The Western Wall, or the Kotel, or the Wailing Wall
(Note: this is a longish article—I really wanted to try and understand this complex subject)
What is special about the Western Wall? The wall has withstood time and has witnessed war and peace. I am not Jewish, and I have not visited Israel before, so I wanted to try and understand the significance of this wall, which is the most visited site in Israel today.
(For other sights in Jerusalem, I’ll post another article later).
In order to understand what the Western Wall is, we need to go back three thousand or so years. Long before a temple was built on this mount, Abraham came here to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Jacob slept here, dreaming of a ladder to heaven. Then called Mount Moriah, its summit was where Solomon built the First Temple on the land that his father King David bought from Aravnah, the Jebusite, 3,000 years ago.
The Temple stood for around 500 years, until it was destroyed by the Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. The Holy Ark and the Ten Commandments, which were in the Temple, vanished and the Jews were expelled from the land of Israel. They were allowed to return 70 years later and built the Second Temple.
King Herod (who ruled 37-4 BC) decided to rebuild that in 19 BC. He had a problem, though: the Temple was on the peak of a mountain where there was limited space. Herod, who was known for huge building projects (such as the port at Caesarea, and his palace at Masada), decided to build four massive supporting walls around the mountain and transform it into a level platform. Which he did, and built the next Temple on the new platform.
In 70 AD, during the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple destroyed.
After the rebellion, Jews were not allowed to return to the Temple mound and the Kotel (Western Wall) was the closest they could come to that area. The Western Wall is the most sacred, because the Temple (and its inner Holy of Holies) had been built closest to that wall. Since then, the Western Wall has been the center of Jewish belief. For Jews, touching the stones links them with their nation and heritage, and their long turbulent history.
Today, people from all over the world converge here, to see, to feel, to pray, and to wedge notes and requests between its timeless stones.
What is the Western Wall Plaza?
This is the cleared area in front of part of the Western Wall, and is the setting for many national events, such as the Priests’ Blessing at Pesach and Sukkot, candle lighting at Channukah, swearing in of Israeli police and armed forces recruits, and Jerusalem Day ceremonies. It is also a popular place for bar and bat mitzvahs of young people from Israel and abroad. The Plaza today is part of an open synagogue, which is why men and women are separated like in many synagogues.
When we visited, there were two bar mitzvahs in progress, which the men in our party could easily see from their side of the divided plaza. However, the women could see too, as we could stand on a row of chairs and look over the wall! (This seemed a little incongruous to me in such a holy place!). Everyone should cover their heads, and if you don’t have a covering, then a volunteer group will give you one. There’s also a table when you can pick up a slip of paper and a pencil, to write a note to put into the wall.
Until about 700 years ago, the entire length of the Western Wall was accessible. Gradually, the city’s Mameluke and Muslim conquerors built up against it. Jews continued to pray at the wall and had to wind their way through narrow alleys to reach it. This ended in 1948 when Jordan occupied Jerusalem’s Old City and Jews were denied access to the wall. When Jerusalem was reunified in 1967 the plaza was cleared and Jews could again approach the wall, which became a symbol of national unity.
Do we see the entire Western Wall from the plaza?
What one sees from the Prayer Plaza is actually only a small part (about one seventh) of one of the original four walls. About the same stretches to the right as you face the wall, and the rest to the left, into the Western Wall tunnels.
If you think that huge wall in the Prayer Plaza is impressive, then you will be astounded by what you see underground on the tunnel tour. You can only do this on a guided tour, which needs to be reserved in advance usually. I’m told that many tourists don’t know about this tour, which is a great shame, as it really does extend our knowledge and appreciation for this massive construction of Herod’s.
Our day tour, with guide Shani Kotev, included the tunnels luckily. The main tunnel is adjacent to the base of the Western Wall and is under buildings of the Old City of Jerusalem—residential neighborhoods built over ancient structures from the Second Temple period.
Below, we saw special bath houses for ritual cleaning, as the Jews of that time approached to pray at the wall. Even today, in the tunnel is a small synagogue at the closest physical point to the Holy of Holies where women come to pray.
We noted parts of Herod’s wall with massive stones, including the Western Stone. It is the largest stone in the wall, supposedly one of the heaviest objects ever lifted by humans without powered machinery. It is 45 ft long and between 11-15 ft wide with an estimated weight of 520 metric tons.
Note part of the market street that used to run along the wall and where Jesus may even have walked. At the northern part of the Western Wall, remains were found of a water channel that supplied water to the Temple Mount. The exact source of the channel is unknown but it passes through an underground pool/cistern called the Struthion Pool, which they think gathered rainwater.
Parts of the tunnel have concrete supports that reinforce the ancient streets above in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter. Visitors today leave the tunnel through the northern exit, which leads to the Via Dolorosa. This exit was specially created so visitors didn’t have to retrace their steps back to the entrance by the Prayer Plaza, and only opened in 1996 after much deadly protesting by Arabs. Still today, the entrance is only open during the day, due to security reasons, and a guard sits at the exit.
So much history is here, concentrated in one place, that it’s almost overwhelming. To do the Western Wall and tunnels tour you need about 2-3 hours, and then perhaps it’s a good time to find lunch in one of the small cafes dotted all over the market street area. We went to a hommos (hummus) place for falafel, hummus and pita bread, which was great.
See a good description here: http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/WesternWallTunnels.html