The Eastern Gate: Gateway for Messiah?
The Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount along its Eastern Wall. No entrance here. Only a Moslem cemetery.
The backside of the Eastern Gate showing it is part of a building not visible from the front.
The blocked up Eastern Gate is one of the most recognized sites at the Temple Mount. When I first visited in Jerusalem in March of 2000, I had a personal tour guide who drove me around showing me all the most popular places. As we drove past this iconic landmark, she told me the story that I think every visitor probably hears about this place: The Moslem’s blocked the gate and placed a cemetery in front of it so the Jewish Messiah could not enter—and would not even cross the unhallowed ground in front of it. But how much of this story is true? How old is the gate? Who blocked it and for what reason? Why would someone think the Messiah would enter here? The gate has been given different names—the Eastern Gate, the Golden Gate, and the Shushan Gate. What are the origins of these names? And can we tease out any truth hidden under the centuries of stories and political and religious agendas? I will make some attempt here.
One truth is that this gate has almost certainly gone through stages where it has been rebuilt, or improved upon. My photos show some details of not only the front of it, but the back which can be seen once on the Temple Mount. The back side is also blocked and there are domes in the roof. Over the last centuries some scholars have been able to enter by a side door and describe what they see inside. There is a large room, a vestibule if you will, held up by ancient columns topped with capitals. It is from the style of these capitals that most agree the main bulk of the large building was erected over a millennia ago, but experts will give you different dates that range from the earliest Islamic period (7th or 8th centuries CE) back to the Byzantine period, say the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, to as far back as the Roman period in the 2nd or 3rd century. Given that the entire set of walls around Jerusalem were refinished in the 16th century under Ottoman Rule, one can’t help but notice this Ottoman pattern on the top of the Eastern Wall and the Gate match exactly, suggesting the Ottomans finished the top cosmetic work on the Gate. Others have noted on the inside that at the base of the sides of the gates the post blocks match that of the wall itself, suggesting the gate was here during the Second Temple Period at least and even before during the First Temple Period. This predecessor gate must have looked quite different and been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
The Messiah stories could likely have arisen from accounts of Jesus entering through an eastern gate on Palm Sunday to visit the Temple, but even more so from a prophecy in Zechariah where God would come down on the Mount of Olives and enter the Temple from the East. The Golden Gate and Shushan names have come from the Talmud, which calls the Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount “Shushan”. “Shushan” comes from “Sousa”, and from the ruler of Persia who allowed the Jews to return and rebuild the walls, but required a plaque illustrating the Persian capital of Sousa be placed over the gate in its honor. Talmud descriptions also say the doors were covered in gold. But is this really the Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount, the Shushan Gate? My blog two weeks ago addresses the description of the Mount given in the Talmud and the internal inconsistencies that are abundant. The gate is supposed to be directly opposite the eastern gate of the Temple sanctuary itself. That would mean the Temple would have to have been north of today’s Dome of the Rock, not over it. Some rabbis place the Temple there for this very reason. The Eastern Gate lies about two-thirds of the distance from the SE corner to the NE corner of today’s Mount. That would locate the Temple Sanctuary across from it in a place where the distance from it to the eastern wall was closer that to the northern wall. But the Talmud says the opposite, that there was more space east of the sanctuary than north. Also, Josephus said Herod expanded the Temple area mostly northward, and a northern location would seem to indicate the expansion was mostly southward.
Finally, I must go back to the explanations I have been making in my blogs over the last several weeks. The problem with trying to locate the Eastern Gate relative to and in association with the Temple lie in the false assumption that today's eastern wall is the eastern wall of Herod’s Temple Mount. We can look back to two eyewitnesses who describe otherwise. Josephus carefully describes the city walls as they existed in 70 CE. The city wall only touched in one place—the city walls and Temple Mount walls were never coincident along any stretch (see my blog on the Paradox). The northern city wall extended south and met up with the old city wall from the south, which at a point at the Ophel turned west and connect to the Temple’s Royal porticoes at the Mount's SE corner. Nehemiah, in the 5th century BCE describes repairing all the walls and gates encircling the City of David and the area around the Temple to the north. One of the gates he repaired, the Eastern Gate, likely was at the spot of today’s Eastern Gate, and so predated Nehemiah. It is well known from the stone and blocks around today’s Temple Mount that this eastern wall section seems to be the oldest part of the entire wall. It dates well into the First Temple Period, and so its location makes it likely that today’s Eastern Gate is at the same location as its early predecessor that saw the Babylonian siege in the 6th century BCE. Thus the Eastern Gate is in that sense also the oldest.
Who blocked up the Eastern Gate? We can not be sure, but it seems likely to me it was more about defending against invading armies than an invading messiah. The Islamic shrines inside were valuable and the Dome of the Rock not far away from the Eastern Gate. Perhaps it was better perhaps to not give enemies easy access to enter and defile it. This could have been done by the Moslem's defending off the Crusaders--or the Crusaders defending off the Moslems--or the Ottomans simply strengthening the walls. But of course, today the story of defending against the arrival of a future messiah is much more interesting story for tourists.