Mysterious Mark Discovered in 1,000-year-old Moat Excavation in Jerusalem
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Wednesday the discovery of a hand imprint carved into the walls of a 1,000-year-old dry moat system along a part of the Old City of Jerusalem. While it is easy to sneak in a hand imprint into concrete as it dries, this hand had to be carved—into solid stone.
The excavation work is part of an infrastructure project along Sultan Suleiman Street. Suleiman runs adjacent to a part of the Old City walls. The IAA estimates that the moat, hewn from the rocks, dates back at least to the 10th century, if not before.
The handprint—roughly the size of a man’s hand—has the archaeologists a bit baffled. Is it pointing to something? Does it have a hidden meaning? Or was it just graffiti left behind by one of the men who dug the moat?
“Does it symbolize something? Does it point to a specific nearby element? Or is it just a local prank? Time may tell,” IAA researchers said.
Unlike moats that you may envision from stories of castles in Medieval Europe, filled with water (and worse!), the Jerusalem defensive moat was left dry (water has always been a precious commodity in Israel!). Nevertheless, it still provided a good defense for the city. It was 33 feet wide and 6-23 feet deep, and when it was fully operational, it encompassed the entire Old City.
“People are not aware that this busy street is built directly over a huge moat, an enormous rock-hewn channel,” Zubair Adawi, Israel Antiquities Authority excavation director, said. “Its function was to prevent the enemy besieging Jerusalem from approaching the walls and breaking into the city.”
In June 1099, a Crusader army tried to penetrate Jerusalem’s defenses and capture the city. The moat proved to be a formidable obstacle. The Jewish and Muslim defenders (they were working together!) rained down fire and sulfur (think “tear gas”) on the Crusaders as they tried to cross the moat. It kept the invaders at bay for five weeks before they finally entered the city.
“In the eras of knights’ battles, swords, arrows, and charging cavalry, the fortifications
of Jerusalem were formidable and complex, comprising walls and elements to hold off large armies storming the city,” Amit Re’em, Jerusalem regional director at the IAA, said. “Armies trying to capture the city in the Middle Ages had to cross the deep moat and behind it two additional thick fortification walls, while the defenders of the city on the walls rained fire and sulfur down on them.”
Like most of the Old City, the dry moat had secret tunnels. These allowed the defenders to surprise the attacking army and then slip back behind the fortified walls.
“Many dreamed about and fought for Jerusalem, and the city fortifications are a silent testimony,” said IAA director Eli Escuzido. “The archaeological finds enable us to visualize the dramatic events and the upheavals that the city underwent.”
(Photo credit: Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)