Pilgrimage Reflection: The Old City

Along the sidewalk outside the city wall.
The (Roman) Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem (below the current gate).

There is an old tale (which also shows up in early maps) describing Jerusalem as the center of the world, a city visit by kings and prophets, pilgrims and mystics, rulers and conquerors. Today we know it as a city claimed by three faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Physically, it is a divided city into four quarters that somewhat blend into each other as you cross from one quarter to the next: the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter. All areas are a mix of secular and religious. More than 4,000 years old, its walls were rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah following the Babylonian captivity, the Romans (1st century), Diocletian and  Aelia Eudocia (Byzantine 4th century), and Crusaders (11th century). The actual “cardo” from Roman times is actually about 15 feet below the cobblestones we walked on today.

The Upper Cardo just inside the Damascus Gate

On our various days visiting the Old City, we entered through a variety of gates. The current walls around the Old City (which have spread out since Jesus’ time) were built by Sulieman the Magnificent in 1542. Most of the gates we entered were built by Siran, an Ottoman-Turkish architect who lived in the 16th century.

Along the Upper Cardo; grape leaves for sale

Entering the Damascus Gate (Nablus Gate) is a different experience depending on the time of day. At 7:00 in the morning it is quiet with shops boarded up, trash being collected, and cats everywhere scurrying to find the last scrap to eat. By mid-morning and throughout the afternoon the gate (as well as the “main street”) is a bustling enterprise of merchants selling their wares from grape leaves, bread, spices, t-shirts, Disney knock-offs, and within the city we even came upon a shop for University of Alabama fans. We used this particular gate frequently, built upon an older gate built in Roman times. The gate’s name in Hebrew is “Sha’ar Shkem” since one travels away from this gate southwards; in Jesus’ time one would have passed through the city of Shkhem (North/Nablus) north to Damascus (Zion Gate). The street was designed by the Romans in the 2nd century CE after the city was established and rebuilt by Hadrian, which razed the city following the failed Bar-Kochva’s revolt in 136 CE. Another route split from the north gate from this main street to the Valley Cardo, which ended near the dung gate.

A mosaic map of Jerusalem with the Upper Cardo visible (in the lower portion).
Excavated ruins of the Roman Cardo

These two main “boulevards” that run north/south are called the Upper Cardo and the Lower Cardo (Cardo is an ancient Roman term; in Hebrew, HaCardo).  The southern section of the road, in the Jewish quarter, was excavated and most of the archaeological findings were  from the 6th century. You can see how these wide streets were flanked by Roman columns with market stalls between each, mosaics appearing on walls and floors. It was on these streets we experienced the most action, with countless side streets going up and down, east to west. Here we would see doorways to homes and shops, with many of “side streets” ending at a holy site on which a church had been built. The city has “grown” since the time of Jesus, with the walls expanding outward. For example, the site of the crucifixion (Golgotha) as well as the resurrection (Holy Sepulchre) is now within the city walls – it would have been outside the city in the first century.

Walking through the Old City is stepping back into time in many ways, especially crossing the thresholds of countless churches that were established (many by Empress St. Helena, mother of Constantine) to mark the spot of an historic and sacred event in the 4th century. On her pilgrimages she had certain sites excavated, and according to tradition, found three crosses. On the site of discovery, Constantine ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (I’ll explore this site further when I share our walk on the Via Dolorosa.) Churches were also built on other sites detected by Helena, scattered throughout the Old City. Each are filled with icons, candles, in the scent of incense. Some were tranquil, others busy, but all holy. Today most are cared for my the Armenian Church; at each location . . . according to tradition . . . pilgrims have come . . . something happened on or near this location . . .

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