Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Kotel (Western Wall).

Praying at the Kotel (Image from Serenity Travels)
For me, the iconic symbol of Jerusalem is the Kotel which is also as the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall. In modern Hebrew, it's called "HaKotel HaMa'aravi".

The hotel that I am staying at provides a free shuttle to the Western Wall.  I arrive early in the morning and as soon as I have settled in to the room and had breakfast, my plan is to hop on that shuttle and head down to the wall.  I cannot imagine my trip through Jerusalem and Israel beginning anywhere else.

Jerusalem is all about ancient history so you can't tell the story of the Western Wall without it.  There is a lot of history and it's complicated but I think I have managed to capture the key points.  So here's how the wall came to be.  It starts with the Old Testament.

The Old Testament tells the story of the birth of a kingdom that occupied what we now refer to as the Holy Land. The first sovereign of the kingdom was Saul and it was his successors, David (whose rule is traditionally given as from around 1010 to 970 BC) and Solomon (who is believed to have ruled from 970 to 940 BC) laid the foundations for the Jewish nation. According to the Bible, it was David who captured Jerusalem and made it the Israelite capital and it was Solomon who built the First Temple on a mountain peak known back then as Mount Moriah.  Today, that same site is known as Temple Mount.


It is believed that the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle and later the First Temple housed what is known as the Holy of the Holies.  The Holy of the Holies was contained the Tablet of the Covenant which held the Ark of the Covenant.  It is believed that the Ark of the Covenant held the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai.  According to Hebrews 9:4 in the New Testament, Aaron's rod and a pot of manna were also contained in the Ark.

After Solomon died, conflicts led to the division of the Jewish nation into two parts:  the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judea in the south.

Two hundred years later, the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel and not long after, the Kingdom of Judea also fell into Assyrian hands.

In 587 BC, the Assyrians were in turn conquered by Babylonians.  In the conquest, the Babylonian's captured Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple built by Solomon.  Under Babylonian rule, the Jews were forced into exile.   In 538 BC, the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians and the Jews were allowed to return to their land.

Upon return to Jerusalem, the Jews built a new temple on the same site as the first.  This event in history of Jerusalem marks the beginning of what is referred to as the "Second Temple" period.

Flash forward a few hundred years during which Jerusalem and the Jews continued to endure strife.

In 63 BC, Romans conquered the lands in and around Jerusalem and in 27 BC, appointed Herod as king. Herod wasted no time in expanding his frontiers and initiating grand architectural projects including the expansion of the Second Temple. He commanded workers to make the Temple more magnificent and to widen the the site by flattening the mountain peak and building four support walls around it.

Drawing of what historians believe the Second Temple and Temple Mount to have looked like.

The Jews were not content under Roman rule and clashes with Rome broke out repeatedly, culminating in a full-scale revolt in 66 AD.  The war lasted four years at the end of which the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple.

Despite the destruction that took place, all four Temple Mount support walls remained standing.  What makes the Western Wall so significant to the Jews is that it is the remnant closest to the site of the First Temple’s Holy of Holies.
 
The Western Wall is the most significant site in the world for the Jews and thousands of people make pilgrimages there each year.  Many Muslims believe that the wall has no relation to ancient Judaism. They refer to the wall as the al-Buraq Wall, a reference to al-Buraq, the winged steed that Muhammad is said to have ridden. Muslims believe that Muhammad tied al-Buraq to the wall while he ascended to heaven to speak with God. Many Muslims also believe that the wall was part of the ancient al-Aqsa Mosque, and that Jews did not begin praying at the wall until at least the 16th century, if not much later.

I am certain that the contention over the history of Temple Mount and the Western Wall will continue for generations to come.  Religious differences are not something that are easily settled and there is no right or wrong to what believe.  I have no plans to engage in any religious or political discussions while I am in Israel and I will not do so in this blog -  I will just stick to descriptions of things to see and do.

Along those lines, I did learn that the main section of the wall, where people go to pray, is about 57 meters (187 feet) long and is made of meleke limestone. Most of the stones weigh 1,814.4 kg (4,000 lbs) or more.  One enormous stone, called the Western Stone, weighs more than 500,000 kg (1.1 million lbs). There are 28 stone layers above the ground and 17 underground. An underground tunnel runs along the length of the wall.

Temple Mount and the Kotel  (Image from Making Sense of Things)

The entire length of the Western Wall, however, is actually 488 meters (1,600 feet) long so where is the remaining part of the Wall?  Apparently, the first approximately 80 meters (262 feet) on the southern end were uncovered immediately after the Six Day War and can be seen at the Southern Excavations. The Prayer Plaza, expanded in the years after the Six Day War, is located in the adjacent 57 meters to the north. The remaining 320 meters (1,050 feet) continues underground beneath the streets and houses of the Old City of Jerusalem. Sections of the Wall were uncovered in ongoing excavations and can bee seen now within the Western Wall Tunnels.  Interesting.  If there is a way to see the excavation site, I will find my way there.

Papers stuffed into crevice.  (Image by kazwell)
Jews from around the world, and as well as tourists of other religious backgrounds, go to pray at the wall, where many people believe that one immediately has the "ear of God." People who cannot pray at the wall can send in prayers or ask for the Kaddish, a specific Jewish prayer, to be said for departed loved ones.   Prayers that are sent in are placed into the cracks of the walls and are called kvitelach.  I found several websites that offer this service for a very small fee.  Basically, you email them your prayer and they print it out and place the piece of paper in the crack.  I've not decided whether or not I will place a prayer in the crack....I think I will just let the moment tell me but I will bring along a small pad of paper and pen just in case I do want to do it.   When the small pieces of papers become too numerous — more than 1 million are placed each year — they are removed and buried.

The Wailing Wall can be visited at any time of the day.  I plan to visit at least once in the early morning and then once in the evening and then once at night.  I want to see what the place looks and feels like as the day progresses through to night. 

I can't wait to be there!