Around 19 BCE, as Herod (whose reign spanned from 37 to 4 BCE) was rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, he doubled the size of the Temple Mount and created a large artificial platform. Around this platform he constructed four massive retaining walls. The Kotel (known as the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, and the Wall of Tears) is the western retaining wall of Herod’s Temple Mount platform. It never was part of the Temple and until the 16th century was not considered holy to Jews or anyone else. Today, it is considered among the most holy and important sites of Judaism and visited annually by millions — religious and secular Jews as well as many non-Jews. Sacred site or tourist site, it is probably the most famous retaining wall in (Jewish) history. Parts of the other Herodian retaining walls are still visible today. They have never been holy to the Jews.
The entire Western Wall is 1,601 feet long, not all of which is visible or accessible. The best-known section of the Kotel is at the prayer plaza, and it measures 187 feet in length. The present day plaza was constructed in the wake of the Six-Day War, after the razing of the Mughrabi Quarter — an Arab neighborhood that had extended to within 11.8 feet of the Kotel making prayer there extremely difficult. It is interesting to note that the Herodian expansion of the Temple Mount area and the construction of its retaining walls had also required the removal of nearby structures. The present day plaza allows for thousands of visitors daily.
Archeological excavations led by Benjamin Mazar with the assistance of Meir Ben-Dov uncovered the first 262 feet of the Kotel after the Six-Day War; those excavations can be viewed today in the archaeological park on the southern end of the Kotel. The remaining 1,050 feet continue underground beneath the streets and houses of the Old City of Jerusalem. These sections of the Wall were uncovered during ongoing excavations of the subterranean Temple Mount passageways by Dan Bahat and others. Another section of the Wall, approximately 95 feet, may be seen and visited in the Moslem Quarter, some 574 feet north of the prayer plaza. It is called the Kotel haKatan (The Small [Western] Wall). No religious importance was attached to this section of the Wall until the 1970s, when construction of a small plaza made it more accessible to visitors.
The construction of the Western Wall by Herod and his successors was no easy matter. Turonian and Cenomanian limestone had to be quarried and transported from ancient quarries in Jerusalem (one such quarry is found in the modern-day Russian Compound in the city center of Jerusalem, near Safra Square and somewhat far from the Temple Mount). The stonecutters used sophisticated techniques to loosen and split the stones. Smaller stones were transported by wagons and the massive stones were rolled on large wooden rollers.
The Herodian stones were mostly large blocks cut smooth, with narrow margins around the edges and smooth and slightly raised bosses in the center. Simple plain and smooth rectangular blocks were also used. The stones, stacked one on top of another with surfaces cut to a perfect match, were indented slightly inward in order to stabilize the Wall. No mortar, cement, or adhesive was used.
The stones of the Wall are not all the same size, with lengths ranging from 2.6 to 44.6 feet and heights from 3.6 to 4.3 feet; the thickness of stones averaged 15 feet. The cornerstones were larger: For example, the southwest corner of the Kotel has ashlars (rows of stones) measuring 39.3 feet long, 7.83 feet wide, and 3.5 feet high. These stones could weigh between 50 and 80 tons. They were placed in alternating header and stretcher positions, and because of their great size, they have withstood the tests of time and history.
In Herodian times, the Western Wall, according to Josephus (Antiquities 15:410), had four gates leading to and from the Temple Mount. These gates correspond to those discovered by 19th-century explorers, and they are named after them: Warren’s Gate, Wilson’s Arch, Barclay’s Gate, and Robinson’s Arch.
The Mishnah (Middot 1:3) mentions only one gate in the western retaining wall, the Kipponos Gate. Various attempts have been made to identify which of the gates mentioned by Josephus and uncovered by archaeologists this was, but none have been successful.
The upper courses of the Second Temple period wall were destroyed during the War of Destruction (Menahem Av, August, 70 C.E.). The northern wall, the site of many battles, apparently suffered the most damage and might have been completely destroyed. The southern and eastern retaining walls suffered minimal damage at that time and changes in those walls were the results of developments centuries later.
Excavations of the Western Wall continue from time to time in an effort to uncover the entire Second Temple period history of the site, including that of pre-Herodian times before the Herodian expansion. Archaeologists focus, for example, on the market and adjacent roads and streets along the Western Wall, even examining the drainage system under some of the streets. There is also ongoing study of the architecture of Herodian walls in order to fine tune dating. And, of course, they continue to uncover and study remains of other periods of history relevant to the retaining wall and nearby structures. Much still remains to be uncovered.email print