City Gates: Not Just A Defensive Measure -- By: Donald McNeeley

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 25:2 (Spring 2012)
Article: City Gates: Not Just A Defensive Measure
Author: Donald McNeeley

City Gates: Not Just A Defensive Measure

Donald McNeeley

Henry B. Smith Jr.

The 18th century BC city gate at Dan. This mudbrick, arched structure was discovered in the late 1970’s.


The normal entrance to the ancient cities of the Near East was through the city gate. While there are many city gate types, collectively they were constructed to provide defensive capabilities against enemies of the city. However, these gates were also used to reflect individual cities’ civic pride and thus were constructed with the best possible techniques and design (Barton 1925: 145). While city gates are of importance militarily, the gate was also the visitor’s initial view of the city proper, and thus a visitor’s first impression would have come from the city gate. Remember, first impressions mean a lot, and for these ancient city dwellers, having a city gate “worth talking about” was important.

One example reflecting city gate civic pride can be seen in the Samson story. In Judges 16:3 we read:

But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron.1

The removal of the city gate, that symbol of civic pride, demonstrated to the Philistines the great power of the God of Israel and showed that their city gate was worthless. When Samson took down the gates of Gaza, he basically rendered the pride of the city worthless and left the town without its most important defense.

City Gate Descriptions

Before we look into some specifics concerning the civic pride aspect of city gates, let’s make some general observations concerning the characteristics of these gates. Archaeologists have excavated many city gates in Israel (Dan, Lachish, Megiddo, etc.), each demonstrating its own unique design and construction method. At Meggido, excavations have recovered gates from several periods, ranging from Canaanite times to the seventh century BC. The Solomonic gate there provides an understanding of their general utility. Entering through an outer gate, you go up a ramp which contains steps on the right, suggesting its use by pedestrians. Additionally, in front of this first gate (in the middle of the ramp) there are steps leading down to an early water system. At the end of the ramp there is a junction where the familiar feature of three guardrooms on either side of the gate, like at Hazor, ...

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