Roman Square reopens in Jerusalem after almost 2,000 years

"We can connect with those who were once here."

The entrance room, which leads to stairs of a tower that flanks the Roman gate built in 135 CE and is found under Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
The entrance room, which leads to stairs of a tower that flanks the Roman gate built in 135 CE and is found under Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
“It’s like a layer cake.”
This is how Gura Berger, spokeswoman for the East Jerusalem Development Company, known in Hebrew as Pituach Mizrach Yerushalayim (PAMI), described the historic site dating from 135 CE located beneath today’s Damascus Gate on the north side of the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Roman square, reopened on Sunday by PAMI and the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry, shows those layers of stone and history as if they were chiffon cake.
On Sunday, journalists were given the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of those who lived and walked through this side of the city over the last 2,000 years as part of the inauguration of the Roman square, which was reopened recently by PAMI and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage.
The layers of time are clearly visible from the Roman gates arches to the stones used during the different periods of history, the architecture and the large looming towers that flank both the Roman gate and Damascus Gate.
Berger told The Jerusalem Post that the gate and plaza were uncovered in the 1930s and excavations were done in the 1960s with further remains and excavations taking place in the 1980s.
Archaeologist and excavator Dr. Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah of the Israel Antiquities explained that until recently they believed that the city under the Romans and Byzantines had been walled, but, she said they found this is not the case.
What she also highlighted as “extraordinary” was the “two towers on either side of the gate,” which are still standing today “and was kept by the Ottomans when they built Damascus Gate in the 16th Century under Sultan Suleiman the Great.”
Weksler-Bdolah pointed out that the Roman victory gate was built by Emperor Hadrian Augustus to parade his army’s triumph over Jews during the Bar Kochba revolt that lasted some three years.
She took the attendees through a time warp, first explaining the history of Damascus Gate, then moving below the gate to show several proofs of Crusader history from the 11th and 12th Century that also included the remnants of a new anterior gate that was built a few meters above that of the Roman gate, and finally the Roman gate and plaza built in the 2nd Century.
According to Weksler-Bdolah, during the crusader times there was also a chapel next to the area of the Roman gate and a water well was also found. The Roman gate was still in use during the Byzantine and Crusader period as well.
As the group headed towards the historical site, Berger pointed out to the Post a marking in one of the old Herodian-era style stones, which are large, flat and smooth.
“This was a mark that was made by the stone mason to show how many stones were made so that he knew how many stones he’d made for payment,” she said.
Berger also said that some of the stones, which are from the Second Temple-era, were reused in some of the Roman emperor’s constructions.
Weksler-Bdolah explained that “each layer marks when an empire was defeated and when a new empire rose because they built on top of it, and in some cases used the infrastructure left behind.
“The Ottoman wall, which used a different, smaller kind of stone, was built on top of these ancient foundations,” she added.
The gate, which is magnificent, still has the bases of two arches flanking its sides. It also has a Roman inscription on the top that the archaeologists were able to decipher, which states that this gate was the entrance to Aelia Capitolina, which was what Jerusalem was renamed following the quashing of the Bar Kochba Revolt.
The central arch is some 40 meters wide while the gate itself is about 20 meters tall and at the time had been beautifully decorated with only remnants of this still visible today.
It was here that anyone passing through the gate into the city, which was a paved road, would need to pay taxes to enter.
As the group passed through the gate, they were taken into a room that leads to the stairs that can take visitors to top of the left tower. The room was once open air but Berger explained that it was given a roof during the Crusader period. The stones used are beautiful but are visibly contrasted to the Herodian stones in the room.
Moving in the plaza itself, Berger showed the Post how the floor, which is still the original, has grooves carved into the stone to stop any chariots or wagons from slipping especially when they were wet.
In the center of the massive square also stood a large statue of Hadrian. To mark this point, they had a smaller and rustic prop in the middle, with Berger voicing that they hope to have some sort of replica similar to that of the original to be made in the future.
Berger then took the Post aside to a little room off the plaza and asked about “how Roman soldiers would spend their time while guarding the gate?”
After a few guesses, which included reading, chatting and other activities, a final guess was made “playing games or cards.”
Berger said, “yes – look here,” and pointed to several interesting lines and markings etched into the stone floor.
“They drew some sort of playing board of a game into the ground,” she explained. “If you go down into the Sister of Zion Monastery you will see similar boards like this, although we are not entirely sure what it was.”
She said that through this “we can connect with those who were once here… whatever it is, it’s the personal touch, someone like you or me was here 2,000 years ago.
“We can touch them through this,” Berger added.
During the inauguration ceremony Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion stressed his pride and excitement about being at this site.
“This is just a piece of the Jewish people’s history in Jerusalem,” he said, adding that the history of this gate “is important to us... we must be proud of this history.”