JERUSALEM — When visitors stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, saying a prayer is the first step before even approaching the wall, which opens to a large square.
The prayer said by a group of Catholic Press Association members who visited the wall on Nov. 9 was led by tour guide Gideon Har-Hermon. Baruch Atah Adonai (Praised are you, the eternal one our God), it began.
Group members then walked to the wall, men going to one area, women to another, divided by a short fence. Through the fence, Jewish men could be seen wearing fringed prayer shawls called tallits as they bowed repeatedly to the wall while holding their teffelin (prayer books) in hand.
Gathered on the women’s side was a diverse array of visitors from all over the world. Many were bent over in deep prayer, with their foreheads resting on the wall. Tears streamed down the faces of some of the women. Other women placed their hands on the wall and closed their eyes in prayer.
Several women walked backward as they stepped away from the wall toward an open area that holds chairs and small tables with Bibles and Torahs.
The tradition of walking backward is a way of showing respect, explained Ronit, a pilgrim from Los Angeles, who declined to give her last name. She said she was making her second trip to Israel to visit family.
Praying at the wall is a very "holy experience," she added. "It’s a very emotional experience."
Cheryl Ault-Barker agreed. The Brooklyn native had tears in her eyes as she stepped away from the wall.
"I’ve seen prayers being answered after I’ve placed my requests in the wall," she said.
Her trip with more than 200 people from Morris Cerullo World Evangelism marked Ault-Barker’s third visit to Israel, she said.
"I believe the Holy Spirit is here more than ever before," she remarked. "I feel that presence."
Crevices in the wall are filled with slips of paper containing prayers representing the hopes and wishes of all who come. The wall is the holiest place for Jews, Har-Hermon said, noting that the original wall stood taller than what remains. Subsequently, the Muslims planted Cyprus trees and built the Dome of the Rock — an Islamic shrine — on the site, he added. The seventh-century dome stands on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem.
"This place is special because it is as close as possible to the Holy of Holies," Har-Hermon noted, referring to the site of the First Temple and Second Temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant.
More than 11 million people annually make pilgrimages to the wall, also known as the "wailing wall," noted Casriel Juravel, a native of Long Beach, Calif., who now gives tours of the wall’s tunnels. The total number of visitors is more than the population of Israel, which is about 8 million people, he said.
"Why is it so important? Why do people come to touch these stones?" he asked. "To answer that question, you have to go back to the beginning of time."
During the period of the Second Temple when Romans controlled of the city, Herod had a platform built into Mount Moriah — which served as a commercial center — that was extended to an area of about 25 football fields, Juravel said.
"It was the biggest sanctified area in ancient times," he said.
King Herod the Great built four large retaining walls around the platform, and today’s Western Wall is the retaining wall of the original Temple Mount.
"People always tried to come to the Temple Mount, but the closest they could get was the Western Wall" after the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock,Juravel said. "The sanctity of the wall is because it was so close (to the Temple Mount)."
Subsequently, he explained, the Romans thoroughly destroyed the temple. Later on, Muslim tribes, the Crusaders and the Mamluks, who had been Muslim slaves, also built prayer platforms in the Temple Mount area.
Today, the above-ground remains of the Western Wall measure one-eighth of the wall’s original length of about 1,600 feet.
"What we understand right now is that to see the full length, we have to dig underneath the houses that the Mamluks built" and under residential neighborhoods that had been built on ancient structures from the Second Temple era, Juravel said.
And the foundations of those homes are 40 feet above the bedrock, he said.
A British archaeologist began mapping the tunnels of the Western Wall in the late 1800s, he said, and Israeli officials hope in the next five years to expand access to the underground areas of the Western Wall. But excavation involves moving stones that are each 15 feet wide and weigh 620 tons, Juravel explained.
As the Catholic press group moved through the narrow tunnels, it stopped at the closest point on the wall to the Holy of Holies, which is where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Again, pilgrims separated for prayer, with men going one way and women the other.
"The feeling is that in times of prayer, we should have as least distractions as possible," Juravel explained. "People can be concentrating on prayer, not the other sex, which can be a strong pull for many people."
Above ground at the wall, Nuvia Canizales, who was visiting with a group from her native Panama, said she respects the Jewish custom of separation of men and women in prayer.
"I don’t have a problem with it," she said. "The idea that it helps you concentrate more in prayer is valid. But we also think it is good to pray as a family."