The Solution to the Kotel Controversy: The Southern Wall
The Southern Wall of the Temple Mount (Image credit: Moshe Milner/Government Press Office of Israel)
A great deal of attention and controversy has been focused on allowing non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, the Kotel, a retaining wall of the Temple Mount built during the Herodian period. It is a place where thousands of Jews pray daily, and it is also Israel’s most popular tourist site.
The area of the Southern Wall, however, has been ignored as a place to pray. In fact, the Southern Wall, located in the Davidson Center Jerusalem Archaeological Park, is even more significant than the Western Wall.
Since only a small section of the Western Wall—sometimes derisively called “the Wailing Wall” by those who saw Jews crying there as they prayed—was available as a prayer site for several hundred years, it became revered. Under Ottoman Turkish rule it was not widely used; during Jordanian occupation it was forbidden to Jews. After the Six Day War in 1967, the wall became a symbol of Jewish pride and a place where large numbers of Jews could pray, and likewise it is a ceremonial site for IDF and state events. Some mistake it for a wall of the Temple, and many follow a custom of leaving notes in crevices in the wall asking for help. Under Israeli control, areas along the wall to the north were excavated, which now constitute the Western Wall tunnel. The tunneling was done in order to preserve the Arab structures above in the Muslim Quarter. A tiny section of the wall at ground level—the Kotel HaKatan—surrounded by Arab homes was used by Jews, but was difficult to access and dangerous. Until recently, Arabs used it as a pissoir. In the mid-1970s, the area south of the Western Wall’s prayer plaza was excavated, revealing structures and the foundations of a bridge from the late Second Temple period beneath what is called “Robinson’s Arch” (named after the archaeologist who discovered it in the 19th century CE). A Hebrew inscription (a quote from Isaiah) from the time of the Roman emperor Julian (mid-4th century CE) cut into the wall was also revealed—“When you see this your heart will rejoice and your bones will flourish like grass.” With messianic implications, it referred to Julian’s granting permission to Jews to rebuild the Temple before his death in battle cut those aspirations short. At the end of the Western Wall where it meets the Southern Wall a carefully cut stone was discovered with the inscription “to the place of trumpeting,” referring to the area above that was used by Kohanim during the Second Temple period to blow trumpets announcing the beginning and end of Shabbat and the new month, as described in Mishna Middoth. A copy of the stone was placed where it was found; the original is in the Israel Museum. The excavation—part of the Davidson Archaeological Park—also revealed the walls of two Muslim palaces that were built using cut stones from the Herodian period (in secondary usage) during the late 7th and 8th centuries CE, when the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were also built. The excavation of the area along the Southern Wall—for which Israel was condemned by UNESCO—also revealed the original steps that led up to the Temple Mount, mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths), and royal structures from the First Temple period. Called the Ofel, across from the City of David, it was where Prof. Eilat Mazar discovered seal inscriptions with the names of King Hezekiah and what is presumed to be the prophet Isaiah, as well as a large cache of Jewish golden coins and jewelry from the Persian period. According to historian Frank Meir Lowenberg:
“Immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews evidently continued to pray either on the Temple Mount itself, or on the adjacent Mount of Olives, from which they could look down on the ruins of the sanctuary. In later years, Jews in Jerusalem found a variety of places on or near the Mount to gather for prayer and mourning, but only in the 16th century did the Western Wall… become the city’s most important Jewish sanctuary. “What is currently known as the Western Wall… is not mentioned (as a prayer site)… prior to the 16th century… There exists an ancient tradition [dating to at least the 12th century] that ‘the Shehina [Divine presence] will never move from the Western Wall.’ But this saying does not refer to the present Western Wall; instead, it describes the ruins of the western [inner] wall of the Second Temple building mentioned by many pilgrims… Over time, as the visible ruins of the original Temple walls disappeared, this saying was applied to the current Western Wall.”
The Davidson Archaeological Park has a museum and convenient facilities. The well-prepared site is easily accessible and has a shaded area that can also be used by non-Orthodox worshipers. Using it as a prayer site will avoid controversy and contention, preserve the archaeological site, and will save additional and unnecessary expenses. It is a win-win solution.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem. His book of short stories, “As Far As the Eye Can See,” was published by the New English Review Press in 2015. This article is reprinted with permission of the author.