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Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate

JERUSALEM (CNS) — At the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, history is literally etched in stone.

From its monumental Roman base to the top of its newly restored Ottoman crown and its stones scarred by bullet holes, the city’s most elaborate gate has been witness to the comings and goings of centuries of conquering soldiers and rulers and remains the main gate into the Old City.

In August, Israeli archaeologists completed restoration work on the Damascus Gate, the last stage in a project begun in 2007 to restore and conserve the city’s 2.5 miles of ancient walls, said conservation architect Avi Mashiah of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who directed the work.

The Damascus Gate was the last of the gates to be restored not only because of its architectural complexity, but also because of its role as the social and commercial hub for the Old City in East Jerusalem, he said.

The Israeli restoration of the Damascus Gate took 10 months, Mashiah said, and was conducted in coordination with the Palestinian merchants whose busy shops line the entrance into the old city. Work time was limited to evening hours at their request, he said, and no water was used to clean the stones so their merchandise and stores would not be damaged.

During Roman times, the gate consisted of three monumental arches flanked by two unique still-standing towers built at an angle to the arches. It was an important symbol of the Roman “Aelia Capitolina” city founded on the ruins of Jerusalem by Emperor Hadrian in 135 A.D., said Italian Franciscan Father Eugenio Alliata, professor of Christian archaeology at the Studium Bibilicum Franciscanum of Jerusalem and director of the school’s museum. It was atop of the Roman ruins that the Crusaders built their gate. The ancient Hebrews, the Fatimid, the Mamluk, Ottomans, British, Jordanians and Israelis have also laid claim to the city and its wall.

“This was the most important monument of Jerusalem, the most important entrance to Jerusalem,” said Father Alliata.

He said that, except under Ottoman rule, the Damascus Gate has always served as the main entrance to Jerusalem. In the time of Jesus there was only a minor entrance at the site but no remains of it have been found, he said.

Reaching up with his hand to touch the remains of the Roman pillars that bordered the arches, the priest marveled at the towering height they must have reached.

“When you look at them from above they do not look that big. Only when you come down here to the Roman level do you realize how big they were,” he said.

Also no longer standing is the small Crusader chapel of St. Abraham, which was built just outside the gate, though faint traces of paint can still be seen on the stones where archaeologists believe the chapel once stood. Some stones still bear the signs of marks by master stone masons during the Crusader period as a claim on their finest work. Today, the uncovered site of the chapel is strewn with horse manure and street garbage tossed by passersby and street vendors on the upper level of the gate.

An Orthodox Jewish woman, her hair covered and eyes cast down on a book of psalms held open in her hands, walks up the steps of the gate as she leaves the Old City. An Ethiopian priest passes by on his way inside the gate.

The steps and entrance to the gate were gradually uncovered by excavations over the last century after having been almost completely covered up by dirt, said Father Alliata. The Jordanians were the last to conduct an excavation at the site in the 1950s he added.

Inside the gate the road leads to holy sites for three different faiths: the Western Wall, the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the al-Aqsa Mosque, he noted.

It was through this gate that all pilgrims to the city — early Christians, Jews and Muslims, came to pray, Father Alliata said.

“(The Israelis) did good work in maintaining and preserving the character of the gate,” said Father Alliata.

“They preserved all the history of the wall and you can see all three levels very clearly.”

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