Western Wall

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Western Wall by night
Western Wall by night

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The Western Wall (Hebrew: הכותל המערבי HaKotel HaMa'aravi), or simply The Kotel, is a retaining wall from the time of the Second Temple. It is sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall, or as the al-Buraq Wall, in a mix of English and Arabic. The Temple was the most sacred building in Judaism. Herod the Great built vast retaining walls around Mount Moriah, expanding the small, quasi-natural plateau on which the First and Second Temples stood into the wide open spaces of the Temple Mount seen today.



The First, or Solomon's Temple was built in the 10th century BCE. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE as a result of the Great Jewish Revolt. Each Temple stood for a period of about 400 years.

Bar mitzvah celebration at the Wall
Bar mitzvah celebration at the Wall

According to legend, when legions of Titus destroyed the Temple, only a part of an outer court-yard 'western wall' remained standing. Legend has it that Titus left it as a bitter reminder to the Jews that Rome had vanquished Judea. The Jews, however, attributed it to a promise made by God that he would leave some part of the holy Temple standing as a sign of his unbroken bond with the Jewish people in spite of the catastrophe which had befallen them. Jews have prayed there for two thousand years, believing that that spot has greater holiness than any other accessible place on Earth, or the fourth holiest overall, after the Holy of Holies, the rest of the Temple area, and the Courtyard, and that God is nearby listening to their prayers. The tradition of placing prayer written on the small piece of paper into a crack in the Wall goes back hundreds of years. Included in the thrice daily Jewish prayers are fervent pleas that God return to the Land of Israel, ingather all the Jewish exiles, rebuild the (Third) Temple, and bring the messianic era with the arrival of Moshiach, the Jewish messiah.

The Western Wall is holy to the Jewish people because this wall is part of a wall that encompasses the Temple Mount along with the southern and eastern sections. This encompassing wall is thought to be the only remnant of the Temple in Jerusalem and the closest site to the "Holy of Holies", the most holy site in Judaism. Of the three wall sections, eastern, southern and western, the western is the traditional site of prayer.

The site is also holy to Muslims who believe Solomon to be a prophet. Muslims believe that Muhammad made a spiritual journey to Jerusalem on a winged horse, al-Buraq. While there, he tethered the horse to a wall, which some Muslims believe to be the Western wall. Hence the Arabic name for the wall is the al-Buraq Wall. Some see this as one reason for Muslim reverence for the wall, others see it as propaganda to counter Jewish claims to the wall. Due to the holiness of the site in Islam, Muslims since the Caliphate of Omar have built and rebuilt the Dome of the Rock and the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, encompassed by the wall.

Access to the site has always been contentious, even when Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) ruled over it for 400 years (1515-1917), followed by the British Mandate of Palestine (1917-1948). Arab riots were instigated here in 1929, the Arabs claiming variously that the Jews were trying to build a synagogue there or take over the site. In 1931 the British government issued a document affirming Muslim property rights to the wall and placing strictures on Jewish observance.

According to many rabbis, Jews are forbidden to enter certain areas of the Temple Mount. These areas are defined differently by different rabbinic authorities, nonetheless all agree that the entrance into the area occupied by the Dome of the Rock is forbidden. That same area was once occupied by the Temple which was a biblically designated holy place. The rock beneath the Dome of The Rock, is considered by some rabbinic midrashic texts to be the foundation from which God created the universe. According to some rabbinic works, this rock was where the biblical patriarch Isaac was bound by Abraham during his near-sacrifice. This area was held to be where the patriarch Jacob slept and dreamt of a ladder going up to heaven with angels (Genesis). This spot is identified with the Holy Of Holies.

In ancient times only certain people were permitted into the Temple's grounds. The Temple complex consisted of distinct areas each with its own level of holiness. The most holy area, the Holy Of Holies (Kodesh Hakodashim), the central part of the Temple was entered only once a year on Yom Kippur and only by the High Priest. Other areas were accessible only to members of the priestly family, the Kohanim. Other areas, further from the Holy of Holies were accessible to the Levi'im. Further out were areas accessible to all Jews.

The Western Wall in 1870
The Western Wall in 1870

By 1517 Islamic Ottoman Empire under Selim I took the land of what was once ancient Israel and Judea from the Egyptian Mamelukes (1250-1517). Turkey had a benevolent attitude towards the Jews, having welcomed thousands of Jewish refugees who had recently been expelled from Spain by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1492. The Turkish Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, was so taken with Jerusalem and its plight that he ordered that a magnificent surrounding fortress-wall built around the entire city (which was not that large at that time.) This wall still stands and can be seen by all today.

During that time the Western Wall always remained a site venerated by Jews; many trekked from across the world to spend their last years near the walls of Jerusalem, spending much of their time in tearful prayer in front of the Western Wall; non-Jewish observers watching the Jews cry there (mourning the destruction of the Temple) gave the site its popular, but incorrect name, the Wailing Wall.

1917. The Jewish Legion soldiers at the Western Wall after taking part in British conquest of Jerusalem
1917. The Jewish Legion soldiers at the Western Wall after taking part in British conquest of Jerusalem

When the United Kingdom took control of the land in 1917 under General Edmund Allenby, Jews were still allowed to stand by the wall and utter their prayers. However during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the area near the wall was taken over by Arab Legion of the army of Jordan. Jews were denied access to the wall, in violation of the armistice agreements, and buildings were constructed within a few meters of the wall. During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel brought the wall under complete Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years.

The Israelis demolished the medieval Moroccan Quarter and built a large plaza in its place in front of the wall which is used by thousands of Jews on the Jewish holidays, and is a favorite tourist attraction year round. Many foreign heads of state who visit Israel, come to the Wall, out of their respect for its significance to Israel and to Jews world-wide. The Western Wall continues to have a powerful hold on the devotion of Jews all over the world. Over the decades, millions have come as tourists and pilgrims to be able to touch the Wall with their hands and feel the sanctity that emanates from it.

Recent damage to plaza

  • On February 16, 2004, a portion of a stone retaining wall that forms one side of the Western Wall Plaza and supports the ramp that leads from the Western Wall plaza to the Gate of the Moors (Hebrew Sha'ar HaMughrabim, Arabic Bab al-Maghariba) and on the Temple Mount collapsed. [1]
  • On March 30, 2005, The word "Allah" in Arabic was found hewn into the eastern wall of Jerusalem's Temple Mount. The vandalism was discovered on a half-meter section of the 2,000 year old wall, which is undergoing repair by a team of Jordanian engineers. [2]

Eyewitness accounts

  • Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done), [Titus] Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as were of the greatest eminence; that is, Phasaelus, and Hippicus, and Mariamne; and so much of the wall as enclosed the city on the west side. This wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison [in the Upper City], as were the towers [the three forts] also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.
  • And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it.
  • ...the Romans set fire to the extreme parts of the city [the suburbs] and burnt them down, and entirely demolished [Jerusalem’s] walls.
  • When [Titus] entirely demolished the rest of the city, and overthrew its walls, he left [three] towers as a monument of his good fortune, which had proved [the destructive power of] his auxiliaries, and enabled him to take what could not otherwise have been taken by him.
  • And where is now that great city, the metropolis of the Jewish nation, which was fortified by so many walls round about, which had so many fortresses and large towers to defend it, which could hardly contain the instruments prepared for the war, and which had so many ten thousands of men to fight for it? Where is this city that was believed to have God himself inhabiting therein? it is now demolished to the very foundations, and hath nothing left but that monument of it preserved, I mean the camp of those that hath destroyed it, which still dwells upon its ruins; some unfortunate old men also lie ashes upon the Temple, and a few women are there preserved alive by the enemy, for our bitter shame and reproach.... I cannot but wish that we had all died before we had seen that holy city demolished by the hands of our enemies, or the foundations of our Holy Temple dug up, after so profane a manner.
Eleazar at Masada, as reported by Josephus

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