Judaism's most sacred religious site, dating to King Herod the Great's reconstruction of the Second Temple in 19 BC. The First Temple was built in the 10th century BC on Mount Moriah (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem by King Solomon. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Second Temple was built on the same spot starting in 515 BC. Starting in 19 BC, the Second Temple was completely rebuilt by King Herod the Great. The Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) is actually a section of the retaining wall at the base of the Temple Mount, built during Herod's reconstruction.
The surviving massive stone blocks of the Western Wall are some 1,600 feet long and nearly 200 feet high. Herod's spectacular renovations made the Second Temple one of the architectural wonders of the age. Its destruction by the Romans marked the end of the Great Revolt (AD 66–70) and the beginning of Jewish exile.
The Temple Mount today is sacred to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), the site of Muhammad's ascent to heaven following his Night Journey to Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock stands over the rock from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended. Some Jews also believe that the rock marks the spot where the Sanctum Sanctorum (Holy of Holies) of King Solomon's Temple stood. The al-Aqsa Mosque, built during the seventh and eighth centuries AD, stands close to the Dome of the Rock.
Denied entrance to the Temple Mount, Jews in the Middle Ages made the Western Wall the preeminent place of prayer and pilgrimage. In the late 16th century, Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent gave Jews control of a portion of the wall and a narrow enclosed pavement, which became the now-familiar prayer area. The lamentations over the destruction of the Temple led to the Arabic name El-Mabka, or Place of Weeping, although the term "Wailing Wall" arose only during 20th-century British rule. The Western Wall is the literal translation of the traditional Hebrew ha-Kotel ha-Ma'aravi, preferred in Israel because the term "Wailing Wall" smacks of exile and Christian triumphalism.
By the mid-19th century, although they were the majority population in Jerusalem, the Jews lost authority over the Western Wall and found their worship hampered by official restrictions and popular harassment. Under the British Mandate for Palestine (1922–1948), the wall was contested territory and a flash point between Muslims and Jews, as both groups invested holy places with new meaning and asserted their rights in ways that the other found provocative and exclusionary. As the wall became a more regular place of Jewish prayer and symbol of national revival, Muslims began to identify the western rather than eastern or southern portions of the wall as the al-Buraq Wall, to which Muhammad tethered the magical beast that carried him on his miraculous Night Journey.
British maintenance of the late Ottoman Empire status quo regarding holy places strengthened the hand of Arab authorities. The Supreme Muslim Council and in particular the mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini exploited concern for the Temple Mount, its mosque, and the Dome of the Rock to mobilize anti-Zionist sentiment among the Palestinian masses and the international Muslim community. They denounced any presumed innovation in Jewish activity at the wall as an attempt to create a synagogue and thus a dire threat.
Conflict over the Western Wall broke out in 1928 and erupted into full-scale violence in 1929 when armed Arab attacks on Jews spread from Jerusalem throughout Palestine. As a result, 133 Jews died and 399 others were wounded, while 87 Arabs lost their lives and 98 more were wounded. The fighting foreshadowed the Arab-Jewish Communal War, accelerating the British tilt toward the Arabs and, in turn, the growth of Haganah, the Jewish underground military organization.
After the Arab states rejected the 1947 United Nations (UN) partition plan for Palestine and the internationalization of Jerusalem, Transjordan seized Jerusalem's Old City in 1948 during the Israeli War of Independence (1948–1949). In direct violation of the 1949 armistice agreements, Jordan denied Jews access to the Western Wall.
Responding to a Jordanian attack on June 5, 1967, Israeli Central Command under Major General Uzi Narkiss launched a hasty counterattack that encircled the Old City of Jerusalem after heavy fighting. On June 7, paratroops under Colonel Mordechai (Motta) Gur took the Temple Mount and linked up with other forces at the Western Wall. This emotional climax of the Six-Day War was broadcast live on Israeli radio as troops spontaneously prayed and sang the national anthem and the popular song "Jerusalem of Gold," coincidentally written just weeks earlier.
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan arrived on the scene to proclaim that Israel had returned to its holy places, never to leave, while also promising freedom of religion to non-Jews. Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek soon ordered the demolition of the adjoining Maghribi neighborhood, replacing the old enclosed worship area with a much larger open plaza capable of accommodating large numbers of worshipers. On June 14, 1967, some 250,000 worshipers converged on the Western Wall on the holiday of Shavuot. Legislation passed on June 27, 1967, united Jerusalem under Israeli administration and law.
The unanticipated return to the Western Wall struck Israelis across the political spectrum as miraculous. An ultraobservant Jewish minority took the turn of events literally. They saw it as a sign to advance claims on the Temple Mount through provocative statements and sometimes direct action. For the majority of secular Israelis, the Western Wall, as the only surviving physical remnant of the Temple and symbol of historic national sovereignty, served the needs of both Judaism and civil identity. It has since been used as a site for activities as diverse as prayer and the swearing in of military units. The plaza area today still awaits an aesthetically satisfying architectural plan capable of expressing the complex interrelation of functions and meanings.
The fraught interrelation between the Western Wall/Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharif has led in recent years to much strife and violence. In 1996 clashes led to the greatest outbreak of blood-letting since the beginning of the 1993 Oslo Peace Process. The Western Wall lay at the heart of the failed Camp David peace talks and the subsequent resumption of armed conflict by Palestinians following Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in 2000, resulting in the Second (al-Aqsa) Intifada.
Palestinians define the Temple Mount as inalienable Muslim property and are prepared to discuss only worship rights on sufferance at the traditional Wailing Wall, which was actually part of an inalienable waqf to which valid documentation exists. The Israelis demand control over the entire length of the Western Wall, and some groups insist on formal sovereignty over the Temple Mount as well.
Up until Sharon's venture onto the Haram al-Sharif, there had been a tacit understanding that Palestinians should control the Haram al-Sharif but should also contain any disturbances that threatened Jewish access to the Wailing Wall. The increasing tendency in Islamic and Arab discourse is to elevate the religious importance of all Jerusalem and portray it as under threat by Jews, thus resurrecting the al-Aqsa in danger theme from the period of the British Mandate.
Among the many proposals for dividing or sharing sovereignty over the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, the suggestion to sidestep the political problem by assigning sovereignty to God, is perhaps no less realistic than any other. Nevertheless, it presupposes the willingness of each side not to question the faith of the other.
Ben-Dov, Meir, Mordechai Naor, and Zeev Aner. The Western Wall. Translated by Raphael Posner. Jerusalem: Ministry of Defence Publishing House, 1983.; Dumper, Michael. The Politics of Sacred Space: The Old City of Jerusalem in the Middle East Conflict. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002.; Oren, Michael B. Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.; Ross, Dennis. The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.