As you turn off of the main road in the Moslem Quarter, Rechov HaGai, a sudden stillness fills the air. You can hear yourself think as you take the widely spaced stairs leading up. On the left you pass a door with the seven species prominently displayed and a mezuzah in the frame. A few more steps leads you into a dark covered passageway with a golden door – a sign that the occupant has made the Haj. Coming out of the dimness, you pass a majrasa on the right, with beautiful ablaq and mukarnas hanging down from the Mameluke structure. Straight ahead is a small door – you would have to bow to go through the Iron Gate – the closest gate to the Dome of the Rock. Non-Moslems are not allowed through the gate, and there is an Israeli army official who ensures that you do not enter and disrupt the delicate balance of Peace in the Old City. As you approach the Iron gate, you can see another passage to the left which leads to one of my favorite spots in the Old City of Jerusalem – the Kotel HaKatan – the Small Western Wall.
The Kotel HaKatan is a continuation of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Herod enlarged the tenemos which held the Temple by building arches and covering them with an expansive platform. By the time Herod’s project was finished, the Temple Mount plaza covered 144,000 square meters. In order to support such a massive area, he enlarged and rebuilt the walls surrounding it. The Western Wall of today is one of those walls which supported and enclosed the Temple Mount area. At the base of the Western Wall ran the main market of Jerusalem through the Tyropean valley.
During the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., the supporting walls of the Temple Mount tenemos were toppled and pushed down onto the street which ran through the valley, destroying the stones of the street and rendering it unusable. Jews were exiled from Jerusalem unable to live anywhere in viewing distance by decree of the Roman rulers. Despite their physical distance, Jews throughout the world continued to remember Jerusalem and her Temple.
“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”
Ruling power after ruling power continued to build and modify the city of Jerusalem. New, Moslem structures were built on the Temple Mount, including the Dome of the Rock which sits, according to most, on the site of the Temple. In the days of the Mamelukes, as an outgrowth of a desire to be near the Dome of the Rock, the area near the Western Wall underwent what today would be called gentrification. The rubble, pushed down by the Romans during the destruction of 70 C.E. was smoothed over, the Tyropean valley was filled in and new houses and religious schools (majrasas) were built adjacent to the Temple Mount and at the same level. The Western Wall itself was used as one of the walls in the structures built in this new neighborhood.
Against all odds, through the ages, Jews continued to visit Jerusalem, to cry by the Western Wall, to yearn for a return to Zion. They traveled from far lands, over dangerous seas, through hostile peoples to reach Jerusalem. They came on pilgrimage, to pray, pour out their souls, connect to Jewish history, national suffering, and touch the Divine. Upon arrival, the Western Wall they found was not the Western Wall of Herod’s time with its glorious street and shopping area. What they found was not the wide expanse of today’s Western Wall Plaza, with her myriad torah scrolls, prayer books and tour groups. They did not meet crowds, people from all walks of life and corners of the world. Instead, they found a small, narrow, quiet alley, very often filled with debris and trash. Here they were alone with their thoughts, the stones, and G-d.
As you take the passage to the left of the Iron Gate, you are met with a small space open to the sky. If you stand sideways, you can almost reach the wall which parallels the Western Wall. Yes, these are the same stones, the continuation of the Western Wall which is the focus of the Western Wall Plaza. Here, at the Kotel HaKatan, you feel the solitude of the pilgrims throughout the ages. You connect with their reality – the reality of Jerusalem in the hands of another power. You start to face the fact when the army tells you not to go into the Iron Gate – entrance here to the holiest site in Judaism is forbidden to non-Moslems. When you breathe in the silence, and take in the enormity of the place, you can feel the weight of the ages upon your shoulders. The centuries of yearning, the centuries of loss. And in just one minute, you feel your prayers, your hopes, your dreams melding with those of all the pilgrims who have come before you as you, too, reach to connect to Jewish history and touch the Divine.