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  • Ward Sanford

JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth had Two Towers. Jerusalem had Four.

The second book in JRR Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is entitled The Two Towers. These towers had names: Barad-dur and Orthanc, and were occupied by the chief villain, Sauron, and his ally Saruman, respectively. In the first century, Jerusalem had four named towers: Phasael, Hippicus, Miriamne, and Psephinus. The first three were situated at the north end of Herod’s Palace guarding both it and the west entrance to the city. The fourth tower was at the northwest corner of the city, which had been expanded northward under King Agrippa. Psephinos means "dark" in Greek--but I don't think a dark lord (e.g. Sauron) resided in this Dark Tower. See map below for locations.


Approximate locations of four named towers and Herod’s Palace in first century Jerusalem. From Cry for Jerusalem: Book 1 Resisting Tyranny.

The historian Josephus described each of these four towers in his writings:

Now the third wall (of Jerusalem) was all of it wonderful; yet was the tower Psephinus elevated above it at the north-west corner, and there Titus pitched his own tent; for being 105 feet high it both afforded a prospect of Arabia at sun-rising, as well as it did of the utmost limits of the Hebrew possessions at the sea westward.


Moreover, it was an octagon, and over against it was the tower Hippicus, and with two others were erected by king Herod, in the old wall. These were for largeness, beauty, and strength beyond all that were in the habitable earth; for besides the magnanimity of his nature, and his magnificence towards the city on other occasions, he (King Herod) built these after such an extraordinary manner, to gratify his own private affections, and dedicated these towers to the memory of those three persons who had been the dearest to him, and from whom he named them. They were his brother, his friend, and his wife. This wife he had slain, out of his love [and jealousy], as we have already related; the other two he lost in war, as they were courageously fighting.

Hippicus, so named from his friend, was square; its base length and breadth were each forty feet, and its height forty-five, and it had no vacuity in it. Over this solid building, which was composed of great stones united together, there was a reservoir thirty feet deep, over which there was a house of two stories, whose height was thirty-seven feet, and divided into several parts; over which were battlements of three feet, and turrets all round of five feet high, insomuch that the entire height added together amounted to 120 feet.

The second tower, which he named from his brother Phasael, had its base breadth and its height equal, each of them sixty feet; over which was its solid height of sixty feet; over which a cloister went round about, whose height was fifteen feet, and it was covered from enemies by breast-works and bulwarks. There was also built over that cloister another tower, parted into magnificent rooms, and a place for bathing; so that this tower wanted nothing that might make it appear to be a royal palace. It was also adorned with battlements and turrets, more than was the foregoing, and the entire altitude was about 145 feet; the appearance of it resembled the tower of Pharus (in Egypt), which exhibited a fire to such as sailed to Alexandria, but was much larger than it in compass. This was now converted to a house, wherein Simon (bar Giora the rebel leader) exercised his tyrannical authority.

The third tower was Mariamne, for that was his queen's name; it was solid as high as thirty feet; its breadth and its length were thirty feet, and were equal to each other; its upper buildings were more magnificent, and had greater variety, than the other towers had; for the king thought it most proper for him to adorn that which was denominated from his wife, better than those denominated from men, as those were built stronger than this that bore his wife's name. The entire height of this tower was 75 feet.

Now as these towers were so very tall, they appeared much taller by the place on which they stood; for that very old wall wherein they were was built on a high hill, and was itself a kind of elevation that was still forty-five feet taller; over which were the towers situated, and thereby were made much higher to appearance. The largeness also of the stones was wonderful; for they were not made of common small stones, nor of such large ones only as men could carry, but they were of white marble, cut out of the rock; each stone was thirty feet in length, and fifteen in breadth, and eight in depth. They were so exactly united to one another, that each tower looked like one entire rock of stone, so growing naturally, and afterward cut by the hand of the artificers into their present shape and corners; so little, or not at all, did their joints or connection appear.

The Jewish Wars 5:159-175

I think it is hard for us to imagine the heights of these towers, Miriamne being 75 feet high, Psephinus 105 feet, Hippicus 125 feet, and Phasael 145 feet high. You can get a rough idea by thinking of modern tall office buildings where each floor is roughly 10 feet tall, so a ten-story building would be 100 feet tall. That means these towers ranged in height from that of roughly a modern day seven-story to a fourteen-story office building. The walls of Jerusalem in contrast were the heights of four to five story buildings. Most buildings within the city were one or two stories. The walls of these towers, especially the bottom portions, were built of massive stones finely fitted together, as Josephus mentions above. Below is a picture of what most scholars believe is the only existing remnant of the base of one of these towers, perhaps Hippicus. The top portion of the tower was rebuilt in later centuries.


The Citadel at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, with this section still having the base of a tower King Herod built over two thousand years ago.

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