The steps at the southern wall of Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, are surprisingly well preserved. The limestone is cracked in some places. In places where the limestone was broken and a step was dangerous, it has been repaired with cement. These obvious repairs allow visitors to see what is authentic and what is the work of modern restoration. We can look at the worn limestone and appreciate the damage that 2,000 years of weather and people’s feet inflict on hard stone. The distinction between the ancient and modern will no doubt blur over the coming centuries, given that today’s concrete will similarly weather in
the years to come.
Meir Eisenman guided three of us on a private tour of the Southern wall excavations. We had started at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, where we could see how the Herodian stones had been placed like Lincoln logs. The long edge of one course of stone faces south, and the short edge of the next course faces that direction. Building this way makes a very strong structure. This system has helped the wall to stand through years of war and its associated destruction, as well as numerous earthquakes.
The construction is distinctive. The stones are large. Archeologists estimate most of these stones weigh between two and three tons; the largest stones are estimated to weigh 80 tons. Each stone has a sharp incised border, about two inches wide. The Hasmonean builders before Herod also used stones with borders. Their stones do not have such sharp edges, and the borders are not quite as distinct. Obviously, the Roman quality control department had higher standards than the Hasmonean one did.
When the area was excavated and made accessible to tourists, several piles of the huge Herodian stones were left as the archeologists found them. The stones lie where they landed on the ancient street when they were pushed off the Temple Mount by the Roman soldiers in 70 CE.
We walked around the corner to the southern wall and walked up the steps towards where they enter the mount. The steps are in groups of three: two narrow steps followed by a wide one. The reason for this pattern is unknown. Perhaps the Temple architect put in the wide steps so that the animals going up to be sacrificed had sufficient space to stand comfortably. Perhaps this pattern was to ensure that people coming up to the Temple would have to watch their steps. They would take time to think about the act of worship they were about to perform. Meir posited a third explanation: the irregular pattern is to slow the progress of people leaving the Temple Mount. No one should speed away after worship. Ideally they will remain in the contemplative mood inspired by closeness to G-d.
On the festival days of Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, the steps and the whole Temple precinct would have been crowded. At these times, when all Jews were required to come, the stairs would have been jammed with people and animals. While waiting to get in, the adults would have chatted and the children shouted to each other, against a background of sheep bleating and calves mooing. The quiet cooing of the doves would have been lost in the clamor. The people’s attention would have been focused upwards, as they wondered how soon they would arrive at their goal. How long would it be before they would hand over their animal to the Cohen, the priest, to be offered up?
I stood on the stairs, looking at the two sets of the Hulda gates. It was easy to imagine the crowd and all the animals that needed to be ritually slaughtered and offered up by a Cohen. That would have been my father’s job, I thought. He was a Cohen as was his father before him, stretching all the way back to Aaron the first High Priest. Something of that ancient heritage remained in the family. My grandfather butchered the meat in his small grocery store in Pennsylvania, back in the days when grocers sold only fresh meat. Later, my father had been in the meat distribution business. His plant cut and froze beef, veal, and lamb, the same animals he would have cut had he lived in the Temple era.
He probably carried within him another piece of the ancient priestly heritage–a bit of DNA on his Y chromosome. The Y chromosome, which determines male gender, is the only verifiable piece of heredity that can be traced down the line of male ancestors. In the mid-1990s Professor Karl Skoreki, wanting to test the priestly lineage, gathered samples of DNA from Jews. He found a distinctive section of DNA on the Y chromosome of men who were Cohanim. This mutation has passed down within the cell nucleus for an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 years. It is not often found in Levites, the descendants of Aaron’s brother Moses and other members of the tribe of Levi. Later researchers found the Cohen gene in 45% to 56% of Cohanim, but in only 3-6% of other Jewish men. In the rest of the world’s population this gene is even more rare.
At the top of the southern steps are the arches of the Hulda Gates, three on the right, two on the left. Today the gates are blocked with stone. Once worshipers entered the Temple Mount through them, and walked up the interior tunnel to the Temple precinct itself. This was the main entrance, the one used by all the people bringing sacrifices.
Millions walked up these steps. Hundreds of them brought sacrifices every day. People brought doves or lambs for sin offerings, men came leading a goat or a sheep to fulfill a vow, women brought doves to thank G-d for surviving childbirth. There was probably a steady flow of people up and down the southern stairs. Those ascending went in the gates at the right; those descending came out the gate on the left. Those who came with special requests, such as for comfort following the death of a loved one, healing of a sick relative, or to find a lost object, however, went in the opposite direction. When seeing someone walking the wrong way, worshipers would ask what the problem was. After hearing about the problem, they would naturally reply, “May G-d answer your prayer,” thus giving an additional blessing to the troubled person.
As I looked at the two sets of gates, I remembered what they looked like in the model of second Temple Jerusalem at the Israel Museum. The model was built in the late 1960s before archeological excavations revealed the structure of the steps and wall. Michael Avi-Yonah, the historian who designed it, relied on descriptions by Josephus and Deo Cassius. It shows both sets of gates as double doors in the stone wall. No one yet knew where most of the street ran at the time of the Temple, where the mikves and Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) were, or what the lower portions of the retaining walls around the Temple Mount looked like. Today we have much better idea of all these things. What is most impressive is how accurate the model is, how much of it has been verified by archeology.
My father, of course, would not have ascended to the Temple Mount through the Hulda Gates on the south side. When serving in the Temple, the Cohanim had their own special entrance on the western side. To get there, they walked over a bridge from the Western Hill of Jerusalem, where today’s Jewish Quarter is. The bridge was held up by Robinson’s Arch, named for the British archeologist who first realized what an outcropping from the western wall must have originally been.
Excavations in the area continue. Every year we learn more about ancient Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. What amazes me the most however, is not what has been lost or destroyed, but by what remains. The wall of the Temple precinct stands tall. In this earthquake-prone area, few structures have lasted more than several hundred years. Yet these walls and steps have survived over two millennia.