The Antonia Fortress

A guard to the real Temple Mount in Jerusalem

One of my readers, Daniel Wright, commented on my previous blog: “Once again Leen, I would like to thank you for addressing the persistent “temple location” confusion. I frequently get questioned as to my point of view on the “City of David” location theory. Directing the inquisitive to your blog is a real asset. It is important and useful to remind readers that you worked directly for Dr. Benjamin Mazar and you were also a contemporary of Ernest L. Martin, as both of you were there in Jerusalem during the same timeframe. Your personal involvement with Mazar’s team as these things were discovered, and your role as archaeological illustrator make you a primary authority on this topic. I am grateful that you continue to publish materials that address this needless controversy.”

Thanks, for the encouragement Daniel. As promised, I now hope to deal with yet another aspect of the Temple Mount that proponents of the City of David location often bring up in support of their theory, i.e. the Antonia Fortress.

These theorisers have a problem with the existing walls of the Temple Mount and have therefore suggested that they must have belonged to the Antonia Fortress that stood north of the Temple. Such a suggestion shows ignorance of and contradicts the historical sources and archaeological evidence. Let’s begin with the historical sources.

Josephus wrote (War 5.238-246) that the Antonia Fortress was built on a rock that was 50 cubits (86 feet or 26.25m) high. The fortress had towers at its four corners. Its interior had apartments, cloisters, baths and courtyards, and looked like a palace.

The Antonia Fortress that stood at the northwest corner of the Herodian Temple Mount had four towers, three of which were 50 cubits (86 ft./26.25 m) high and the fourth, the southeast tower, 70 cubits (120 ft./36.75 m) high. The view from this highest tower, that, according to Josephus “commanded a view of the whole area of the Temple” (War 5.242), must have been spectacular.

Anyone who has seen a section of the Herodian Temple Mount knows that it could never be said that Temple Mount stood on such a rock. In fact, the platform swallows up Mount Moriah beneath it.

Another problem that is raised is that the accepted location of the Antonia Fortress is thought to be too restricted an area. What do the historical sources have to say about this? In War 5:244 Josephus mentioned that:

“a Roman cohort was permanently quartered there, and at the festivals took up positions in arms around the porticoes to watch the people and repress any insurrectionary movement.”

How to understand this statement? Although the rock plateau on which the fortress stood is a sizeable piece of real estate, measuring approximately 148 feet (45 m) from north to south and 394 feet (120 m) from east to west, it is indeed difficult to imagine that a cohort of about 500 soldiers and their horses could have camped inside this fortress

However, I believe that it would be a mistake to limit the boundaries of the Antonia to the rocky plateau only. The Strouthion Pool, for example, would have provided water for the Roman soldiers garrisoned here and would have been protected. At a distance of about 60m to the north is a high rock scarp that enclosed a large area where later the eastern Roman Forum was built. It is reasonable to suggest that the common soldiers camped out here in semi-permanent barracks, while the officers and commanders stayed in more luxurious and permanent accommodation on top of the Antonia rockscarp.

Another difficulty in suggesting that the Temple Mount was the Antonia, is what Josephus writes about its destruction by the Romans:

“Titus now ordered the troops that were with him to raze the foundations of Antonia and to prepare an easy ascent [into the Temple Mount] for the whole army” (War 6. 93).

“Meanwhile the rest of the Roman army, having in seven days overthrown the foundations of Antonia, had prepared a broad ascent to the Temple” (War 6.149).

Archaeology has proved this description of the destruction of the Antonia to be true, as there are no architectural remains on the rocky outcrop (apart from some cladding stones in the southern façade of the rocky plateau), that can be identified as having belonged to this fortress. The archaeological evidence agrees with the historical description of the destruction of the Antonia Fortress by the Romans.

South elevation of the Antonia rockscarp. Some of the Herodian cladding stones with sockets for the beams of the northern Herodian portico can still be seen.

The Temple Mount retaining walls are still standing today to a certain height and therefore could never have belonged to the Antonia. It also would have been impossible to destroy the Temple Mount down to its foundations in merely seven days.

The proposed reconstruction of the Antonia, with its adjacent area where the cohort could have been stationed, would be in harmony with the New Testament account of Paul’s arrest. In Acts 21 and 22 the Apostle is recorded as having been brought up from the Temple Mount by stairs into the “castle”, which could have been nothing other than the Antonia Fortress itself, as he was allowed to address the Jewish people that were standing below on the Temple Mount.

The Antonia Fortress and its adjacent area where the Roman cohort was stationed. © Leen Ritmeyer.

In Acts 21 and 22 the Apostle Paul was brought into the “barracks”, which was the Antonia Fortress itself, for he was allowed to address the Jewish people that were standing below on the Temple Mount.

In Ch. 23 we read that, in order to save Paul’s life, the tribune ordered two centurions to “Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night.” This would have amounted to two-thirds of the cohort that was stationed in the grounds of the Antonia.

So, the historical sources and the archaeological evidence combine to show that the Antonia Fortress stood at the northwest corner of the present-day Temple Mount and that this Temple Mount is indeed the one built by King Herod the Great.


7 thoughts on “The Antonia Fortress”

  1. It would make sense that there were facilities and a garrison located outside the main Antonia fortress walls, as with the Herodion which as a tower measures a mere 63m in diameter in comparison, but that Josephus also describes in similar glowing terms, as seeming to be a city in its facilities. There too the vast majority of those facilities did not need to be accommodated within the main defensive structure but are included in Josephus’ description and have been excavated at the foot of the mound which today is identified as the Herodion.
    Wars bk1: ch21: par10:”He also built other palaces about the roots of the hill, sufficient to receive the furniture that was put into them, with his friends also, insomuch that, on account of its containing all necessaries, the fortress might seem to be a city, but, by the bounds it had, a palace only”.

  2. The walls of Antonia look much taller than the wall surrounding the alleged Temple Mount, therefore it makes no sense for Roman soldiers to raze the foundations of the fortress to access the Temple.

    Soldiers carried provisions up the stairs to the “castle”?

    Is there any archeological evidence for your latest drawing?

  3. You are right that it would have been technically easier to breach the Western Wall, but then the Romans would have had to fight their way through densely populated areas. Anyway, I go with what Josephus wrote.

  4. One doesn’t really want to take an attack through any narrow opening. It appears the Romans wanted to create a broad front to attack from by turning their major position of strength, namely their fortress, into a route by which they could easily bring large numbers of soldiers to bare.
    But prior to this siege, the route onto the mount this way
    was minimal, so taking the wall down to the rock on that elevation surely gave them the broad high ground along one side of the mount. And thus the advantage.

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