What happened to Jerusalem’s Old City Wall, just south of Jaffa Gate? I mean… it’s gone.
Jerusalem’s defensive wall has a gap between Jaffa Gate and Herod’s Tower (aka David’s Citadel) so large you can drive three tanks through it at once, side by side. Vehicles use it today to enter the Old City.
A 12-meter-high wall that is 2.5 meters thick is not a formidable defense if you can go around it. That image — for me — conjures up so many Bugs Bunny cartoons.
I made aliyah 28 years ago and I first settled in the Old City. Why the gap is there has bothered me for nearly three decades. I’ve asked every tour guide I have ever met; I scoured books; I searched old photographs and the answer seems — along with the wall — to have gone missing. I even asked Rabbi Google and Rebbetzin Siri but to no avail.
But this week, I think I discovered them both: the answer and the wall.
In order to unravel this rugelach of a mystery, we need to look at the wall’s history. The 4-kilometer wall took four years to build and was completed circa 1538. Suleiman Sultan the Great, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, gave the order to encircle the city with a wall. And yet we see a gap. Was it built that way, and if so why? Was it destroyed, and if so by whom: nature or man?
Israel is visited by a major earthquake about every 100 years, and the last one hit in 1927 (I plan on taking a sabbatical from Israel in 2027). That quake killed 120 people in Jerusalem, destroyed 300 houses, and damaged the Al Aqsa mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the watch tower on top of Jaffa Gate.
So maybe the earthquake destroyed that specific section of the wall? Unlikely. Jaffa Gate and Herod’s Tower remain standing and in good stead. And the quake just shook the earth, it didn’t split it. Even the vulnerable watch tower on top of Jaffa Gate did not topple: it was only structurally damaged and eventually dismantled.
Since nature is out, maybe man is the culprit? One story, that appears in various forms, claims the gap has something to do with Kaiser Wilhelm II. The story goes something along the lines that the Kaiser came to visit Palestine in 1898 and his chariot, one of the tales tell, could not make the 90 degree turn inside the Jaffa Gate. (Another is his hat was so tall it couldn’t clear the gate.) So the wall next to the gate was torn down to give passage to the Kaiser. I can’t think of a less likely story than this one, but first let me explain the 90 degrees.
Some gates of the Old City have a 90-degree turn right inside the gate, as an added layer of defense. If a marauding band of — fill in your favorite enemy — breaks through the gate, they won’t be able use their forward momentum and surge ahead. They will have to come to a full stop and make a sharp turn giving the defenders another chance to pick them off one by one. But I digress. Back to the Kaiser.
Let’s imagine this tale is true… How do you imagine it unfolded? The Kaiser shleps his over-sized carriage from Europe to Palestine, arrives at Jaffa Gate, his chariot doesn’t fit, and he gives the order to tear down the wall? How does that sit with the Ottoman rulers? Let’s say the Ottoman’s agree… How long does it take to destroy a 12-meter tall, 2.5-meter thick defensive wall? I’m assuming a long time — that is why it was built in the first place.
Did the Kaiser sit in the shade for a few weeks while they did it? Why didn’t they just lead him through a gate that didn’t have a 90-degree turn?
Furthermore, pictures of the Kaiser in Palestine show he is on royal horseback. So even if he did shlep a Costco-sized chariot from Europe, clearly he didn’t have a problem stepping out of his conveyance and mounting a ceremonial charger. So why didn’t he do that at Jaffa Gate? I think the story about the Kaiser is a crock.
So we are back to square one. It doesn’t seem the earthquake destroyed the wall. And it doesn’t seem it was destroyed for the Kaiser.
But what makes for an even bigger mystery is the side-walls of Jaffa Gate and Herod’s Tower don’t bare scarring on the stone. It doesn’t seem like there ever was a wall there between them. The stones look polished, well placed, and original.
There is, truth be told, a vertical rectangular patch of stones at the base of Jaffa Gate’s side wall that looks like they were reworked or broken. But the scar length is small (2 meters high) and thus seems unlikely it was a defensive wall. We should see a scar of at least 12-meters height on both the gate and the tower. But we don’t.
This week, I think I found the secret to a mystery that has been bothering me for 28 years.
I was tooling around the Old City with friends Debbie and Denny who were visiting from Potomac. We went to visit Photo Elia, a small but famous Armenian photography shop located in the Christian quarter. In it lies the largest repository of early 20th century photographs of Jerusalem. I have been there before, always looking for pictures of Jaffa Gate, but I never found one that revealed the answer to the mystery. On this trip, however, I stumbled upon two pictures that brought to my face a slow, but ever-widening grin.
I always knew there was a moat surrounding Herod’s Towers because you can still see it there today. But I found a black and white picture dated 1880 showing that in days of yore the moat was huge: both in depth and in width. It was as wide as the present day road, from Jaffa Gate to Herod’s Tower. And in that 100-year-old picture, from the angle from which the photograph was taken, you can discern inside the moat — although barely visible and practically chiaroscuro — the outline of the Ottoman defensive wall. The image is so subtle I thought my mind was making me see something that wasn’t there.
[The picture above shows the moat enlarged and you can discern the contours of the wall. And in the picture below you can see the moat filled in serving as a road for cars.]
And then I found another picture (I was having a good day) dated 1882. In that sepia photo, taken outside the gate, dead center, at the farthest point from the photographer, you can actually see a crenelation sticking out of the moat. This crenelation does seem to touch the side wall of Jaffa Gate and does rise about two meters above its base. This is, I believe, what accounts for the scarred stones on the side wall of Jaffa Gate. The scarring was from the crenelation.
You see, Herod’s Towers (there were originally three) were built 2,000 years ago, 1,500 years before the Old City walls were built. Suleimein’s architects weren’t known for being particularly perfectionists. They were so lazy, the story goes, they decided to build the defensive wall over the top of Mount Zion, instead of around it, for the sake of engineering ease. For that sin, the tale spins, they were decapitated and buried inside Jaffa Gate, where you can still see their tombs today — supposedly a head short.
Given these orders, a responsible architect and engineer would have filled in the moat and then built the defensive wall on that foundation – making the height of the wall at that section even with the height of the rest of the wall. But they didn’t. They just lazily built that section at the bottom of the moat. So where is that part of the wall today? Right where it always was. It never left. It was never destroyed. It is buried beneath our feet.
Why did they fill in the moat, bury the wall, and tear down the crenelation? Probably because, as the population of Jerusalem grew, so did the traffic. They needed better access to the city and only one chariot can fit into Jaffa Gate at a time. There is not enough room for two-way chariot traffic through a gate that bends at 90-degrees.
The dates on the pictures might be wrong, so when the moat was filled in might be off by a few years. And it’s possible they filled in the moat about the time of the Kaiser’s visit. But it seems hardly unlikely they did it just for him. But whenever it happened and why-ever it happened, the wall never went missing – it just went missing from view.
My dad, Arnie Berman, used to love to figure things out. He would often refer to himself as Detective Berman. I hope I made him proud.
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