Mysterious handprint found in 1,000-year-old moat beneath Jerusalem

Archaeologists have found, inside the Old City of Jerusalem, a moat, part of the ancient wall that once surrounded the city during the  Middle Ages . When carrying out excavations along the defensive structure, the imprint of a hand was also found, made in bas-relief, the meaning of which is still unknown.

Scientists have dated the canal to around the 10th century BC, making it no older than that. Zubair Adawi, in charge of the excavation and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, estimates that the pit is at least 10 meters wide and between 2 and 7 meters deep. Its function was, one day, to prevent invaders, most likely European crusaders, from approaching the walls and invading the  city .

Moats and defenses of ancient Jerusalem

A moat was, in ancient times, usually filled with water, a classic element in the imagination of European castles, whose objective was to further delay troop advances. In the case of the Jerusalem structure, however, it was noted that it was empty, leaving only breadth and depth as obstacles.

The wall that currently surrounds the Old City was built in the 16th century by the Turkish-Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent. Though imposing, medieval defenses   were far more efficient, with historically renowned impenetrability. Several layers of walls and defensive elements such as catapults and ballistae were stacked on top, stopping invading armies with much more than just their walls.

Moat beneath the wall of present-day Jerusalem where the handprint was found (Image: Yuli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Given the moat’s dating, it probably saw a lot of action during the Crusades. European armies, between the 11th and 13th centuries, tried to take the city numerous times. Historians who accompanied the 1st Crusade described the arrival of  Christians  in the city in June 1099 as follows:

“Exhausted by the journey, they placed themselves in opposition to the huge moat, and only after five weeks, they succeeded in crossing it with invasion tactics and at the cost of much blood, under the severe fire of the Muslim and Jewish defenders.”

Beyond the moat, two thick walled layers had to be crossed as the defenders hurled arrows, bolts, fire and brimstone at the  crossing armies  . Secret tunnels were also present, through which the besieged would exit the city into the moat, attack the Christians by surprise, and retreat to the safety of the city. We don’t know whether the hand marked in the pit was that of a defender, an invading knight, or someone else, and whether it marked a location, gave a signal, or was just a joke. Future research will tell.

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