The gates of Jerusalem’s Old City are not only ways to get inside the city. Each one is a site with a history of its own. How the gates developed, why they were built where they were, and how their names came about is a fascinating topic written about in this site here and here. Building a strong defense depends on controlling access, but there are sometimes holes in that defense. One of those holes centers around a story of a building and a mission from 1000 years ago.
Just to the east of today’s New Gate, a complex was built 1000 years ago and served pilgrims during the Crusader period. The Monastery of St. Lazarus was built by the knights of the Order of St. Lazarus. Originally not a military order at all , the monks who maintained this facility catered to lepers not only from the Christian pilgrims but also the local Moslem population. The first mention of this order’s existence is in 1137 during the reign of Melisende and Fulk d’Anjou, who gave money towards its maintenance. The location of the leper house was documented in 1172 by Theodoric,
“Whoever makes a circuit of the city walls beginning from the Tower of David will find next to the western corner the church and habitations of the lepers, which are furnished and well ordered.”
The hospital accepted all lepers and became a haven for leprous knights from other orders as well. It was this outside influence which, over time, led to the Order of St. Lazarus becoming not just an association for catering to the sick but also an agent in war.
The complex was abandoned on the eve of Salahadin’s advance against Jerusalem in 1187, and the colony was moved to the south in the area of today’s Zion Gate on Mt. Zion. After the conquest, the order’s headquarters were moved to Akko and only a branch remained in Jerusalem to resettled in the original location. The knights were allowed by the Ayyubid conquerors to open a small gate, a postern gate, to allow access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher inside the city, as Christians were forbidden to enter the city through the Jaffa Gate or the Damascus Gate. Six-hundred years later, it was through this postern gate that the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef entered to visit the newly constructed Austrian Hospice, and becomes the first Christian ruler to enter the city since the days of the Crusaders.
Today, in the Old City of Jerusalem, the issue of who is allowed to enter and where is a hot topic. It isn’t a new topic, however; and even emperors in the modern era entered the city through a hole in the wall.
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