Historically, the Jewish faith has tended to place greater emphasis on the significance of an event than on the place where it may have occurred. Among the exceptions to that rule, the 2,000-year-old Western Wall is in a class of its own. Its status as the most important existing Jewish shrine derives from its connection with the ancient Temple, the House of God. It was not itself part of the Temple edifice, but of the massive retaining wall King Herod built to create the vast plaza now known as the Temple Mount.
After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, and especially after the dedication of a pagan town in its place 65 years later, the city was off-limits to Jews for generations. The memory of the precise location of the Temple—in the vicinity of today's Dome of the Rock—was lost. Even when access was eventually regained, Jews avoided entering the Temple Mount for fear of unwittingly trespassing on the most sacred, and thus forbidden, areas of the ancient sanctuary. With time, the closest remnant of the period took on the aura of the Temple itself, making the Western Wall a kind of holy place by proxy.
Jewish visitors often just refer to the site as "the Wall" (Kotel in Hebrew); the "Wailing Wall" is a Gentile appellation, describing the sight—more common once—of devout Jews grieving for God's House. It is a telling point that, for many Jews, the ancient Temple was as much a national site as a religious one, and its destruction as much a national trauma as a religious cataclysm.
The Western Wall is in the southeast corner of the Old City, accessible from the Dung Gate, the Jewish Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter's El-Wad Road. It functions under the aegis of the rabbinic authorities, with all the trappings of an Orthodox synagogue. Modest dress is required (men must cover their heads in the prayer area), there is segregation of men and women in prayer, and smoking and photography on the Sabbath and religious holidays are prohibited. The cracks between the massive stones are stuffed with slips of paper bearing prayers and petitions. (These are collected several times a year and buried in a Jewish cemetery.) The swaying and praying of the devout reveal the powerful hold this place still has on the hearts and minds of many Jews.
On Monday and Thursday mornings, the Wall bubbles with colorful bar-mitzvah ceremonies, when Jewish families celebrate the coming of age of their 13-year-old sons. The fervor is still greater on Friday evenings just after sunset, when the young men of a nearby yeshiva (Jewish seminary) sometimes come dancing and singing down to the Wall to welcome in the "Sabbath bride." But many people find that it's only when the crowds have gone (the Wall is floodlit at night and always open), and you share the warm, prayer-drenched stones with just a handful of bearded stalwarts or kerchiefed women, that the true spirituality of the Western Wall is palpable. (Expect a routine check of your bags—smaller is better—by security personnel at the plaza entrance.)