200 years ago Jesus entered Jerusalem as king. Coming from Bethpage, he descended the slopes of Mount of Olives to the Kidron valley and then ascending towards the Temple Mount, he entered the city by the east wall gate to the Temple.
Christians all over world commemorate this royal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Different churches here in Jerusalem make an ecumenical procession from the Mount of Olives down to St Anne’s Basilica in the walls of the Old Jerusalem City, through the North-east Lion’s gate.
Couldn’t it be more symbolic to follow the trace of Jesus? Certainly, yes! Christians would well like to do so. That would mean entering the city by the Golden Gate to the Temple Mount. Impossible! The Golden Gate is blocked.
The wall around Jerusalem’s Old City has 11 gates, of which seven are open: Jaffa, Zion, Dung, Lion’s, Herod’s, Damascus and New gate. The Golden gate occupies a special place among them all.
The Golden Gate is situated in the east wall facing the western slopes of the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley with the Garden of Gethsemane and the road to Jericho and Bethany below.
The current gate, constructed between 520 and 620 CE, with features of the ancient Herodian one still visible, is a point of encounter of the three faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Unfortunately, not the encounter that promotes good understanding. Instead, It renders one faith in opposition, if not antagonism, to the others though this only simmers.
Owing to such diverse but particular interests it is virtually impossible to have its objective history, never mentioning why it’s closed. Each faith will tell the story in its own favor.
In ancient times, the gate was known as the Beautiful Gate. This comes from a Greek word horaia meaning beautiful, that possibly was confused with similar sounding Latin word aurea which however means Golden, hence the name today: Golden Gate. Its importance lies in its history and religious meanings that make it a sensitive spot.
For Jews it’s part of the sacred ground, the Temple Mount. It was the entrance to the Temple on the east hedge. And so it remains sacred even though Temple exists no more. Jews used this portico for ritual purposes and prayed here for mercy thus the name Sha’arHarachamim –the Gate of Mercy
Besides, the Jews are still waiting for the coming of the Messiah who will enter Jerusalem by east gate. It was partly in reaction to this that Sultan Suleiman I blocked the Gate in 1541 to shut the Messiah out.
It is also supposed that Muslims have deliberately made a cemetery on the grounds around the Golden Gate in order to prevent Elijah from entering. Why Elijah?
According to Scriptures the Messiah would be preceded by Elijah. And being a priest, he will not defile himself by passing through the cemetery.
For Christians, the gate is more commemorative than anything else. First, the triumphant entry of Jesus as King in Jerusalem celebrated on Palm Sunday.
The other event, though not with certainty, would be John and Peter’s healing of a paralytic who begged by the Temple gate, the Beautiful (Cf Acts 3:1-10).
The restoration of the True Cross is another important Christian event linked with the gate. In fact, one viewpoint is that the gate was reconstructed in view of the visit in 631 AD of a Byzantine Empire, Heraclius, who restored the True Cross to Jerusalem that the Persians had plundered in 614 AD. That is why at the time of Crusaders, Palm Sunday and on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross were the only times in a year when the gate was opened.
After the crusaders the Gate still remained closed, though possibly for other practical reasons, theological explanation was given. Since Jesus had passed through it, the gate would have to remain shut till his second coming.
Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. And he said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut….(Ezekiel 44:1-3)
Christians may understand this in terms of Jesus, not for the Jews. And Muslims have their own explanation.
Besides security against the feared Christian conqueror and Jewish Messiah, both who would come by the east gate, there are also other meanings for the Muslims.
The Golden Gate is the Gate of judgment, spoken of in the Koran (Surah 57, verse 13) the inner side whereof containeth Mercy, while the outer side therefore is toward its doom. Here, at the last day, the good will pass on the way to the houris of paradise.
Moreover, Muslims would not allow infidels match in and out of the holy place, so, the blocking also serves to keep the purity and sacredness of the place of worship.
In conclusion, it’s interesting to note that there are other spots in Jerusalem that are of common interest among different faiths, even among churches; yet, a pity, often these only manage to make parts of Jerusalem fields of landmines.
Just beyond the Golden Gate, is the Temple Mount where the Al Asqa Mosque; it’s a ground of passionate interest to the three religions, yet sensitive; more sensitive than the Golden Gate – well, a matter for another story.
© Evans K. Chama 2009
A Missionary of Africa studying theology in Jerusalem