The Wall did not always look like it does today. What we see of the Wall today is in reality only a small portion of the actual Wall. The Western Wall was built as a retaining wall to support the western side of the Temple Mount. It stretches some 200 meters - the length of the Temple Mount (to the left as you look at the Wall). Most of it is obscured behind the structures of the Muslim Quarter.
From the onset of the Middle Ages, the area in front of the Wall had been used as a garbage dump. (That is why the gate nearby the Wall is called "Dung Gate.") In the 16th century, the Sultan Suleiman discovered the location of the Wall and had the area cleaned out.
In the early 20th century, Arab homes had been built up to 15 feet from the Wall, leaving just a narrow alleyway - a space of about fifteen feet in front of the Wall - for Jews to come and pray.
Following the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, the armistice line between Israel and Jordan ran through the middle of the city, dividing Jerusalem. Jordan occupied the Old City, including the Temple Mount, the Jewish Quarter, and the Western Wall. The Jewish population of the Old City was forced out of the area, all the synagogues in the Old City were destroyed - and Jews were forbidden by Jordanian law to visit the Western Wall.
On June 7, 1967 - the third day of the Six-Day War - Israeli forces recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall. (Read two emotional accounts of Israeli paratroopers who liberated the Wall.)
During the war, most of the residents of the Magreb Quarter (the buildings in front of the Wall) had left the area when Israeli forces began to surround the Old City on the first day of the war. Those who were left were relocated by the Israeli government to a new community. The buildings were then removed, enabling construction of the large Western Wall Plaza which accommodates thousands of visitors to the Wall daily.
The Western Wall Tunnels
Beneath the Muslim Quarter, archeologists have spent the last decade digging deeper and farther to discover the true extent of the Western Wall. It has been found that the Wall is more than 200 meters long and stretches down to the bedrock of the Temple Mount. Within the past few years, it has become possible to travel through the "Western Wall Tunnels," the archeological excavation which runs underneath the Muslim Quarter along the entire length of the Temple Mount.
The entrance to these tunnels is off the left side of the Western Wall Plaza, about halfway between the Wall itself and the stairs leading up to the Jewish Quarter. These tunnels exit onto the Via Dolorossa at the north end of the Temple Mount.
The Western Wall is constructed of limestone. The edges of the stones are etched to form a border around each one. This design is typical of Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea (circa. first century BCE) who built the wall as a retaining wall for the Temple Mount. As you look farther up the wall, the stones get smaller. This is because the wall was originally not as tall as it is now, but was added to over the centuries. The base of the wall is actually about 20 feet below the current floor of the prayer area.
One of the stones in the Wall measures more than 40 feet long, and weighs 400 tons. This is the largest stone ever quarried by man - nothing near its size exists in Greece, in the pyramids, or in Manhattan. No crane today can even lift such a stone. How it got there is an engineering marvel. Others stones are over 100 tons. These stones can be viewed in the archeological tunnels that have been opened in the past few years.
Many people have the custom of placing small pieces of paper containing prayers between the stones of the Wall. Jewish tradition teaches that the Temple Mount is the holiest site on Earth, and that the presence of G-d constantly rests on this site. Jewish mystical tradition teaches that all prayers from around the world ascend to the Wall, from where they then ascend to heaven.
Flora and Fauna
There are seven species of plants growing out of the stones in the Wall: 1. Henbane. This is the most common plant in the Wall. The Hebrew name for this plant is Shikaron, which is a form of the word for drunkenness. The name is possibly derived from the poisonous, intoxicating substance contained in the plant.
2. Podosnoma. This is the second most common plant in the Wall. It is a typical rock plant, and is able to penetrate stone with its roots in order to extract water.
3. Sicialian Snapdragon. These plants are foud mostly on the higher sections of the Wall. It often takes root in cracks between the stones of a wall, and on fences.
4. Horsetail Knotgrass. The Talmud (Shabbos 14:13) mentions that an antidote for snake bite was prepared from this plant.
5. Thorny Caper. This plant produces flower buds that were used in ancient times as a spice after marination. In the summer, buds open every day to produce flowers and fruits.
6. Phagnalon. This smaller plant is found scattered throughout the Wall.
Birds, such as swallows, sparrows, and doves, as well as small lizards, have been known to nest in the cracks and between the stones of the Wall.
Written by Rabbi Shraga Simmons, with thanks to "The Western Wall," published by the Israeli Ministry of Defense.