The wall we call today the Western Wall, while not a part of the Holy Temple itself, was part of the Temple Mount retaining wall that Herod the Great built in the 1st century BCE when he ambitiously expanded the Temple Mount and renovated the then-dilapidated Second Temple.
When the Romans destroyed the Temple in 69 CE, this wall was not destroyed. And nearly two thousand years later, the wall still stands. Of the visible part of the wall, only the bottom seven layers of stones, consisting of large stones with indented borders, date from Herod’s project. The next section, consisting of four layers of smaller, plainer stones, dates from the Byzantine period. The next layer up was added sometime after the Moslem conquest in the seventh century, and the topmost layer was added in the 19th century, paid for by the famed British philanthropist and financier, Sir Moses Montefiore.
Jews throughout the ages have visited the Western Wall to offer prayers at this holy location, because, our sages teach, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) that was manifest in the Temple never departed. Furthermore, access to the holiest site in the world, the Temple Mount itself, is prevented by Jewish law, which forbids entry to the Temple site while in a state of ritual impurity. Thus the Western Wall constitutes the closest possible point to the “Gateway to Heaven.”
In the second half of the 16th century, Suleiman the Magnificent gave the Jews exclusive rights to worship at the Western Wall. The prayer area was small, closed off by a wall running parallel to the Wall and hemmed in by a slum area. It stayed that way until 1947.
In 1930, a British appointed commission sanctioned by the League of Nations reaffirmed the Jews’ right to pray at the Wall—but severely limited the sort of religious objects that could be brought to the Wall, and prohibited the blowing of the shofar at the site.
Between 1948 and 1967, the Old City of Jerusalem was under Jordanian control and Jews were altogether banned from visiting the Wall. Israeli paratroopers liberated the Temple Mount on June 7th 1967, the third day of the Six Day War, marking a rare, euphoric moment in our nation’s history. A few weeks later, on the holiday of Shavuot, a quarter of a million Jews streamed to the Wall.
Until then, the accessible portion of the Wall had been a 100 foot-long stretch of the massive wall, and the open area before the Wall was only ten feet wide. The many buildings in front of the wall were immediately razed, all the way to its southern corner. The entire area was leveled and paved, creating a large open plaza.
Today, the part of the Wall visible from the plaza is 187 feet long. The entire length of the Western Wall, however, is actually 1,600 feet long. The northern portion of the Wall is still hidden by buildings in the adjacent Muslim Quarter.
Seventeen more layers of Western Wall stones are buried under the ground. Due to many generations of destruction and rebuilding, city upon city, the ground level is now higher and the bottom part of the western side of the Temple Mount is buried.
The Western Wall, or Kotel, in the Old City of Jerusalem has figured prominently in the Jewish consciousness for centuries. Generations dreamed of appearing before the old stone wall, even just once. Now, the Wall is active 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the cracks between the rectangular stones are crammed with paper.