Saturday night, in observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av (Ninth of Av), I walked around the walls of Jerusalem, with more than a thousand other people. Our route took us past the New Gate, Damascus Gate, and Herod’s or the Flowers Gate. We stopped at the Lions’ Gate, once called St. Stephen’s Gate, to listen to some speeches.Then we continued past the Gate of Mercy, sometimes referred to as the Golden Gate. The official march ended at the Dung Gate, the closest one to the Kotel.
The Ninth of Av, known in Hebrew as Tisha b’Av, is a day of religious mourning for many tragedies in our history. The fast has become the day on which we mourn the destruction of Beitar in 135 CE and the horrors of the Crusades and the expulsion from Spain. But it is the destruction of the First and Second Temples that set the observance.
The destruction of the First Temple and the burning of Jerusalem by the Babylonians occurred on the Ninth of Av, 586 BCE. Eicha, the Biblical book of Lamentations, was written by the prophet Jeremiah to record the horrors of that period. It is this book we read on the evening of the fast. A little more than six hundred years later the Romans destroyed the Second Temple on the same date.
Women in Green revived the old practice of walking around Jerusalem’s walls on Tisha b’Av twenty years ago, in keeping with their motto, “The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.” People come to the public reading of Eicha in Independence Park. We then walk around the Old City, as an expression of love for the city and resolve to keep Jerusalem the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
The gates we walked past were familiar to me—I’ve often ridden by them on the bus. But the gates in the northern and eastern walls have been increasingly dangerous lately and I have not gone anywhere near them. I did approach the New Gate last month while on a walking tour of the Christian Quarter. It was constructed in the nineteenth century across the street from the Notre Dame Convent to give Christians living in the new city easy access to holy sites. Using this new opening, they could travel to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher without having to walk through the Muslim Quarter.
The Damascus Gate, about 500 meters east of the New Gate, has received much publicity in the last few months, most of it negative. As one of the gates into the Muslim Quarter, it has been the site of several terrorist attacks against both Jewish civilians and police. The Damascus Gate, called Sha’ar Shechem in Hebrew, offers the most direct route to the Kotel from the north. For this reason, religious Jews built Mea She’arim and several other neighborhoods close to it in the late 19th century. Their location put these neighborhoods directly on the border between Israel and Jordan after 1948. But since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, residents of Mea She’arim once again walk to the Kotel through this gate.
For most of the time since 1967, the Damascus Gate has been peaceful. It is the largest and most beautifully decorated of all the gates to the Old City. About twenty years ago, Allen and I walked on top of the walls from the Jaffa Gate to the Damascus Gate. We then descended to below the level of today’s gate to see the remains of the Roman guard post and the base of the two thousand year old gate, under the present wall. I would not do that today without a well armed escort.
There were many border police along the route we walked. Three to five officers stood at almost every corner. Five of them stood on the other side of the barricade, watching as Chani, one of my guests for the weekend, posed for a photo near the Damascus Gate. Barricades prevented us from actually going down to the gate. It seemed to me, by the way the police looked at Chani, that their sole purpose Saturday night was to stop anyone from jumping over the fence and running down the stairs to the gate itself. But they didn’t stop me from taking her picture, and we moved on without incident.
The Tisha b’Av crowd continued to walk east on Sultan Suleiman Street. The wide street is named for Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Emperor responsible for rebuilding the city walls from 1536 to 1541. Opposite us, we could see small groups of Arabs who had gathered in the shadows at the ends of the intersecting streets to stare at us. A woman who had been on the march around the walls the last few years said that the Arabs had shouted at them as they walked on Sultan Suleiman. But this year they were quiet. For the most part, those marching talked quietly to each other. There was none of the provocative loud singing that accompanies Israelis when they march en masse into the Old City to the Kotel on Jerusalem Day or Independence Day. But then, Tisha b’Av is a day of fasting and mourning, not celebrating.
We walked past Herod’s Gate and around the northeast corner of the Old City. As we walked along the eastern base of the city wall, we could see the Mount of Olives rising out of the Kidron Valley to our left. Lights allowed us to identify buildings on top of the hill: the observatory tower at Hebrew University, the steeple of Augusta Victoria Hospital, the Seven Arches Hotel. The slopes of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives were visible in the light from the city walls.
At the Lions’ Gate we stopped for speeches by dignitaries. Chani and I found a spot to sit on the curb almost directly opposite the speakers. We were able to hear them clearly, without any echo. Speakers included Jerusalem’s deputy mayor Dov Kalmonivich, Deputy Minister of Defense Eli Dahan, and Member of Knesset (MK) Yehuda Glick. The speaker I remember the best, however, was Professor Arye Eldad, perhaps because after he spoke in Hebrew, he repeated it in English.
Dr. Eldad started by talking about the bronze bust of Hadrian, which was found forty years ago in Beit Shean. Every year his father, Prof. Eldad, went to the Israel Museum on Tisha b’ Av. He would stand in front of Hadrian’s bust and say “Nu? Nu? What do you say? Where is the great Roman Empire today? Where are we? Your bones are just dust, but we, we are here.”
He continued, the story is not simple, because although Hadrian did not destroy the Jewish spirit, he still hovers over us. He had wanted to destroy the memory of Jews from Jerusalem. Hadrian renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina and changed the name of the Roman province from Judea to Syria Palestina. The name still pursues us today. Eldad concluded, now we need to erase the name Palestine, and reclaim our name and our city.
From the Lions’ Gate, we continued along the eastern city wall. On this side of the city. The hill is too steep to see much of the wall. Although from a bus window, you can see the Gate of Mercy, standing in the roadway, you can’t.
Not that there is much to see. The Muslims closed the gate with large limestone blocks in 810 CE prevent the Moshiach (Messiah) from entering the city. This part of the wall, complete with its non-functioning gate, was still standing seven hundred years later when Suleiman included it in his new city wall. It remains standing today. No doubt it will still stand there when the Moshiach arrives at the End of Days, at which time it will miraculously open.
From the Kidron Valley, we turned west to walk along the southern wall up to the Dung Gate. It’s a steep climb. The hour being almost midnight helped us. We couldn’t see landmarks clearly, so did not realize just how long the climb is. With the coming of darkness, the temperature had dropped, so it was no longer as hot as it had been during the day. I was surprised when we arrived at the Dung Gate—I had expected the walk to take longer. Much longer.
Like many of the other participants in the march, we entered the Old City, and
walked down to the Kotel. The plaza was crowded. The custom is to sit on the ground or on a low chair. Nevertheless, I was grateful to find a regular chair to sit on so I could rest my aching back and hips. A large group of men was singing quiet songs appropriate to the mood of the day. On our side of the mechitza, a large group of women was also singing. The voices blended in a beautiful harmony that put me in a contemplative mood. I’d have been willing to sit there for hours, listening, if I hadn’t been so tired. The idea of falling off my chair kept me just barely awake until my friends were ready to leave.
The number 1 bus picked us up at the exit from the Kotel Plaza. I watched out the window as we drove through the Dung Gate and past the Tanners’ Gate. Most people don’t know that this opening in the wall a short distance west of the Dung Gate even has a name. Built in the old walls in the middle ages, it was re-opened in the 1980s to relieve some of the press of traffic through the gate just to its east. Like the Damascus Gate, the Tanner’s Gate is for pedestrians only.
As we drove up the hill, we passed the Zion Gate, invisible from the road because of the curve of the slope. Although we drove along the western side of the Old City, the road curves away from the walls before it reaches the Jaffa Gate. But then the road curves again. I looked out the window and saw the New Gate, completing my circle. Even if I didn’t walk the whole way, I traveled past all the gates of city on Tisha B’Av.