The City Gate in Ancient Times


The gate in ancient time had several important functions: The first is defensive – the gate was the only open place in the wall of the ancient city. Its location was chosen such that it would allow the city defenders to be most effective. In ancient times, the gate was usually closed by two wooden doors as described for example in the Book of Deuteronomy chapter 3, verse 5, and so in 1 Samuel chapter 3 verse 7. The doors were hung with posts and locked with bolts and locks, as told, for example, in the Book of Judges, chapter 16, verse 3 in reference to Samson.

Sometime the gate tower was built above the roof of the gate for observation, an example can be found, in the book of 2 Samuel chapter 18, verse 24.

At the entrance to the city itself on both sides of the gate were rooms, these are called by the prophet Ezekiel “cells” – Those were used by the guards for rest and storage. These cells can be seen in many sites, one of which is here in Khirbet Qeiyafa, – and we are in the Ella Valley area. Khirbet Qeiyafa dates to the 10th century BCE, to the time of King David.

In the video you can see the threshold of the gate, which is built of one stone which is 3 meters long, 1 meter wide and 1 meter height, it weights 8 tons. A step was hewn at the threshold that stopped the gate doors when closing them in a straight line, to allow the latch to be closed.

Drainage canals are known to be at the city gates during the king’s period in Judea and Israel and here as well. The reason for the location of the drainage canals in the gates is the location of the gates topographically at a relatively low point in the city so that those arriving to the city gate will not have to climb higher beyond what is required. Such a place is also ideal for drainage, since the rainwater will also flow to the low location in the city.

The area adjacent to the gate remains open space. What is seen here represents many gates at other sites. According to biblical descriptions, the gate served as the city center, and for other various activities such as the gathering of the city elders for decision making, trade, a type of a court place, and public worship also took place there. Hence, it looks that the common biblical phrase “at the city gate” or the phrase “gate street,” refer to the entire open area around the city gate.

This leads us to the next topic – the gate as the place of judgment – In the Canaanite city the gate was the permanent seat of the institution of the elders as it appears from both biblical and non-biblical sources. In Hebron, in the presence of everyone arriving to the gate, ABraham negotiated with Efron the Hittite for the purchase of the Cave of the Patriarchs or Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Jews by its Biblical name Cave of Machpelah, as written in Genesis chapter 23. The city gate was a place of judgment. At Bethlehem Gate, ten people from the city’s elders sat as a legal quorum at the ceremony of transferring the rights to Boaz (Ruth, Chapter 4). Elders at the gate were mentioned many times in the biblical constitution. Those killing by mistake, had to stand before the elders at the entrance of the city gate and were interrogated whether to let them into the city of refuge as described for example in the book of Joshua chapter 20 verse 4.

It turns out that even during the monarchy until the end of Judah Kingdom, the gate served as a central point for public life in the city. It is possible that with the establishment of state courts the place of trial was moved to a building located in the city.

At the gate, the towns people gathered to take part in punishing criminals. Punishment at the gate was mentioned in the trial of Navot of Jezreel as described in 1st book of Kings, chapter 21.

Another function of the gate was being the central location for trading as can be seen here at the Damascus gate in the old city of Jerusalem – the most natural place in the city where a market could be held was at the gate and the street next to it. In the big cities it seems that certain gates were dedicated to the various trading industries.

In Jerusalem the fish gate was as it appears in the book of Zephaniah, chapter 1, verse 10, and the gate of the sheep mentioned in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 3, verse 1. An example from a later period is the tanners’ gate.

We are at the tanner’s gate, located in the southeast of the Old City. It is the name of an ancient Crusader gate in the walls of Jerusalem, which was located next to the Dung Gate, which is tens of meters east of the tanner’s gate. The gate is located at the lowest point in Jerusalem, and as you can see on the map, it is located where the central valley drains out of the city, and later connects to the Kidron brook. Over the years it was the most neglected and impoverished area in the city, which was probably already used in the days of the Second Temple as a place where artisans and sheep breeders concentrated.

In those days Jerusalem’s beef market was in this area near the Temple Mount, and it is understandable – Visitors who come from outside Jerusalem to make a pilgrimage to the Temple to bring their offering, it makes it convenient to purchase the meat near the Temple.

Even during the Crusader period, there was a meat market in this area, and the leather processors, the tanners, operated alongside it. Beyond being close to the temple, another reason for their location here is because the rainwater, which flowed in the central valley, helped butchers and tanners wash away the dirt, and the products of dealing with meat & skins.

Worship at the Gate. The great importance of the gate in public life as a place of worship is expressed in ritual certificates. One example is in the book of Psalms chapter 24, verse 7 – It is a call to the gates to greet God on His return to His temple as a victorious hero.

We are at the south gate of Khirbet Qeiyafa facing the Ella Valley very close to the place where David kills Goliath. Close to the gate, slightly to the east, stands a 1m high tombstone made of natural stone. Similar stones have been found in other sites. This ritual phenomenon is perhaps related to the biblical phrase “gate’s stages,” appears in a few places for example in the book of 2 Kings, chapter 23 verse 8, where we have evidence of the demolition of the gate’s stages at the city gate entrance in the days of King Josiah.

And finally, as usual, a question for you – while the settlement that was here in Khirbet Qeiyafa dates to the 10th century BCE, in what century were most of the current gates of the Old City of Jerusalem built – the answer will appear at the end of the video.

How to get there?

Information Sources

  1. Book: Footsteps of King David in the Valley of Elah, Authors: Yosef Garfinkel, Saar Ganor and Michael Hasel, Publisher: Miskal-Yedioth Ahronoth Books & Chemed Books
  2. Qadmoniot: Magazine for the Antiquities of Eretz-Israel and Bible Lands No. 149, Publisher: Israel Exploration Society Jerusalem
  3. Biblical encyclopedia, book 8 - ‘Gate’, Publisher: Bialik Institute-Jerusalem

Mention in the Bible

  1. Genesis chapter 23 verse 10
  2. Joshua chapter 20 verse 4
  3. Deuteronomy chapter 3 verse 5
  4. 1Samuel chapter 23 verse 7
  5. 2Samuel chapter 18 verse 24
  6. 1Kings chapter 21 verse 13
  7. 2Kings chapter 23 verse 8
  8. Zephaniah chapter 1 verse 10
  9. Psalms chapter 24 verse 7
  10. Ruth chapter 4 verse 1
  11. Nehemiah chapter 3 verse 1

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