Illustration: Israeli Police at The Temple Mount by Israel Police [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia
[Ed. Note: Muslims, led by the Jordanian Waqf, are currently attempting to physically take control of the Gate of Mercy (Sha'ar HaRachamim) on the Temple Mount. The rioters have repeatedly invaded a compound at the site that was shut by a court order two years ago due to the illegal construction, incitement, and antiquities destruction that was rampant there. Despite this illegal activity, Israel has now agreed to allow the Waqf entrance to the site.]
Although Muslims claim the Mercy Gate as a Muslim shrine, the gate was built during the Second Temple period. Known alternatively as the Golden Gate in both Christian and Muslim traditions, and also as the Shushan Gate in Jewish tradition, it is the most important gate of the Temple Mount because through it the High Priest led the red heifer to be sacrificed on the Mount of Olives on Yom Kippur, and the goat of Azazel was led into the wilderness of the Judean Desert.
The reason a bridge over the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives was necessary is because the Mount was — and still is — a Jewish cemetery, into which kohanim (Jewish priests) are forbidden to enter by halakha (Jewish law). Ashes of the red heifer were part of a purification process required for Jews who ascended the Temple Mount.
According to Mishna Parah 3:6 and Mishna Middot 1:3: “The elders of the Sanhedrin... and the Kohen Gadol [take the red heifer] via a bridge, arch upon arch... to the Mount of Olives.” This detailed ritual is read in many synagogues on Parshat Parah, a few weeks before Passover.
The ornate double arches on the outside of the gate indicate that it is from the Second Temple period; the surrounding wall has typical Herodian-style cut stones. The area outside the gate was explored by Charles Warren and other archaeologists in the mid-19th century CE — and several decades ago, Israel Antiquities Authority archeologists found the Herodian period foundations.
Interestingly, ancient maps of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple drawn by Christian European artists hundreds of years ago include a bridge on the eastern side of the Temple Mount — not because they could have seen one, or even the remains of one, but because they were familiar with the Mishna.
A large, modern rendition of one of these maps drawn by the 16th century CE Dutch humanist Christian van Adrichem includes the bridge; it can be seen in the dining room of the King David Hotel. The original map and many others are in the map collection at the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus.
Historical claims are not a game of how many places one can conquer, but about authenticity. Turning historical and holy sites of other religions into mosques does not erase history — it only confirms Muslim bigotry and intolerance.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem. His book of short stories, “As Far As the Eye Can See,” was published by the New English Review Press in 2015. This article is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to read more of this author’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.