Sing: How Firm a Foundation, UMH 529
In 20 BC Herod the Great began his reconstruction of the Second Temple and its surrounding precincts. When he was finished, the Temple Mount was a massive 1,575 feet in length and 920 feet in width. It was surrounded by four tremendous retaining walls built of ashlar blocks with dressed margins. The remarkable scale of the construction is particularly evident from the size of the stones; the southwest corner of the retaining wall incorporates stones that are about 35 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 4 feet high and weighing approximately 100,000 pounds.
The walls of the Temple Mount rest on bedrock. Here at the southwest corner the natural rock foundation is seven courses below the visible stones, about 25 feet below our feet. No mortar or other cementing material was used. Stability was ensured by the great weight of the stones and by receding each course 1 to 1.5 inches from the course below.
It was amazing to stand at this corner and look up and see these huge stones towering over us and extending north and west beyond where we could see. I can understand why the disciples were awed by the great buildings that were built on the platform above.
In the Second Temple period there were two gates in the south wall of the Temple Mount, known as the Huldah Gates. The western Huldah Gate (the Double Gate) lies under the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Today the opening is blocked up and a medieval building adjoins it. In front of the gate are the remains of a partly-reconstructed monumental stair-case. The eastern Huldah Gate (the Triple Gate) consisted of three arched openings; they too are blocked up today.
The two gates may have been named after the prophetess Huldah who, according to tradition, lived in Jerusalem in the First Temple period. The Gates led into tunnels through which people could pass beneath the Royal Stoa (portico), on their way to the Temple Courtyard of the Gentiles.
The monumental staircase leading to the Huldah Gates consists of alternating narrow and broad steps. The original stairs are grayish in color; some are broken and others are hewn in the natural rock. Their remains are quite clearly distinguishable from the reconstructed steps, which are more crudely dressed of white limestone. These steps were 200 feet wide and some suggest that the 15 broad steps may have been one of the locations where pilgrims sang the fifteen Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120–134) as they went up to worship.