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Jerusalem's heart and soul undeniably lies in its Old City, an area reflecting 5000 years of human history condensed in barely one square kilometer. Covering more or less the original area of the age-old settlement in the Judean mountains, the Old City's maze of narrow, and sometimes confusing, alleys and stairways hide a treasure of historic, cultural and spiritual heritage beckoning further exploration.
The Old City's four quarters are home to an amazingly diverse mix of people, and the extent of ethnic and spiritual coexistence displayed here on a day to day basis greatly adds to this unique area's allure. The quarters are grouped around the Temple Mount, a spiritual focal point for Jews throughout the ages, as well as for Moslems since the Seventh century CE, when the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa Mosque were built atop the Mount.
All this wealth is protected by a thick, imposing stone wall, 3 meters thick and between 5 and 15 meters high. Erected by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century CE to protect the city's residents and its Islamic holy places - not the least against a possible resurgence of the Crusades - it is one of the world's best preserved walls of that period. Extending over approximately 4.5 kilometers, the wall roughly follows the line of earlier foundations built by Roman Emperor Hadrian and fortified in Byzantine times, and it is surrounded by a beautifully landscaped green belt, which sets off its splendor.
Of the Old City's eight original gates, only seven provide access to the city today; most were built in 1538, in the course of the current wall's construction. Cars can enter through Jaffa Gate and New Gate only, and motorized traffic inside the Old City is very limited. Everybody walks, which makes it an environmentally friendly neighborhood, and the predominant traffic hazards are the occasional donkey-rider, small tractors and two-wheeled wooden carts, in which goods are transported in the Moslem Quarter. The carts are pushed by hand, and are sometimes used as sleighs on the sloping alleys by local youngsters, forcing unsuspecting pedestrians to hurriedly disappear into the walls.
Damascus Gate, with its many turrets, lies on the Old City's northern perimeter and is the largest and most impressive of the gates. From the outside, wide rows of steps lead down to a handsome, spacious plaza in front of the gate, which is used both as a meeting place and by street vendors to display their goods.The road to Damascus used to begin here, hence its name. Since the same route leads through the town of Nablus, it is called Nablus Gate (Sha'ar Shekhem) in Hebrew. Christian tradition has it that St. Stephen was martyred at the site, and in the Byzantine period (324-638 CE), the gate was named after the saint. Damascus Gate dates from the Ottoman period (1517-1917) and is built on the remains of an earlier, Roman entrance, which was unearthed during recent restoration works and can now be visited by the public. The gate's doubly angled entry was designed defensely, to impede easy passage. The gate leads into the heart of the Moslem Quarter's bazaars just inside the walls.
The Dung Gate on the south eastern side of the Old City is also called Bab el-Silwan, since it overlooks the Arab village of that name.The gate leads straight to the Western Wall. According to legend, it was through this gate that Jerusalem's Christian inhabitants, during Byzantine times, used to take their garbage to be dumped on the Temple Mount. The original Dung Gate from the Second Temple period (538 BCE - 70 CE) was situated near the Siloam Pool, which channeled water to the city in antiquity via an elaborate systems of shafts and tunnels.