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.
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.
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).
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”.
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.
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.