Photo Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority
The carved hand in the moat wall.

Elements of ancient Jerusalem’s fortifications and a mysterious hand imprint carved in the rock were uncovered recently at the Israel Antiquities Authority excavations in Jerusalem. The archaeological excavations were carried out along the main Sultan Suleiman Street that runs adjacent to the city walls, ahead of infrastructure works by the Jerusalem Development Corporation Moriah. In the course of the excavations, part of a deep defensive moat that surrounded the city walls, probably dating from the tenth century CE and possibly earlier, was exposed. An unexplained hand imprint was discovered at one spot, carved in the moat wall.

The excavation in Sultan Suleiman Street. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The IAA excavation director Zubair Adawi uncovered the moat located just beneath the street. According to Adawi, “People are not aware that this busy street is built directly over a huge moat, an enormous rock-hewn channel, at least 10 m wide, and between 2–7 m deep. The moat, surrounding the entire Old City, dates back about 1,000 years to the 10th century CE or earlier, and its function was to prevent the enemy besieging Jerusalem from approaching the walls and breaking into the city. Moats, usually filled with water, are well-known from fortifications and castles in Europe, but here the moat was dry, relying on its width and depth as an obstacle to slow down the attacking army.”

The carved hand in the moat wall. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The Old City’s walls and gates that can be seen today were built in the sixteenth century by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1494 – 1566).

“The earlier fortification walls that surrounded the ancient city of Jerusalem were much stronger,” says Dr. Amit Re’em, Jerusalem regional Director at the IAA. “In the eras of knights’ battles, swords, arrows, and charging cavalry, the fortifications of Jerusalem were formidable and complex, comprising walls and elements capable of holding off large armies that attempt to storm the city.”

View of the excavation from the moat, the carved hand is visible near the bottom-left corner. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“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 down on them fire and sulfur,” Re-em says, adding, “And if this wasn’t enough, there were secret tunnels in the fortifications, some of them uncovered by the IAA archaeologists in previous excavations, where the city defenders could emerge into the moat and attack the enemy by surprise, and then vanish into the city.”

Israel Antiquities Authority excavation director Zubair Adawi pointing at the mysterious hand print. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“The historians who accompanied the First Crusade, describe the arrival of the Crusaders at the walls of Jerusalem in June 1099: exhausted by the journey, they stood opposite the huge moat, and only after five weeks succeeded in crossing it with deploying tactics and at the cost of much blood, under heavy fire from the Moslem and Jewish defenders,” Re-em says.

In the course of the excavation, a mysterious hand imprint was found carved in the moat wall. To date, archaeologists have not deciphered the meaning of this carving. Does it symbolize something? Does it point to a specific nearby element? Was it just a prank? Time may tell, say the archaeologists, whose main job is to make time tell stuff.

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