A moat that once stood in the way of the invading Crusader armies has been discovered beneath the Old City of Jerusalem, bringing to life some of the bloodiest and most iconic battles of the later Middle Ages. While excavating the ancient line of defense, archaeologists also happened upon a handprint carved into the wall of the moat, yet are unable to offer an explanation as to who made the imprint or what significance it may hold.
The protective channel surrounded the famous city walls and is thought to have been dug no later than the 10th century CE. According to Israel Antiquities Authority excavation director Zubair Adawi, the moat was at least 10 meters (33 feet) wide and between and 2 and 7 meters (6.5 to 23 feet) deep.
“Its function was to prevent the enemy besieging Jerusalem from approaching the walls and breaking into the city,” explained Adawi in a statement sent to IFLScience. “Moats, usually filled with water, are well-known from fortifications and castles in Europe, but here the moat was dry, its width and depth presenting an obstacle slowing down the attacking army.”
The famous city walls and gates that surround the Old City today were built in the 16th century by the Turkish Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent, yet the ancient fortifications that protected Jerusalem prior to this point would have been far more impenetrable, say the archaeologists.
“In the eras of knights’ battles, swords, arrows, and charging cavalry, the fortifications of Jerusalem were formidable and complex, comprising walls and elements to hold off large armies storming the city,” explained Dr Amit Re’em, Jerusalem regional Director at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Given the age of the moat, it’s highly likely that it would have seen some serious action during the Crusades, as European armies repeatedly attempted to capture Jerusalem between the 11th and 13th centuries. “The historians who accompanied the First Crusade, describe the arrival of the Crusaders at the walls of Jerusalem in June 1099,” says Re’em. “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.”
To enter the city, the Crusaders would have had to cross the moat and the two thick walls that it surrounded, “whilst the defenders of the city on the walls rained down on them fire and sulfur.” A series of secret tunnels would also have allowed those within Jerusalem to enter the moat and attack the enemy by surprise before retreating back to the safety of the city.
Among the most intriguing elements discovered by the team was a handprint within the wall of the moat. Whether the hand that made the mark belonged to a city defender, an invading knight or someone else remains a complete mystery.
“Does it symbolize something? Does it point to a specific nearby element?” ask the researchers. “Or is it just a local prank? Time may tell.”