Known by several names – Western Wall, Kotel, Kosel, Buraq Wall – the Wailing Wall is a centerpiece of the Old City of Jerusalem. Not only does it have spiritual import to millions of visitors of Abrahamic faith, but its historic and cultural significance is enormous. Let us introduce you to this fascinating fixture of Middle East history…
Birth of the Wailing Wall
Construction on the Wailing Wall began in around 19 BCE, as directed by then Judean King Herod the Great. It was part of a massive expansion of the centuries-old Second Temple, built in the 6th century BCE. Unfortunately for both pilgrims and historians, the wall seemed to be shoddily built; evidence of this was uncovered when archaeologists discovered a hastily-filled ritual bath made to serve as part of the wall’s foundation.
Questionable construction aside, Herod’s efforts were ultimately for naught as the Romans destroyed Herod’s temple expansion entirely during the Jewish uprising of 70 CE. Following the Jewish defeat, Jews were largely banned from Jerusalem. It wasn’t until the 4th century CE, following the widespread acceptance of Christianity in the Roman Empire, that Jews were slowly allowed to return to the city to visit sacred sites – including the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall.
Origins of the name
This name “Wailing Wall” is predominantly used by Jews and Christians. When Jews were allowed back into the city during the reign of Constantine, they visited the wall as an act of remembrance – grieving the many Jewish loved ones who were lost in the fight against the Roman Empire. Some would weep openly and tear their garments, while others would quietly pray, remembering the atrocities of the Jewish-Roman War.
The wall under foreign control
The Roman softening would not last, unfortunately. Following Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem in 1187, Moroccans were granted land rights near the Wailing Wall. In fact, they began to build their homes as close as 15 feet from the wall. The sacred character of the wall seemed suddenly forgotten.
Over time, however, writings sprung up suggesting that just inside the Wailing Wall was where the prophet Mohammed mounted his winged steed, al-Buraq. It took several centuries for this to turn the Wailing Wall into a revered site in Muslim communities, but by the 19th century, it was indeed widely believed to be the location for Mohammed’s entry into and out of the Temple Mount.
In the 1500s, the Ottomans conquered Jerusalem and brought their own reverence for the wall. Sultan Suleiman was even said to ask that the wall be washed with rosewater. Still, however, development continued around the wall – as did the growing tension between Muslims and Jews, both of whom claimed some right to the wall and the area around it.
By the 20th century, when the British laid brief claim to the city, conflict over the wall reached a peak. Jews continued to visit, complaining of encroachment. Moroccans and those encamped next to the wall complained of incessant noise. Muslims decried Jewish claim of the wall as their sacred site. This precipitated Jewish efforts to either purchase the wall (which failed) or purchase and demolish the adjacent Moroccan quarter (which also failed). Perhaps unsurprisingly, conflicts also entailed conflicting religious practices – one in particular which separated men and women with screens. As this was deemed desecration of the site – forbidden under the active regulations established by Muslim Turks – they were forcibly torn down by the Brits. This caused riots, which caused backlash, and unfortunately, injury.
When Israel recaptured the city following the Six-Day War in 1967, they immediately tore down the Moroccan Quarter, a nearby mosque, and an Islamic school to make room for a plaza that would give visitors the space to worship.
The Wailing Wall today
While tensions still exist inside Jerusalem regarding claim to and use of the Wailing Wall, there has been something of a détente. This has allowed for renovation and expansion of the wall. In fact, between 2005 and 2010, several improvements were made to accommodate worshippers, including the renovation of a men-only room that houses 100 Torah scrolls and a library. More recently, the Wailing Wall has been opened up to worship by Reform and Conservative Jewish groups, as well as services led by the Women of the Wall, a group of multi-denominational feminists.
Wailing Wall composition
Outside of its spiritual and historical significance, the Wailing Wall itself is a remarkable architectural feat – especially as it has survived more than 2,000 years. At its highest point, it towers to 105 feet and at its thickest, about 3 feet. What’s more, a hodgepodge of stones makes up its structure; most of these are 2-5 tons in weight, though one notable block of ashlar weighs a whopping 517 tons – the largest single building stone in the world. Curiously, the various layers of stone speak to historical eras, stretching from the original Herodian dynasty through repairs in the time of Saladin and minor additions tacked on during the Mamluk period in the 16th century.
Visiting the Wailing Wall
A visit to the Wailing Wall is free and the area is open to the public. However, you may benefit from a tour, which can explain the full history and significance of the surrounding structures – as well as the Temple Mount. Half-day Wailing Wall/Old City Jerusalem tours run about $50, though you can opt for more focused tours of the Temple Mount and the tunnels for quite a bit less.
Speaking of which, we recommend experiencing the tunnels underneath where you can see the foundation of the wall and the mishmash of stones that gave it rise. For even more historical context, visit the nearby Chain of Generations Center, a beautiful artistic depiction of the connections of Jewish generations throughout the centuries.
One thing to keep in mind when you visit, however: This is a Jewish holy site, so be respectful of those who come to worship.