In Israel, although peoples come and go, place names often remain. In the push to connect the present to the past, written and oral names often give our biggest clue to making the connection between archaeological finds and ancient texts. This is one of the most appealing aspects of archaeology, being able to connect physical objects to ephemeral language to create a meaningful story.
But unlike the physical finds which are locked into their existence, language is fluid and transforms over time. Even a simple child’s game of telephone exhibits this characteristic which sometimes stymies correct interpretation.
One of the most thorough descriptions of Jerusalem in the middle ages was written by an Arabic-speaking geographer, el-Muqaddasi in 985 C.E. El-Muqaddasi was born in Jerusalem, which he labels on his maps as Bayt al-Maqdis, and gives us a glimpse into his hometown through his writings. He describes the eight gates of Jerusalem from his time – some readily identifiable with modern gates and some not.
One of the mystery gates in the southern wall (there were 5 in the southern wall at that time) is called Bab et-Tia, which translates loosely into Wanderers of the Desert Gate. When conjuring an image of this gate, one imagines it opening up to a Lawrence of Arabia scene (or a Mad Max one depending on your frame of reference). And although the Judean desert is not so far from Jerusalem, when one leaves the area of the Old City today, one doesn’t exactly feel the desert, as Jerusalem and its environs are green.
A recent suggestion involves moving one dot from a letter in el-Muqaddisi’s Arabic. When one does that, he reads not Bab et-Tia but Bab et-Nea. Near the southern wall, in today’s Jewish quarter, archaeologists have found remains of the massive Byzantine Nea Church. (We have precedence of naming gates after prominent buildings nearby. Jaffa Gate is called by el-Muqaddasi Place of David’s Prayer Gate after the fortress known as the Tower of David.)
Although Wanderers of the Desert Gate sounds interesting and exotic, it is more likely that the “wanderer” is the dot in Arabic. We need to play the telephone game in reverse to find the original name – Nea Gate.
- Gates of the Old City of Jerusalem
- Islamic Museum, Jerusalem
- St. Peter in Gallicantu-model of Byzantine Jerusalem including the Nea Church