Walking the Western Wall Tunnel
Trip Start Jul 06, 2010
8Trip End Jul 24, 2010
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I was surprised at the freedom we had to join these worshiping Jews. As we paused to notice a wooden stand holding English translations of the prayer book, a young man wearing a prayer shawl asked if we were Jewish. We said "No, we're Christians. Is that okay". "It's more than okay!" was his smiling response.
We continued to move around the plaza next to the Wall, watching - I was in awe. Just who are the Jews? And how is it that this people has retained their identity? We know that Abraham (with Sarah) was the father of the Hebrew race. He came from Ur of the Chaldees, somewhere in present-day Iraq. The clan then spent 400 years in captivity in Egypt. They came back to the Palestine area, the Promised Land.
The ten northern tribes disappeared from the stage of history when taken into captivity by the Assyrians around 720 BC. The two southern tribes later spent 70 years in captivity on Babylonia. Finally, in the 1st century, Rome tired of their intractability and destroyed Jerusalem, forcing many Jews into exile. A second Jewish revolt in the 2nd century extended what has become known as the Diaspora - the exile of Jews from Israel, and the subsequent settling of Jews into practically every land and culture on the planet.
During our two weeks in Israel, I have seen Jews from all over the planet. White Jews, black Jews, brown Jews, blonde blue-eyed Jews, red-haired freckled-faced Jews, secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, Reformed Jews. Is Judaism a race or a religion or a culture? If a race, what weaves these diverse threads of genetics together? If a religion, how to account for the overt secularism we saw in Tel Aviv. If a culture, its defining cultural characteristics seem inseparable from its religion.
We edged closer to the Western Wall, listening to the sound that gives the Wall its other name - the Wailing Wall - the ebb and flow of prayer all around us. Men and boys were clustered in groups, some praying collectively from prayer books, some studying the Torah together, others by themselves praying directly against the Wall. Jewish scholars say that when the Temple was destroyed by Romans in 70 AD, God moved his presence from the destroyed Temple to the Western Wall. Jews therefore believe they that when they pray at the Western Wall, they are praying as close to the presence of God as possible on this earth.
The Western Wall is a retaining wall of the Second Temple, also referred to as Herod's Temple, because megalomaniac Herod, the Great, rebuilt it in the 1st century BC. The First Temple was built by Solomon, he of legendary wisdom, back in the glory days of the Kingdom of Israel around 900 BC. This Temple was destroyed by Babylonian invaders under Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC, when most of the Jews from the southern Kingdom of Israel were taken into captivity to Babylon.
The Second Temple was then erected by Jews returning from the Babylonian exile around 500 BC. It was a much humbler structure than the First, but Herod, himself only half-Jewish, rebuilt it as much as a monument to himself - he was an prolific builder and we've encountered remains of his vision and ego all over Israel - as a peace offering to the Jewish people he was supposed to be ruling.
Our plan was to join a group for a tour the subterranean excavations that run the full 1500 feet length of the Wall. We met the group and descended north into an access tunnel adjacent to the Wall. Our guide, Ran, stopped at a model designed to show how Herod leveled off the top of Mount Moriah to provide a base for the Temple - what became known as Temple Mount. In a replay of the ongoing Holy Land historical layering theme that has kept our heads spinning, Ran reminded us that Mount Moriah is itself hugely significant to all three monotheistic faiths - Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. It is the site of the near-sacrifice of Abraham's beloved faith child Isaac.
We continued deeper, and stopped at a second model showing the Herod's Temple as it may have looked upon completion. The tiny bright square on the right represented the current "Western Wall", giving us a sense of scale, an appreciation for the enormity of Herod's vision.
Leaving the second model, we joined the Wall itself, walking beside massive, dressed stones, one measuring over 40 feet long and approximately 600 tons in weight. Ran stopped us a bit further when we encountered a plaque marking the spot opposite the Holy of Holies. The Western Wall formed one side of this most sacred place in the Temple where God chose to dwell. Several Jewish women were there, praying in the dim light.
After a couple additional brief stops, Ran led us back up into the sunlight. In one of many ironies that make this trip such a delightful puzzle, the Jewish Western Wall, which forms the western support wall of the Muslim-controlled Temple Mount, exits onto the Via Dolorosa, Christianity's Way of Suffering, walked now by pilgrims memorializing the final movements of Christ en route to his death on Golgotha.