The old walls of Yerushalayim are surprisingly modern. Although archeological evidence suggests that Yerushalayim was already a walled town during the days of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaa- kov, little survives of the wall Avimelech passed through on his way to bless Avrohom. Almost every inch of the two and a half mile wall is less than five hundred years old.
The Third Wall
Over the centuries, people built and rebuilt Yerushalayim’s walls, and extended them to include new neighborhoods. Josephus writes that Yerushalayim had three walls in his time. Two were from centuries before his time. The third was begun by Agrippa, last king of the Jews, and completed by Jewish rebels shortly before the churban.
“Had the wall been finished [by Herod], ” Josephus writes, “the city would never have been taken [b ’derech hateva], for it was built of bonded stones 30 feet long and 15 broad…The wall itself was 15 feet thick, and its height would no doubt have been greater…”
What happened to this massive wall? In 1838, the eminent Middle East scholar and geographer, Edward Robinson, identified a mysterious ruined wall 1,500 feet north of the Old City as Josephus’s third wall. This was confirmed by later archeologists who concluded: “The wall was built at the period of the house of Herod. and it can be said with certainty that before us is the third wall.” In other words, shortly before the second chur- ban, walled Yerushalayim was twice as large as at present.
Nowadays, the city is tiny. During the 1860s, Mark Twain was stunned at the realization that the Old City, holiest and most renowned place in the world, encompasses only about 0.35 square miles.
“We toiled up one more hill, and every pilgrim. swung his hat on high! Jerusalem! Perched on its eternal hills, white and domed and solid, massed together and hooped with high gray walls, the venerable city gleamed in the sun,” he wrote. “So small! Why, it was no larger than an American village of four thousand inhabitants, and no larger than an ordinary Syrian city of thirty thousand. Jerusalem numbers only fourteen thousand people… A fast walker could go outside the walls of Jerusalem and walk entirely around the city in an hour. I do not know how else to make one understand how small it is” (Innocents Abroad).
Yerushalayim without Walls
Although famed for its walls, there were two long eras when Yerushalayim had no walls at all. The first period lasted a century or so after the churban, and the second was after the Crusades; when the Muslims feared that building a wall would make it harder to win back the city in the event the Crusaders captured it. Thus, we find Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura writing to his family in Italy in 1488: “Most of Yerushalayim is ruined and desolate, and it goes without saying that it has no wall surrounding it.”
The walls of Yerushalayim we marvel at today were built about seventy years after the Barternura’s letter by the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, a capable leader whose conquering exploits took him to Europe, Persia, and Iraq. According to legend, the impetus for building the city walls is hinted in a pair of roughly carved lions flanking the entrance of the Lion’s Gate on the east face of the city. Since it is not all that common for Muslims to use animals as decorative motifs, it is claimed that the lions commemorate the dream that inspired Sultan Selim (Suleiman’s father who conquered Eretz Yisroel in 1517) to restore the walls.
According to legend, the sultan once dreamt that four lions were tearing him to pieces. Terrified, he related the nightmare to his counselors and asked them for an interpretation. Unable to interpret it (or perhaps afraid for their necks if they offered a negative interpretation of the dream) they suggested sending for a distant sheikh known for his interpretive abilities.
“It will be difficult or impossible for me to discover the meaning of your dream unless you tell to me what plans you were considering that night before you went to sleep,” the sheikh sent back.
“For some time I have been troubled by the Jerusalem residents,” Selim admitted. “They are unruly and make trouble paying their taxes. I was thinking of sending a military force to punish them and bring them into line.”
“It would be a great sin to do such a thing to the sacred city of holy men and prophets,” the sheikh told him. “On the contrary, do something great for its welfare.”
In keeping with the sheikh’s advice, Selim ordered the walls rebuilt. But he died before the task was accomplished and the magnificent walls were built by his son, Suleiman, between about 1537 and 1541.
Actually, the lions are not lions but cheetahs, the heraldic symbol of Sultan Baybar who ruled the area two centuries earlier (1223-1277). Like many stone decorations of the walls, the cheetahs were probably pilfered from a building or ruin and incorporated into the wall.
If you walk to the bottom of Yerushalayim’s Yaffo Street and head onwards, you soon reach the Yaffo Gate, which has another remembrance from Suleiman’s building of the wall. Just inside the gate to the left, you will notice two graves fenced inside an iron railing. Although the inscriptions on the graves are effaced and no one really knows whose they are, according to tradition these are the tombs of two architects who supervised the walls’ construction. Suleiman executed them either because they neglected to include Har Tziyon within the city walls, or in order to prevent any other ruler from using their expertise to build a competing wall somewhere else.
According to a Jewish tradition, Rav Yehuda HaLevi met his death at this gate when he arrived here in his old age and fell into the dust, weeping over the ruin of the city. A band of armed horsemen galloped up and trampled him to death before there was time to warn or rescue him. In earlier times, many Jews believed there was a mezuzah concealed in the stone gatepost of Shaar Yaffo and would reverently touch its stones when passing and kiss their fingers.
Why is there an open thoroughfare between Jaffa Gate and Migdal Dovid? When Emperor Wilhem II of Germany visited Eretz Yisroel in 1898, he arrogantly insisted on driving into the Old City inside his carriage, and to accommodate his request the Turks destroyed part of the wall and filled in part of Migdal Dov- id’s moat. In striking contrast, General Allenby, the conqueror of Eretz Yisroel during World War I, reverentially entered the Old City on foot.
Muslims call gate Bab ul Khalil, or the Gate of the Friend, as the road to Chevron, burial place of Avrohom, began at this location. To stress the point, an ornamental Arab inscription on the gate reminds all passers by, “There is no G-d but etc., and Ibrahim is his friend.”
Most beautiful and elaborate of the gates is the Damascus Gate (or Shaar Sh’chem) that faces north towards Sh’chem and Damascus, one of the finest examples of Ottoman architecture in the world. Recently, this gate was embroiled in a minor imbroglio due to the ongoing project of cleaning and renovating the Old City walls, that began in 2007 and will probably continue for the next few years. Rumors spread that renovators were erasing Islamic symbols on a fortification of the Damascus gate and replacing them with Mogen Dovids. To counter the claim, the Antiquities Authority distributed fliers in Arabic with old photos showing how the fortification looked in the past (before the symbols eroded)
and explaining that this is exactly how it would look in the future.
Oldest of the City Gates is the Sha’ar Harachamim piercing the eastern wall of Har Habayis facing Har Hazeisim. Built in the 7th century at the location of Shaar Shushan, the Muslims blocked it in about 1530, reputedly to prevent the Moshiach from entering and redeeming Klal Yisro- el. For a similar reason, it is said that the large Muslim graveyard in front of the gate is meant to prevent Eliyahu Hanavi (who is a kohein) from entering Har Ha- bayis to proclaim the Moshiach’s arrival.
The city’s newest gate is the appropriately named New Gate cut into the Christian quarter of the Old City in 1889.
The Walls’ Purpose
Suleiman built his walls to protect the city. A century after their construction, in 1669, two English pilgrims reported that the city was armed to the teeth.
“Upon the fourth side of Jerusalem is a great iron gate, whereon are planted
seventeen pieces of brass cannon, and is as large as the west gate of the tower of London,” they wrote. “…On the north wall are twenty-five pieces of brass cannon near the gate, which is also of iron. The east gate [has]… five pieces of cannon… and [at] the west gate. I saw fifteen pieces of cannon. To conclude, Jerusalem is the strongest city that I saw in all my travels from Grand Cairo hither. The rest of the country is very easy to be surprised..”
Although the walls are visually impressive, historians argue that they are not thick enough to withstand a powerful enemy, especially an enemy armed with cannon that were already in use for a century or more at the time of the wall’s construction. They claim that the walls’ primary purpose was to defend against marauding Bedouin tribes and to add prestige to the holy city. Today, the walls are purely decorative, reminding us that Yerushalayim is, after all, the city of peace.