By: Olivia Zeidner
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit one of the most historically contentious sites in the world, the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. The “Wailing Wall” is a small western portion of the walls surrounding the most sacred site in Judaism, the Temple Mount. It’s commonly believed that most of the wall, including the 17 masonry courses located below street level, was constructed around 19 BCE, by Herod the Great. However, recent excavations indicate that the work was not finished during Herod’s lifetime. The remaining layers of the retaining wall were added from the 7th century onwards. Not only does the Western Wall include the exposed section facing the large plaza in the Jewish Quarter, but also the sections running along the entire length of the Temple Mount, such as the Little Western Wall, a 25’ section in the Muslim Quarter.
The total height of the Wall at the Western Wall Plaza is approximately 105’, with the exposed section standing approximately 62’ high. The Wall consists of 45 stone courses, 28 of them aboveground and 17 underground.The first seven visible layers are from the Herodian period. This section of wall is built from enormous meleke limestone stones situated under the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Most of these stones weigh between 2 and 8 tons each, but others weigh even more. One particular stone, located in the northern section of Wilson’s Arch, measures 43’ and weighs approximately 520 tons. Each of these stones is surrounded by fine-chiseled borders. The borders are 2” to 8” wide and 0.59” deep. The next four courses consist of smaller stones that date back to the Umayyad period. Above that are 16 to 17 courses of small stones from the Mamluk period and later.
According to TheKotel.org, the methods assumed to have been used to construct the wall are based on ancient professional writings, sketches, drawings, and the techniques used by pre-technological societies.
In order to separate the stone from the bedrock, stonecutters used hammers, chisels and metal wedges. First, they used chisels to bore a line of holes in the bedrock and inserted two metal blades separated by a wedge in each hole. As the stonecutters hammered the top of the triangular wedge, the bottom point pushed aside the blades and widened the crack to the depth of the holes. When the holes were deep enough, the stone separated from the bedrock. Once the chisels cracked the bedrock, the stonecutter pushed the rock away to form the new stone.
Log rollers were often used to transport the stones. Heavier stones were placed on log rollers or wagons that were hitched to oxen, mules, camels and horses
The design of the Western Wall demonstrates the incredible abilities of the engineers and builders of ancient Jerusalem. The stones were perfectly and precisely placed one upon the other, with no spaces between them. Apparently, the chiseling of the stones was completed after they were placed on their courses.
During my trip to Israel, I visited the Western Wall twice. My first trip was on a Friday evening during Shabbat. Some people were dancing and singing; others prayed and cried against the wall. The night completely surpassed my expectations. On my second visit, is it was much quieter and less crowded than during Shabbat, I was able to get up close to the wall. I watched as women put their hands and heads against the wall in prayer, many leaving notes in the cracks of each unique stone.
While the cracks and crevices in Jerusalem’s Western Wall provide space for visitors to tuck in notes representing their thoughts and prayers, geologists believe these cracks may be indicative of erosion and structural instability. In order to ensure public safety, the site must be maintained. After conducting an extensive physical and engineering survey of the Western Wall’s condition several years back, the Israel Antiquities Authority Conservation Department prepared an extensive work plan. The plan focuses on the conservation treatment of the stones and their stability, based on their degree of preservation and the level of risk they present to the visiting public. A professional team of 55 people, including: conservators, architects, engineers, planners, chemists, geologists and archaeologists implements the conservation work. The project to conserve the stones in the Western Wall and the surrounding compound, is one of the most complex projects ever undertaken.