Which Way to St. Stephen’s Gate?

Getting directions in Jerusalem can be confusing. So many place names are similar, and the same place can be known by many names. This is especially true of the gates of the Old City which have many different names. Whether you are looking for Jaffa Gate, David’s Gate, The Beloved’s (Abraham’s) Gate or Hebron Gate you will end up in the same place.

There is one address which actually applies to TWO Gates – St. Stephen’s Gate. According to Christian tradition, Stephen was a Hellenized Jew (thus the Greek name – Stephanus) living in Jerusalem. He got involved in social affairs when it was felt that the rabbinic authorities were not fairly allocating tax monies set aside for widows. The group which was spear-heading this protest movement were also supporters of Jesus. Because of his involvement against the rabbis, he was accused of blasphemy and brought before the Sanhedrin – the rabbinic court. He was sentenced to death, driven out of Jerusalem and stoned outside of the city of Jerusalem, making Stephen the first Christian martyr. This is the moment you realize that Monty Python actually did their homework.

st. stephen's stoning

Here’s where the tricky part comes. In which direction was Stephen driven out of the city?

According to an early Byzantine tradition, he was taken out of the city to the north and stoned at the current location of Saint-Etienne, a modern Catholic church close to the Damascus Gate which was built over a 5th century Byzantine church.

A later, 12th century, Crusader tradition places the stoning to the east outside of the Lion’s Gate, much closer to the location of the court and better fitting with the account in Acts, but with no tradition associated with it. When the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy started building a church in this spot dedicated to St. Stephen, they even found an ancient lintel dedicated to St. Stephen which was buried near the foundations. Unfortunately, that dedication was later shown to have been planted to create facts on the ground – literally – and was actually from Beer Sheva where there had been several Byzantine churches, one dedicated to St. Stephen.

As a result of these 2 traditions, some Christians refer to either the Damascus Gate or the Lion’s Gate as “St. Stephen’s Gate”. Because Jerusalem is not confusing enough. So if someone wants to meet you at St. Stephen’s Gate, make sure to ask, “Which one?”

Dreams of our Fathers

Our ideals lead to dreams and actions, but not always to actualization.  Israel Beck was born in Bardichev, Ukraine in 1797.  He moved to Israel and settled in Tzfat in 1831 where he opened a printing business. His medical books were picked up by the Egyptian ruler, Ibrahim Pasha, who was suffering from a high fever.

After the Tzfat earthquake in 1837 destroyed Israel Beck’s printing press, and in appreciation for his books, the Pasha gave Beck his blessing to found a Jewish farming community on Jabal al-Jarmaq, Mt. Meron.  This was the first Jewish settlement founded by Jewish immigrants in the Land of Israel in modern times. The new agricultural settlement attracted a group of about 15 Jewish families..

Unfortunately, Ibrahim Pasha, Israel Beck’s friend, fell out of power, and the renewed Ottoman leadership did not allow for the Jewish community of Jarmaq to continue.  Like today’s tragedy with the families of Amona, it was government and narrow interest groups which were the end of Jarmaq’s Jewish community. Hurvat Beck on Mount Meron

Israel Beck moved with his family to Jerusalem in 1841. He writes recalling Jarmaq:

“There were in the village, gardens and orchards, but now there is nothing but forest and large rocks…I built houses in which to live, I made gardens and planted fields, and within the year, satisfied myself with the grain of the land.  In the second year, I had cows and flocks, 6 sheep and 6 goats, horses and donkeys, and with God’s help, I observed the sabbatical year in detail.  Also all the commandments of the land, I observed in a heightened way.  My house was open wide and God’s blessing was on all the works of the house and the field, even though this is not a place of planting because of the numerous rocks.  Even so, I worked hard and God was my helpmate.  Numerous difficult factors came upon us in 1839 because of the terrible war between the Turkish sultan and the Egyptian Pasha, which, because of them, forced me to leave this pleasant village and go to Jerusalem.”

His children and grandchildren, however, raised listening to their father and grandfather, received his Living Will and continued Israel Beck’s mission to rebuild the land.  His son, Nissan Beck, famous for the Tiferet Israel synagogue in Jerusalem, also built the first Hasidic community outside the Old City of Jerusalem, Batei Nissan Beck, near Damascus Gate.  Israel Beck’s grandson, Shimon Rokach, was among the founders of Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighborhood outside of Jaffa.

Israel Beck never moved from within the Old City once he arrived, and lived out his days in Jerusalem.  His settlement on Mt. Meron stands until today a ruin and a monument to his dream.  His contribution can be best expressed not by that heap of rubble but by his dream. Building the Land of Israel lay beyond the grasp of Israel Beck, yet it was achieved through those who sat at his feet and understood their role in continuing his dream.

Not Whether You Win or Lose

When learning about a place, one can focus on the physical – stone upon stone – what we see.  And while it is true that physical remains can tell a story, the people behind the objects often tell a much more interesting tale.

sophronius_of_jerusalemSophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 C.E. until his death in 638 C.E. was one such character.  His life was filled with failure, and yet we still remember him.  We don’t know where Sophronius was born or what his racial background was.  He ended up at the age of 20 in Egypt and then went to join a monastery outside of Bethlehem.  He latched onto a monk who was much more famous than he was, and traveled with him through the Byzantine empire.  When his traveling companion died on him in Rome, Sophronius made sure to accompany the body back to Jerusalem for a proper monk’s burial.

Sophronius believed strongly in the doctrine of dualism and tried to dissuade Patriarchs in the church from competing philosophies, but he was unsuccessful.  His writings from this time period on this topic are lost.  After he became Patriarch of Jerusalem, he continued his quest to champion dualism.  These writing from this time period are also lost.

Sophronius did not oppose the Moslem advance on Jerusalem and, indeed, toured the city with the visiting conqueror, Omar, in 637 C.E.  Sophronius invited Omar to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the tour, but Omar declined.  Omar was worried about setting precedent for future Moslems who may want to mark the place where he prayed and would take over the Church, converting it to a mosque.  As a token of his sensitivity, Omar received the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from Sophronius.  He gave the privilege of opening and closing the church to a trustworthy Moslem family, who continue to perform this duty until today. It is hard for us to remember that there were Moslem leaders once who were sensitive to other religious narratives.

Sophronius, who was beatified, suffered many losses: losses of his written work, losses of his philosophical arguments, loss of the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; but his memory remains as the one who tread through the transfer of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire to Moslem control.  Sometimes it’s not whether you win or lose, but when and where you stand which determines your historical significance.

Related sites:

  • Church of the Holy Sepulcher
  • Temple Mount
  • St. Avtimius Monastery

Running Away, But Not Too Far Away

The Dead Sea as a center of refuge was the topic of my oral licensing exam to become a tour guide and continues to fascinate me.  What pressures drive people to seek refuge in this inhabitable landscape?  Men as long ago as the Chalcolithic Period (6000 years ago) fled here and left signs in the desert cliffs above the Dead Sea.  Long before the Dead Sea scrolls were sequestered in caves, Chalcolithic man built temples in the Dead Sea area and suddenly left their habitations and fled into the caves.  Hoardes of copper ritual objects were found in the caves above the Mishmar Stream.  Whatever pushed these early settlers to “head for the hills” was so catastrophic that they did not return to claim their treasures or resume their temple worship.

Uncovering lost treasures has been a driving force for modern exploration in the Dead Sea area.  Unfortunately, not all treasure-hunters are licensed archaeologists but are often Palestinian antiquity thieves.  In a recent sting operation, Israeli police arrested 6 Palestinians on their way out of the Cave of Skulls in the cliffs above Tze’elim Stream.  Habitation in this cliff shows just how far people are willing to go in the name of self-preservation.  Access to this cave is only possible by rappelling down over the cliff edge to the cave entrance.  One wonders how the ancients accessed this cave which is located 80 m (250 ft.) below the cliff top. cave-of-skulls

In order to stay one step ahead of the thieves who will inevitably return to search for scrolls and other items to sell on the black market, last summer a 3-week excavation was undertaken to scientifically study the cave again (a first dig was conducted in the 1960’s).  Among the many bones found in the Cave of Skulls, so named because of the 7 human skeletons buried there during the Bar Cochva revolt, are a few pieces of papyrus.  They have not been fully studied yet to see if perhaps they have writing on them, but this finding leaves the door open for the possibility of finding more scrolls in the Dead Sea area.

There are finds here dating from 139 C.E., several years after the Bar Cochva revolt, and show the presence of Jews in this area even as they had been banned by Hadrian from the area of Jerusalem.  The Jewish connection to Jerusalem is strong and the Jews hiding in the Cave of Skulls over 1850 years ago were not ready to give up on that.  They were willing to live under extreme conditions to keep the dream of return to Jerusalem alive.

Nearby sites

  • Dragot Stream
  • Ein Gedi Chalcolithic Temple
  • Qumran

Holey Walls

One of the most beautiful attributes of Jerusalem is the use of stones in building.  Because stones are natural, the variance in the facings leads to unique interplay between the environment and buildings.  In ancient times, stones were used for everything – buildings, towers, and walls.  And many of those well-made, well-engineered buildings remain today in Jerusalem.

Sometimes, however, a beautiful ancient wall is defaced by intentional cavities dug out of them by later builders.  And then one has to answer the question: for what purpose would someone deface a structurally sound, beautiful wall?  One such instance is on the Tower of David (“Phasael” tower).  tower-of-david-holes

Peter the Iberian (Iberia was a kingdom in eastern Georgia) was the son of the Iberian king.  In order for his father to prove that he was not aligned with the Persians, he gave his son, Peter, as a slave to the emperor in Constantinople at age 5.  Peter the Iberian was no ordinary slave, however.  He was a slave in the house of the emperor and was raised and educated by the empress, Eudocia.  At age 20, Peter the Iberian decided that he wanted to tour the Holy Land and asked for permission to leave.  The Emperor did not allow it so Peter the Iberian had no choice but to run away.  He was met on the way by his friend, John.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, he founded his own monastery near the Tower of David.  He was given the land for free as part of a policy to encourage building in Jerusalem after the destruction of the wall and general decline in the late Roman Period.  However, the neighbors of the new monastery felt that their property rights had been infringed upon.  They punched John in the face.  When John returned to Peter after the brawl, the two of them understood how lucky they were to be sharing in Jesus suffering.  The next day unexpectedly, the neighbor died proving to Peter and John their righteousness.  Later when Peter the Iberian started running out of money, he expanded the monastery and added a hotel for pilgrims.

The holes in the walls of the tower are thought to be the insertion points for wooden beams associated with these building erected by Peter the Iberian.  In Jerusalem, even ugly holes in beautiful walls have a story.

el-Muqaddasi’s Jerusalem

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.  el-muqaddisi

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.

Nearby sites:

  • Gates of the Old City of Jerusalem
  • Islamic Museum, Jerusalem
  • St. Peter in Gallicantu-model of Byzantine Jerusalem including the Nea Church

Crusader Mom

History tends to be his-story; but every once in a while, in the annals of history you come upon her-story.  One such maker of her-story history was Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem.melisende

Melisende was born to Baldwin II and Morphia from Edessa.   She was the oldest of four daughters (no sons) and as such was appointed as the heir presumptive when her father was still in his prime.  Alas, Baldwin II was not confident that a queen would be accepted on her own merit by the populace or the clergy.  Also she would not be able to continue the familial chain of heirs.  Baldwin II needed to look for a husband for Melisende.  He turned to his ally Louis VI.  Turns out,  Louis was looking to unload an upstart count and send him far from Paris.  This was the flamboyant Fulk de Anjou.

Fulk, however, did not have the progressive ideals of Baldwin II.  Already in the negotiation before the wedding, he tried to install his son from a prior marriage as the heir apparent, wresting power from Baldwin’s family.  Fulk finally backed down on this issue and agreed to marry Melisende anyway.

After their coronation as King and Queen of Jerusalem, Fulk continued to look for a way to lessen the influence which Melisende had on the kingdom.  He accused Melisende of having an affair with Hugh,  Count of Jaffa who was intensely loyal to Baldwin’s family.  The church and the knights supported Melisende and her son, the future Baldwin III, against her husband.  In 1143, twelve years into their joint rule, Fulk found his end in a hunting accident.

Melisende still doesn’t have peace.  She assumes power and becomes ruler of Jerusalem but only until her son, Baldwin III comes of age.  It’s sometimes hard for a mother to let her son go out into the world, especially when his ascension comes at the price of her power.

When she stays too long at the helm, Baldwin III comes after her, amassing his own army.  He even attacks her forces which are protecting her stronghold, the Tower of David.  Eventually, mother and son will come to a truce and she will give him his independence to rule as King of Jerusalem.

But, kids are fickle and shortly after he takes the title from his mother, he goes out on campaign.  To whom will he leave the day-to-day running of the country?  You guessed it – his mother Melisende.  There ain’t no one who is as loyal or supportive as your mom, even when you’re a Crusader king.

Melisende sights:

Rockefeller Museum – a Quiet Corner

Turning east from the hustle and bustle of Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, after a five minute walk, one comes to the entry gate of the Rockefeller Museum.  There isn’t a lot of foot traffic here, but passing through security, one sees many cars of the Israel Antiquities Authority which has its offices here.rockefeller-museum

On the grounds, you are already in a quiet space.  You feel like you could almost reach the northeast corner of the Old City of Jerusalem except for the chasm created by Sultan Suleiman St. below us.  The museum which was established with a 2 million dollar contribution from JD Rockefeller under the British Mandate, opened in 1938 and echoes an eastern style in its facade with its large central hexagonal tower.

Walking inside, one feels as if transported back in time.  The subtle weight and formality which characterizes buildings funded by tycoons like Rockefeller exudes a certain peace.  The exhibits themselves echo a long ago time.  One is charmed by the museum with its simple glass cases which hold the treasures of the past.  Its best to take a guide for this museum as the collections are not well labelled and the casual tourist may have difficulty finding context here.

Hidden in one section of the museum are three areas with amazing collections.  The first area contains the 8th century C.E. wood panels from al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount.  The second includes the stucco elements from Hisham’s palace outside of Jericho.  The third collection is the Crusader lintels which decorated the entry to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  All three of these were moved to the Rockefeller Museum for safe keeping – and safe they are as the museum only attracts a scant number of visitors.

The beautiful open air portico boasts several Roman era sarcophagi and other stone artifacts, which are well worth a visit.

Before leaving the museum and heading back to East Jerusalem, be sure to breathe in the serenity of this nostalgic museum.

Nearby sites:

  • Zedekiah’s Cave
  • Garden Tomb
  • Damascus Gate


holocaust remembrance day 2015Today, Israel stopped for 2 minutes for a siren.  Every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, sirens sound at 10:00 a.m.  Cars on the roads pull over and let their occupants out to stand in testament to the 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.  Shoppers stop, carts full, in the grocery story.  In every office, workers pause and stand for 2 minutes.  And I, hanging laundry in the bright sunshine, also stopped, the wail of the siren reverberating in my ears so much it hurt.  I, too, remembered the victims of the Holocaust.  The ones who died and the ones who lived.  But I couldn’t help my mind from racing.

Sirens.  Why are we standing here?  We only have 90 seconds to reach the nearest shelter (or less depending on where you were).  I was taken back to sirens in my experience, the sirens warning of a rocket attack during Operation Protective Edge (Gaza War – 2014) last summer.  I have written about the effect of sirens on Lou, my grandson here.  But a few weeks ago, I was faced again with the confusion of those who did not experience last summer in Israel, during a recent tour with some businessmen.

“We understand there was a war, but it didn’t really affect you, did it?”

People don’t understand how small Israel is.  Israel is the size of New Jersey and there is no place in this small country that even fairly simple rockets can’t hit.  The rockets used in the attacks were assembled in Gaza, not shipped in from a large munitions factory in a world superpower.  And yet, they succeeded in reaching Haifa, Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv.  Jerusalem, with its large Arab population and important Islamic sites, was not spared.  It is an interesting note that Gazans were willing to fire on the third holiest site in Islam in order to kill Jews.

And I guess that pulls me to another parallel.  Another layer has been added to the Israeli experience.  When we remember the horrors of the holocaust during the two minutes of sirens, we add our own experiences to the past collective memory.

Every year during the Passover Seder, we reenact the Exodus from Egypt.  We retell the horrific events and see them to their resolution.  It is not a cold, dry retelling of long-gone events. But rather, “Each person is obligated to see himself as though he came out of Egypt,” states the Hagadah.  We are commanded to turn the story into our own, to layer our personal experience on the accumulated collective one.

So back to the sirens, we, now have first-hand experience on what it is to be a nation under siege.  We know what it is when a people rise up against us to obliterate us.  We look for “shelter selfies” on facebook to know that all our kids are o.k. The Palestinians want to push Israel into the sea.  They have been saying it for decades. Their maps do not include a Jewish state at all.  And then they shoot rockets.  Israelis, including Israeli Arabs are pushed into their bomb shelters, random stairwells, and lay on the ground with their bodies covering their children, in order to protect themselves against an all-out war against us as a people.

Luckily for us in 2014, the entire operation only lasted a few weeks.  Luckily for us, we didn’t lose 6 million Jews (the approximate Jewish population of the State of Israel today).  Luckily for us, we had the Iron Dome to minimize casualties.  In no way does our experience with sirens match the horrors of the Holocaust.  And yet, we are able to connect to the Holocaust this year in a new way, adding our own personal stories of anguish, trepidation, courage, survival, and hope for a better world.

“We understand there was a Holocaust long ago, in the time of your grandparents, but it didn’t really affect you, did it?”

Each person needs to answer this question for himself,  but as for me, it makes me stronger, more resolute, and more sure of the path I take today.

Traditional Location

It spoke to me.  It yelled at me, so several weeks ago at the Gofna Archaeology conference across the street from my house, I bought it – the complete book on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  It may seem odd – an English-speaking Orthodox Jew reading a book on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Hebrew – but since my first encounter with the church in the Tour Guide course, I have been fascinated with the building and the pilgrims who come.

I find the experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (COHS) to be raw in every way.  From the building itself, sitting in its Crusader glory (mostly), with sections under deliberate neglect and lack of natural lighting, to the ceremonies and squabbles of the various Christian sects which control specific real estate in the church, to the vast numbers of pilgrims of all kinds who come and wait patiently in line and pour their sorrows out on the unction stone, there is very little smoothed over to make it politically correct.  In every way, the COHS is set up to make you feel uncomfortable; and, for me, an orthodox Jew, it also pushes me beyond my comfort zone.   According to Ginni Rometty of IBM, “Growth and comfort do not coexist,” so being uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing, and it keeps drawing me back to be fascinated anew by the COHS.

I am not the only one who finds herself on shpilkes there, however.   Even Constantine the Great, the builder of the first COHS was uncomfortable with the building from the get go.  Why? Location, location, location.

The COHS was built on the supposed site of Jesus’s burial in order to provide a shrine for the seminal Christian act.  One might even conjecture that had Jesus simply sermonized, prophesied, and performed a few miracles, after his crucifixion by the Romans, his followers would have made up a small, insignificant, sect within Judaism.  We know that several small sects, with non-normative Jewish beliefs or practices existed at the time.  These sects, such as the Essenes, were systematically destroyed by the Romans during the time of the Great Revolt (66-74 C.E.)  The belief in Jesus’s resurrection, however, set Christianity apart from Judaism. Christianity’s Jewish roots, and the fact that Jesus lived and died as a Jew, lead to the difficulty in the location of the COHS.

Constantine realized that Jesus’s death as a Jew would include his being buried OUTSIDE of the city walls, according to Jewish custom.  Constantine accepts this as fact, even though he is persuaded to build his monumental church in memory of Jesus’s burial INSIDE the city of Jerusalem of his day (4th century C.E.)  How these two are related, and how they can both be true and accurate takes us on a journey of the walls of Jerusalem.

Britannica_Plan_of_JerusalemAccording to Josephus, Jerusalem has 3 walls in the northern end of Jerusalem which were built at different times. The First Wall (not really the first, but the Romans considered it the first) was built during the reign of Hezekiah during the 8th century B.C.E.  It runs along David Street of today, straight from the area of Jaffa Gate to the Temple Mount.  The COHS is clearly outside of this wall.

The Third Wall, which runs north of the Old City of today, was built in 41 C.E.  It runs much north of Damascus Gate and encompassed a huge tract of land.  The COHS is clearly inside this wall,but the wall was built years after the crucifixion.

The interesting wall is the Second Wall.  We do not have clear archaeological evidence for the exact path of this wall, but according to Josephus, the wall went from somewhere near the Jaffa Gate to the Antonio Fortress (on the northwest corner of the Temple Mount) and was most likely built in the Hellenistic time period (4th – 2nd century B.C.E.) Excavations in the basement of church adjacent to the COHS of today have uncovered what may be a gate of the city of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.  It is as yet unclear as to whether this gate and the associated stairs and pavement were from the Second Wall or from the time of Hadrian (134 C.E.)  If it is part of the Second Wall, then the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher would be proven without a doubt to have been outside of the city during the time of Jesus.
Constantine didn’t learn archaeology so how could he build the church where he did?  To quote the Fiddler on the Roof – TRADITION.  There was a long standing tradition from Christian pilgrims of the site of the crucifixion.  Many times in absence of scientific proof for a location, tradition provides us with a good clue.  Constantine went with the pilgrims’ traditions over his intellectual concerns, and, in the end, turned out to be plausible even on academic grounds.