What You Need to Know About the Wailing Wall or Western Wall

Jews, Arabs and the Wailing Wall

Snow Storms Continue In Israel

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The Wailing Wall, also referred to as the Kotel, the Western Wall, or Solomon's Wall, and whose lower sections date to about the first century BCE, is located in the Old Quarter of East Jerusalem in Israel. Built of thick, corroded limestone, it is about 60 feet (20 meters) high and close to 160 feet (50 meters) long, though most of it is engulfed in other structures. 

A Sacred Jewish Site

The wall is believed by devout Jews to be the Western Wall of the Second Temple of Jerusalem (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE), the only surviving structure of the Herodian Temple built during the realm of Herod Agrippa (37 BCE–4 CE) in the first century BCE. The temple's original location is in dispute, leading some Arabs to dispute the claim that the wall belongs to the temple, arguing instead that it is part of the structure of Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.

The structure's description as the Wailing Wall derives from its Arabic identification as el-Mabka, or "place of weeping," frequently repeated by European—and particularly French—travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th century as "le mur des lamentations." Jewish devotions believe that the "divine presence never departs from the Western Wall."

Worshiping the Wall

The custom of worshiping at the Western Wall began during the Medieval period. In the 16th century, the wall and the narrow courtyard where people worship was located with the 14th century Moroccan Quarter. The Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1494–1566) set aside this section for the express purpose of religious observances of any kind. In the 19th century, the Ottomans allowed Jewish men and women to pray together on Fridays and high holy days. They segregated themselves by gender: the men stood still or sat apart from the wall; while the women moved about and rested their foreheads against the wall.

Beginning in 1911, the Jewish users began bringing chairs and screens to allow the men and women to worship is separate cloisters in the narrow passageway, but the Ottoman rulers saw it for what it probably also was: the thin edge of the wedge to ownership, and banned such behavior. In 1929, a riot occurred when some Jews attempted to build a temporary screen.

Modern Struggles

The Wailing Wall is one of the great Arab–Israeli struggles. Jews and Arabs still dispute who is in control of the wall and who has access to it, and many Muslims maintain that the Wailing Wall has no relation to ancient Judaism at all. Sectarian and ideological claims aside, the Wailing Wall remains a sacred place for Jews and others who often pray—or perhaps wail—and sometimes slip prayers written on paper through the wall's welcoming fissures. In July 2009, Alon Nil launched a free service allowing people around the world to Twitter their prayers, which are then taken in printed form to the Wailing Wall.

Israel's Annexation of the Wall

After the war of 1948 and the Arab capture of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem, Jews were generally banned from praying at the Wailing Wall, which was at times defaced by political posters.

Israel annexed Arab East Jerusalem immediately after the 1967 Six Day War and claimed ownership of the city's religious sites. Incensed—and fearing that the tunnel the Israelis began digging, starting from the Wailing Wall and under the Temple Mount, shortly after the war was over was designed to undermine the foundations of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site after the mosques in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia—Palestinians and other Muslims rioted, triggering a clash with Israeli forces that left five Arabs dead and hundreds wounded.

In January 2016, the Israeli government approved the first space where non-Orthodox Jews of both sexes can pray side by side, and the first Reform prayer service of both men and women took place in February 2016 in a section of the wall known as Robinson's Arch.

Sources and Further Reading