Lonely Planet review
The builders of the Western Wall could never have fathomed that one day their modest creation would become the most important religious shrine for the Jewish people. Indeed, when it was built some 2000 years ago it was merely a retaining wall supporting the outer portion of the Temple Mount, upon which stood the Second Temple. (The Second Temple was constructed around 520 BC.)
But following the destruction of the temple in AD 70, Jews were sent into exile and the precise location of the temple was lost. Upon their return they purposely avoided the Temple Mount, fearing that they might step on the Holy of Holies, the ancient inner sanctum of the temple barred to all except high priests. Instead they began praying at an exposed outer wall; according to rabbinical texts, the shechina (divine presence) never deserted the wall and it's regarded as the most holy of all Jewish sites.
The Wall grew as a place of pilgrimage during the Ottoman period and Jews would come to mourn and lament their ancient loss - hence the term the Wailing Wall. At this time, houses were pressed right up to the Wall, leaving just a narrow alley for prayer.
In 1948 the Jews lost access when the whole of the Old City was taken by the Jordanians. Nineteen years later when Israeli paratroopers stormed in during the Six Day War, they fought their way directly to the Wall and the first action on securing the Old City was to bulldoze the neighbouring Arab quarter to create the plaza that exists today.
The area immediately in front of the Wall now operates as a great open-air synagogue. It's divided into two areas, a small southern section for women and a more active, larger northern section for men. Here, the black-garbed Hasidim rock backwards and forwards on their heels, bobbing their heads in prayer, occasionally breaking off to press themselves against the Wall and kiss the stones. To celebrate the arrival of Shabbat there is always a large crowd at sunset on Friday and students from the nearby Yeshiva HaKotel head down there to dance and sing. The Wall is also a popular site for bar mitzvahs, held on the Shabbat or on Monday and Thursday mornings.
Notice the different styles of stonework. The huge lower layers are the Herodian stones, identifiable by their carved edges, while the strata above that, which are chiselled slightly differently, date from the time of the construction of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Also visible at close quarters are the wads of paper stuffed into the cracks in the stone wall: it's a belief that prayers inserted into the Wall have a better than average chance of being answered.
On the men's side of the Wall a narrow passage runs under Wilson's Arch, which was once used by priests to enter the Temple. Look down the two illuminated shafts to get an idea of the Wall's original height. Women are not permitted into the room.
The Wall is open to all faiths, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Modest dress is recommended and a kippa is required (paper kippas are available if you don't have one). Be discreet when taking photos, and don't take any photos at all during Shabbat.