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What is the Western Wall?

By Anna Harrison
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Western Wall, or Kotel, is a section of the retaining wall built in 20 AD, that surrounded the holy Temple Mount, which was destroyed in 70 AD. It is located within the Old City in Jerusalem and it is sacred to Jews. They have gone there for hundreds of years to pray and mourn the loss of their temple. It stands as a constant reminder of what no longer exists as well as the salvation that is coming one day. Orthodox Jews all over the world turn in the direction of the Western Wall when they pray.

In the early 1500s, the wall became increasingly revered by the Orthodox Jewish population, and it was about this time that it began to be referred to as the "Wailing Wall." Though it was approximately 1580 feet (485 m) long, only a very small portion of the wall was accessible to the public. The piece left standing today is just 195 feet (60 m) in length. Many Jews make religious pilgrimages there to this day, and continue to mourn, or wail, in reverence for their lost temple. They also go there to pray, and these prayers are said to be particularly effective.

There are numerous customs affiliated with the Western Wall. Jews believe that the gate to Heaven is located near the Wailing Wall and that prayers made there easily transcend to Heaven. Prayers are commonly written on small pieces of paper and inserted into cracks in the wall. In the past, shoes were removed before approaching the wall, and Jewish women were honored for cleaning portions of it. These customs are generally no longer practiced.

The stones that were used to construct the Western Wall were extremely large, with some weighing over 50 tons. There are seven rows of these large stones that are above ground, with four or five rows of smaller stones on top of them. These were added much later, in the early 8th Century. On top of these are even smaller stones, and the date which they were added is subject to debate. The three rows of white stones that lay on the very top were placed there by the Muslim Religious Council in recent times in an effort to repair part of the ancient wall.

The Western Wall was relinquished to the Arab Legion in 1948 and was under the control of the Jordanian government, who denied Jews access to it. It was not until June of 1967, when the Old City was captured by Israeli paratroopers in the Six Day War, that the Jews were again allowed to approach the Western Wall to worship. There is now an area in front of the wall where men and women can pray in separate areas as is mandated for Orthodox Jews.

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