History of the Gates of Mercy - Part 3: Hidden Layers
(Note: This series is my translation of a series of articles written in Hebrew by research fellow of The Open Gate, which I belong to as well, Rabbi Pinchas Abramowitz. For the original article published on the Hebrew Temple Mount News site click: https://har-habait.org/articleBody/30795 )
The Gates of Mercy are comprised of two gates: the Gate of Repentance in its north and the Gate of Mercy in its south. The present day complex housing these gates is built of various layers of building corresponding to different periods in history.
The most ancient layer that is currently visible to the naked eye are the two rounded arches and their supporting pillars. They are dated by most researchers to the Byzantine period. The arches’ ornamental decoration are characteristic of that period.
In Christian tradition it is accepted that in the year 629 CE the Byzantine Caesar Heraclius passed through this gate on his way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on his way to return the True Cross that was plundered from it by Persians in the year 614 CE. And indeed, the gates are situated directly facing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a straight line from the east.
For other historical reasons some researchers claim that the Gates of Mercy were built in the early years of the Islamic period. They argue that the monumental structure adjacent to the Temple Mount is characteristic of Umayyad building projects and not of the Byzantine period where the Temple Mount was left largely in ruins.
In truth, it is difficult to architecturally distinguish between late Byzantine and early Umayyad structures, considering that Umayyad architecture was designed by Byzantine artisans that remained in Jerusalem after the conquest. Thus the ornamental decorations on the Gates of Mercy are very similar to the Umayyad ornaments on the ‘double gate’ on the southern wall of the Temple Mount.
However, although the present gate indeed belongs to the Byzantine or Umayyad periods a careful examination of the gates’ structure shows more ancient foundations and it is possible that these foundations rest upon a gate from the period of the second Temple.
The Arch Buried Underneath the Mercy Gates
In 1867 Captain Charles Warren was sent to the Levant from the British Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) to research the Holy Land. The Ottoman governors did not allow Warren to conduct his archaeological digs on the Temple Mount itself and he was forced to conduct his research on the wall of the Temple Mount by means of a system of tunnels that he dug around the walls of the Temple Mount from the outside.
Warren was not able to begin his dig close to the Gates of Mercy because of the Muslim graveyard on its immediate outside. Therefore Warren dug down about 44 meters east of the gate. He dug until he reached the natural bedrock and from there dug horizontally towards the gates. When Warren was about 15 meters away from the gates he hit a massive wall that he could not circumvent. When he attempted to circumvent it he was forced to stop due to the danger that his growing network of tunnels had become. Therefore, Warren was not able to fully research the foundations of the Gates of Mercy. Since Warren no one else has been able to research these foundations.
After Falling Into a Grave He Discovered... the Original Gate (?)
In 1969, two years after the liberation of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, the archaeologist James Fleming came to the Mercy Gates. He was then a young student in the American Jerusalem University College. And he came in order to photograph the gates from their outside as part of his studies.
As he attempted to photograph the gates, Fleming fell into a grave directly adjacent to the gates. Apparently due to fighting in the 1967 war the ground above the grave became loose and the recent heavy rainfall had almost completely eroded it. Fleming’s weight was enough to completely collapse the top of the grave site and he found himself in a large grave with about 30 to 40 skeletons. The skeletons looked to be from a modern period of the past 100 years.
As Fleming looked around the grave he noticed the top of an ancient arch built from hewn stone that continued on below the grave. The top of the arch began about 5 meters below the current level of the gates and it is not known how deep this ‘lower’ gate goes. The diameter of the hidden gate is similar to the diameter of the current arch of the gate above.
The grave pit where this arch was discovered was immediately covered by the Jordanian Wakf in cement following this incident and they have even surrounded all the graves adjacent to the Gates of Mercy in a metal fence.
According to Fleming’s own suggestion, the arch is the lintel belonging to an ancient gate which stood at a lower height than the current gates built on top of these older ones. If so, this ‘lower’ gate belongs to a period earlier than the Byzantine period and that would possibly tie it to the Temple period.
What Was This Arch Used For?
Leen Ritmeyer, of archaeological fame, offered an opposing approach. He argued that the arch is the lower part of one set of arches set at two heights. Above the arch were a set of stairs that led from the lower height of the bedrock outside up to the higher level of the Temple Mount - similar to the staircase that led from the Robinson’s Arch at the south side of the western wall. This argument explains how it was possible to reach the Gates of Mercy from outside where the gates are 13 meters above the bedrock on their outside.
Rabbi Zalman Koren, one of the most important Rabbinic researchers of the Temple Mount, suggests that actually the arch was used to cover a drainage tunnel, possibly for the sacrificial blood drained from the Temple courtyards. He also suggests that this may be the entrance to the secret tunnel, mentioned by Josephus Flavius, meant as an escape tunnel for Herod were he ever in need to escape a coup d’etat.
Another fact possibly hinting to the ancient foundations of the present day Gates of Mercy are the two monolithic doorposts that are built into the structure of the gate from both sides.
A monolithic doorpost is the side of a gate that is made from a single tall stone. The height of the northern doorpost in the Gates of Mercy is about four and a half meters and the height of southern doorpost is about three and a half meters. Unlike the rest of the gates’ structure these doorposts do not project outwards from the eastern wall and they are built instead as part of the wall itself. Thus, Ritmeyer suggests that they testify to an older gate in the place of the present Gates of Mercy that may have been built together with the wall.
In any case, we have many more questions here than answers.
In the Middle Ages the Gates of Mercy became identified with one of the Temple Gates. More on this in our next installment.