Biblical Archaeology Review 15:6, November/December 1989
Temple Mount

A Pilgrim’s Journey

By Kathleen Ritmeyer

Jerusalem is bathed in the clear light of early morning. A pilgrim has come for one of the great festivals, and his journey is almost over. He begins the ascent from the Siloam Pool at the bottom part of the Lower City. The sun is not yet casting its harsh glare on the stepped street paved with large limestone slabs, which is the path he must take to the Temple Mount. The pilgrim’s eyes rest for a moment on the glittering spikes of the Temple in the distance; then he moves on. The houses of the Lower City are spread out before him like the crescent of the moon; higher up, on his left, he can see the magnificent palaces of the nobility in the Upper City. As he proceeds up the valley past the oldest part of the city, established by David and Solomon, he can still see, on his right, some of the splendid old palaces.

All along the street the merchants of the Lower Market are busy setting up their stalls for the day’s business. The pilgrim is jostled by the farmers and traders who have come to buy and sell and by their beasts of burden. Baskets of luscious fruit, piles of cheeses, jars of wine and mounds of bread are set out hurriedly on the rough wooden tables. The unloading of bales of richly colored silks from a wagon causes an outbreak of excitement and arguing.

At the end of this stepped street, the pilgrim comes to a busy intersection. Visitors from many lands—Ethiopians, Macedonians, Cretans, Parthians and Romans from every part of the Roman empire—are moving toward the great plaza that fronts the monumental staircase leading up to the Double Gate of the Temple Mount. A different language from each group of people creates a cacophony of sound.

Our pilgrim climbs the first flights of the imposing staircase that leads to a gate in the western wall. The hubbub of the markets becomes fainter. He reaches the central platform of the staircase, which affords him a fine view and an opportunity to rest. The whole of the Lower City and a large portion of the Upper City are spread out before him.

On the west, the Upper City has the appearance of an impenetrable wall, the houses are so densely packed together. The Hasmonean Palace, built before Herod’s time, rises high above its surroundings, and people can be seen moving about on its roof. Looking north, he sees the archives building and the Xystos, the open-air plaza where athletic games were held during the Hellenistic period, in front of the old city wall. On the other side of the plaza, opposite the Xystos, stands the elegant Council House, or Bule, whose outer walls match the walls of the Temple Mount for beauty. A procession of priests moves solemnly over the bridge that spans the Tyropoeon Valley, a bridge that gives the priests and nobles direct access from the Upper City to the Temple Mount. The thronged street below veers off to the northwest in the direction of the city gate that leads to Damascus. As far as the eye can see, the Upper Market is crowded with milling traders, buyers and visitors attired in strange costumes.

The pilgrim braces himself for the remaining climb up the staircase that leads to the Temple Mount. Flanked by two massive limestone pillars, so highly polished that they resemble marble, the gate evokes deep awe from the pilgrim. Looking up, he admires the gold-plated Corinthian capitals that crown the pillars. Inside the propylaeum, or gate-building, the shade is refreshing. Groups of people linger, luxuriating in the respite from glare and bustle.

A different scene greets the eye as he enters the Royal Stoa proper on the Temple Mount. A long hall, supported by four rows of thick columns stretches out in front of him. The northern side is open and leads to the Temple court. Long shafts of dust-flecked sunlight are filtered through the windows in the upper part of the stoa and glance off a scene of frenzied commercial activity.

At the tables of the moneychangers, the pilgrim exchanges coins bearing the image of Caesar for silver shekels without the forbidden graven image. Women who have recently given birth are crowded at the stalls nearby, haggling over the price of the doves and pigeons they will sacrifice in gratitude for the happy conclusions of their pregnancies. Those who successfully complete a purchase walk away bearing small cages. Oxen and sheep to be sacrificed are also offered for sale; the smell of their droppings permeates the entire area.

At the eastern end of the portico is a partition through which members of the Sanhedrin are emerging after a session. The pilgrim observes on the other side of the partition the beauty of the apse, specially constructed to accommodate the Sanhedrin. A magnificent stone arch covered with a rich variety of geometric and floral patterns forms the backdrop for the Sanhedrin conferences. The tiers of smooth stone steps on which they sit while conferring are now empty.

Leaving behind the noise of the cooing doves and the bleating animals, the pilgrim moves on and passes through the open portico in the direction of the Temple. Soon, merging with the crowds pouring out of the underground stairway leading up from the Double Gate, he becomes part of the great throng who have come to worship at the “House of the Lord.”