Street Stroll: Fit for a sultan

A walk around the walls reveals a treasure trove of ancient and modern sights.

damascus gate 311 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
damascus gate 311
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Called the “The Magnificent” by us Westerners and known as “The Lawmaker” in his native land, Sultan Suleiman, ruler of Turkey, was a cunning politician, a supremely talented administrator and a brilliant military strategist.
But he didn’t need an excess of savvy when he conquered Jerusalem in 1517. By that time, there were no fortifications to speak of protecting the city. That’s because the Crusaders demolished the walls during their assault in the 11th century; 100 years later, Saladin destroyed what was left.
Legend has it that some years after the Turkish conquest, this multifaceted sultan had a nightmare, in which roaring lions chased him through a field, caught him, tore him to pieces and greedily devoured him. Waking up in a cold sweat, Suleiman cried out for his advisers. “What do you make of this horrible dream?” he asked them. “It means that you must do something for Jerusalem,” they explained. “You must rebuild its crumbling city walls.” Whether or not the story is true, in 1538 he built the four-kilometer long, 12-meter high walls that still surround the Old City today.
Not surprisingly, then, the main byway along the northern side of the walls is named for Sultan Suleiman. A spring day is a great time for a half-day outing on the walkway parallel to the road. It begins at Damascus Gate and ends at the northeastern corner of the walls.
Damascus Gate is the loveliest of all the Turkish entrances to the Old City. And until Jaffa Gate became the center of Jerusalem’s commercial life in the 19th century, it was also the most important. From here a road led west to the Crusader capital of Caesarea, and another ran north to Nablus (Shechem, in Hebrew) and Damascus. And although the rest of the Turkish wall is topped by continual crenelations – tooth-like projections – at Damascus Gate they are replaced by decorative statuettes – more evidence of this entrance’s prominence.
During the Byzantine period (roughly fourth to seventh centuries CE) this was also known as St. Stephen’s Gate. Some Christian traditions hold that the martyr Stephen was dragged out of the city through this gate and stoned to death somewhere on the other side of the modern-day road.
In Arabic this gate is called Bab el-Amud (Gate of the Pillar) because at one time a pillar topped with a statue of Roman emperor Hadrian stood in the center of an inner plaza. Distances to different parts of the country were measured from the column, which appears together with the plaza on the famous sixth-century Madeba map discovered in Jordan.
Entrance to the plaza was through a triple victory arch built in 135 CE after Hadrian crushed the Bar-Kochba Revolt and turned Jerusalem into the Roman city called Aelia Capitolina. The monument consisted of a magnificent middle portal with identical, less ostentatious entrances on each side.
IF YOU face the Turkish gate and look down and to the left, you will discover one of the side arches, somehow beautifully preserved and flanked by two massive broken columns. The Roman plaza inside was excavated in 1982, and the East Jerusalem Development Company runs a fascinating museum on the site. Worth a visit, it features the original stone floor and Roman-era antiquities.
To get there, go to the other (your right) side of the gate and pass under the bridge. Back outside and past Damascus Gate, you can’t miss the eye-catching St. Paul’s Guesthouse and Schmidt School across the street. Inside, the building boasts wide halls, shiny with Italian marble, and a multitude of cross-vaulted ceilings and artistically chiseled columns.
Even the rooftop is special: its serrated railing echoes the Old City ramparts across the street, while domed shelters with beautiful stone arches and columns stand in two of its corners. For a very small fee you can go up to the rooftop for a direct look into the Old City and an unparalleled view of Damascus Gate and the northern wall.
The building just inside the walls that juts out over the top was the original home of the American Colony, whose members came to Jerusalem from Chicago in 1881. A deeply religious Christian society that was completely immersed in good works, the colony helped anyone in need regardless of religion or nationality. Members lived a communal life and supported themselves in part by selling dried flowers near Jaffa Gate. (At the end of the 19th century, together with new members from Sweden, the group moved to a gorgeous villa in east Jerusalem, which today is the exclusive American Colony Hotel.)
In 1883, British soldier General Charles George Gordon went on extended leave in Jerusalem. A devout Christian and ardent student of the Bible, he stayed for a time with the American Colony in their lodgings inside the walls. One day, looking north, he caught sight of a Muslim cemetery perched on top of a cliff. Directly below, in the rock, there were two caves.
In the late afternoon sun, the cliff with its gaping “eyes” seemed to resemble a skull, and he became certain that this was Golgotha (Calvary), the site of Jesus’s crucifixion. Further exploration revealed an ancient tomb and a garden behind the hill, each admirably suited to the New Testament description of Jesus’s burial place. What was to become known as Gordon’s Calvary is today a tranquil site called the Garden Tomb. You can see the caves behind the Discount Bank.
Cross back to the walls and enter Zedekiah’s Cave, an enormous quarry more than 200 meters long and chock full of labyrinths and inner grottos. You can have a fantastic time there, exploring dark caverns and studying the art of quarrying. You may even see black marks on the walls where workers placed their oil lamps. The quarry had excellent-quality white limestone that is easy to cut.
It is believed that early masons cut stones from this quarry for use in the Second Temple and perhaps also the First. As a result, it is also known as King Solomon’s Quarries. The worldwide Order of Masons considers King Solomon to have been the first mason. Whenever possible since the early 20th century, Freemasons have used the cave’s central chamber for their ceremonies.
During the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, King Zedekiah managed to flee the city, only to be captured in Jericho. Since it is thought that he entered the quarries when running from the Babylonians, this gave rise to the belief that they stretched all the way to Jericho. When he was finally taken by the Babylonians, Zedekiah’s eyes were put out and he was carried away in chains. Look for Zedekiah’s “tears” at the far end of the cave.
CONTINUE TO Herod’s Gate (known in Hebrew as Sha’ar Haprahim, “Flowers Gate”) and walk around the side to view the original Turkish entrance and the decoration that possibly gave the gate its name. But it is more likely that the name comes from the Arabic word for “flower” – zara. In medieval times, the Arabs named the gate for the Muslim cemetery above the caves. It was called A-Sa’hara – cities that don’t sleep at night – and Flower (Zara) Gate is probably a distortion of the word “A-Sa’hara.” Early pilgrims mistakenly believed that a house inside the gate was once Herod’s palace, so they called the gate Herod’s Gate.
As you descend and look at the bedrock on both sides of you, you will see that Sultan Suleiman Street was paved over a moat that probably dates back to the Crusaders. On your left, high above the moat/road, stands a stunning structure: an archeological museum built by John D. Rockefeller in 1938. Parking is a problem, but if you are on foot you can go inside to view a wealth of archeological findings from the region and enjoy the brilliance of the building’s design.
It was near this spot that on July 15, 1099, the Crusaders breached theOld City walls. According to some sources, it was 9 a.m. – the hour atwhich Jesus is believed to have been crucified – when Jerusalem’sdefenses fell and the Crusaders swarmed into the city. Continue east.Just before the traffic light at the corner, climb the steps to reach amonument to Jordanian soldiers who fell during the Six Day War. Thisspot offers a fabulous view of the Mount of Olives and northernJerusalem – especially if it rained the day before. Directly acrossfrom you, the Brigham Young (Mormon) University sprawls down theslopes. On the right, you can see the beautiful tower that belongs tothe Augusta Victoria Church and medical facility; to the left, theHebrew University on Mount Scopus.
Turn around to view Stork’s Tower, situated on the wall’s northeasterncorner. Until 1948, when the Old City Walls marked the Jordanianborder, hip Arab hostesses liked to serve fancy moonlit dinners on thestone floor of the massive, square tower. Look for an incongruous Starof David – probably in secondary use – decorating the wall.
Hours: St. Paul’s Guesthouse: Mondayto Saturday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fee NIS 10. Zedekiah’s Cave and Romanplaza: Sunday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For Saturday entrance,purchase tickets on the Internet: (Hebrew only) NIS16/10. Rockefeller: Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Free entrance.