The Western Wall of Jerusalem is just that, a pockmarked limestone wall rising 60ft into the air. It is bleak and imposing, dwarfing the women praying in front of it. The genders are segregated here, as in most other devotional places in Jerusalem; the men and the women on either side of the makeshift barrier united in their grief.
For, this spot, also known as the Wailing Wall, is where Jews gather to mourn the destruction of the Temple Mount (part of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great circa 20 BC) by the Romans in AD 70. With the Dome of the Rock, the sacred spot for the Muslims now standing right behind the wall, there is nothing else they can claim as their own.
Yet, for all the religious fervour this spot commands in Jews all over the world, there is no overt or loud expression of emotion. A few of the older women have found themselves chairs close to the wall and are silently reading their well-worn prayer books, while most others have lined up with their faces close to the wall.
Some have placed both hands upon the wall, some are kissing the stones while others are rocking back and forth with intense sorrow, tears pouring down their cheeks. In deference to tradition, from black-hatted rabbis to beige-uniformed soldiers, everyone takes steps backwards from the wall, taking care to always show only their faces to this most sacred spot.
Inside this enclosure, there are tourists from as far away as Australia and America, drawn by the curious geographical concept that is Israel. There are clusters of rabbis, talking in muted whispers about what I assume are deep philosophical matters. There are Bar Mitzvah (ceremony to mark a Jewish boy turning 13) celebratory groups, mostly from America, families taking this opportunity to visit their spiritual homeland. Finally, there are the faithful, who are there to convey their unflinching devotion to their god.
I am mostly unmoved by it all; to each their own faith, and ways of expressing it. As I stand to a side, taking in the scene, a small boy, no older than six, walks solemnly to the wall and tucks a folded piece of paper into a crevice, sending a message up to his version of god. He then turns to his mother with a toothy grin; she has tears in her eyes, whether from her own moment of devotion or from watching this moment of unadulterated optimism from her son, I cannot say.
When I flick tears away from my own eyes, I like to think it is the heat and dust of a sweltering summer afternoon in Jerusalem.
(Excerpted from a longer essay on Jerusalem that I wrote for the latest edition of Mint on Sunday – you can read the full version – Notes from Jerusalem here)