure no one else would hire them to build another wall as beautiful as Jerusalem's. The gate opens directly onto David Street, which leads to the Street of the Chain—the Old City's colorful main thoroughfare—marking the boundary between the Christian and Armenian quarters. Orthodox Jews claim that a mezuzah (doorpost scroll) hidden with the gate's masonry was written by God.
New Gate - The last gate cut in the city wall, but it was not in Suleiman's original plan. It was constructed at the northwest corner of the Old City in 1887 by permission of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, to facilitate access to the from the new suburbs outside the wall to the north. It also gives direct access to the Christian Quarter. Closed during the Jordanian occupation, it was reopened in 1967.
Damascus Gate - Located in the north wall, where travelers would enter if they had come from Damascus, the Galilee or the Golan Heights. Jt is easily the most recognizable of the gates of the Old City, not only because it is the most monumental, but also because of the perpetual bustle of activity outside it. The most elaborate of the city gates, it is the finest example of Ottoman architecture in the region. Constructed in 1538 by Suleiman the Magnificent, it stands at the lowest geographic point of the city. It marks the division between the Muslim and Christian Quarters. The first gate on the site was built during the short reign of Herod Agrippa I (41-44 AD). It was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian in 135 AD as a freestanding monumental entrance to the pagan city of Aelia Capitolina. The remaining eastern arch of this earlier gate has been excavated and can be seen below and to the left of the present entrance bridge. Inside this gate was a semicircular plaza from which ran the two principal cardines, or north-south streets of the city corresponding to present Tariq el-Wad and Suq Khan ez-Zeit. This plaza featured a column, probably topped by a statue of Hadrian, from which the Arabic name for the gate, Bab el-Amud ("Gate of the Column"), is derived.
Herod's Gate - The official name for this gate is Bab ez-Zahr ("Flowered Gate"), derived from the three stone flower medallions on the outside. It faces Arab East Jerusalem and gives access the Muslim Quarter. Having nothing to do with Herod, it received the name in the 16th or 17th centuries because medieval pilgrims mistook a Mameluke house inside for the palace of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee at the time of Jesus.
Lions Gate - The only eastern entrance to the Old City, it is named for the relief carvings of two pairs of lions (actually panthers), the emblems of the Mameluke sultan Baybars (260-1277 AD), which Suleiman's architects recycled, placing them on either side of the entrance arch. Built in 1538, Suleiman called it Bab el-Ghor ("Jordan Gate"), but the name never took hold. It is also called the St. Stephen's Gate because tradition holds that Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death nearby; however, this story and the name St. Stephen's Gate were originally attached to the Damascus Gate. An alternate name is the Sheep Gate, from an older gate, mentioned in John 5:2, located farther west near the sheep market at the time of Jesus. Like the Jaffa Gate, it originally had an L-shaped internal structure with a 90° bend to prevent a direct breach by invaders. During the British Mandate it was opened to allow vehicle access to the Austrian Hospital. The Lions Gate faces the Mount of Olives and leads directly to the first stations of the cross on the Via Dolorosa.
Dung Gate - The Dung Gate is known in Arabic as Bab el-Magharbeh ("Gate of the Moors"), because immigrants from North Africa lived in the area just inside in the 16th century AD. The small Ottoman arch above the ugly modern opening shows that the original gate (built in 1540) was much smaller. The Jordanians clumsily widened it in the 20th century AD to allow vehicular access when the Jaffa Gate was sealed between1947 and 1967. The gate's unflattering name is derived from an earlier (5th century BC) Dung Gate (from Hebrew ashpoth, meaning "ash heap, refuse heap") mentioned in the book of Nehemiah (2:13, 3:13, 3:14, 12:31). It stood at the southern end of the city, above the Hinnom Valley, where refuse from the city was dumped. In ancient times the sweepings or the city's streets and roads were carefully removed from around the houses and collected in heaps outside the walls, then removed in due course to fertilize the fields. The difficulty of procuring fuel in some areas of the Middle East in earlier times made animal dung valuable as a substitute fuel for heating ovens and baking. Today's Dung Gate provides the most direct access to the Western Wall, Jewish Quarter and Temple Mount. It stands between the Jewish Quarter and an Arab district outside the walls, and is therefore subject to tight security measures. To enter the prayer plaza before the Western Wall, everyone must first pass through a line of metal detectors.
Zion Gate - Logically, it exits onto the highest part of the city now known as Mount Zion. Just beyond the gate are the traditional Tomb of David, the site of the Upper Room of the Last Supper and the Church of the Dormitian. Like the Jaffa and Lions Gates, it originally had an L-shaped internal structure with a 90° bend to prevent direct access by invaders. Today it leads directly into the Armenian Quarter. In Arabic it is known as Bab Nabi Daud ("Gate of the Prophet David"), because of a legend that his tomb is located on Mount Zion. Built in 1540, it was through this gate that residents of the Jewish Quarter were driven out of the city by the Jordanians in 1948. The gateway was then sealed , and remained so until 1967, when the Jews returned. The bullet-scared entrance arch bears mute witness to the heavy fighting that raged here during Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

Golden Gate - The Golden Gate is the only readily visible gate in the east wall, it was not rebuilt by Suleiman the Magnificent. Its architectural style indicates that it was constructed by the Omayyad caliph Abd al-Malik (685-708 AD) when he refurbished the Temple Mount and constructed the Dome of the Rock. There is evidence that is stands on the site of the original eastern entrance to the city; monolithic stones in the wall just above ground have been identified as 6th century BC masonry from the time of Nehemiah (see Nehemiah 3:29, "East Gate"). During the Second Temple period (1st century BC-1st century AD) this was the site of the Shushan Gate, mentioned in the Mishnah, the record of centuries of interpretation of the Torah. A bridge supported by arches ran from the gate across the Kidron Valley, and was known as the "Causeway of the Heifer," since the High Priest used this way to reach the Mount of Olives where the ritual burning of the Red Heifer took place, to purify the pilgrims with its ashes (see reference in Numbers 19:2).

The modern term "Golden Gate" may have been derived from the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible: When Jerome translated the text of Acts 3:2 he changed the Greek oraia (meaning "beautiful") into the similar sounding Latin aurea ("golden"). So the Latin Vulgate text reads "Golden Gate" instead of "Beautiful Gate."

According to Christian tradition, Jesus entered the Temple Mount through this gate on Palm Sunday. The gate was probably open during the Byzantine period, and the emperor Heraclius entered here after taking Jerusalem in 629 AD. After the Muslim conquest it was closed to prevent unsupervised access to the Temple Mount by "unbelievers." At the time of the Crusades (after 1099 AD) it was opened twice a year, on Palm Sunday and the feast of the Exaltation of the cross. The gate was finally closed under Turkish rule and has remained so to this day.

The Muslim name of the gate is Bab al-Dhahabi; the north portal is known as Bab al-Tawba ("Gate of Repentance"), the southern portal, Bab al-Rahma ("Gate of Mercy"). The Golden Gate has long been associated in Muslim, Jewish and Christian tradition with the Last Judgment. Many Jews and Christians believe the Messiah will return to Jerusalem from the summit of the Mount of Olives and then proceed into Jerusalem throught the Golden Gate. Some Muslims place Allah's final judgment there also, comparing it to the crossing of a narrow knife blade stretching from a mountain (the Mount of Olives is often mentioned in Arab legend) to the "gate of heaven. Evidently this knife-edged bridge would span the Kidron Valley as did the ancient stone bridge in Roman times. For this reason adherents to all three faiths have chosen to be buried as close as possible to the Golden Gate, assuming that those buried in the immediate vicinity would be the first to be raised. In the Middle Ages Jewish burials were forbidden on Mount Moriah/Temple Mount. Instead the Jews buried their dead opposite the gate on the Mount of Olives. This Jewish cemetery, covering the entire southern end of the ridge, is the oldest in continuous use anywhere in the world. It is said that a burial plot there, if available, costs at least $50,000. A Christian cemetery lies at the bottom of the Kidron Valley, while a Muslim burial area covers the eastern slopes of the Temple Mount up to and surrounding the Golden Gate.

Go to Jerusalem history - part 22

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