The Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

I am often approached by people that are under the impression that the Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount had to be directly opposite the entrance leading into the Holy Temple.  According to Middot 1.3, there was only one gate in the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount:  “the Eastern Gate on which was portrayed the Palace of Shushan”.

The Eastern Gate is an important gate of the Temple Mount, as on Yom Kippur the scapegoat that was chosen by the High Priest in front of the Temple, would have been led through the Court of the Women, down a stairway to and through the Shushan Gate and into the Kedron Valley. From there it was led over the Mount of Olives into the Wilderness of Judea.

Painting of the Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt

Another biblical scene takes us to the top of the Mount of Olives, where a priest would sacrifice a Red Heifer. Numbers 19 stipulated that in order for the people to be purified, a Red Heifer should be sacrificed, its ashes collected and put in a container with water. This was used to sprinkle those in need of purification. The Mishnah said that the priest that was consecrated to burn the Red Heifer would leave the Temple Mount with the Heifer and go through the eastern gate to the Mount of Olives. The problem of the identification of the eastern gate lies in two passages, in Mishnah Parah 3.9 and 4.2.  The first states that the priest that offered the Red Heifer on the Mount of Olives, sprinkled its blood seven times toward the Holy of Holies. According to the second passage, “if the blood was sprinkled not in the direction of the entrance [of the Holy of Holies] it is invalid.” There must therefore have been a direct line of vision between the Mount of Olives and the entrance to the Temple. From the place of this activity, he could look straight through the Nicanor Gate and see the entrance to the Temple.

The Temple Mount viewed from the east. © Leen Ritmeyer

The idea that the Shushan Gate had to be directly opposite the entrance to the Temple comes from a misunderstanding of the passage in Middot 2.4: “All the walls there were high, save only the eastern wall, because the [High] priest that burns the [Red] heifer and stands on top of the Mount of Olives should be able to look directly into the entrance of the Sanctuary when the blood is sprinkled.”  Does that mean that the Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount should be on the same line of vision, drawn between the Temple and the top of the Mount of Olives?

Looking from the top of the Mount of Olives through the Golden Gate one could never see the Temple, wherever one places it on the Temple Mount, as that gate is located far too low down. One cannot expect to look through a lower gate and see something that is higher than that gate. Only the drawing of a section would make that clear. In order to solve architectural problems, one needs to think in three dimensions.

The level of the top of the Mount of Olives (810 m. above sea level) is 75 m. (246 feet) higher than the Temple platform (735 m.). The sill of the Golden Gate is located some 21 m. (70 feet) lower than the Temple platform. How then could one look from the top of the Mount of Olives through the Golden Gate, or any other gate in the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount, and hope to see the entrance to the Temple? It is totally impossible!

A line of vision from the top of the Mount of Olives through the Golden Gate makes it impossible to see anything on the Temple Mount, let alone the Temple. Looking through the Nicanor gate, however, one can see the entrance to the Temple clearly. Drawing © Leen Ritmeyer

We must conclude that the passage in Middot 2.4 needs to be read differently or that the writer didn’t remember the actual line of vision.  Which walls are referred to by “All the walls …”? Those of the Temple Mount or those of the Temple Courts? The previous passage (Middot 2.3) describes structures “inside the Temple Mount” and it ends with a reference to the Nicanor Gate. This was an extraordinarily beautiful gate with bronze doors made in Alexandria, that stood between the Temple Court and the Court of the Women, right in front of the Herodian Temple .

The Nicanor Gate stood in front of Herod’s Temple. It gave access from the Court of the Women to the Temple Courts. In front of this gate were fifteen semi-circular steps on which Levites sang the fifteen “Psalms of the Steps” (Psalms 120-134 of Degrees or Ascents). The gold-covered Temple towered above all other buildings.

There is a direct line of vision from the top of the Mount of Olives to the entrance to the Temple through the Nicanor Gate, while the walls of the Court of the Women were kept low (see illustration above). If one stands today to the east of the Dome of the Rock one can see the Mount of Olives clearly.  The Nicanor Gate therefore is the only gate that the writer of Middot could have had in mind. The High Priest that offered the Red Heifer on the Mount of Olives would have had to look through this gate in order to see the entrance to the Temple. I believe therefore that the gate mentioned in Middot 2.4 is the Nicanor Gate and not the Shushan Gate.

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19 Responses to The Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

  1. Excellent! Thanks for the clarification on this, Leen…

    Another question: I’ve read that, in order to ensure the purity of the Red Heifer and the administering priests, there was a causeway (bridge) built that traversed the Kidron Valley from the East Gate (Shushan Gate) to the sacrificial site on the Mount of Olives. This causeway presumably would have been used for the scapegoat ritual as well. So does this mean that the causeway was a permanent structure during the Temple periods?

  2. See The Quest pp.110-113.

  3. Richard says:

    Dear Leen,
    Thank you very much for all the work you do to help us better understand the things of God!

    In this blog entry, you quoted Middot 2.4: “All the walls there were high, save only the eastern wall, …”
    Then, you asked: “Which walls are referred to by ‘All the walls …’? Those of the Temple Mount or those of the Temple Courts?”
    You concluded that: “the gate mentioned in Middot 2.4 is the Nicanor Gate and not the Shushan Gate.”

    I hope to better understand this, and I know that you are THE person to ask!
    Your conclusion is focused on which gate is involved, but isn’t the question which wall is involved?
    If I am correct that it is not a matter of which gate, but rather of which wall, the issue is resolved by something else you wrote in this blog: “the walls of the Court of the Women were kept low”.
    That is, it seems to me that “the eastern wall” in Middot 2.4 refers to the eastern part of the walls around the Court of the Women, and that while this includes the East Gate, has nothing to do with either the Shushan Gate or the Nicanor Gate. Am I missing something here?

    Thanks and blessings,
    Richard

  4. Richard,
    You are right about the walls, but each of the eastern walls had a gate and from the Mount of Olives one needs to look at least through one gate to see the entrance to the sanctuary. That gate can only be the Nicanor Gate, while the eastern wall of the Court of the Women and its gate were kept low, so as not to impede this view.

  5. Richard says:

    Leen,
    Thank you!
    I look forward to learning much more from you!
    Richard

  6. zachi dvira says:

    That’s a very good point. So where do you think the Shushan gate stood? under the Golden Gate? as far as I remember you wrote that the gate under the Golden gate is not a gate, but a negative of a vault of a staircase.

  7. Zachi,
    The two monoliths gate posts inside the present Golden Gate belong to the earliest gate built here during the First Temple period. These still existing gate posts were part of the rebuilt gate of the Second Temple period, namely the Shushan Gate. This means that the entrance level of the Shushan Gate was the same as at the First Temple period. The arch found by James Fleming in a tomb in front of the Golden Gate belonged, in my opinion, to a Herodian stairway leading up from the street level to this gate. See The Quest 107-113.

  8. eli says:

    where is “The two monoliths gate posts inside the present Golden Gate? http://www.israeldailypicture.com/2011/10/gates-of-jerusalem-part-iv-golden-gate.html

  9. Eli,
    I have written about these monolithic gate posts in The Quest (http://www.ritmeyer.com/online-store/books/the-quest-revealing-the-temple-mount-in-jerusalem/) and illustrated them on p. 109.

  10. zachi dvira says:

    wow! this is the first time I here such a suggestion for dating these monoliths. I don’t remember you mentioning the first temple dating in The Quest.
    I presume your dating is based on the dating of the lower courses of the wall near the gate. Is there any further evidence that you base your dating of the monoliths on?

  11. Zachi,
    This is what I wrote in The Quest, p. 109: “Inside the gateway, two large monolithic gateposts have survived. The northern one is 15 feet (4.5 m) high while the height of the southern one is 12 feet (3.5 m). The top of the southernmost post is level with the top of an ancient stone course that can still be seen in the Eastern Wall to the immediate south of the Golden Gate.
    The second post is one stone course higher. This indicates that the gateposts and stone courses were built as part of the same construction. We shall see later that this masonry dates from the First Temple period (see pp.174-6). The distance between the two surviving gateposts is approximately 29 feet (8.5 m). This is too wide for a single opening and therefore a central post would have had to be inserted in the middle of the gate. As Herod left the original East Wall untouched, this gate would have remained in its original form.”
    pp.177-8: “The top of these monoliths does not line up with the stone courses of the gate; thus we must conclude that these gateposts are older than the gate itself. The eastern faces of the monoliths appear to be set in the same line as the ancient stone courses on either side of the Golden Gate.
    We have also pointed out that the level of the top of the southern monolith coincides with that of the ancient masonry on the south side of the Golden Gate, while the top of the northern monolith is one stone course higher than the stones to the north of the gate (see illustration, p. 109). These monolithic gateposts are therefore part of the earliest wall section of the Temple Mount walls. As no remains of any other pre-Herodian eastern gateway are known, it follows that the site of the Golden Gate is the only possible location for the earlier Shushan Gate.”

  12. Pingback: The Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem | ЕКАТЕРИНА ДАМЯНОВА

  13. Daniel says:

    The fact that the line of vision of the priest from Mount of Olives was horizontal and was passing above the Shushan gate does not follow from Midot 2:4 but from Talmud Yoma 16a. The Talmud says that according to the opinion that there was no difference in hight between the section of Israel and the section of the priests, the bottom of the Gate of Shoshan was 19.5 cubits below the floor of the Heichal and hence the lintel of the gate was 0.5 cubit above the floor. Hence the priest could see the floor of the Heichal through Shushan gate, and there was no need to make the eastern wall low. The Talmud then deduces that the Mishna in Middot 2:4 is written by Rabbi Eliezer Ben Jaakov who says in Middot 2:6 that the section of Israel was 2.5 cubits below the section of Priests. Hence the lintel of Shoshan gate was 2 cubits below the floor of Heichal. Therefore the line of vision passed above the gate. The height of the wall above the gate should be then less than 6 cubits. Why? The lintel of the eastern gate of the Women court was only 4 cubits above the floor of the Heichal. In order for the line of site to pass below this lintel , it had to be not more than 6 cubits above the lintel of Shushan gate. Since the line of vision was horizontal, it originated not at the top of Mount of Olives but on its western slope at the level 745-748 m above the sea level, on the border between the old Jewish cemetery and Russian compound. The site where the priest was standing with the blood of the red heifer and posing his finger in the direction of the gate of the Temple could be much lower than the site where the red heifer was burned

  14. The Shushan Gate is not mentioned in this passage of the Talmud. It speaks only of the height of the gates of the buildings that stood ON the Temple Mount. It also says that “that the priest burning the heifer could look directly FROM THE TOP of the Mount of Olives into the entrance to the Temple through the various entrances which were all exactly one against the other.” There is no way that anyone standing on the top of the Mount of Olives could look through the Shushan Gate and see the entrance of the Temple.

  15. Daniel says:

    I agree that “there is no way that anyone standing on the top of the Mount of Olives could look through the Shushan Gate and see the entrance of the Temple”. However the Talmud in Yoma 16a when discussing the opinion that the section of Israel was on the same level as the section of the Priests, OMITS the words in Mishna that the priest was standing ON THE TOP of the Mount of Olives. It then proceeds to show that a horizontal line of view could pass below the lintel of the eastern gate and above the level of the floor of the Temple. The eastern gate is not mentioned by name, but according to Middot 1:3 there was only one eastern gate, called Shoshan. Hence the Talmud assumes that the Shoshan gate was opposite the Temple.
    Yet, according to Midddot 2:4 (expressing the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer Ben Yaakov) the priest was standing on top of the Mount of Olives, about 800 m above the sea level while the floor of the Temple was about 745 m above the sea level. The lintel of Shoshan gate was two cubits below it, or about 744 m above the see level. Since the top of the mount of Olives is about 900 m away of the center of the Dome of the Rock, the line connecting the gate of Heichal with the top of the Mount would pass about 11 m above the lintel of Shoshan gate! Now we have a problem: why the wall of 11 m above the Shoshan gate is considered to be low?
    My explanation is that the western wall had a double cloister with the exterior one of a double height. The lower cloister was 25 cubits high as written in Wars 5:5:2. The upper one was apparently of double height- 50 cubits. The eastern cloister was also double but of the same height 25 cubits. Should the eastern exterior cloister be 50 cubits, the line of vision would be obstructed by the wall.
    Another explanation is: the priest burning the red heifer was standing on the top of the Mount of Olives, but when throwing the blood from the vessel, he was standing downhill at the level of the Temple.
    Why nothing is left from Shoshan gate? The bottom of it was at the level of about 733.5 m above the sea level. The current level of the ground outside the Temple Mount near the gate is about 729 m. The original wall with the gate was destroyed at least till this level.

  16. Hi, Leen,

    I’ve been teaching my church about some of this, and a question came up from one of the congregants: Is there some reason (religious, architectural or otherwise) that the Temple Mount’s Eastern Gate (Shushan Gate / Golden Gate) should NOT be in a direct line with the Temple complex’s eastern gate, the Nicanor Gate and the entrance to the Sanctuary? I understand that it is not (it is well to the north of these), but why is this the case? Why didn’t Solomon line up the Eastern Gate with the corresponding gates/doors of the Temple?

    Ryan

  17. D says:

    Maimonides explains the Mishnah in Midot 2:4 exactly like Mr. Ritmeyer say in this post and based on the same rationale (except that it is not clear he knew the Mount of Olives was higher than the Temple Mount, but he didn’t have to to reach this conclusion). The Mishnah says all the walls were “high” except for the eastern one. Maimonides calculates that the floor level of the Sanctuary was twenty-two cubits higher than the floor level of the Temple Mount and the Shushan gate was only twenty cubits tall. In other words, even if the priest stood exactly opposite the Shushan gate at parallel, he could only see “to the eight step of the Sanctuary” and no higher.

    He consequently explains:

    “Thus, when the priest was standing on the Mount of Olives and peered through the Shushan gate . . . he could not see the Sanctuary through the [Shushan] gate under any circumstances because the bottom lintel of the gate of the Sanctuary was two cubits above the top lintel of the Shushan gate along a horizontal plane. Therefore the wall above the Shushan gate had to be low so that the Sanctuary could be seen over it,” i.e. over the top of the Shsuhan gate, not through it. Thus, Maimonides is explicitly saying that the priest did not look through the Shushan gate but over it.

  18. paul cresswell says:

    Can anyone explain the significance of the name Shushan which I believe means ‘lily’?

  19. Hi Paul,

    In Hebrew the word Shushan means ‘lily’ or ‘rejoicing’, but it is a Persian, or rather, Elamite name. Its name in Elamite was written variously Ŝuŝan, Ŝuŝun, etc. The origin of the word Susa is from the local city deity Inshushinak. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susa)

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