Jerusalem has long been famous for the walls and gates around the Old City. Like many ancient cities, it has been surrounded by walls of some sort since its founding, more than 3,000 years ago. The city’s walls have been destroyed, rebuilt and changed over the years as the city survived wars and other changes, including urban expansion. So how many gates did Jerusalem have, and how many does it have today?
How Many Gates Did Jerusalem Have?
The number of gates in Jerusalem’s walls has altered over the years. When the city was first established, the Bible refers to it having several gates. But archaeologists so far have uncovered just one. Known as the Ophel Gate, it stood during the First Temple period and was discovered south of today’s Old City.
More than 2,000 years ago, the city was expanded significantly under Herod, who also rebuilt the temple complex. Two gates leading to that complex have been found in remains of the temple’s southern walls.
How many gates did Jerusalem have during subsequent periods of history remains unclear until the 12th century, due to the lack of archaeological excavations around the Temple Mount area.
When the Crusaders controlled the city in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were only four gates; one on each side. This was expanded to six with Suleiman the Magnificent, who rebuilt the city walls in the 1500s.
The City’s Gates Today
The walls that stand today date from Suleiamn’s days in the 16th century. The answer to the question of how many gates did Jerusalem have has only changed slightly since then. Today there are eight. The most popular gates, especially for visitors, are the Jaffa and Damascus gates. Jaffa Gate takes its name from the road leading to it—Jaffa Road–which once went all the way to the Mediterranean Sea port of Jaffa, connecting Jerusalem to the world. Today it remains one of the most important entrances to the Old City, and is close to major attractions, such as the recently renovated Tower of David museum and the markets on David Street.
The Damascus Gate is one of the city’s most ornate gates and also leads to bustling market area. Like the Jaffa Gate, it is named for the road–and eventual destination–coming from it. A gate has been at this location since at least the Second Temple Period, about 2,000 years ago, when the Roman rulers at the time built a gate to the main north-south road of the city.
Two other unique gates are the New Gate and the Mercy Gate. As it’s name says, the New Gate is famous for being the newest of the gates, cut into the walls in the 19th century to create another route for Christian pilgrims to use to access the city’s churches, and to join churches and monasteries outside the walls with those inside the walls. The Mercy Gate is on the eastern side of the Temple Mount and remains sealed. The gate has been sealed on and off for much of history; with the most recent ruler to seal it being Suleiman the Magnificent in 1541. Sealing the gate was partly for reasons of defense but also out of fears it could be used by a false messiah, as Jewish tradition holds the anointed one, or messiah will enter through this gate. Today, it remains sealed out of tradition.