Jerusalem: Encounters at the Western Wall

In Activities, Africa & The Middle East by Susan Watkins

My heart quickens at the first sight of Jerusalem.  Our driver navigates the winding tree-lined roads into the city, and I am captured by its golden beauty.  The honey-colored stones of the city shimmer in the sun and above it all rises the majestic azure mosaic and gold of the Dome of the Rock.  When I go up to Jerusalem, a part of me comes home, in a primal way that I do not fully understand.  A holy city to the world’s three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – Jerusalem is a place to be experienced by the heart and soul, not just the head.  And so, I anticipate new and rich experiences, even though I have visited here many times before.

Although we are almost always independent travelers, we have hired a guide, Ezer, to help us make the most of our journey through this historic land.  On this spring morning, we are visiting the Western Wall, one of the most sacred sites of the Jewish faith.  There is perhaps no place in the world that is marked with an aura of pathos like the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  This wall of tawny colored Jerusalem stone, punctuated with little outcroppings of vegetation, is the only accessible remnant of the Jewish Temple which was destroyed in 70AD.  Jewish pilgrims have been coming to pray here since the 4th century, and today they still come, as do people of many faiths.  The historical significance of this wall is undeniable, but the spiritual impact of a visit to the Wall is most profound, and I think that is why the people of the world continue to come.

From afar, I can see the throngs of people who are already gathering here to pray.  As we approach, a giant banner hanging on the building across from the Wall catches my eye – the words emblazoned on it are in Hebrew.  Ezer tells us that it says “Pray for the coming of Messiah”.  Indeed, Jerusalem is a city marked by a deep yearning.  As many devout come to pray at the Western Wall, so also the faithful of Islam are saying their prayers, just a stone’s throw from us at the Dome of the Rock.

The large courtyard in front of the Western Wall is divided according to Jewish custom, one side for the men and the other side for the women.  My husband and I part ways as we enter, and he covers his head with the yarmulke provided for all visitors who do not have a head covering.  I join the women on the other side and enter the courtyard.

As I approach the Wall, I am struck by the depth of emotion which pervades this place.  It is palpable.  We are on holy ground, and I know this to be true the minute I set foot on it.  It is easy to understand why the Wall is sometimes referred to as “The Wailing Wall”, named for the generations of Jewish tears shed at this revered location.

I notice a young woman next to me – she is a soldier, wearing the uniform of Israel’s Defense Forces and carrying a weapon at her side, making her way toward the Wall.  On my other side is a wizened old woman, shuffling along with the aid of a cane, dark scarf covering her white head, seemingly bent over by the worries of this world.  Ahead of me are a group of young mothers pushing babies in strollers.  We are tourists with cameras, women with prayer books, Jews, Christians, Agnostics and Seekers.  We are from every walk of life.  Here at the Western Wall, we are just people, great and small, who come looking for guidance, inspiration and strength.  The air is electric with emotion, expectation, and longing.  We approach the Wall together as one.

A beautiful spirit permeates the scene.  There is a reverent quiet punctuated by the constant undercurrent of murmured prayer. There are tears, there are whispered petitions.  Prayers are written on scraps of paper and tucked into the ancient crevices of this Wall.  I find my own place at the Wall and am aware of the presence of God.  In the beauty and holiness of the moment, I feel my prayers echo with those of all who have come before me.

As I leave, I back away from the Wall, observing the example of others who by tradition never turn their backs on the Wall.  I slowly measure my backward steps across the courtyard all the way to the exit, allowing the lovely tableau of people in front of me to fill my senses.  My eyes fill with tears and I come to the understanding that together we walk backward in humility, paying honor not to the Wall, but to the God who has met us there.

Israel is a land of mystery and there is more to experience.  Our guide leads us to a little-known destination right next to the Western Wall known as the Rabbi’s Tunnel.  Ezer has secured our access to this subterranean tunnel which astoundingly, exposes the full length of the Western Wall.  While the open-air portion of the Western Wall is about 200 feet long, most of its original length is underground, hidden here under Old Jerusalem.  Excavations have uncovered fascinating archaeological and historical treasures in these tunnels.

We descend into the cool, dim corridor which marks the start of a labyrinth which winds under the city.  It is dark and quiet, with just a little soft lighting to guide our way.  A sense of the past saturates the narrow corridors which mark the way of the underground Western Wall.  We come to a spot known as Warren’s Gate, often called “The Cave”.  Here the early Muslims allowed the Jews to pray because of the belief that of the remaining ruins of the Temple, this location is the closest physical point to Kodesh Ha-Kodeshim, or the Holy of Holies.

Today, the devout of Israel still enter to pray here but interestingly, it is only women who are granted this privilege. I am astounded to learn that at this spot, the women pray day and night, 24-7.  They come in regularly scheduled shifts to ensure that there is never a time when prayer does not fill the air.  There is a deeper level of solemnity and purpose that marks this section of the underground Wall.  In this very small area, four women are quietly engaged in prayer.  I instinctively reach for my camera, but am almost immediately checked by the conviction that what is happening here cannot be captured on film.  For these women, this is intensely personal. I commit the scene to my memory.  I stand back and quietly observe.  Heads covered foreheads and hands pressing against the cool damp stone, some with prayer books in hands, these women do the work of prayer at their most holy site.  The dim lights scattered along the corridor shed a golden aura across the creamy, damp stone.  I do not know how long these four women have been here, or how long they will stay.  When they leave, others will come to take their positions at the Wall, to assure that the prayers are unceasing. The women are seemingly unaware of me.  They continue with their prayers as I move past them.

We continue on our way through the tunnel, our palms occasionally running along the time-worn stone of the Wall, the quiet prayers of those women echoing in our ears.  Toward the end of the tunnel, we pause at an ancient and impressive water reservoir called the Struthion Pool.  The walls around us are dripping as we gaze below us to the great pool of dark water.  Who knew all of this was under the streets of Jerusalem?

Suddenly, our walk is over and we ascend from the underground into the white daylight of modern Jerusalem.  We are assaulted by the light, the sound, the bustle of commerce, the colorful street vendors and the exhilarating cacophony.  The incongruity of the scene with what we have just experienced is striking.  And yet, perhaps Jerusalem is as she is today because of the fervent prayers of those women below.  I like to think so.  Our next stop is Bethlehem, but I linger over my experience at the Western Wall – I have been enriched.  May it be so for all who come here