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.