Jerusalem’s Medieval Moat

IAA excavates a section of the city’s Islamic-era moat

Jerusalem's moat

Excavations of Jerusalem’s medieval moat. Courtesy Yoli Schwartz, IAA.

Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) continue to provide evidence of Jerusalem’s power and defensibility throughout history, with excavations along Sultan Suleiman Street revealing the city’s 1,000-year-old moat. While the walls surrounding the Old City look imposing today, they were far more formidable in the Middle Ages, with a double wall and an impressive moat surrounding the city.


Jerusalem’s Moat

During infrastructure work next to the Old City walls, excavations by the IAA uncovered a section of the city’s moat dating to the early Islamic period (c. 634–1099 CE). Although the walls currently surrounding the Old City only date to the 16th century, the history of Jerusalem’s fortifications goes back to the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 BCE). During much of Jerusalem’s history, these fortifications included more than just a single massive wall, as they do today; the new discovery shows that during the early Islamic period, the city’s fortifications were particularly mighty.

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The rock-hewn moat dates back at least a thousand years and possibly more, to a time when the city was under the control of the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid empires. A powerful defensive structure, the moat measures over 32 feet wide and up to 22 feet deep. This moat would have surrounded the entire city and its well-fortified walls. The moat was not filled with water but was instead a dry moat, a very common type of ancient fortification system.

“Armies trying to capture the city in the Middle Ages had to cross the deep moat and behind it two additional thick fortification walls,” said Dr. Amit Re’em, Regional Director for the IAA, in a press release. He added that the city’s defenders, perched atop the walls, would have rained down arrows and other projectiles on the oncoming forces. “As if this wasn’t enough, there were secret tunnels in the fortifications, whereby the city defenders could emerge into the moat and attack the enemy by surprise, and then disappear back into the city.”

It is these defenses that the first Crusaders would have faced when they launched their assault on the city in June 1099. “Exhausted by the journey, they stood opposite the huge moat,” said Re’em. “Only after five weeks [the Crusaders] succeeded in crossing it.”


A Mysterious Hand

strange hand in Jerusalem's moat

Amit Re’em pointing out the carved handprint. Courtesy Yoli Schwartz, IAA.

During the excavations of Jerusalem’s moat, the archaeologists came across a very unexpected discovery, a handprint carved into the stone wall of the moat. The team does not yet know how to interpret the handprint and whether it has any specific relation to the moat or its construction. It could have also been a special graffito, a way for some ancient person to leave their mark on the archaeology of Jerusalem for us to find a thousand years later.


Learn more in Bible History Daily:

OnSite: The Walls of Jerusalem

Restoring the Walls of Jerusalem

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

The Jerusalem Wall That Shouldn’t Be There

Five Ways to Defend an Ancient City

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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