Wrote Oscar Wilde’s father William, an Anglo-Irish surgeon, in 1838 following time spent overseas:
“Were I asked what was the object of greatest interest that I had met with and the scene that made the deepest impression on me during my sojourn in other lands, I would say that it was the sight of the Jews gathering to mourn over the stones of Jerusalem. It was a touching sight to behold, in front of the Mosque before the western wall, one of the western walls which formed the holy of holies and the ancient temple … it was a touching sight, and one that years will not efface, to witness that mourning group and hear them singing the songs of David beneath the shadow of those very stones that once rang with the same swelling chorus when Jerusalem sat on high. But not now are heard the joyous tones of old, for here every note is swollen with the sight of Judah’s mourning maidens, or broke by the sobs and smothered groans of the patriarchs of Israel. But that heart must be sadly out of tune whose chords would not vibrate to the thrilling strains of Hebrew melancholy chanted so sad and low by the sons and daughters of Abraham in their native city. Much as they venerate the very stones that now form the walls of the enclosure, they dare not set foot within its precincts: for the crescent of the Moslem is glittering from the minaret of Omar, and the blood-red banner of Mohammed is waving over their heads.”…’
His account of his travels was first published in 1840; the passage I quote above appears in a book entitled From Oxford to Rome, and how it fared with some who lately made the journey, published in London in 1847.
Although William Robert Wilde used the term “mourning maidens” most of the women who worshipped at the Kotel were married and many were not young, but otherwise what he writes is a fair summary of the situation surrounding Judaism’s holiest site in the long years of Ottoman rule.
Here, for instance, is another first-hand account of Jews at the Kotel by a sympathetic nineteenth-century Christian traveller (name not given, though from a seeming hint dropped it may have been Ferguson), which I found in a British newspaper (the Lancaster Gazette) of 16 December 1848:
“Forbidden to approach the site of their Temple, they pay a heavy tax to the Sultan for the miserable privilege of meeting on a small strip of ground adjoining its outer wall, when they put their petitions through the crevices, in the fervent belief that they will find the same acceptance as when offered in the Temple in all its glory. Once a week [Fridays] they meet thus to pray, and once a week to wail over the desolation of their Temple …. And thus, week after week, and year after year, and century after century, they have gathered together and wept, till time … has given that grief reverence and majesty for its antiquity alone. The ceremony to which I refer was, by the sorrowful earnestness of the supplicants, rendered extremely interesting. Old men were there who had lived all their lives in expectation of the consolation of Israel, and were now about to drop into the grave without seeing that hope fulfilled. And children were there, brought by their mothers, to join their prayers for the day it might be yet their lot to behold. But there was one … circumstance which detracted somewhat from the interest of the scene. Few of the maidens of Israel were there. Can it be that the allurements and occupations of the present life, and the gay dreams of youth, had tempted them to forget that they were strangers in the land of their fathers? Perhaps, rather, that years of danger and suffering had taught youth and beauty to shun the evil eye of the Moslem.”
A long and graphic eyewitness account from later in the century sheds further light on the sorry situation. First published in the London Daily Telegraph, it was reproduced by the Jewish Chronicle (7 January 1870). Here it is, without further comment from me, for its significance speaks for itself:
“In this clear, bright moisture-free air everything looks so close and near that you fancy you could drop a stone down upon the roofs that lie far away beyond rifle shot and it is only as your eye becomes accustomed to the distance that you take in the grandeur of the city upon which you look…. At your feet is the vast, bare, open space on which once stood the Temple of Solomon – on which now stands the Mosque of Omar. A few Mussulmans [sic] sit smoking gravely under the shadow of the trees planted here and there close beneath the Sacred Shrine … But, unless you wear the turban, there is no entrance here for either Christian or Jew, without special permission. The ground is too sacred, in the eyes of the Muslim, to be desecrated by the foot of the unbeliever….
The most impressive memory I shall ever carry away with me from Jerusalem is that of the Jews weeping before the walls of Zion. The Hebrew population is said, in the guide-books, to be about one-third of the whole city.... The Jews of Zion are neither prosperous, active, nor influential; and, as Muslims and Christians, disagreeing in everything else, agree in oppressing the children of Israel, these have a hard time of it in the city of their fathers. No native Jew can enter the precincts of the Temple, where now stands the Mosque of Omar, without the risk of being maltreated and stoned, if his presence is detected by a Mussulman. Once a week, however, and once a week only, the Jews are permitted by the Turks to come and pray at the foot of one of the high stone walls on which the plateau of Solomon’s Temple is supported. The hour of prayer is fixed, whether by chance or irony, upon the Mussulman Sabbath; at that hour the Jews flock to the narrow strip of ground, enclosed beneath high walls, where alone they can pray in public for the coming of the Messiah, and the restoration of the chosen people to the Promised Land. There are a few Rabbis, clad in long fur-lined cloaks and low-crowned velvet caps; but the great bulk of the worshippers are aged men and women of the poorer sort …
Men and women stand apart, the worshippers, as they each arrive, taking up their station close to the wall, with their faces buried as far as may be in their slits and fissures. All along the line there rises a murmur of wailing cries and sobs. There are few amongst the company who have not Hebrew books of prayer in their hands, out of which they recite long swings of words chanted to a low sing-song tune. From time to time one of the elders reads out a prayer, and at each pause the chorus of men and women join in with a long wailing cry. But, as a rule, it seemed to me, each person prayed after his own fashion, and the voices rose and fell in a constant ebb and flow of sound; but, as worshipper after worshipper turned away slowly from the wall, after kissing it repeatedly, you could see tears running down their wrinkled cheeks.
The Turkish soldiers were lounging on the parapet of the wall above. In former years, they would throw down stones upon the Jews as they stooped in prayer, or insult them with opprobrious names. Now the power of the West is too much dreaded for the Moslem official to venture upon the exhibition of his contempt for the unbeliever. But, amongst the common folk, who have not the terror of the Pasha before their eyes, the old hatred of creed still survives. On the day when I visited the place of wailing, a group of dark-eyed, bold-faced stalwart Arab women sat with their children, in a corner of the pathway whereon the Jews were praying. An old Jewish dame, very feeble, bent, and wrinkled, laid her large hide-bound prayer-book on a stone beside her while she buried her head in a hole in the wall; forthwith one of the Arab girls stole up stealthily and carried off the book in triumph. The old Jewess, when she discovered her loss, begged and prayed for its return, but was told she could not have her book again unless she paid five piastres – about a shilling – to the girl who had stolen it. There was wrangling and whining for ever so long, but the Arab girl stood firm; the Jewish women were afraid to touch her, and at last they made up the sum amongst themselves by odd half-pence, and handed it to the impudent young hussey, who pocketed the coin, and then announced that now she would not return the prayer-book, as she saw the old woman valued it, till she had double the price named.
Seeing that our party were strangers, one of the Jewesses came up to me, and asked me, in German, to help them get the prayer-book back. I volunteered, through my dragoman, to pay the couple of shillings which was needed to redeem the book; but the Arab wench raised her terms again, and stood out for more. Happily, a threat that I would take the old woman to the English Consul – like many other unmeaning menaces in this world of ours – succeeded where persuasion had failed; and the girl, pouring forth a volley of abuse against myself, the Bible, and the Jewish race, raised up the prayer-book into the air, threw it as hard as she could fling right into the midst of the group of Jewesses, and then ran down the hill laughing loudly.”
[EoZ] Compare with today.
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