HomeReligion ZoneHebrew scriptures: The drama of the Wailing Wall

Hebrew scriptures: The drama of the Wailing Wall

BY BENJAMIN LEON/ONLINE                                                                                     In the centuries preceding 1948 an ancient and moving scene of lamentation had been enacted daily in the narrow paved court which faced the massive western side, or “Wailing Wall of the Temple Mount”. This rampart of huge stone blocks had for two millennia been the sole remnant of the temple to which Jews could come to pray.

It stood at the southwestern edge of the temple Mount and was hedged on all sides by Moslem monuments and squalid Moslem houses, some of which were built right into the Wall. The small court could only accommodate limited hundreds of worshippers and visitors, if and when the Arabs would let them, because the Wailing Wall was a captive shrine held — jealously guarded by the Moslem religious authorities.

This relic is certainly venerated not merely for its structural power and intrinsic architectural beauty, but for what it epitomises as Jewry’s major holy place and the focus of its yearnings throughout the 19 centuries of exile since the destruction of the Temple in 70 C’E’ This was Jewry’s ever-gaping wound! Would it ever close…?

Then the miracle happened: On the morning of June 7, 1967, the nation and the world received the electrifying message from the commander of the paratroop brigade which had broken into the “old city” after grim combat:

“The Temple Mount is ours! Repeat the Temple Mount is ours ! ! ! The Wailing Wall and the Old City are no more captive!”

A new era had dawned. Some of the courses of the Wall, hitherto buried were cleared and exposed to the light of day shortly after that memorable Wednesday.

But after the archeologists had cleared three massive courses of dressed stones, they were not allowed to have their wish to dig down the 30 feet (about 10m) that lay below the existing level in order to expose the lower courses of the original wall that King Herod  had built all around the Second Temple. These courses of huge and magnificent stones had lain underground for exactly 20 centuries.

Several factors intervened with the ambitious programme of recovery. They were the pressure of time and the overwhelming desire of Israel’s and Jewry’s masses to flock close by, to touch the holy stones and hold prayers right there and then! These considerations prevailed, strongly backed by the ministry of Religion.

A large plaza, formerly occupied by Arab hovels was cleared in no time in front of the Wall.

The pilgrimage festival of Shavuoth occurred that year on June 14. A quarter of a million Jews from every corner of Israel, and many from overseas, crowded the Old City in a mass pilgrimage to pay homage to the Wailing Wall,  the Kotel Hama’aravi. This was certainly the largest pilgrimage to the relic of the Second Temple since the beginning of the Jewish Dispersion some 19 centuries before. It is even doubtful whether in ancient times, so many had ever thronged the historic wide Herodian forecourts of the temple on a single day.

So thick were the throngs after June 9, 1967, that it took almost all day to get in and out of the old city precincts. As they kept coming in their hundreds of thousand for many months after, the plaza had to be expanded. The place had become, it a sense Jewry’s largest open-air synagogue, heir to the glory of the Temple. This then was the second act of the drama enacted before the Wailing Wall following upon the very long first act that had lasted until 1948, when the old City fell to the Arabs.

In the meantime, Professor Benjamin Mazar’s archeological expedition started inaugurating the third act. The archeologists began to dig southward  along the continuation of the Western (Wailing) Wall and in front of the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount which is topped by the EI Aqsa Mosque. Among the structures which they uncovered are the spring of the Robinson Arch and the understructures of the huge square pillars which supported the stone bridge built by Herod to lead, to and from the Temple Mount to the Upper Town standing opposite, across the low lying Tyropean Vale.

Digging down 30m all the Southwestern Wall, the archeologists excavated “13 layers of occupation” dating from the 15th century CE Mameluke-Arab period.  The exposed southern stretch of the Western Wall near the Robinson Arch and the Southern Wall around the corner, now stand some 28m high.

The Wall, the southern plaza and the other structures exactly fit the description given by Josephus and in the Talmud. Each slab with which the plaza is paved is slightly more than 3 by 4+ ft and weighs nearly a tonne. The stone blocks of the Wall courses measure several feet in length and some of the heaviest weigh about a hundred tonnes. The thousands of spectacular “finds” throughout these strata on the Herodian level as well as on the more ancient levels (it, the Upper Town) belonging to the period, of the Jewish Kings (8th and 7th Century BCE) make up another dramatic story.

As the excavations proceed- around the western and southern Wall as well as in the Upper Town, they uncovered new vistas of what was ancient Jerusalem’s nerve-centre, namely the populous complex of semi-ho1y and semi-secular approaches to the HoIy Mount.

This may revolutionise our whole conception of life in the Iast days of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, uncover and- explain everything, except what lies under the area on which stand the Moslem shrines: The Dome of the Rock (Mosque of Omar), the EI Aqsa Mosque and others which were built on top of the site of Herod’s Temple and its inner courts, arcades and other monuments of the Temple Compound.

This Moslem sanctuary is a characteristic example of how the shrine of an older religion is made the sanctuary of a new religion. Nevertheless, the excavation’s progress holds great promise and consolation of a sort. As they reach closer and closer to the ancient Jewish sanctuary and as restoration plans get under way outside it, the past will become ever closer and more tangible as it reaches the limits of the forbidden underground.

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