Israel Travels

Where Mark Twain viewed a ‘holier’ Western Wall

There is a section of the Temple’s retaining wall far closer to the sacred Holy of Holies than the traditional site of prayer, and it’s open to all

A section of the 'Small Wailing Wall' (Shmuel Bar-Am)
A section of the 'Small Wailing Wall' (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Nothing remains of the Glory That Was Jerusalem during the Second Temple era but a wall on the western side of the Temple Mount. At one time the wall was thought to have been an actual part of the Second Temple built by King Herod, and was revered as such for its sanctity. Even when it became clear that it was “only” a retaining wall, which helped hold up the compound built around the Temple, it maintained its holy aura. It is the only remnant of the Temple that Jews can touch, pray to and weep upon. As such, it is Judaism’s most hallowed site.

During the Ottoman rule of Israel, Jews were permitted to frequent only a small section of the Wall and the Brits went so far as to refuse permission to blow the shofar for fear of Arab reaction. And even today, women experience humiliating and denigrating treatment – and arrests – at this most sacred of Jewish sites. And this time it is at the hands of their Jewish brethren.

But there is a section of the Western Wall far closer to the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount than the traditional site of prayer and perhaps that much more sacred. It is called the “Small Wailing Wall” (hakotel hakatan) and is open to all. There is even room there for notes to God, while at the traditional site every nook and cranny is crammed full with tiny scraps of paper.

This important site is found off HaGuy Street inside the Old City walls, a byway replete with bustling markets and historic buildings. To get there, you enter the Old City at Damascus Gate, descend to the bottom and take the street on the left to HaGuy, which is bursting with colorful shops that range from women’s clothing stores to sweet-smelling spice stands. HaGuy street is crowded and has you rubbing shoulders with people from every possible walk of life.

HaGuy Street, just inside Damascus Gate (Shmuel Bar-Am)
HaGuy Street, just inside Damascus Gate (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Above the street, houses are built on arches that cross the road. Just before the second arch, past a plain brown door topped by a Jewish Star, another door stands under the house/arch itself. Both lead into the building where eight families connected to the religious Zionist Ateret HaCohenim Yeshiva live today.

The 'Sharon House' on the Old City's HaGuy Street (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The ‘Sharon House’ on the Old City’s HaGuy Street (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Mark Twain's business card, made for him in Constantinople in September 1867 by the sultan's official photographers (Courtesy: Shapell Manuscript Foundation)
Mark Twain’s business card, made for him in Constantinople in September 1867 by the sultan’s official photographers (Courtesy: Shapell Manuscript Foundation)

This particular house is three stories high and was purchased by Moshe Wittenberg in 1884 from the Latin Patriarch, who bought it from its Christian Arab owner.

Before that time, for a short period in the mid-1860s, it operated as the Mediterranean Hotel. Among its lodgers were famous archeologist Charles Warren and, in 1867, American author Mark Twain.

More recently, the late prime minister Ariel Sharon resided in an apartment there with his wife, Lily. An Israeli flag hangs between two windows on the other side of the arch.

Further along the street, the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family of Jerusalem is a slice of Europe that offers elegance, tranquility, and delicious Viennese delights.

Built in 1863 by the Austrian Catholic Church, the Austrian Hospice was the first national pilgrims’ house to appear in the Holy Land. At first, it was small and consisted of a lobby and one floor with rooms. But that was more than enough for the few pilgrims who arrived each year.

The Austrian Hospice (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Austrian Hospice (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph attended the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and visited the Holy Land at the same time. After that, pilgrims began coming in droves, and at the beginning of the 20th century an entire second story was added to the building.

The hospice’s Viennese café is popular with locals and tourists alike, serving meals as well as genuine apfelstrudel, sachertorte and linzertorte topped with whipped cream. And no visit to the hospice is complete without a climb to the roof for a fabulous view of the Old City.

A view over the Old City from the roof of the Austrian Hospice (Shmuel Bar-Am)
A view over the Old City from the roof of the Austrian Hospice (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Sometimes called the Way of the Cross or the Way of Sorrow, the Via Dolorosa represents the traditional route that Jesus followed from condemnation to crucifixion. There are 14 stations along the way, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Third Station of the Cross, on HaGuy Street (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Third Station of the Cross, on HaGuy Street (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Two stations are found across from the Austrian Hospice, where the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate houses the Third Station of the Via Dolorosa; the Fourth Station and the lovely Armenian Catholic Church stand next door.

The Igud Lohamay Jerushalaim (Organization of Jerusalem Fighters) building (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Igud Lohamay Jerushalaim (Organization of Jerusalem Fighters) building (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A sign above a door along the continuation of HaGuy street reads: Igud Lohamay Jerushalaim (Organization of Jerusalem Fighters). In 1886 Rabbi Yitzhak Winograd, an immigrant from Pinsk, founded a yeshiva called Torat Chaim in the Jewish Quarter. Not long afterwards, so many students wanted to join that it became necessary to expand. Rabbi Winograd decided to buy a bigger place in the Moslem Quarter because so much of the property there was Jewish owned and there were lots of Jewish residents. Besides, it was closer to the sacred Temple Mount.

Torat Chaim suffered at the hands of its Arab neighbors for decades, and students and teachers had to flee the building temporarily during Arab riots and massacres in 1921 and 1929. The riots of 1936-1939 were catastrophic for the yeshiva, and in 1939 they were forced to jump ship. All that they were able to take with them was the Torah scroll; everything else, including a vast library of Jewish sources, was left behind.

Shopping during Ramadan on HaGuy Street (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Shopping during Ramadan on HaGuy Street (Shmuel Bar-Am)

An Arab guard hired after the first two riots continued caring for the yeshiva and protecting its contents even after Israel lost the Old City in 1948 and he stopped receiving a salary. On his passing, his brother took over and when Jerusalem was reunited 19 years later and the Jews returned, they found that all of the yeshiva’s contents had been saved from harm. Indeed, this was the only synagogue or yeshiva in the Old City that was not desecrated and destroyed during the years of Jordanian control. Igud Lohamay Jerushalaim was established a few years later and began restoration of the yeshiva, which belongs, today, to Ateret Cohanim.

A plaque on HaGuy Street in memory of 26-year-old Elhanan Aharon Attali (Shmuel Bar-Am)
A plaque on HaGuy Street in memory of 26-year-old Elhanan Aharon Attali (Shmuel Bar-Am)

HaGuy Street continues, featuring several more Jewish-owned buildings and an Arab bakery emitting a delectable fragrance. Then on the corner of HaGuy and Iron Gate Road (Bab el Hadid), a plaque in Hebrew tells the story of 26-year-old Elhanan Aharon Attali. On February 28, 1991, he was stabbed to death on this very spot and dragged into the corner building (now Beit Elhanan). A police station is now located a few meters away.

The Small Wailing Wall is found on Bab El-Hadid, a little lane lined with Mameluke stonework. Originally slaves who were forced into Moslem armies and converted to Islam, the Mamelukes turned the tables on their masters and became rulers themselves. In the mid-13th century they conquered the Holy Land, and ruled here until the Turks took it from them in 1517.

The Mamelukes who lived in Jerusalem chose the Moslem Quarter for its proximity to the Temple Mount. As you can see, they erected elaborately decorative schools and homes using bands of different-colored stones – mostly red and white, and sometimes black – that is known as avlak.

The Temple Mount is located directly behind a green gate, which is closed to all but Moslems. Everyone else turns left at the gate and descends three steps to reach a sign that reads “Small Wailing Wall.”

This section of the Western Wall, forgotten for decades but far closer to the ancient Temples’ Holy of Holies than its larger counterpart, is divided into two parts because Arab homes were built with, and among, some of the stones. Today the wall area is clean, safe and quiet – a wonderful place to leave a note for God, to pray with family and friends, or just to take a good look at this fascinating portion of the Western Wall.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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