The Western Wall, or simply the Kotel, is a Jewish religious site located in the Old City of Jerusalem. The wall itself dates from the end of the Second Temple period, being constructed around 19 BC. It is often referred to as the Wailing Wall, in connection with Jewish practice of coming to the site to mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple.
The Western Wall commonly refers to an 187 feet section of ancient wall situated on the western flank of the Temple Mount. This section faces a large plaza and is set aside for prayer. In its entirety however, the above ground portion of the Western Wall stretches for 1,600 feet, most of which is hidden behind residential structures built along its length. The wall functions as a retaining wall, built to support the extensive renovations that Herod the Great carried out around 19 BC. Herod expanded the small quasi-natural plateau on which the First and Second Temples stood into the wide expanse of the Temple Mount visible today.
According to the Bible, Solomon’s Temple was built atop the Temple Mount in the 10th century BC and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Second Temple was built in 516 BC. In around 19 BC Herod the Great began a massive expansion project on the Temple Mount. He artificially expanded the area which resulted in an enlarged platform. Today’s Western Wall formed part of the retaining perimeter wall of this platform. Herod’s Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire, along with the rest of Jerusalem, in 70 AD during the First Jewish-Roman War. However, the Western Wall was spared.
In Judaism, the Western Wall is venerated as the sole remnant of the Holy Temple. It has become a place of pilgrimage for Jews, as it is the closest permitted accessible site to the holiest spot in Judaism, namely the Even ha-shetiya or Foundation Stone, which lies on the Temple Mount. According to majority rabbinic opinion, Jews may not set foot upon the Temple Mount and doing so is a sin punishable by karet. While many believe that the rocky outcrop in the Dome of the Rock is the Foundation Stone, others say it is located directly opposite the exposed section of the Western Wall, near the El-kas fountain. This spot was the site of the Holy of Holies when the Temple stood.
Jewish tradition teaches that the Western Wall was built by King David and that the wall we see today is built upon his foundations, which date from the time of the First Temple. The Midrash writes that God promised that the Western Wall will never be destroyed. Jewish sources teach that when Roman Emperor Vespasian ordered the destruction of the Temple, he ordered Pangar, Duke of Arabia, to destroy the Western Wall. Pangar however could not destroy the wall because of God’s promise that the Wall will never be destroyed. When asked by Titus why he did not destroy it, Pangar replied that it would stand as a reminder of what Titus had conquered. He was duly executed. There is a tradition that states that when water starts trickling through the stones of the Wall, it is a signal of the advent of the Messiah. Throughout the ages, the Wall is where Jews have gathered to express gratitude to God or to pray for divine mercy.