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

Reconstructing the Triple Gate

By Kathleen RitmeyerLeen Ritmeyer

Reconstructing the Triple Gate required that we answer three principal questions. What was the gate’s original width? Was it originally a double gate or a triple gate? For whom was it built?

The discovery of a vault in front of the Triple Gate—about 23 feet south of the facade—gave us critical information for understanding the gateway in its earliest form. A vault is a wide arch that forms the roof or ceiling of a chamber. This vault supported a stairway leading up to the Triple Gate. (A stairway was required in order to ascend from the plaza to the threshold of the Triple Gate; some of the steps from this stairway were actually found in the excavation.) The width of the vault provided us with the width of the stairway leading up to the gate. Although the vault is only about three-quarters preserved, it is easily reconstructed on the basis of symmetry. The west side of the vault aligns perfectly with the west door jamb of the Triple Gate. (This door jamb with its beautiful molding is the only original element of the Triple Gate exterior that has survived. Additional Herodian construction is evident inside the gate. The present-day western wall of the passageway that originally led from the gate up to the Temple court (as in the Double Gate) is constructed on bedrock foundation. One Herodian column-base is still visible within the gateway. This column-base is a double-width pilaster, that is, a column attached to and protruding from a wall.) A narrow wall divides the vault in front of the Triple Gate into two chambers. We know the width of the eastern chamber from the width of the preserved western chamber. The total width of the vault is 50 feet.

The width of the vault, as we said, tells us the width of the stairway and this, in turn, tells us the width of the Triple Gate to which the stairway led. We confirmed our reasoning when we observed that the width we were assigning to this gateway was identical to the width of the gates that stood over Robinson’s Arch and Wilson’s Arch on the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

The blocked Triple Gate visible today is of Omayyad (seventh century A.D.) construction, but its width reflects the original dimensions of the Herodian gate. But was this gate originally a triple gate? Or was it a double gate? We assume that even originally it was a triple gate—for two reasons: (1) at 50 feet, it is considerably wider than the 39-foot-wide Double Gate (in the southern wall, to the west of the Triple Gate); (2) classical gates were, with only few exceptions, either single or triple—and clearly 50 feet is too wide for a single gate.

The Mishnah tells us that there were “two Hulda gates at the south, serving for entry and exit” (Middot 1:3). Scholars and exegetes have long argued over whether the two Hulda gates referred to in this passage were the Double Gate and the Triple Gate or, on the other hand, the two passages of the Double Gate. Some say pilgrims went in one side of the Double Gate and came out the other. Others would have the pilgrims going in via the Double Gate and coming out via the Triple Gate (or vice versa).

Our view is that the Mishnah refers to the two passages through the Double Gate and that pilgrims entered through one passage and exited from the other. Let us explain why.

First, as we have already noted, the Double Gate has a very broad—210-foot—staircase leading up to it; the staircase leading up to the Triple Gate is much narrower—50 feet. Second, as we have also noted, a double gate is a rare phenomenon in classical architecture. When found—for example, at the Porta Negra in Trier, Germany—it always involves the circulation of two-way traffic: one side for going in and the other for going out. Third, the Double Gate opens into a passageway that led directly up and onto the Temple court. The Triple Gate also had a ramp that gave access to the Temple court, but it seems to have been more directly connected with the underground vaulted storerooms that are today quite erroneously called Solomon’s Stables.

What did the Triple Gate originally look like? Unfortunately, so little of the Herodian construction of this gate has been preserved that we have little guidance in reconstructing it.a However, we believe we have located a parallel to the Triple Gate—described below—which may tell us what the gate looked like. Features of this parallel structure also suggest that the Triple Gate had a priestly function. (For this reason, too, we believe that the Double Gate was used by ordinary pilgrims.)

Josephus tells us (The Jewish War 5.12.2) about a tomb complex built for the family of the high priest Ananas. It seems, from Josephus’s description, that the tomb complex was located near the Siloam Pool, where the Hinnom Valley leads into the Kidron Valley. In the early part of this century, remains of a splendid tomb complex were investigated in this area—near where the Monastery of St. Onuphrius now stands. This investigation was undertaken first by the Irish archaeologist R. A. S. Macalister1 and then by the German scholar Knut Olaf Dalman.2 This area is some distance from the Temple Mount, so it escaped the horrible destruction inflicted by the Romans in 70 A.D. Only fragments of architectural elements have been found in the Temple Mount area. By contrast, here at the mouth of the Hinnom Valley, magnificent Herodian remains still stand to their full height. The decoration used in this tomb complex closely resembles what we see on the fragments from the Temple Mount excavations. We believe many elements in these tombs, which—as Professor Benjamin Mazar pointed out to us—are in view of the Triple Gate, duplicate elements of the gates to the Temple.

One particular tomb is especially noteworthy. A triple gate cut out of the bedrock originally provided the entrance to the anteroom of this tomb. The proportions of the triple gate in the facade of this tomb seem to have been a kind of miniature of the Triple Gate in the southern wall of the Temple Mount. It seems likely that a priestly family built this tomb. Perhaps they wanted to transfer to their last resting place some of the magnificence they were accustomed to seeing as they approached the Temple court from the Triple Gate.

Inside the tomb, the chambers, like others in this complex, have side-molding that closely corresponds to the molding of the western jamb of the Triple Gate.

In our reconstruction of the Temple Mount’s Triple Gate, we have used the proportions of the tomb’s triple gate and the side-molding found inside many of these tombs to outline the doorways in the Temple Mount’s Triple Gate. We have reconstructed the style of the three entrances as Attic doorways, based on the Attic doorways found in these tombs. (We also found fragments of Attic doorways in the Temple Mount excavations.) The molding on the lintel of Attic doorways extends beyond the jambs. Finally, in our reconstruction of the Temple Mount Triple Gate, we have placed a pediment over the center entrance, just as we found it on three Attic mock-doorways inside the tomb.

Putting all the evidence together, we now conclude that the narrower stairway leading to the Triple Gate was used by the priests. The magnificent broad stairway leading to the Double Gate was trod by pilgrims on their way up to, and down from, the Temple Mount. But the facade of the Triple Gate—the priests’ gate—was far more elaborate than the undecorated facade of the Double Gate—the gate of the masses.