As walled cities go, Jerusalem may be the most famous, most visited and most blood soaked in history. No fewer than five walls have been constructed over the millennia to defend this holiest of cities, not to mention over a dozen renovations and expansions, with varying degrees of success. The walls of Jerusalem witnessed major fighting on over two dozen occasions from the 11th century BC to the 20th century AD, and the way things are going the walls may be put to practical use yet again in the near future. In the meantime, a walk along the walls of Jerusalem is an excellent and popular way to take in the sites of the Old City. For the many pilgrims who visit Jerusalem every year, the walls add to the mystique surrounding the city’s ancient Holy Sites. The Walls of Jerusalem are part of the Old City of Jerusalem UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The place where Jerusalem now stands has been a strategic, defended site since before the Israelites arrived after the Exodus. The Jebusites, a Canaanite tribe, built the first small walled city there in the 2nd millennium BC. After David conquered Jerusalem around 1000 BC, he made it his capital and strengthened the city walls. They were further strengthened and expanded by his son Solomon. Additional construction projects on the wall did not save the city when the Babylonians arrived and sacked the place in 586 BC.
After the Jews were allowed to return from captivity, the walls were restored once more. In the ensuing centuries, Jerusalem changed hands several times. It was conquered by the Seleucid Greeks under Alexander the Great, liberated by the Hasmoneans, than conquered again by the Romans. During a brief period of semi-autonomy in the 1st century, Herod the Great rebuilt and expanded the walls of Jerusalem on a massive scale. It was the walls of Herod that withstood the great Roman siege in 70 AD. After the final uprising of the Jews under Bar Kokhba, Jews were banned from the city and the walls largely destroyed.
The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt by the Byzantines in the 5th century, but they failed to stop a series of new enemies coming up out of the east. It was taken by the Sassanids in 614 AD, retaken by the Byzantines in 629, and finally by the Islamic Caliphate in 638. Under the direction of the Umayyads, the walls of Jerusalem, and much of the Old City, were restored. Jerusalem remained an important stronghold to a succession of Muslim empires until the 11th century, when it became the chief battleground for one of the bloodiest religious wars in history.
In the 11th century earthquakes and Christian Crusaders from Europe arrived. Over the course of two hundred years Jerusalem changed hands several times again, and its walls were destroyed and rebuilt several times again. It wasn’t until the Ottomans arrived that a long era of peace was ushered in for Jerusalem. Under the direct patronage of the Sultan Suleyman the Magnficent, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt once more, roughly along the original, pre-Roman plan, and it is these walls that have survived to the present day.
The walls around the Old City of Jerusalem are nothing less than Biblical. Although essentially dating from the Ottoman reconstruction in the 16th century, the style and design of the walls could easily date from Roman times. The oldest surviving section of the city’s fortifications is the Broad Wall, located in the Jewish Quarter, and which has been dated to the reign of Hezekiah, who ruled just before the Babylonian sacked Jerusalem in the 6th century BC. The wall as it currently stands runs approximately two and a half miles and encloses the entirety of the Old City, including virtually all of the Holy sites for which Jerusalem is famous.
The Walls of Jerusalem are defended by over thirty towers and eight gates, two on each side of the city. Most visitors to the Old City arrive through the New Gate or Jaffa Gate on the west side. Most of the gates are historic and tied to Biblical events. The most fabled gate is the Golden Gate on the city’s east side, with access directly into the Temple Mount complex. It is through this gate that Jews and Christians believe that the Messiah will re-enter the city in the end times. In the meantime it is off limits to everyone else. Also part of Jerusalem’s defenses is the Tower of David, the site of which has been used as a fortress for nearly three millennia.
The Walled City of Jerusalem lies on the east side of the modern, sprawling City of Jerusalem, approximately fifty miles southeast of Tel Aviv. The city is technically an open site, though due to nearly constanst political and religious strife parts of the Old City are subject to closure or curfew at any given time. The walls are open for walking daily 10:00am-4:00pm (earlier hours on Fridays). Admission is NIS10.00. Web: www.goisrael.com (official tourism website of Israel).
While walled cities once proliferated throughout the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean, surviving walled cities are now few and far between. In Israel, perhaps the next most famous is the Crusader-built Walled City of Akko. Another excellent site is the Walled City of Damascus, which surrounds the old city center of neighboring Syria’s capital. Israel is also home to the ruins of the Walls of Jericho, the world’s oldest known fortified city.