The Western Wall: A Quick History

Who Has Controlled the Kotel Since 70 CE?

The Kotel, 2009
Chaviva Gordon-Bennett

The First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, and the Second Temple was finalized in 516 BCE. It wasn't until King Herod decided in the 1st century BCE to expand the Temple Mount that the Western Wall, also called the Kotel, was built.

The Western Wall was one of four retaining walls that supported the Temple Mount until the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. The Western Wall was the closest to the Holy of Holies and quickly became a popular place of prayer to mourn the Temple's destruction.

 

Christian Rule

Under Christian rule from 100-500 CE, Jews were forbidden from living in Jerusalem and were only allowed into the city once a year on Tisha b'Av to mourn the loss of the Temple at the Kotel. This fact is documented in the Bordeaux Itinerary as well as in accounts from the 4th century by Gregory of Nazianzus and Jerome. Finally, Byzantine Empress Aelia Eudocia allowed Jews to officially resettle in Jerusalem.

The Middle Ages

During the 10th and 11th centuries, there are many Jews who record instances of the Western Wall. The Scroll of Ahimaaz, written in 1050, describes the Western Wall as a popular place of prayer and in 1170 Benjamin of Tudela writes,

"In front of this place is the Western Wall, which is one of the walls of the Holy of Holies. This is called the Gate of Mercy, and hither come all the Jews to pray before the Wall in the open court."

Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro, in 1488, wrote that “the Western Wall, part of which is still standing, is made of great, thick stones, larger than any I have seen in buildings of antiquity in Rome or in other lands.”

Muslim Rule

In the 12th century, the land adjacent to the Kotel was established as a charitable trust by Saladin’s son and successor al-Afdal. Named after the mystic Abu Madyan Shu’aib, it was dedicated to Moroccan settlers and houses were built just feet away from the Kotel. This became known as the Moroccan Quarter, and it stood until 1948.

Ottoman Occupation

During Ottoman rule from 1517 to 1917, Jews were welcomed by the Turks after having been expelled from Spain by Ferdinand II and Isabella in 1492. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was so taken with Jerusalem that he ordered a huge fortress wall built around the Old City, which still stands today. In the late 16th century Suleiman gave Jews the right to worship at the Western Wall, too.

It is believed that it was at this point in history that the Kotel became a popular destination for Jews for prayer because of the freedoms that were granted under Suleiman.

It is in the mid-16th century that prayers at the Western Wall are first mentioned, and Rabbi Gedaliah of Semitzi visited Jerusalem in 1699 and recorded that the scrolls of halacha (law) are brought to the Western Wall on days of historic, national tragedy.

During the 19th century, foot traffic at the Western Wall began to build as the world became a more global, transient place. Rabbi Joseph Schwarz wrote in 1850 that “the large space at [the Kotel’s] foot is often so densely filled up, that all cannot perform their devotions here at the same time.”

Tensions increased during this period because of the noise from visitors that upset those who lived in homes nearby, which gave rise to Jews pursuing to acquire land near the Kotel.

Over the years, many Jews and Jewish organizations tried to purchase homes and land near the wall, but without success for reasons of tensions, lack of funds, and other tensions.

It was Rabbi Hillel Moshe Gelbstein, who settled in Jerusalem in 1869 and was successful in acquiring nearby courtyards that were set up as synagogues and who created a method for bringing tables and benches near the Kotel for study. In the late 1800s a formal decree forbade Jews from lighting candles or placing benches at the Kotel, but this was overturned around 1915. 

​Under British Rule

After the British captured Jerusalem from the Turks in 1917, there was a renewed hope for the area around the Kotel to fall into Jewish hands. Unfortunately, Jewish-Arab tensions kept this from happening and several deals for the purchase of land and homes near the Kotel fell through.

In the 1920s, tensions arose over mechitzahs (divider separating a men's and women's prayer section) being placed at the Kotel, which resulted in the constant presence of a British soldier who made sure Jews did not sit at the Kotel or place a mechitzah at the sight, either. It was around this time that Arabs began worrying about Jews taking possession of more than just the Kotel, but also of pursuing the Al Aqsa Mosque. The Vaad Leumi responded to these fears by assuring the Arabs that

“no Jew has ever thought of encroaching upon the rights of Moslems over their own Holy places, but our Arab brethren should also recognize the rights of Jews in regard to the places in Palestine which are holy to them.”

In 1929, following moves by the Mufti, including having mules led through the alley in front of the Western Wall, often dropping excrement, and attacks on Jews praying at the wall, protests took place across Israel by Jews. Then, a mob of Muslim Arabs burned Jewish prayer books and notes that had been placed in the cracks of the Western Wall. The riots spread and a few days later, the tragic Hebron Massacre took place.

Following the riots, a British commission approved by the League of Nations undertook to understand the rights and claims of Jews and Muslims in connection with the Western Wall. In 1930, the Shaw Commission concluded that the wall and the adjacent area were owned solely by the Muslim waqf. That being decided, Jews still had the right to “free access to the Western Wall for the purpose of devotions at all times,” with a set of stipulations regarding certain holidays and rituals, including making the blowing of the shofar illegal.

Captured by Jordan

In 1948, the Old City’s Jewish Quarter was captured by Jordan, Jewish homes were destroyed, and many Jews were killed. From 1948 until 1967, the Western Wall was under Jordanian rule and Jews could not reach the Old City, let alone the Kotel.

Liberation

During the 1967 Six-Day War, a group of paratroopers managed to get to the Old City through the Lion’s Gate and liberate the Western Wall and Temple Mount, reunifying Jerusalem and allowing Jews to once again pray at the Kotel.

 

In the 48 hours after this liberation, the military – without explicit governmental orders – demolished the entire Moroccan Quarter as well as a mosque near the Kotel, all in order to make way for the Western Wall Plaza. The plaza expanded the narrow sidewalk in front of the Kotel from accommodating a maximum of 12,000 people to accommodate more than 400,000 people.

The Kotel Today

Today, there are several areas of the Western Wall area that provide accommodations for different religious observances to hold different types of services and activities. These include Robinson’s Arch and Wilson’s Arch