The Skull of Gordon’s Calvary lost its nose

Todd Bolen of BiblePlaces was alerted by one of his friends, Austen Dutton, that the bridge of the skull’s nose had collapsed. You can read Todd’s interesting post here.

Photo: Austen Dutton

Posted in Jerusalem, News | Leave a comment

New archaeological discoveries on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

Waiting for the publication of our Temple Mount guide book, we are excited to note that it will highlight remains of the ancient Temple platform that have not been identified previously. We have long known of a massive stretch of what appears to be Herodian pavement on the Temple Mount, which, as far as we know, has never been reported before. Here is a foretaste of some of the new discoveries described in our book.

In a previous post, we reported on some massive Herodian paving stones that are now covered by olive trees planted in a thick layer of soil that has been brought into the Temple Mount for that purpose. Another large Herodian paving slab can be seen beneath the Dome of the Spirits.

The Dome of the Spirits is built on a large Herodian paving stone, which measures 12 feet (3.70m) by 11.5 feet (3.50m). According to Warren’s survey maps, it is situated approximately 10 feet (3.00m) above the natural bedrock. It was part of the pavement that was laid north of the buildings that surrounded the Temple. Photo: Nathaniel Ritmeyer

This plan shows in yellow the large Herodian paving stone beneath the small Dome of the Spirits that stands on the Muslim platform of the Temple Mount. This paving stone was part of the paving of the Temple Courts of the Herodian Temple Mount. It has been erroneously claimed to be the location of the Holy of Holies by Prof. A. Kaufman.

This plan compares the size of the paving stone (1) beneath the Dome of the Spirits (Qubbat al-Arwah) with similar sized paving slabs in front of the Double Gate (2) and the Triple Gate (3). The projection at top right of paving stone 1 allowed a smaller stone to be laid next to it, a feature common in Herodian architecture.

We now like to report on a large stretch of ancient paving stones that are located in front of the Gate of the Cotton Merchants (Bab al-Qattanin), at a distance of 45 feet (13.70 m) from the Western Wall.

This picture shows a large stretch of Herodian paving stones that is located in front of the Gate of the Cotton Merchants. The rows, which are about 3 feet (1m) wide, run from east to west at a distance of 45 feet (13.70m) from the Western Wall. Some of these stones are 13 feet (4m) long!

These massive paving stones are different from the normal small paving stones one sees everywhere on the Mount and appear to be Herodian in origin.

What can we learn from the position of this stretch of pavers and what is the importance of its western termination?

This plan shows the stretch of large Herodian paving stones that is located in front of the Gate of the Cotton Merchants in relation to the Western Wall.

According to Josephus (War 5.190-2), the Herodian Temple Mount was surrounded by double porticoes. When reconstructing the double porticoes of the Temple Mount we need to take into consideration the width of the underground Herodian passageways, e.g. Barclay’s and Warren’s Gates and the Double Gate. These are 18 feet (5.50m) wide. This shows that the space in between the columns, which presumably stood in square bays, must have been 18 feet. To get the width of the Western Portico, we need to double this measurement plus the thickness of two columns (e.g. 2 feet or 0.60m approx.) plus the thickness of that part of the Western Wall which is above the platform (5 feet or 1.50m). This gives the measurement of 45 feet, which is exactly the distance between this pavement and the exterior of the Western Wall. We presume therefore that the western edge of this massive paving would have been laid next to the Western Portico.

This section through the double portico of the Western Wall looking north, shows its relationship to the pavement near the Gate of the Cotton Merchants. © Leen Ritmeyer

It is exciting to contemplate that this is one of the few places on the Temple Mount where one can walk on paving stones that have survived the Roman destruction of 70 AD and subsequent depredations of the site.

Posted in Jerusalem, Temple Mount | 13 Comments

The Temple Mount in the Early Muslim Period (638-1099)

Continuing our series on the historical development of Mount Moriah, we have now reached the Early Muslim period. The end of the Byzantine period in Jerusalem was heralded by the Persian invasion of 614 AD  and completed by the Muslim conquest twenty-four years later. Muhammad’s successor, Caliph Omar, accepted Jerusalem’s surrender in 638 AD. Muslims regarded Jerusalem as a holy city and Jews were again granted the right to live there and pray on the Temple Mount. Some sources record that Omar ordered the site of the Temple Mount to be cleared of rubbish, thus exposing the Foundation Stone of the Jewish Temple.

This cutaway drawing of the Dome of the Rock shows The Rock around which this Islamic structure is built. The Rock, shown in yellow, was the Foundation Stone of the First and Second Temples on which the Holy of Holies was built.

Caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705 AD) built a magnificent center for Muslim pilgrimage on the Temple Mount, called the Dome of the Rock.

Drawing of Herod’s Temple Façade and the silhouette of the Dome of the Rock (in blue). The height of Herod’s Temple was 172 ft./52.5 m, one and a half times higher than the Dome of the Rock, which is 115 ft./35 m high.

Completed in 691 AD, the Dome of the Rock was neither a mosque nor a place of prayer, but a shrine to the Foundation Stone of the Temple. Modelled after Byzantine centrally designed commemorative churches, the Muslims transferred to the Temple Mount the story of the Night Journey of Muhammad from Mecca to the “farthest shrine” (al-Aqsa). From here they believed he ascended into Heaven. Now one of the world’s most iconic buildings, known to virtually everyone on the planet, the golden dome that shimmers against the often cobalt blue sky and the blue tiled walls of the octagonal building are both contrasting and harmonious. Few visitors to the site today, however, realise how difficult it is to express its beauty in either geometrical designs or mathematical formulae, especially as we no longer have its original blueprint.

Writing this blog reminded me of the time I worked on the architectural reconstruction of a funeral monument called Gonbad-e-alawiyyan in Persia (Iran) for an Israeli colleague. From this I developed an analysis which is also valid for the plan and section of the Dome of the Rock, the crowning glory of early Islamic architecture.  Too complex to describe fully here, it is based on three concentric circles which closely bind together all the different constructional elements into one magnificently proportioned building.

This centrally designed building ranks among the most beautiful buildings in the world. Our new analysis requires the taking of one measurement only that is then divided into three equal sections (OA=AB=BC). From the centre (O), three concentric circles are drawn through A, B and C. The subsequent inner and outer octagons and star octagons of each circle create a pattern that can be used with many variations for the accurate location of walls, piers, columns and openings.

I later applied it successfully to other classical centrally designed buildings, such as the Round Temple at Baalbek, San Vitale at Ravenna, the Mausoleum of Diocletian at Spalato, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and many others. It is intriguing to think that here we may have a certain school of ancient architecture, which was in use for a long period, but whose traditions were eventually lost.

The Temple Mount in the Early Muslim Period. The Dome of the Rock was built on the site of the Jewish Temple and the al-Aqsa mosque on the location of  the Royal Stoa above the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount.

On completion of the Dome of the Rock, Caliph al-Walid (705-715 AD) built a mosque called al-Aqsa above the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount, on the former site of the Herodian Royal Stoa. The Temple Mount was and still is known to the Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary). The Virtual Walking Tour of al-Haram al-Sharif  produced by Saudi Aramco World led by Oleg Grabar, the late Professor Emeritus of Islamic Art and Architecture at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, allows one to explore its jewels of Islamic architecture in a very informative way.

The reconstruction drawing above is the 10th and last in this series that was made specially for our new Temple Mount guide book that is awaiting publication. For the previous drawings see: Mount MoriahJebusitesSolomonHezekiahNehemiah, the Hellenistic and Hasmonean periods , the Herodian period, the Roman period and the Byzantine period.

Posted in History, Jerusalem, Temple Mount | 4 Comments

Going up and coming down from the Antonia Fortress on the Temple Mount

In our previous post, we wrote about the archaeological remains at the northwest part of the Temple Mount, most of which are now buried under a thick layer of earth. Most of the notable Herodian remains in this corner of the mount, however, can still be seen above ground level in the area where the Ghawanima minaret stands today.

The Antonia Fortress was built by Herod the Great in order to protect the Temple Mount. The fortress stood on the high rock plateau which is visible at ground level in between the trees. Today, the Umariyya School is located on the original site of the Antonia. The Ghawanima minaret is visible at left.

Here stood the Antonia, the large fortress at the northwest corner of the Temple Mount, which was built by Herod the Great when he extended the pre-Herodian square Temple Mount to its present size. He named it after his friend Mark Antony. According to Josephus, it was located where the western and northern porticoes met.

A cutaway reconstruction drawing of the Antonia Fortress at the northwest corner of the Temple Mount, based on archaeological remains and historical evidence. The stairway leading up to the Antonia can be seen on the left.  © Leen Ritmeyer

In the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 21 and 22, we read that the Apostle Paul went up and came down several times from this fortress, called in the New Testament the “castle” or “barracks”. The events described here took place when Paul was falsely accused in the Temple Mount of bringing a Gentile into the Sanctuary. A great commotion among the Jews ensued, with Paul being carried up the steps of the Antonia (21.35) by a unit of Roman soldiers that had earlier come down from the fortress (21.32). The only place from which the soldiers could have run down to the Temple Mount was the Antonia Fortress.

The Roman captain, Lysias, allowed Paul to address his fellow countrymen from the safety of the Antonia, probably from the top of the north portico, traces of which still be seen today. Paul delivered his impassioned defense in the Hebrew tongue before he was led into the Antonia. In the courtyard of this fortress, he was bound with cords and prepared for scourging, which was only averted by his appealing to his Roman citizenship. The next day, Paul was brought down from the fortress to the Temple Mount to stand before the Sanhedrin (22.30). After giving an account of his faith, the Roman soldiers came down again from the Antonia in order to bring Paul back up again. The last time that Paul descended from the Antonia was when he was taken to Caesarea for his own safety (23.24).

The question arises: how did the soldiers and Paul go up to and come down from the Antonia to the Temple Mount?

At the northwest corner of the Temple Mount, a rockscarp can be seen in the west wall, north of the Bab al-Ghawanima. This western rocky wall that forms a corner with the northern rockscarp on which the Umariyya School is located, stands to a height of 32 feet (9.75 m).

The west scarp of the Antonia Fortress.

These vertical rockscarps once formed the base for the Antonia Fortress that Herod built here. They show the considerable portion of the mountain he must have cut away to create a platform for a fortress that, according to Josephus, was a “guard to the Temple”.

South elevation of the Antonia rockscarp. Some of the sockets for the beams of the Herodian portico can still be seen in between the trees. The three lower arches of al-Isardiyya have been blocked off by walls, obscuring the view of the Antonia rockscarp

One of the sockets for inserting the roof beams of the northern portico. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

Behind the Ghawanima minaret, the rock is set back a little from the line of the northern wall of the Temple Mount. It is most likely that here, in the Herodian period, a staircase led up to the roof where the north and west porticoes joined.

Plan of the northwest corner of the Temple Mount, indicating the Herodian walls. The Ghawanima minaret is built in the re-entrant angle of the temple Mount. Plan after Michael Burgoyne.

This is the only place from which the fortress could have been entered from the mount. Seeing these remains before us helps us to imagine the momentous events that took place here on the Herodian Temple Mount of Jerusalem.


Posted in Jerusalem, Temple Mount | 2 Comments

Excavations in the northern part of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

The Temple Mount Sifting Project reported a significant improvement of the enforcement and supervision of the Israeli Antiquities laws on the Temple Mount. The Old City and the Temple Mount are part of the archaeological zone, in which no excavations are allowed without archaeological supervision. As far as the Temple Mount is concerned however, this rule has been ignored for too long. Happily, the construction work that is taking place at the moment, digging shallow channels in the area just northwest of the Raised Platform, is  being carried out under the supervision of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Channels for new sewage pipes in the northern part of the Temple Mount. Photo: TMSP.

This is good news, as I believe that there are many archaeological remains still to be uncovered in the area under discussion and any fresh information may cast light on the historical development of the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem. We need to remember, of course, that this area became part of the Temple Mount for the first time only in the Herodian period. During the First Temple period, this area was located outside and north of the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem. The northern wall of the Temple Mount of that time was also part of the northern city wall of Jerusalem.

Charles Warren uncovered the most important archaeological remains in this area, namely the “Fosse” or “Moat” that separated the original square Temple Mount from the northern continuation of the Eastern Hill of Jerusalem. Although never excavated, the remains can clearly be seen in old photographs, taken from the Antonia Fortress.

View from the Antonia Fortress, indicating the location of the Fosse and the Herodian paving stones.

While working on the Temple Mount Excavations in the 1970’s, we also documented some archaeological remains in this area. We photographed a stretch of Herodian paving stones that had been recorded previously. The large size of these paving stones, which are now buried underneath a thick layer of soil planted with olive trees, is similar to other Herodian pavers found in the Temple Mount Excavations.

Some of the large Herodian paving stones, now buried.

Just north of the raised Platform and south of the Fosse, we also documented the remains of a wall and door sill.

The author next to the remains of a wall, the top of which was still visible in 1975.

A close-up of the door sill in the ancient wall. Unfortunately, without excavation, the date of the wall cannot be established.

At the northern edge of the Fosse, about 100 years before our excavations, Warren had discovered a long channel (which he labelled the “ditch cut in the rock”). This was designed to prevent running water from disappearing into the Fosse or “Excavated Ditch”(The Quest, p.42).

The northwest part of the Temple Mount with indications of Second Temple period remains. Plan: © Leen Ritmeyer

In the rock surface nearby are some other remains that are less well known, namely the cup marks that were recorded by Bellarmino Bagatti.

Cup marks cut in the bedrock, as observed by B. Bagatti in 1979.

Also on the western side of this area of the Temple Mount are the two cisterns, 18 and 22 (see plan above). We have suggested (The Quest, p.42) that the small Cistern 18 may have acted as a sump for the much larger Cistern 22, which received its water from the Rock-hewn Aqueduct that runs through the Tyropoeon Valley, starting north of the Damascus Gate. One wonders if and how these elements are connected.

There are several passages in the Hebrew Bible that mention “the conduit of the upper pool, which is in the highway of the fuller’s field”. But where was the “Fuller’s Field?” A fuller uses lye or alkali soap to bleach cloth (Jer. 2.22 and Mal. 3.2). These are smelly substances and therefore fuller’s fields are usually found outside cities. In order to wash out these ingredients, a lot of water is needed.

Is it possible that the archaeological remains have something to do with the location of the Fuller’s Field? In Isaiah 7.3 we read that the prophet was sent outside the city walls to meet with King Ahaz, who apparently was inspecting the city’s waterworks. At this time, the prophet Isaiah delivers his famous Immanuel prophecy.

Can it be that Cistern 22 is the Upper Pool, used by the fuller, who spread out his cloth on the bedrock in this area and used the cup marks in the rock to store his soap? In that case, the Rock-hewn Aqueduct would have been the conduit, or channel, that filled the pool or cistern. It was located in the Central Valley, later called the Tyropoeon Valley, where the road from the west would have come in.. This would have been the road taken by Rabshakeh and his army when he was sent from Lachish to Jerusalem by Sennacherib King of Assyria to request the city’s surrender  by Hezekiah (Isa. 36.2, 2 Kings 18.17), while he stood at “the conduit of the upper pool, which is in the highway of the fuller’s field”.

The prospects of excavations in this area are slim, but it is reassuring to know that there will be archaeological supervision on future construction projects on the Temple Mount. On this site, with all its sensibilities, any remains uncovered are doubly precious, being our only source of new information on how the area developed during its long and dramatic history.

HT: Joe Lauer


Posted in Jerusalem, News, Temple Mount | 6 Comments

The Date of the Destruction of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount

In our previous post, we attempted to marshall the archaeological evidence that shows that Shimon Gibson’s suggestion that the Western Wall of the Temple Mount was destroyed by an earthquake in 363AD is incorrect. In response, one of our readers, Richard Stadler, asked the following questions:

I am trying to picture this in my mind’s eye. If the earthquake of 363 CE caused the huge stones to fall, and if the Roman bath house was constructed before 363, when you dug down through the layers to reach the Roman bath house, you would have found the bath house pulverized by the stones, right?  Did you find the stones we see today on the Roman street next to the Western Wall, UNDERNEATH the bathhouse when you removed the bath house?  If so, it appears that they had to have fallen before the bath house was built over them, right? Is there a picture record of the excavations which uncovered the bath house and is it definitively dated to construction before the earthquake that Gibson is suggesting caused these stones to end up where they were found by archeologists digging down through the layers?

The bath house mentioned dates from the Roman period, as the many 10th Legion stamped bricks used in the construction of the hypocaust indicate (see: Eilat Mazar, The Complete Guide to the Temple Mount Excavations, pp. 72,73). Below is a picture of the cold water pool (frigidarium) of the Roman bath house in the Temple Mount excavations:

The frigidarium (cold water bath) of the Roman bath house was discovered just below the floor of an Umayyad building. This photo shows that it was not pulverised by the fallen Herodian stones, which were found underneath this bath. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer 1973

As can be seen, the paving of the pool was found intact, together with two sets of curved steps leading down to the bath (upper left and right). In the foreground are two piles of stones, built into the bath at a later period. These served as the foundations for two column bases of an Umayyad building.

Thus, the archaeological evidence proves that this bath, which was located only 8 meters from the Western Wall, was not destroyed by the earthquake of 363AD. The bath, in fact, was not destroyed at all, just covered over in the later Umayyad period.

When, in the process of excavation, this bath was removed, the Herodian street was found about 3 meters lower down:

The Herodian street that was found after the Roman bath was dismantled. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer 1973

On the right of the photo, the western edge of the stone pile visible in the excavations today can be seen. Compare with the photo below:

Herodian stones lying on the Herodian street, dating from the Roman destruction in 70AD. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

The archaeological record described above makes it abundantly clear that the upper part of the Western Wall was not destroyed by the earthquake of 363 AD, but long before that, namely in 70AD, as the coins found below the Herodian destruction stones on this street also testify.

Posted in Excavations, Jerusalem, Temple Mount | Leave a comment

The Western Wall was not destroyed by an earthquake!

Walking on the Herodian street alongside the Western Wall in the Jerusalem Archaeological Garden and Davidson Centre, one sees an enormous pile of Herodian stones that clearly came from higher up the wall. The excavations in this area by the late Benjamin Mazar and later by Ronnie Reich have proved without a doubt that this destruction occurred in 70AD. The Herodian stones fell on a thin layer of destruction debris that contained many Herodian coins.

Herodian stones lying on the Herodian street, dating from the Roman destruction in 70AD. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

As reported first in Haaretz newspaper (in the Premium section which is available to subscribers only, but which was kindly forwarded by email to me by Joe Lauer) and later elsewhere, this view is now challenged by Shimon Gibson, who claims that these stones were destroyed by an earthquake that took place in 363 AD.

He reasons that a Roman bakery that was uncovered by Benjamin Mazar and published by his granddaughter Eilat, would not have been built next to a ruin.

“Who would buy bread in a place with damaged walls above it and fallen stones [adjacent to it]? You don’t build next to a four-story ruin.”

Obviously, people did build next to the four-story high Western Wall, as both the bakery and the Western Wall are still standing there today! We need to remember that the Temple Mount became a symbol of Jewish rebellion against Rome and therefore it was deliberately left in ruins.

The eastern wall of the Roman bakery that was built next to the pier of Robinson’s Arch in the Western Wall and at the level of the Herodian street. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer.

“Now we know much more about the late Roman period. If there was a neighborhood like this there, how could it be that they leave debris from the year 70 CE in the middle of it all? It’s like going out of your house and leaving a pile of debris. You clear it.”

Mount Moriah in the time of Aelia Capitolina. The bakery is at the southwest corner (left in the drawing).

Well, that is easier said than done, as these stones were very heavy and difficult to move. Some stones were moved, but only for monumental building activities, such as the Damascus Gate, which was been partly built with Herodian stones in secondary use, and other projects such as the Nea Church and the Umayyad buildings. For smaller projects, such as dwellings, these Herodian stones were cut into smaller stones that were easier to handle.

The Damascus Gate is located in the centre of the northern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. The gate was built in the 2nd century AD during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a monumental entrance to the city of Jerusalem, which he had renamed Aelia Capitiolina.

Additionally, as we will see below, there was no heavy stone debris where the bakery was built. The bakery was also not located next to the main Roman street in this area, called the Lower Cardo, but on a street of secondary importance, some distance away from it.

After the Roman destruction of 70 A.D., the 10th Legion set up an encampment south of the Hippicus Tower on the Western Hill of Jerusalem. After nationalistic uprisings, Hadrian flattened the city and in 135 A.D. built a new one on its ruins and called it Aelia Capitolina. The major buildings are the Damascus Gate in the north, a Temple of Aphrodite, two forums (market places) and there may have been a Temple of Jupiter on the Temple Mount.

“Gibson believes the builders of these structures used the still-existing Temple Mount walls and imitated their architecture and design as an effort by the Church to show that it – not rabbinic Judaism – was the anointed successor to Temple Judaism.”

A close examination of these structures, however, shows that the Herodian stones in these buildings are in secondary use. They were taken from the Temple Mount wall and moved there.

Before making sweeping statements, one should carefully examine the evidence. What kind of “large building stones” do visitors today see lying on the Herodian street?  Among the rectangular stones there are many pilaster stones that were toppled down from the upper part of the Western Wall where the western portico stood.

Pilaster stones that came from the upper part of the Western Wall can be seen among the Roman destruction stones. Photo” Leen Ritmeyer

Josephus records that during the struggle for the Temple Mount, these porticoes were burnt and destroyed (War 6.191). The timber beams would have caught fire, the roof was destroyed and the pillars probably fell down on the Temple Mount, leaving only the outer wall, with its pilasters, standing. This upper part of the wall was pushed down by the Romans and fell on the street below, which was covered with a layer of burnt debris containing coins of the Jewish Revolt. Gibson‘s argument that these coins may have been deposited below these stones at a later date, goes against all archaeological logic.

The destroyed stones on the Herodian street were found in front of the pier of Robinson’s Arch as far as the northern edge of the excavations below the Mughrabi Gate ramp which leads up to the Temple Mount, but not south of this point.

Destruction stones in front of the pier of Robinson’s Arch. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer 1973.

No such quantity of stones was found near the southwest corner where the Roman bakery was found.

The southwest corner of the Temple Mount before the rest of the street was excavated by Ronnie Reich. As can be seen from the section, which is close to the Roman bakery, only a couple of large Herodian stones were found on the Herodian pavement. The Trumpeting Stone, as it was found, is visible at the right of the picture within a protective frame. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer 1973.

So, the bakery was not built in the middle of a pile of Herodian stones, as Gibson tries to infer that people believe. Of course, some rubble must have been cleared, but no gigantic mound of stones. That is clear also when one looks up. The Herodian southwest corner, as all other corners of the Herodian Temple Mount, has been preserved to a great height. Only the Trumpeting Stone and a few others were found here lying on the street.

Earthquakes can cause a lot of damage, as happened in 1927 when the al-Aqsa Mosque was almost entirely destroyed. But there is no evidence that an earthquake at any time ever dislodged stones from these massive 5m (15 feet) thick Herodian retaining walls. If the earthquake of 363 AD did destroy the Western Wall, where is the evidence? The heap of fallen Herodian stones is only three meters (10 feet) high. No stones were ever added on top of this, as this Roman destruction was covered by a late Roman bath house and Byzantine street level and drain. The Roman floor level was later covered over by the floor of an Umayyad palace. If the Western Wall was destroyed in 363 AD, then a large pile of stones would have been found on top of the Roman bath house and Byzantine street level which would have been completely destroyed, but no sign of this was found.

This sectional drawing shows the Herodian destruction stones lying on the Herodian street next the the Western Wall (yellow). The Roman bath house and Byzantine drain (blue) was built over this destruction layer. In iturn, the Roman and Byzantine levels were covered by an Umayyad Palace. © Leen Ritmeyer

It is no wonder that “Gibson’s theory has been vehemently rejected by many.” Happily he said: “If I am wrong, then I am wrong. Life will go on.” I wish him all the best for the new year but think it unlikely that his proposal will cause an earthquake in how we understand this, one of the most significant and moving discoveries of the Temple Mount Excavations.

HT: Joe Lauer

Posted in Excavations, Jerusalem, Temple Mount | 6 Comments

Where on the Temple Mount was Jesus during Hanukkah?

There are some unique locations in the Land of the Bible where you really get a sense of place. One  of these is inside the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Here the record of Jesus’ visit to the Temple precincts in John 10.22-39 comes to vibrant life. We are told:

And it was the feast of the dedication at Jerusalem: it was winter; and Jesus was walking in the Temple in Solomon’s Porch (John 10:22,23).

Jesus had come to keep Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights. This feast commemorates the dedication of the Temple in 164 BC, after it had been defiled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who, three years earlier, had ordered a pig to be sacrificed on the Temple altar.

But why does this place evoke the Gospel story so powerfully? It is surely because this side of the Temple Mount is closest to the original, with minimal additional construction. The Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount was the only one that was not moved by King Herod the Great when he carried out his monumental expansion of the Temple Mount in the first century.

At present there are no porticoes along the Eastern and Southern Walls of the Temple Mount. In the Herodian period, however, there were porticoes on all sides. The eastern stoa pre-dated the others and was already colonnaded in the Hasmonean period. This Porch, or stoa, stood directly over the wall of the earlier square Temple Mount and at the time of Herod the Great, was known as Solomon’s Porch.

Walking on the Temple Mount along the inside of the Eastern Wall, looking north.

Standing here on the inside of the Eastern Wall (looking south), we can imagine Jesus speaking with his disciples, while around them in the Temple precincts, the people celebrated God’s intervention in their place of worship.

An overall view of a model of the Temple Mount looking from the northwest. In the foreground is the Antonia Fortress, while the Temple with its surrounding buildings stood close to the centre of the Temple Mount. The lower portico above the Eastern Wall (upper centre) was known as Solomon’s Porch, mentioned in John 10.23 and Acts 3.11; 5.12.

This does not necessarily mean that this porch was built by this famous king, but certainly by Herod’s predecessors. Offering welcome shelter from sun, wind and rain, it was obviously used as a place of congregation. Josephus provides us with an evocative description:

The porticoes, all in double rows, were supported by columns five and twenty cubits high—each a single block of the purest white marble—and ceiled with panels of cedar. The natural magnificence of these columns, their excellent polish and fine adjustment presented a striking spectacle. (War 5.190–192)

It was here that Jesus was almost stoned one wintry day during the feast of Hanukkah (John 10.31). Acts 3.11 and 5.12 also provide us with images of the time when the disciples used to congregate and teach here after the death of their master.

Postscript: During this feast, a Hanukkiah is lit, but what is the difference between a Hanukkiah and a Menorah (Lampstand)?

The Temple Menorah is a Lampstand with seven branches.

A Hanukkiah has eight branches, representing the eight nights that oil miraculously burned in the Temple. The lamp on the central ninth branch, which is called the shamash, is used to light the others.



Posted in History, Jerusalem | Leave a comment

Bethlehem – the Manger and the Inn

People have asked me where I think Jesus was born. I reply that Scripture and archaeology show that the place was not a randomly chosen cave in Bethlehem, but a location that was prepared centuries earlier for this purpose.

The Cave in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with the silver star indicating the place where, according to Byzantine tradition, Jesus was born.

According to Luke 2.1-5, Mary and Joseph had to travel to their own city. It must have been an uncomfortable journey when Mary was almost 9 months pregnant and had to travel, probably on the back of a donkey, from Nazareth to Bethlehem – a 100 mile long journey through the Jordan Valley! On arriving in Bethlehem, they couldn’t find a place to stay. The only available place for the Son of God to be born was a dirty stable, which had to be shared with animals. It wasn’t a romantic Christmas postcard stable with smiling camels and donkeys, probably drawn by artists who don’t know how bad camels can smell and how loud the braying of donkeys can be!

What actually did a stable look like in the time of Christ? From archaeology we know that stables looked like rooms with a fenestrated wall, i.e. an interior or exterior wall with several low windows. Animals were placed behind this wall and fodder was put in wooden boxes or baskets and placed in the windows. Sacks of provender were stored in the other half of the room. It was probably in this part of the stable that Mary and Joseph were allowed to stay and where Jesus was born. Fenestrated walls that were part of stables have been found in many places, such as Capernaum and Chorazin that are illustrated here.

A reconstruction drawing of a typical house in Capernaum from the time of Christ. The rooms of the house were located round a central courtyard, which had a water cistern. The main living quarters were upstairs, while other rooms were used for storage and work. Animals were kept overnight behind a fenestrated wall (portrayed on the left).


The remains of a stable in Chorazin. The animals were kept behind the fenestrated wall. Animal fodder and other provender was kept on this side of the wall. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

But, what is the importance of Bethlehem and which inn was chosen by God as the place for His son to be born in?

When Joshua conquered Jericho, he cursed the city, so that it became a city of death. Rahab was the only person, with her family, that was saved. She married Salmon and their son was called Boaz, who must have settled in Bethlehem when Judah captured its inheritance. Boaz married Ruth in Bethlehem and she became the great-grandmother of David (Ruth 4.10). Gentile Ruth was, of course, one of these amazing few women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew Ch. 1. King David was born in Bethlehem and anointed king there by Samuel the Prophet.

Near the end of his life, David had to flee from his son Absalom, when he rebelled against him. He stayed with the aged Barzilai the Gileadite, whose son Chimham returned with David to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 19.37-40). To provide him with a source of income, it appears that David may have given him part of his own inheritance in Bethlehem to build an inn (mentioned in the early Jewish source, Targum Yerushalmi, Jer. 41.17a), and called  ”Geruth Chimham” “Habitation of Chimham” (Jer. 41.17). As small towns like Bethlehem usually had only one inn, it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus may have been born in this inn. Through the generosity of David to Barzilai and his son Chimham, a birthplace for Jesus was prepared.

A typical inn with buildings arranged round a courtyard. © Leen Ritmeyer

The fact that Jesus could be born in his own inheritance as the true Son of David is another one of the wonderful topographic coincidences that run through the whole plan of the Bible.

Posted in History | 5 Comments

The Temple Mount during the Byzantine period (324-638 AD)

The Byzantine period is the next period we look at in this Temple Mount series. Up until recently, it was thought that the Temple Mount lay desolate during this time and was used as the city’s garbage dump. However, this may not be altogether accurate.

In 324 AD, the Emperor Constantine the First made Christianity the official religion of the Empire and together with his mother, Queen Helena, consecrated sites in the Holy Land associated with the life of Jesus. In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on the site assumed to have been the burial place of Christ. It was the first and only time during Jerusalem’s long history that the focus of the city was shifted away from the Temple Mount to this newly built church, effectively denying any Jewish connection with the city.

The Temple Mount during the Byzantine period. Remains of houses have been found at the southern end of the platform, near the exit of the Double Gate tunnel. At the southeast corner, a chapel which contained  the so-called Cradle of Jesus can be seen.

However, the reported finding of part of a Byzantine mosaic floor under the al-Aqsa Mosque in excavations carried out here in the 1930s (the only time that such activity was allowed on the Mount), points to the possible existence of houses at the southern part of the Mount during the Byzantine period.

Part of a mosaic floor found beneath the al-Aqsa.
(photo credit: Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority.)

Regrettably, the limited finds make it impossible to draw any firm conclusions as to the extent of the built-up area.

There are, however, other signs that the southern part of the Temple Mount was used at that time. A large monastery, the so-called Monastery of the Virgin, was excavated near the Triple Gate. In its courtyard, a three-seater toilet was found that was flushed with the water of one of the Temple Mount cisterns, namely Cistern 10.

Deep in the bowels of the Temple Mount, the author examines the inspection tunnel of Cistern 10, at the right of the photo. The descending tunnel is at the centre.

The water from this cistern was led to the monastery through a tunnel that had been carved specially for this purpose.

The rock-hewn underground tunnel that leads down from Cistern 10 to the Monastery of the Virgin.

The courtyard of the Monastery of the Virgin near the Triple Gate. The doorway on the left leads into a small chamber which had room for three people to sit on a marble bench that had slits above a drainage channel.

Finally, on the inside of the southeast corner of the Temple Mount that has been preserved to a great height, is the chapel of the so-called Cradle of Jesus (Arabic: Sidna Issa). There is a small  shrine inside this room. The photo below shows the small Muslim dome that was built over a Byzantine altar that has four marble pillars and a reliquary underneath. This may have been the shrine where the nuns of the Monastery of the Virgin came to commemorate the birth of Jesus.

The so-called Cradle of Jesus on the inside of the southeast corner of the Temple Mount.

The reconstruction drawing above is the 9th in this series that was made specially for our new Temple Mount guide book that is awaiting publication. For the previous drawings see: Mount MoriahJebusitesSolomonHezekiahNehemiah, the Hellenistic and Hasmonean periods , the Herodian period and the Roman period.

Posted in History, Jerusalem, Temple Mount | Leave a comment