The builders of the Western Wall could never have fathomed that one day their massive creation would be an important religious shrine. Indeed, when it was built some 2000 years ago this most holy of all Jewish sites was merely a retaining wall supporting the outer portion of Temple Mount, upon which stood the Second Temple. Although the Temple was destroyed, its retaining structure remained and rabbinical texts maintain that the Shechina (divine presence) never deserted it.
Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Jews were sent into exile and the Temple's precise location was lost. Upon the Jews' return they purposely avoided Temple Mount, fearing that they might step on the Holy of Holies, the ancient inner sanctum of the Temple barred to all except the high priest. Instead they began praying at this remaining element of the original structure.
The Wall became a place of pilgrimage during the Ottoman period and Jews would come to mourn and lament the destruction of the Temple – that’s why the site is also known as the Wailing Wall, a name that Jews tend to avoid. At this time, houses were pressed right up to it, leaving just a narrow alley for prayer.
In 1948 the Jews lost access to the Wall when the Old City was taken by the Jordanians and the population of the Jewish Quarter was expelled. Nineteen years later, when Israeli paratroopers stormed in during the Six Day War, they fought their way directly here and their first action on securing the Old City was to bulldoze the neighbouring Arab houses to create the sloping 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 larger northern section for men. Here, black-garbed ultra-Orthodox men 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. The plaza is a popular site for bar mitzvahs, which are usually held on Shabbat or on Monday and Thursday mornings. This is a great time to visit as the area is alive with families singing and dancing as they approach.
Notice the different styles of stonework composing the Wall. The huge lower layers are made up of Herodian-era stones, identifiable by their carved edges, while the stones above them, which are chiselled slightly differently, date from the time of the construction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Also visible at close quarters are the wads of paper stuffed into the cracks in between the stones. Some Jews believe that prayers and petitions inserted between the stones 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 this area.
The Wall is open to members of all faiths 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Modest dress is recommended and head covering is required for men (paper kippot are available if you don’t have one). Photography is prohibited.