The Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall and the kotel) is the most significant site in the world for the Jewish people. Located in the ancient and intriguing Old City of Jerusalem, it is one of Israel’s main attractions and visited by millions of people from all over the globe every year. Here’s what you need to know before visiting.
Understand its history
To fully appreciate the Western Wall and its significance, you must have at least a basic understanding of its history. Built by King Herod in 20 BCE, it is the only remnant of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, one of the two central places of worship among inhabitants of ancient Israel. Nothing else survived the destruction after the Roman conquest in 70 CE. For two millenia, Jews made pilgrimages to the Western Wall from all over the world, and it wasn’t until 1967, after victory in the Six Day War, that the modern state of Israel gained control over the site.
There’s much more to it than meets the eye
While to many people the Western Wall is a 50 meter long, 20 meter high wall, this is actually just a small part of it. The wall extends beneath the ground, with archaeologists uncovering different layers over recent decades. In October 2017, Israeli archaeologists stumbled upon an ancient Roman theatre beneath the Western Wall. The Western Wall Tunnels show the full size of the Western Wall and give a glimpse into bygone Jerusalem. From ancient cisterns to Second Temple-era homes, you will be amazed by what you find. Take a guided tour, as it would be a travesty to visit the Western Wall and miss out on exploring its fascinating underground tunnels.
The taps ain’t for drinking!
On the Western Wall plaza lies several taps, but don’t confuse these with drinking fountains: these are washing stations for a Jewish ritual. Before praying, Jews fill up the small silver buckets by the taps and wash their hands – a process of purification before the praying commences.
Don’t be confused by people walking backwards
It is customary among Jews to walk away from the Western Wall by walking backwards, as turning your back on the holy site too hastily is deemed disrespectful. While it wouldn’t cause an issue if you forget to do this, it would be a sign of respect to those around you if you did – just be careful you don’t walk into someone!
You don’t need to be Jewish to pray here
While it is the most sacred site in Judaism, people of all faiths come to the Western Wall to pray and to place notes in its crevices, which is an old tradition borne out of the belief that there is a divine presence within the wall. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as Barack Obama, are some notable participants in this custom.
It’s an intense and emotional place – be prepared
It’s a common sight at the Western Wall to see men sobbing as they fervently rock back and forth while praying; this is an incredibly powerful and intense place to be. You should be prepared for this, and be aware of catching Jerusalem Syndrome, a real phenomenon whereby foreign visitors (around 100 every year) suffer psychotic delusions that they are figures from the Bible or harbingers of the End of Days. So, if you’re heading to the Old City of Jerusalem, try not to lose the plot!
The Western Wall is divided into two sections: one for men, and one for women. In 2016, Reform Jews seemed close to agreeing with the Israeli Government about the creation of a mixed-gender prayer space at the Wall. However, this eventually fell through, a telling indication of the clout that Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews have in the political system.
Men must cover their heads with a kippah, and women must wear something that conceals their shoulders and knees. If you forget to dress appropriately, there are volunteers standing by the entrance to the wall who will provide you with the garments you need.
Etiquette for visiting on Shabbat
If you plan to visit the Wall on Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest that begins every Friday as the sun goes down), then you should not use any electronics around the complex. Smoking is also prohibited, as lighting fire is against the rules of Shabbat, as is writing – any notes you want to wedge into the wall should be written before you come.