My first glimpse of the Western Wall in Jerusalem was a hurried one, but my eyes immediately filled with unexpected tears. I am not a “religious” person, but I had no time to figure out what was affecting me about the sight of a stone wall, because we had an appointment underground.
The Cotel Tunnel is an amazing area that runs parallel to the western wall. Here, history reached out, as it so often did on this trip, and grabbed me. I knew that King Herod had rebuilt the Jewish Temple, but I hadn’t realized that he had done it “his” way. The original Temple—imagined by King David and built by King Solomon—sat atop a hill in Jerusalem. It was destroyed in the 6th Century B.C.E. by a Babylonian king. Centuries later, King Herod decided to rebuild it, at least in part to appease the people for his close ties with the unpopular Romans. Herod had studied architecture in Rome and he was not one to do anything on a wimpy scale.
Hated by many, he was nonetheless a gifted architect and a man with vision. He wanted, not just a temple, but a complex—difficult to do on a sloping hillside, particularly when he did not wish to disturb the stone where Abraham almost sacrificed his son, the foundation stone beneath the original Jewish Temple’s holiest inner sanctum. So, he built four retaining walls and filled in to the level of the top of the hill, making a level rectangular area while leaving the slab of rock exposed. Then he built his complex. And if he were around, I think he’d have the right to say, “Can I build or what?” According to ancient records, if you hadn’t seen Herod’s temple mount, you hadn’t seen beautiful! Unfortunately, when the Jews rebelled against the Romans, the Romans tore this treasure down, leaving only the wall standing.
Although more of the wall exists, the western section is the closest to the holiest place of the Jewish Temple, the inner sanctum where the ark was kept (above Abraham’s altar stone). During the Moslem rule of Jerusalem, a mosque, the Dome of the Rock, was placed in this exact spot, which is also holy to the Moslems, who believe it to be the place where Mohamed was taken up to heaven. When Israel regained control of all Jerusalem (1967), the mosque was not disturbed out of respect for all the diverse religious interests in Jerusalem.
After the tour in the tunnel where we walked along the original level of Solomon’s day, we emerged and I took a few minutes to go sit in the women’s section near the wall. Again, I was moved, not by the wall itself, but by something I could not at first identify. Other than the light murmur of prayer, there was silence. Some of the women sat in plastic chairs and read from prayer books; others held their hands against the wall or worked pieces of folded paper with their own prayers into ancient crevices. One woman pressed her forehead against the wall as if to bleed all her sorrows into the stone. I sat a little distance away, completely alone, and yet, on another level, I was part of every Jewish person in the world.
As a child, during Passover services, we always recited a phrase–“Next year in Jerusalem.” I found it puzzling. It seemed perfectly fine to celebrate at my home; why would we want to have Passover in another city? But that was before I knew much about ancient history, or the Holocaust, or the Inquisition, the pogroms, or the miracle that was the state of Israel.
And now, here it was, a land of Jews, besieged by enemies all around, but here…still here. And I understood why people chose to come and live in constant danger to have and keep this place. And I understood this piece of wall stood not just to hold back dirt, but as the place of refuge, the heart of a people. And I understood why I wept.
T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.