The Psalms make several references to the gates of Jerusalem, some of the most prominent symbols of the holy city. When we read these passages, it is easy to picture the Jaffa Gate or the Damascus Gate in the Old City. But these are not the gates the psalmists were referring to. They were referring to the gates of the original city conquered by King David and massively developed by Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah.
We actually know the precise location of one of these ancient gates! We know its basic size and shape and the nature of two impressive structures connected to it: a tower and a wall. Yet no one alive has ever seen the full extent of this complex because it remains hidden under 2,500 years of debris.
This layer of rubble is only a few meters thick. Archaeologists could easily remove it.
If they did so, this hidden gate complex to King Solomon’s Jerusalem would be the most impressive ancient structure in all of biblical Israel. It would reveal an ancient city as magnificent as ancient Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar or ancient Nineveh under Sennacherib.
This is a sensational structure just waiting to be unearthed!
“The Lord loveth the gates of Zion More than all the dwellings of Jacob” (Psalm 87:2). This passage shows that God took special interest in the gates of ancient Jerusalem and that they were located on Zion. Zion in the Bible refers to a long, crescent-shaped north-south ridge bordered on the east by the Kidron Valley and on the west by the Tyropean Valley (see infographic here).
During the time of Abraham, when Jerusalem (then called Salem) was first established, the settlement was located at the southern end of this ridge. This settlement still existed in the same location about 600 years later when Israel conquered the Promised Land under Joshua. It was then inhabited by Jebusites and was called Jebus.
About 400 years later, around 1000 b.c.e., King David and his army laid siege on Jebus and took the city from the Jebusites. “Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion; the same is the city of David” (2 Samuel 5:7). From this time on, the Bible generally refers to the most southern, most ancient part of Jerusalem as the City of David.
Both archaeology and the biblical record show that David fortified the already existing, relatively small city of Jerusalem at the southern end of the Zion ridge. King David’s greatest building project was the establishment of new royal quarters north of this city. Archaeologist Eilat Mazar uncovered evidence of this northward expansion from 2005 to 2008, when she excavated remnants of a massive 3,000-year-old building and wall abutting the Stepped Stone Structure. As Dr. Mazar explained, the sheer size of this newly discovered structure (among other things) suggests that this was the palace of King David himself!
When King David died, the kingdom of Israel was powerful, secure and prosperous. This allowed his successor, King Solomon, to conduct massive construction projects in Jerusalem and across the kingdom.
“And Solomon became allied to Pharaoh king of Egypt by marriage, and took Pharaoh’s daughter, and brought her into the city of David, until he had made an end of building his own house, and the house of the Lord, and the wall of Jerusalem round about. … And this is the account of the levy which king Solomon raised; to build the house of the Lord, and his own house, and Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, and Megiddo, and Gezer” (1 Kings 3:1; 9:15).
“The house of the Lord,” the spectacular temple at Jerusalem, became world famous during Solomon’s lifetime. But notice that in addition to building the temple, his own palace and numerous fortified cities, the Bible specifies that Solomon also built “the wall of Jerusalem.” If it was anything like the palace and the temple he built, it would have been an impressive structure worth noting!
The palace, the temple and the wall were part of Jerusalem and therefore built on the Zion ridge, but where? The geography of Jerusalem reveals the answer. Deep valleys to the south, east and west of the city meant that new development could only occur further north.
The Bible refers to this part of the ridge as the Ophel. The definition of this word is somewhat obscure, but it can be defined as a swelling or raised mound. The Bible and geography indicate that this northward expansion is where Solomon built the temple, his palace and “the wall of Jerusalem,” connecting it to the existing southern wall that had been built by the Jebusites.
But what does archaeology tell us?
In 2010, excavations performed by Dr. Mazar on the Ophel uncovered a 34-meter-long, 2.5-meter-wide portion of a massive wall. This wall was dated to the 10th century b.c.e., the period of King Solomon. Up until this excavation, scientists believed this extra length of city wall, also known as the “straight wall,” was built after Solomon (by possibly 200 years). However, by excavating the stratified layers against the base of the wall, Dr. Mazar’s team learned that this city wall was built during the 10th century b.c.e. This identification is supported by the fact that the wall connects to other structures abutting it adjacent south and similarly dated.
The relatively recent discovery of Solomon’s large wall complements another massive structure, one that was discovered decades earlier: the Ophel City Gate. This large gatehouse connects to Solomon’s wall and forms a part of it. While the Bible records that Jerusalem had many gates, the Ophel City Gate is the only one thus far discovered and dated to the First Temple period.
When archaeologists prepare to excavate an ancient settlement, they survey the ancient mound to determine where the gate is situated, because it often contains a treasure trove of exciting and important finds.
In ancient cities, gates were entrances and exits, as well as important fortifications containing more than one set of swinging gates, as well as chambers for storage or for stationing guards. These important structures were places of trade, commerce and governance, and gathering points for public occasions. Rulers would sit at the gate and judge their people. Jeremiah and other biblical prophets delivered their warnings at the city gates.
Several gates from the biblical period have been discovered in Israel. Gatehouses have been excavated in Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer—cities mentioned as part of Solomon’s building program (1 Kings 9:15). The gatehouses in these cities are massive with six chambers. Others discovered, such as at Khirbet Qeiyafa, have four or two.
The Ophel City Gate has only been partially excavated, so scientists do not understand its full shape and dimensions. However, based on the available information and on comparisons to other fully excavated gatehouses, the Ophel Gate is most likely a four-chambered gate. In Discovering the Solomonic Wall in Jerusalem, Dr. Mazar compares the Ophel Gate in Jerusalem with the Palace Gate at Megiddo, noting that the lengths, width of the central passages, thicknesses of the walls, and sizes of the chambers between the two are virtually identical. This “seem[s] to indicate that the two gatehouses were built according to an identical blueprint, most likely originating from the same architectural office,” she writes.
In addition to knowing some of the Ophel City Gate’s dimensions and similarities to the Palace Gate, archaeological excavations, which began in the 1970s, have yielded a wealth of pottery and other artifacts. After dating these finds, archaeologists concluded that the gatehouse was constructed in the second half of the 10th century, the time of King Solomon.
In addition to Solomon’s wall and this massive Solomonic gatehouse, there is still one more impressive structure just waiting to be uncovered.
The Projecting Tower
The British government sent Captain Charles Warren to conduct excavations in Jerusalem from 1867 to 1870. Warren wanted to excavate the Temple Mount, but this was impossible. Instead, he worked on the Ophel and dug a network of shafts and tunnels toward the southern part of the Temple Mount.
During these excavations, Warren discovered and mapped the dimensions of what he called the Great Projecting Tower. This large structure, which is adjacent to and connected to the Solomonic gatehouse, is essentially a secondary wall of protection. Archaeologists have uncovered similar towers in excavations at both Megiddo and Gezer.
A projecting tower forces those who approach the city gates to first make a right-angled turn. Among other things, this blocks battering rams from reaching the gate itself and provides a vantage point for defenders to target invading troops.
Today the projecting tower that protects the gatehouse cannot be seen. Not only is it underground, but it is also under the Ophel Road, one of Jerusalem’s busiest thoroughfares bordering the eastern side of the Old City. The engineers who built the Ophel Road can thank King Solomon; the Great Projecting Tower actually underpins a roughly 50-meter-long section of the road, preventing it from slipping into the Kidron Valley.
“At the southeast angle of this extra tower we have found another wall going down towards the Kidron: it is 19 feet [5.8 meters] long, and then takes a turn to the southwest,” Warren wrote in a report on Oct. 2, 1868. “We have not followed it farther. It has been examined to a depth of nearly 40 feet (12 meters), the stones are well-dressed ashlar; in size about 1 foot and 6 inches to 2 feet high, and 2 to 3 feet long. An isometric projection from the extra tower and the projecting wall is enclosed. It can be seen that, if the debris were to be shoveled into the valley, there would still be a scarped wall for Ophel of from 40-60 feet in height—which is only dwarfed by the stupendous height of the [Temple Mount] wall alongside” (emphasis added).
Warren later excavated the wall to a height of 66 feet (20 meters) and length of 80 feet (24 meters). The dimensions he took revealed that this structure was as tall as the above ground portion of the Western Wall!
Compare the Great Projecting Tower on the Ophel to other known defensive walls. It is 6 meters taller than the tallest part of the Great Wall of China. It is 4 meters higher than the walls of Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria. The preserved portion of the Solomonic Gate in Jerusalem is 6 meters higher than the visible portion of the Ishtar Gate, the gigantic gate of King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon (perhaps the most famous ancient gate in the world).
By all accounts, the Solomonic gate of Jerusalem is immense, almost beyond belief! The colossal size of the projecting tower dwarfs any other discovery from the biblical world found in Israel. So why hasn’t this tower been excavated?
Most archaeologists in Israel are aware of the projecting tower described by Warren. Details about King Solomon’s wall and the large gatehouse are well established and have been widely published. The science is incontrovertible: These three impressive structures are real, they are historically significant, and they can be excavated.
They also confirm the biblical record. And for some, this is the problem.
In Israel and beyond, there are still many biblical minimalists. They limit or reject the history of the Bible—largely because it is in the Bible. They pointedly refuse to use the Bible as a tool in archaeology, even though it contains many relevant details about the structures and peoples they are excavating. To the minimalists, King Solomon was a minor king who ruled over a small village, and the biblical record of Jerusalem’s splendor was fabricated centuries later by biased Jewish scribes seeking to glorify the descendants of David.
The existence of King Solomon’s wall, the Ophel City Gate and the Great Projecting Tower undermines the minimalists! You cannot argue with the stones, but you can pretend they do not exist, especially if you leave some of them unexcavated and uninspected. And this is what many are content to do.
Is it too much to ask that archaeologists today be more like the psalmist who wrote, “Walk about Zion [Jerusalem], and go round about her; Count the towers thereof. Mark ye well her ramparts, Traverse her palaces; That ye may tell it to the generation following” (Psalm 48:13-14).
The massive towers, walls and gates of ancient Jerusalem, perched atop the steep cliffs of the Kidron, were truly an astonishing sight. And we could see these ancient structures today, if only we were prepared to follow the evidence and excavate.
Think too: Why did God inspire the psalmists to focus on the walls and gates of ancient Jerusalem? Because they testify to what He did for the ancestors of the Jews and all Israel. Jerusalem’s towering walls and gatehouse symbolize the protection God grants His people—whether then or now—if they will turn to Him.
The meaning of these stones is as real as the stones themselves. When we uncover those, let’s uncover that as well.