Ancient city gates provided a means of controlling access to walled cities. They were typically closed at sunset and reopened at sunrise. Fortified cities could have any number of them. Jerusalem, for example, had dozens of gates throughout its history, each named according to its location, purpose, or history. They could be made of wood, stone, or metal. Gates represented the authority and glory of a city, since possession of the gates meant possession of the city. Because they were often the weakest spots of a city’s walls, gateways could have numerous sets of doors, each able to be locked and defended as needed. Armed sentries guarded each gate and constantly watched for impending dangers to the city.
However, city gates were more than just military assets; they were the center of city life. As portals to and from the city, gates were regularly passed through by its citizens and were therefore common sites of public announcements. Ancient prophets frequented them as forums for their messages, and executed criminals were displayed on or around gates as deterrents to future crime. Economically, they were the sites of markets, where citizens met with traders coming from afar to exchange goods. Thus gates also attracted beggars. Local judges presided over trials at gateways. As a covered area, they provided a cool location for public gatherings. Finally, travelers without any place to stay in the city could spend the night in their shelter. Accordingly, any mention of a city gate in ancient manuscripts could refer to a market, court, or public forum, in addition to its obvious role as a military checkpoint and stronghold.
In the Bible, Abraham’s nephew Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom when angels found him. Sampson famously ripped the gates of Gaza out and carried them away. Boaz went to Bethlehem’s gate to settle legal matters regarding his intention to marry Ruth. Eli sat in Shiloh’s gate waiting for news of a battle and promptly died when he heard it. David’s son Absalom stood in Jerusalem’s gate and decided court cases, supplanting his father. The heads of Ahab’s 70 sons were piled at Jezreel’s gate as a public reminder of judgment on Ahab’s corruption. Jeremiah stood in Jerusalem’s gates and proclaimed God’s messages to Israel, and was subsequently put into stocks there for his inflammatory words. Mordecai, a Jewish community leader, was sitting at the king’s gate when he overheard plans to assassinate the king. Daniel also sat at his king’s gate as administrator over his kingdom. Ezra gathered all of the returned exiles at Jerusalem’s Water Gate to hear Moses’ Law recited. Ezekiel commanded that city gates were to remain closed on the Sabbath to discourage work. Finally, near the end of the Bible, John’s vision of a restored Jerusalem saw each its twelve gates made of a single giant pearl.
Gates represented the power and glory of a city. Whoever controlled the gates – both in military and everyday matters – controlled the entire city. So when Jesus told Peter, “the gates of hell won’t overpower [my church],” it was equivalent to saying that Peter and the church would overcome the power of hell and prevail against it.