The Western Wall
The Western Wall

The Western Wall in the midst of the Old City in Jerusalem is the section of the Western supporting wall of the Temple Mount which has remained intact since the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple (70 C.E.). It became the most sacred spot in Jewish religious and national consciousness and tradition by virtue of its proximity to the Western Wall of the Holy of Holies in the Temple, from which, according to numerous sources, the Divine Presence never departed. It became a center of mourning over the destruction of the Temple and Israel's exile, on the one hand, and of religious - in 20th century also national - communion with the memory of Israel's former glory and the hope for its restoration, on the other. Because of the former association, it became known in European languages as the "Wailing Wall".







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The Wall

Most of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, which was about 485 m. long, is hidden by the buildings adjoining it. Until June 1967 the accessible portion of the wall was no longer than 28 m. In front of it ran a stone-paved alley 3.5 m wide bordered on its west by a slum area. The Wall aboveground consisted of 24 rows of stones of different dressing and age, reaching a total height of 18 m. with 6 m. above the level of the Temple Mount. In 1867 excavations revealed that 19 more rows lay buried underground, the lowest being sunk into the natural rock of the Tyropoeon Valley.

In 1968 the ground in front of the Wall was excavated to reveal two of the buried rows of stone, and the Wall then consisted of seven layers of huge, marginally dressed ("Herodian") stones from the Second Temple, above which are four layers of smaller, plainly dressed stones from the Roman or Byzantine periods. The upper stones were constructed after the Moslem conquest.

Jewish travelers over the centuries used to marvel the immense dimensions of the lower stones - average height 1 m and length 3 m, but some as long as 12 m. and weighing over 100 tons - and believed they were part of Solomon's Temple. They were probably quarried at the Cave of Zedkiah (near the Damascus Gate). In order to withstand the soil pressure of the filling behind the Wall, the rows were laid in a terraced manner, each row being set back a few centimeters relative to the one beneath it. The Wall thus slants slightly eastward. This factor, the weight of the stones, and the accuracy of the cutting account for the unusual stability of the Wall.

The underground tunnel starting at the north-west of the prayer plaza passes close to the part of the Western Wall that is hidden by the buildings. It goes through a system of vaulted areas and water cisterns. About 350 m. of the Wall have been uncovered, up to the northern edge, which is the north-western corner of the Temple Mount. In a tunnel the largest stones of the Wall were found, including a giant stone about 60 m long, 3 m. high and 4 m. wide, and weighing approximately 400 tons.

Jewish Tradition and the Wall

Since 132 CE (the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt), the prayers of Israel both in the Land of Israel and throughout the Diaspora were directed towards the site of the destroyed Temple. The Temple itself, as well as all the structures on the Temple Mount, became endeared to the Jews. The Midrashic sources of this period speak about the Western Wall of the Holy of Holies from which the Divine Presence never moves. Since the Holy of Holies was destroyed, the notion of eternal Divine Presence became associated with the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

Sources about the Jews in Jerusalem up to 16th century note their attachment to the site of the Holy Place, but the Western Wall is not referred to specifically, though the scroll of Ahimaaz (11th century) mentions a synagogue by the side of the Western Wall, and Benjamin from Tudela (12th century) mentions the Western Wall, together with the Mercy Gate (which is in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount).

The Western Wall became a permanent feature in Jewish tradition about 1520, either as a result of the immigration of the Spanish exiles or in the wake of the Turkish conquest in 1518. Thenceforth all literary sources describe it as a place of assembly and prayer for Jews. According to a tradition transmitted by Moses Hafiz, it was the sultan Selim (Suleiman) the conqueror of Jerusalem who recovered the wall from underneath the dungheap which was hiding it and granted permission to the Jews to hold prayers there. No Muslim sources about Jerusalem bear any evidence of the Arab interest in the Western Wall. The nearby area became Muslim religious property at the end of 12th century, and from 1320 there is mention of the Moghrabi Quarter established there. Nevertheless, Jews were able to hold their prayers at the Wall undisturbed.

The Recent History

With the expansion of the Jewish population in the Land of Israel from the beginning of the 19th century onward, and with the increase in visitors, the popularity of the Western Wall grew among Jews. Its image began to appear in Jewish folkloristic art, and later also in modern art drawings and in literature. The 19th century also was the beginning of the archaeological study if the Western Wall north and south of the open prayer spot. In 1838 Robinson discovered the arch since named after him, and in 1850s Barclay laid bare the ancient gate (now in the corner of the women's section). In 1865 Wilson described the bridge discovered by Tobler in the 1830th. In 1867 Sir Charles Warren sank shafts to reveal the full length if the wall.

During the 19th century the Jewish attempted to to get control of the Wall. In the 1850s Hakham Abdullah of Bombay failed in his efforts to buy it. Sir Moses Montefiore tried in vain to obtain permission for placing benches or for installing a protection against rain there. Permission to pave the street was, however, granted. Occasionally a table for the reading of the Torah was placed near the Wall, but had to be soon removed at the demands of the Waqf (Muslim religious authorities). In 1887 Baron Rotschild, basing on cooperation with Sephardi community, offered to buy the whole Moghrabi Quarter, resettle its residents and have it demolished. The plan never materialized, probably not only because of the Muslim objections, but due to disagreements between leaders of the Sephardi community.

In 1912 the Turkish authorities ordered the removal of a partition between men and women, benches, a glass cupboard for candles, a table for reading Torah, etc., after the complaints of Waqf.

In the period of the British Mandate there were numerous clashes around the Western Wall between Jews and Moslems. After the Balfour Declaration has given the Jews a recognized national status in the Land of Israel, the Western Wall gained national significance among the Jews together with the traditional religious significance. On the other hand, the Arab mufti started to incite his community against the Zionists who, he claimed, intended to seize control of the Wall. In order to antagonize the Jews, the mufti ordered the opening of a gate at the southern end of the street thus converting in into a a thoroughfare for passersby and animals. In addition the Muslims deliberately help loud-voiced ceremonies in the vicinity. They also complained again about the placing of accessories of worship near the Wall, and a partition between men and women was removed by the British police on Yom Kippur of 1928. In August 1929 an instigated Muslim crowd rioted among the worshipers and destroyed ritual objects. This unrest was followed by riots a few days later.

The British set up a committee of inquiry and consequently an international committee (consisting of a Swede, a Swiss, and a Dutchman) was appointed by the League of Nations to resolve "the problem of the Wall". It conducted in Jerusalem, in the summer of 1930, "the trial of the Wall". The commission concluded that the Muslims had absolute ownership of the Wall. However, the Jews had the uncontested right to worship and to place seats in the street, though not to blow the shofar there. The Arabs objected, and the Jews agreed, except for the last point, considering it a humiliation. Each year nationalist youths would blow the shofar near the wall at the termination of Yom Kippur, which would always lead to the intervention of the British police.

From December 1947, after bloody incidents with the Arabs, Jews were no longer able to approach the Wall. After the capitulation of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in May 1948, Jews were prevented for 19 years from even looking at the Wall from afar, in spite of a paragraph in the cease-fire agreement granting freedom of access to the holy places.

The Wall was liberated on the third day of the Six-Day war (June 7, 1967) by Israel's parachutists breaking through the "bloody gate" which the mufti had opened. The Moghrabi quarter was immediately demolished, and on the first day of Shavuot, quarter a million Jews swarmed to the place. Subsequently the buildings placed against the Wall in its continuation southward were removed. The entire cleared area in front of the Western Wall was leveled and converted into a large paved open space. The lower square near the Wall is the prayer area, where one may find people praying or studying, either singly or in groups, day and night throughout the year. The surface of the wall, from the pavement and up to the man's height, differs by the color and feels differently - it is polished by human hands that touched it in prayers through the centuries.

Getting There

By bus: Routes no 1, 38,88

By car: there is a parking lot near the Dung Gate (the Gate of the Old City nearest to the Wall).

Eliyahu Wager, Illustrated Guide to Jerusalem
Encyclopedia Judaica

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Rosh Ha-Niqra -- Banyas -- Gamla -- Qumran -- The Western Wall

Masada -- Ein-Avdat -- Avdat -- Ramon Crater -- Eilat