Wailing Wall

Ha-Kotel, meaning The Wall, or the Western Wall is the holiest of sites in Judaism, and is located in Jerusalem's historic and sacred Old City. For centuries, Europeans called this wall the Jerusalem Wailing Wall because this is where Jews would gather to lament (weep and wail) the loss of their temple. Today, Wailing Wall is a rarely used term.

The lost temple is the Second Temple (or Temple Mount). The first temple was built by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. It housed the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandment tablets. The second temple was completed by King Herod in 516 BC, and was destroyed by Romans in 70 AD. Both temples were enclosed, as was the practice, by the Jerusalem Wailing Wall and other walls.

In the seventh century, the Dome of the Rock was built on the site of the second temple. This is a sacred site in Islam, as the rock covered by the dome is considered the place where Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven on his winged horse and in the company of the angel Gabriel. This is the reason that the prayer areas of mosques, including the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina in Saudi Arabia, once faced Jerusalem. During his lifetime, the Prophet Mohammed changed the orientation of prayer to face Mecca.

Between the Western Wall built by Herod for the second temple and the Dome of the Rock is another site holy to Muslims, the Al Aqsa Mosque, the second oldest mosque after the huge Kaaba in the Masjid al-Haram at Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The term Wailing Wall also comes from the Arabic language, as Muslims referred to it as el-Mabka, literally meaning the "place of wailing." Today, Muslims refer to it as al-Buraaq.

For many centuries, the Western Wall was thought to be the only remaining wall, but subsequent excavations revealed that almost all of the walls that once enclosed the Second Temple are still standing.

The Wailing Wall Plaza, the huge open area that faces the Western Wall functions as an open-air synagogue where the faithful come to pray throughout the day and night. Special events, like Bar and Bat Mitvah, are also held here.

It is an age-old tradition to write prayers on bits of paper and stuff them in the cracks between the Western Wall stones. Visiting dignitaries, from U.S. Presidents and movie stars to the Pope, also publicly visit this sacred site, leaving their own prayers behind. While visitors of all faiths are welcome, all are requested to adhere to some customs out of respect. Men must wear a hat; free head coverings are available near the entrance to the prayer area, as are women's shawls and covers for short skirts. The men's and women's sections are separated, in keeping with Orthodox Jewish tradition.

The plaza abutting the Jerusalem Wailing Wall accommodates tens of thousands of worshippers. This vast area was created after the 1967 Six Day War, when the state of Israel demolished a section of the neighboring Arab District. Before that, only a few hundred people, crowding closely together, could be accommodated in a narrow alley only twelve feet wide. This is also when the wall was made higher and more extensive by excavations. Sacred to three religions (the Christian Quarter and Church of the Holy Sepulcher are in the Old City) the Old City and the walls are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as requested by the country of Jordan.

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