“There Is the King Sitting In the Gate”
City Gates in Bible Times
by Timothy S. Wilkinson
The Eternal Throne Chronicles take readers through many of the wars and battles fought by the nation of Israel in the years leading up to and during King David's reign. In trying to accurately capture the experience of warriors during that time, it is helpful to get a clear picture of the fortifications relied upon by ancient armies.
The cities of ancient Palestine, like all cities for thousands of years, relied on massive walls for their defense. The city’s gates were the weakest point in its defenses and so, logically, they had as few as possible. Most early and all smaller cities had only one. The idiom “to take possession of the gate” meant to conquer or overcome. Gates were such an important element of defense that much superstition surrounded their construction among the pagan nations. Canaanites frequently offered a human sacrifice when putting up a gate.
Biblical descriptions and archaeological discoveries have shed light on ancient gates. The 107th Psalm describes doors plated with copper and held closed with crossbars of iron; this would help to reduce the risk of fire. Babylon apparently had such gates (Isaiah 25:2). Some ancient Syrian cities have been found with gates of stone, solid slabs more than ten feet high.
As siege equipment and techniques developed, the designs of walls and gates improved to match. Kings built gates with overlapping walls in which two gates, one inside the other, formed a courtyard between them. Alternatively they would put walls at right angles to each other to form a similar courtyard; these were arranged so that entering attackers would have to turn left, exposing their right (shieldless) side to attack. Often the passage through the vestibule would have as many as six pilasters arranged in parallel sets, narrowing the passageway at three places. Rooms formed in the corners were used as guard chambers. This courtyard served a dual purpose: it forced attackers to penetrate two gates and it allowed defenders to dump hot oil on and shoot arrows at attackers from the walls all around them.
Typically towers were constructed on either side of gates to bulwark the fortifications and and to serve as lookout posts. Sometimes small, door-sized gates (called posterns) were installed near the gate. These gave easier access to the city during peacetime, and allowed the defenders to release attacking sorties during a siege.
The shade provided by the walls made the gate a good place for public assembly and public proclamation. They often had rooms in the walls for merchants to stay in. People gathered at the gate for legal judgments, to conduct business, and to hear the latest news (Deuteronomy 16:18; 2 Samuel 19:8).
The great city of Jerusalem had a number of famous gates that helped define the parts of the city.
This gate was rebuilt by High Priest Eliashib, named because sheep and goats were brought through it—either for sacrifice or to bring them to the nearby market. It is believed that the gate was located near the temple.
Hezekiah built this gate next to the fish market. This became the passage through which Tyrian fishermen brought their wares.
Gate of the Old
Apparently this was one of the original entrances to the city.
Gate of Ephraim (Nehemiah 8:16)
This guarded one of the northern entrances to the city, so people leaving through it would be traveling in the direction of the tribe of Ephraim’s territory. Near this gate was a large public square that was filled with tents and temporary shelters when the people celebrated the Festival of Booths.
Corner Gate (2 Chronicles 26:9)
This gate was, of course, located at one of the corners in the wall. Apparently it was near the Tower of the Bake Ovens, where the city’s commercial bakers made their wares.
This marked the exit from the city that led to the great garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehinnom). Jerusalem’s inhabitants carried or carted their refuse to this valley and tossed it into smoldering fires that were fed continuously with sulfur and lime. From this constantly burning vale comes the word gehenna, one of the words translated as “hell” in the King James Version of the Bible.
Gate of the Ash-heaps
Alternatively known as the Dung Gate or the Gate of Potsherds, the latter probably because here fragments of broken pottery were ground to make cement commonly used for plastering water cisterns. The Valley of Hinnom and the spring at En-rogel are near this gate, and both of them were known for their high-quality clay deposits. Many scholars believe that this was the center of the potter’s industry. Just across the Valley of Hinnom from this gate was the now-famous Potter’s Field, purchased by the Pharisees with the 30 pieces of silver returned to them by a remorseful Judas. This was a busy gate, since it guarded the primary route to the spring at En-rogel where many citizens went for water.
Water Gate (Nehemiah 8)
Not far from the temple area was the spring of Gihon. Inhabitants of Jerusalem going to the spring for water would pass through the Water Gate. Here Ezra congregated the people to hear a reading of the Torah and to build shelters and tents to celebrate the Festival of Booths.
Our modern view of gates is shaped by the huge examples found in late Medieval castles (or at least in Hollywood portrayals of those castles). Gates, though, were made as small as was practical—a narrower opening was more easily defended. The Horse Gate was a wider gate designed to accommodate the passage of teams of horses, chariots, and wagons. This gate gave access to the palace and temple, likely destinations for mounted travelers.
This was also known as the Gate of Muster and the Gate of the Guard. It seems to be a location from which soldiers and armies sallied forth; its name also obviously indicates that it provided room for commanders to inspect their assembled troops before marching.