Home » What is the Western Wall and How Can You Visit?

What is the Western Wall and How Can You Visit?

by backpackisrael
19 minutes read

The Old City of Jerusalem is one of the most popular destinations in Israel, and the Western Wall is the most popular place within the Old City. At first glance, it looks like nothing more than a large and ancient wall, with some plants growing out of it. But there’s a story behind this wall, which is why you’ll see hundreds and sometimes thousands of people standing in front of it, praying, touching its stones, shoving notes between its enormous rocks. For Jewish people all around Israel and the world, this place symbolizes the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple, one of the most tragic events in Jewish history. In this post, I’ll explain what is the Western Wall and how you can visit it on your upcoming trip to Jerusalem.

Recommended >> Full travel guide to Jerusalem.  

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So, what is the Western Wall? And why is it holy to Judaism?

The Western Wall, one of four retaining walls that supported the platform of the Second Temple, holds great historical significance. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, but this retaining wall remained quite unharmed. Because of this, the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Holy Temple’s complex, has become a symbol of the Second Temple’s destruction and hope for better days. Jews from all over the world come to this wall to remember the tragic destruction of the temple and to be closest to the place where GOD’s presence resided and maybe still resides today.

In the absence of a Jewish Temple, many Jews refer to the Western Wall as the holiest site of Judaism. But there are Jews who believe that the holiest site to Judaism is actually the Temple Mount, the platform located above the Western Wall, where the Second Temple once stood, more or less where the Dome of the Rock stands today. Because it is not allowed for Jews to pray there, the Jews pray next to the Western Wall instead. Because the Holy of Holies was located on the western side of the temple, some refer to the Western Wall as the closest point to the Holy of Holies, where it is allowed to pray today.

The area where everyone is praying today is not the entire wall. The wall stretches to a length of 488 meters, while most of it is hidden behind the houses of the Muslim Quarter. There’s another smaller portion, which is exposed in the heart of the Muslim Quarter, called the Little Western Wall, where you can pray without gender division.

Western Wall Jerusalem
The Western Wall from a distance

Is the Western Wall holy to Muslims, too?

You might have heard that the Western Wall is holy to Muslims, too. This is true but is also very much connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian Muslims claim that the Western Wall is the property of the Muslim Waqf and that the Jews have no right to it. According to a Muslim tradition, Prophet Mohammed tied his heavenly beast, Al-Buraq, to the Western Wall when he traveled on his night journey from Mecca to Al Aqsa. That is why they call the wall Al Buraq Wall. But in the original tradition, Al-Buraq was tied to the southern or eastern wall of the Temple Mount compound. Only in the mid-19th century did the Muslims move the tradition to the Western Wall in response to the rise of the Jewish population in Jerusalem and the Jewish efforts to gain ownership of the praying area next to the wall.   

If you look at the Palestinian media, you can see that the Palestinians refer to the wall only as the Al-Buraq Wall, claim that it has nothing to do with the Jews, and say that the people who come to pray there are “settlers who are invading the Al-Buraq Wall.” Moreover, they claim that the Jews, or as they call them, “the Zionists” or “the settlers,” only started praying there after the Balfour Declaration in 1917. That is not true. Jews have prayed next to the Western Wall since 1546 at the latest and have seen the Temple Mount as a holy site for more than 2,000 years.

You can find more information about how the Palestinians refer to the wall on the Palestinian Media Watch website.  

Related >> The Story of Temple Mount.

A brief history of the Western Wall

So, now that we’ve understood what is the Western Wall, let’s briefly discuss its history. As I’ve already mentioned, it was one of the retaining walls that supported the Temple Mount platform in the time of the Second Temple. King Herod built it in the 1st century BCE as part of his project to renovate and glorify the Holy Temple. Back then, the Jewish pilgrims didn’t care about the Western Wall. They went directly to the temple on top of the platform.

After the Second Temple was destroyed, things changed. The Jews always dreamt of praying on Temple Mount, where the temple once stood, but throughout most of history, they were not allowed to go up there. So, instead, they prayed next to its walls. A document that was found in the Cairo Geniza tells us that the Jews prayed next to the Western Wall in the 10th and 11th centuries, but that they prayed more to the north and not where everyone is praying today, so that they stood right in front of the traditional place of the Holy of Holies. There are few references to Jewish prayer next to the wall from before the 16th century, maybe because much of the area was covered in trash, and it was impossible to pray there. During the Mamluk period, structures were built right next to the wall, making praying impossible. In 1546, an earthquake made the structures collapse, and it was possible to remove the rubble and pray in the area.

In the 16th century and onwards, under Ottoman rule, the Jews were permitted to pray next to the Western Wall as long as they paid a special tax to the Ottoman authorities. The ancient traditions that talked about the holiness of the western wall of the Holy Temple, where the Holy of Holies was located, moved to what we call today the Western Wall. It was chosen because it is the closest point to the Holy of Holies. It was also the nearest wall to the Jewish Quarter, which made it most accessible.  

Until the 1967 War, there was a large Muslim neighborhood next to the Western Wall called the Mugrabi Neighborhood. A narrow corridor separated the wall from the neighborhood, and the Jewish people could pray in that corridor. The Muslim residents who lived in the adjacent neighborhood harassed the Jewish worshippers on various occasions. In 1840, the Jewish community of Jerusalem requested to renovate the floor next to the wall. The Ottoman authorities refused, saying that the Western Wall is a Muslim Waqf and, therefore, the Jews are not allowed to make any renovations, bring holy books to the praying corridor, or pray loudly. They were only allowed to come and pray quietly.

Throughout the Ottoman and British periods, there have been conflicts around the Western Wall regarding who is in charge of the place.

From 1948 to 1967, the area was under Jordanian control, and the Jews were not allowed to enter. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, the Israeli government wanted to make sure that any Jew who wanted to come and pray next to the Western Wall would be able to do that. So, Israel demolished the neighborhood that stood next to the wall and created the large plaza that you will see today.

The Western Wall Plaza before 1967
A photo of the Western Wall Plaza before 1967, Brown & Dawson

Things to know before visiting the Western Wall

How to reach the Western Wall?

The Western Wall is located in the Old City of Jerusalem, to the west of Temple Mount. If you’re touring the Old City, you can reach it on foot. There are four entrances to the Western Wall Plaza – two from the Muslim Quarter and two from the Jewish Quarter.

Here are the two main ways to reach the Western Wall on foot:

  • Through the Muslim Quarter – From Jaffa Gate, walk straight onto David Street (the market street). Continue until the end of this street, turn right, and immediately left onto Bab El-Silsila Street. Walk down this street until you see a sign pointing to the right toward the Western Wall. Turn in the direction of the sign, and you’ll soon reach the security point leading into the Western Wall Plaza. This is more or less where it is located.
  • Through the Jewish Quarter – From Jaffa Gate, walk on the road into the Old City and walk along it until you see a left turn onto Saint James Street (just before a covered passage). When you reach a street junction, continue straight onto Or Ha-Ha’ Street and reach the Jewish Quarter. Go down the stairs, continue straight to the plaza in front of the Hurva Synagogue, and then continue on Tiferet Yisrael Street until you reach the staircase leading down to the Western Wall Plaza. At the bottom of the stairs, you can choose to either turn left or right. The left-hand security point is sometimes closed, so you can turn to the right, pass through the parking lot, walk down another set of stairs, and find the other security point to your left. This is more or less where it is located.

If you prefer to get there by public transport, you will need to take either a bus or a taxi. Tourists cannot park near the wall. Bus number 1 reaches the Western Wall and passes through the city center. You can use Google Maps or Moovit to navigate.

Dress code

The Western Wall is a holy site for Judaism. As such, you are expected to visit in respectful and modest clothes.

Women need to wear a shirt with a sleeve that covers the shoulders and pants or a skirt that covers the knees. You can cover your shoulders with a shawl if you don’t have a shirt with sleeves.

Men also need to come in respectful clothes – a shirt that covers the shoulders and pants that cover the knees would be appreciated. It is also recommended to come with a hat or a kippah to cover your head since it is a Jewish custom to cover the head during prayer. If you don’t have a hat, you might be offered a kippah at the entrance to the prayer area.

To learn more about the dress code in Jerusalem, check out my blog post >> What to wear in Jerusalem? 

Important things to note

  • The Western Wall is open 24/7. 
  • You will need to pass through a security check. The entrance to the Western Wall Plaza is only through a security checkpoint. You will need to place your bag in the scanning machine and take out anything you have in your pockets before passing through the magnetometer.
  • The praying area is divided between men and women. In Orthodox Judaism, it is not allowed for men and women to pray together. So, the women in your group will need to go to the right, while the men will need to go to the left. You can stand together in the area outside the praying section. As I’ve already mentioned, there’s also a small portion of the Western Wall, which is exposed in the Muslim Quarter, where you can pray next to the wall together. It is called the Little Western Wall.
  • If you’re visiting on Shabbat, you are NOT allowed to take pictures at the Western Wall Plaza. According to Jewish religious law, electronic devices are not allowed on Shabbat, from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Therefore, it is not allowed to use any electronic devices, including phones, next to the Western Wall on Shabbat. If you try to take pictures, you might be approached by a supervisor who will ask you to stop.
  • There is drinking water and restrooms at the plaza. So, if you need to fill water or go to the restroom before you continue your tour, you can do that.  

Would you like a private tour of the Old City?

I’m Lior and I’m a private tour guide in Jerusalem. If you would like to tour the Old City, including the Western Wall, I’ll be happy to be your guide. Contact me at [email protected] or check out my guided tours for more information.

Lior - tour guide in Jerusalem

What can you do at the Western Wall?

While the wall is the holiest site to the Jewish people, that doesn’t mean that it’s not important to other religions, too. So, no matter your religion, feel free to come up close to the wall and touch it. You can also prepare a note with a wish and tuck it in between the rocks of the Western Wall. You’ll see that many people have done that before you, and it might be difficult to find an open spot to shove your note into. According to the Jewish tradition, GOD receives the wishes that are tucked into the Western Wall, and they have more chances of coming true.

Usually, the visit doesn’t take more than 10 minutes. But if you want to pray at the holy site or sit down and do some people-watching, you can spend a longer time there.

If you’re coming on a Monday or a Thursday, you might also get to see a Bar Mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall. The Bar Mitzvah is one of the main ceremonies in the Jewish life circle and is celebrated when a Jewish boy turns 13. Read more about experiencing a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall

And if you have extra time and are interested, you can go on a tour of the Western Wall Tunnels. The visible height of the Western Wall is 19 meters, but it goes another 13 meters underground. To see this underground section, you can join a guided tour to the tunnels. There are currently two guided tours – the Great Stone Tour, which focuses more on the Western Wall itself, and the Great Bridge Tour, which shows you the impressive water system that led water to the area of the Temple Mount in the time of the Second Temple. 

Conclusion

The Western Wall is today the holiest site for the Jewish people. But standing in front of the Western Wall is a moving experience, no matter your religion! If you plan to visit the Old City of Jerusalem, you’ll probably see it while exploring the area. Make sure to come in respectful clothes and follow the rules of the place to have the best experience possible.

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If you liked this post or found it useful, please don’t hesitate to like, share or comment (:

If you need any more advice, please don’t hesitate to send me a message on my Facebook page or to contact me at [email protected].

If you’re searching for a tour guide in Israel, I also offer private tours in Israel.

You can also support my work by buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi.  Your support helps me maintain the site and keep creating content about Israel. It’s greatly appreciated!

Yours,

Lior

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