The Walls of Jerusalem – The Architecture of Israel’s Oldest City

Jerusalem Architecture

The architecture of Jerusalem

At the dawn of their history people did not build houses but lived in tents or caves. Gradually they were learning the art of building, but it took centuries. Not all nations had mastered the art. The first builders were the inhabitants of the East. The Bible tells us that once ancient architects tried to build the Tower of Babel out of bricks. The attempt failed, and then mankind decided on a less ambitious but more useful task: building an artificial home. It was building, not the improvement of caves or tents of sheep’s skins, that got people into the business. The land of Israel at that time was inhabited by the descendants of Canaan, the grandson of the biblical Noah. It was called Canaan, and its inhabitants were called Canaanites. One of the sons of Canaan, named Jebus, came with his fellow Jebusites to a place where the surface of the earth was composed of soft limestone. Here they found habitable caves.

In time the people began to gather and stack stones, one on top of the other. The result was something like a wall. But this wall was weak and could only serve as a cattle pen. But one day someone made a fire over a hole filled with small pieces of limestone. To put it out, people poured water over the fire. In the morning, they found the fireplace turned into a solid white mass. That is how the ancient builders got lime. The ancient builders made a thin slurry of it, and filled the empty spaces between the stones with it. Setting, the lime mortar held the stones together, and the wall became strong.

At all times, people have been driven by the urge to travel. The young hunters of Jebus once reached the land of Jordan and were astonished at the appearance of the dwellings in which their distant relatives, the descendants of Gersh and Eve, lived (Genesis 10:15-20), who had also descended from Canaan. Their dwellings were built of adobe and the walls were covered with clay. Surprisingly, these huts were round in plan. The inhabitants of ancient Jericho had not yet invented the right angle.

When the young men returned, they told the elders what they had seen. An expedition was sent to the shores of Jordan. Avoiding direct confrontation with the locals, the Jebusites filled woven baskets with fat Jordanian clay and brought material to the mountains with which to coat the walls. Thus came the first clay plaster in the history of ancient Jebus.

It was inconvenient to build round dwellings out of stones. And then someone came up with a geometric figure never seen before in nature – a rectangle. Arranging the walls at right angles, ancient people built the first resemblance of a stone house. But the house had no roof yet. A forest grew in the mountains surrounding the ancient settlement. During the winter winds there had accumulated a lot of deadwood. Having brought fallen trunks of young trees from the forest and stripped them of their branches, the ancient people learned to build roofs. They laid rags coated with greasy clay over wooden beams. The clay dried in the scorching summer sun, and protected the house from cold and rain in winter.

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A solitary dwelling might become an easy prey for enemies. To protect themselves, they built their houses close to each other and surrounded the settlement with a stone wall. This is how the city came to be called Jebus, after the ancestor of the Jebusite tribe.

Why did the inhabitants of ancient Jebus need such construction? Most likely because when they lived in caves, their fields and vegetable gardens were too far from their homes. The second reason was the rapid growth of the tribe, which led to the usual “housing crisis”. There was simply not enough room in the caves for everyone. Or maybe ancient people decided that it was time to take care of their personal comfort?

The remains of the Canaanite cities of that period have come down to us. They were small settlements with stone houses surrounded by a wall. The wall itself gave the settlement the status of a city. Villages were situated around it, whose inhabitants were engaged in agriculture.

The city served as a refuge for them during the invasions of the enemy. The cities were ruled by kings. Their dwellings were slightly richer and larger than those of ordinary townspeople. They wore colored clothes, which at that time was a sign of power and luxury. In this connection we may recall the story of the “multicolored garments” of young Joseph, son of Jacob, which made his brothers so jealous (Genesis 37:23-24). The king spent most of his time at the city gate, sitting on his “throne” surrounded by his elders. They came to him for help in various disputes and litigations. It was also there that he held his court. The king was “concurrently” the high priest of his people. And he served as priest to the pagan gods, of which the Canaanites had many. The main gods worshipped in Canaan were El, his wife Asherah and his son Baal (Hebrew: Baal, “master”, “husband”).

The architecture of Jerusalem

A copy of an ancient sanctuary found at Tel Arad (Israel Museum)

The inhabitants of Jebus built sanctuaries to serve the gods. How did these religious buildings look like in Jebus, we do not know. But during the excavations at Tel Arad, archaeologists found an ancient sanctuary. It was a small room in the depths of a rectangular building where the rays of the sun did not penetrate. In its corner was a polished stone matzevah pillar. Such pillars were considered by the inhabitants of Canaan to be the personification of a god. In front of it were the tables for sacrifices. A ceramic “model” of the temple has been found in the Jordan Valley, where the soils are rich in greasy clay. The ancient sculptor has represented on it the pattern that later became the basis of volutes – spirals decorating capitals of columns in Phoenician palaces and a few centuries later – capitals of Ionic order.

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The architecture of Jerusalem

Ceramic “model” of the Temple of the Canaanites (Israel Museum)

A characteristic feature of the cities of that period was the construction of dwellings adjacent to the city walls, or right inside them. For example, the Bible says that the house of the harlot Rahab, who sheltered the Israelite spies in Jericho, “was in the city wall, and she lived in the wall …” (Joshua 2:15). A similar type of dwelling can also be seen in the excavations of the ancient city at Tel Arad.

Remains of a Canaanite city gate were found at Ashkelon, and a royal palace at Tel Hatzor. A part of the city wall of the Jebusites and the fortifications protecting the Gihon spring are still standing in Jerusalem in the archaeological park of the City of David. Comparing the urban developments in the Canaanite cities of Hatzor, Jericho, Lachish or Dan, we can imagine how the inhabitants of Jebus lived, the city where King David founded the capital of his kingdom.

The architecture of Jerusalem

Reconstruction of King Yavin’s palace. Hatzor, 13th century BC.

But not all scholars agree with this statement. Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University Israel Finkelstein believes that the city walls at that time simply could not be! Here is how I. Finkelstein and his co-author N. A. Zilberman* describe the cities of that time. “Excavations have shown that in this period the cities of Canaan were not true cities of the type we know from later history. They were mostly administrative fortresses for the elite (dwelling of the ruler, his family and his small retinue of officials) along with peasants living scattered in small villages throughout the vicinity. A typical city had only a palace, a temple complex, and some other public buildings – probably residences for high-ranking officials, innkeepers, and other administrative buildings. But there were no city walls. The formidable Canaanite cities described in the story of the conquest were not protected by fortifications!”

The architecture of Jerusalem

A clay sarcophagus from the 14th and 13th centuries BC (Israel Museum)

No evidence of the funeral rites of the Jebusites has reached us. However, based on archaeological finds in other areas of Canaan, we can conclude that the inhabitants of Jebus may have followed similar customs. The rich were buried in sarcophagi, remotely resembling the famous sarcophagi of the Egyptians. But unlike the painted wooden sarcophagi of ancient Egypt, the Canaanites molded sarcophagi of clay. Usually several bodies of the dead were placed in one sarcophagus along with funerary gifts: vessels with food, weapons, jewelry and statuettes of the gods. In addition to sarcophagi, archaeologists have found many ossuaries – clay funerary urns in which the bones of the dead were placed. We can assume that the inhabitants of ancient Jebus also buried the dead in stone caves, cut through the soft limestone.

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The architecture of Jerusalem

Stone ossuary (Eretz Israel Museum)

Burials were carried out in close proximity to settlements and often right under the floor of dwellings. It seems that this arrangement of the graves was related to the desire of the inhabitants to protect their graves from possible desecration. Later, the Jews, who conquered Jebus at the beginning of the third millennium BC, borrowed this type of burial from the inhabitants of Jebus.

Walls of Jerusalem, Old City

King David asked G-d to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. David Ben Gurion called for the walls of the Old City to be destroyed. What has happened in three thousand years?

Walls and gates, borders and connections. Every creature, family, society, and state. What will go in and what will remain outside. What will the boundary be? Will it allow some kind of dialogue or diffusion between the parties, or will an iron curtain close off any contact. Without connection and separation, life itself is impossible. But what is the point of all this?

In 1967, David Ben-Gurion, the proclaimed founder of the state of Israel and its first prime minister, called for the destruction of the walls of Jerusalem, the demolition of the walls of the Old City. This happened a few months after the end of the Six Day War, after the Israel Defense Forces had liberated all of Jerusalem, liberating the Old City and the Temple Mount, the Wailing Wall and the Mount of Olives. However, to understand why Ben Gurion called for the destruction of the modern walls of the Old City, let us remember who built them and why.

In 1517 the Turkish Empire conquered the Land of Israel. Twenty years later, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent ordered the walls of Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Tradition says that one night the sultan had a dream in which he saw two lions standing over him and wanting to tear him apart. He heard a voice say, “Build up the walls of my city, or I will kill you.” The next night the dream was repeated, and Sultan Suleiman ordered the walls of Jerusalem to be rebuilt.

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Another version of the construction of the walls is told by historians. At that time King Charles V of Spain landed with his army on the shores of North Africa. By threatening to conquer Jerusalem, he threatened the Ottoman Empire with a new crusade, which would have dealt a severe blow to the prestige of the Turkish Empire. To prevent this, the sultan ordered the walls of Jerusalem to be rebuilt. To rebuild, not build, because the walls of Jerusalem had been built and destroyed many times. The area of the city is about one square kilometer, the walls are four kilometers long and three to five meters wide. It took money from eight years of taxes throughout Egypt to build the walls of Jerusalem. From then on, Jerusalem became one of the most beautiful and fortified cities of the East. The walls and gates of the city were guarded by Turkish soldiers. The gates were closed at sunset and only opened the next morning. There was no going in or out at night. Outside were empty mountains, and wild beasts, or worse, Bedouins, who could not only undress and rob, but also kill.

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Yaffa Gate of Jerusalem

This is how Jerusalem lived for over 300 years. At that time, there was no concept of an “Old City” because there was no “New City.” Everyone lived inside the walls of the city. Only in the middle of the 19th century, because of the great increase in the population, did people begin to leave the walls of Jerusalem. It took great courage to cross the Goy ben-Inom (Gehenna Fiery) Gorge and build the first Jewish quarter of Mishkenot Shaananim outside the walls of the city (1860). Only after this did the concepts of “old” and “new” Jerusalem appear. Fifteen years later, in 1875, when six Jewish quarters of New Jerusalem were already standing, the gates were no longer closed at night, and the city came out of the walls. In 1898, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II came to Jerusalem. The Turks, who depended heavily on Germany, did not want to bring his carriage through the narrow gates of the city. They filled in the ditch protecting the Jaffa Gate, dismantled part of the wall, and there was a new wide entrance to the Old City. After this, the walls of Jerusalem ceased to function.

The Walls of Jerusalem - An Inner View

At the end of the nineteenth century, Jerusalem was developing rapidly. Jews, Muslims, and Christians were building new neighborhoods in the city. With the beginning of the British Mandate on Palestine in 1917-48 this process was given a new impetus. However, it all came to an end in 1947/8, with the outbreak of the War of Independence. On November 29, 1947, the UN voted to partition Palestine into two states, Jewish and Arab. The local Arabs (of whom there were twice as many as Jews) did not accept the decision to create (also) a Jewish state, and the next day began the war. The War of Independence was the longest war in Israeli history. The Arabs blocked roads, attacked cars and transports, and tried to conquer remote Jewish settlements. For six months the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem was under siege. On May 15, 1948, with the withdrawal of the last British soldiers from Israeli territory and the proclamation of the State of Israel, the second stage of the war began. Seven Arab armies armed with guns, tanks and planes attacked the newly created Jewish state. The Jordanian Legion, at that time the strongest army in the Middle East, was operating in Jerusalem. They targeted the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. On May 28, 1948, after two weeks of heavy fighting without any help, the Jewish Quarter surrendered. Most of the population was able to escape to the western part of the city, which was under Israeli rule. 300 people remained in captivity. The old city was completely in the hands of the Jordan. The Temple Mount, the Wailing Wall, and the Mount of Olives were beyond Jewish reach. For 19 years, from 1948 to 1967, Jerusalem was divided into two parts – East and West. A border of concrete wall, barbed wire and minefields ran through the residential neighborhoods of the city. Jordanian snipers were stationed on the walls of the Old City. From time to time one of them would raise his rifle and fire, and someone in the Western part would fall. A firefight ensued. Toward the end of the day, the Jordanians claimed that the soldier was “majnun” – crazy, deranged. Only in western Israeli Jerusalem were such majnuns called queues, as if they were standing in line.

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Bullet marks on Jerusalem's Zion Gate

In 1967, Israel was in grave danger of annihilation. From the north and from the south we were threatened by the big armies of Syria and Egypt, which had joined together to destroy Israel. Our government asked Jordan not to enter the war. Golda Meer met several times with King Hussein of Jordan to prevent a third front. Jordan decided otherwise. On June 5, 1967, the first day of the Six-Day War, the Jordanian army began shelling Jewish residential neighborhoods in Jerusalem, capturing no man’s land and Oon positions in the city. Israel could not stand it, and in two and a half days of fighting, Israel threw the Jordanian army across the Jordan River, liberating Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. Israel’s holiest places were in our hands. The most sublime moment of the war was the proclamation of Mot Gur, commander of the paratrooper brigade that liberated Jerusalem. When his voice “The Temple Mount is in our hands” rang out, the heart of the entire Jewish people trembled. And then a strong conviction rose up that Jerusalem would no longer be divided.

On the Walls of Jerusalem

It is against this background that one can understand the words of Ben Gurion, who called for the destruction of the walls of the Old City a few months later. These walls symbolized, more than anything else, a divided Jerusalem. We wanted a united Jerusalem.

How united is Jerusalem today? How much is it really the capital of the Jewish modern state of Israel? We will be able to talk about this during our tour of Jerusalem.

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