The Western (Wailing*) Wall is the holiest location in Jewish life. With 28 rows of massive stones above ground (and 17 below), the wall itself is physically breathtaking. Its holiness stems from the fact that it is the closest location to where the Holy of Holies was located in the Temple.
When the Western Wall was first built by Herod as part of a retaining wall for the expanded Second Temple (c. 13 CE), it was 24 rows of stones shorter and remained that height for nearly seven centuries. The other rows have been attributed to later sources. The Second Temple fell in 70 CE, and after the quelling of the Bar Kochba’s uprising in 135 CE, the Jews were fully exiled from Jerusalem. They were not allowed to live in Jerusalem or worship at the Wall until the early 5th century, when permission was granted by Aelia Eudocia, the Byzantine Empress.
It seems, from the sparsely recorded data, that Jews continued to be allowed to come to the Western Wall throughout much of the Middle Ages. Alas, after Saladin’s overthrow of the Crusaders (1187), Saladin’s son established a “Moroccan Quarter” to create housing for his loyal followers–who regularly dumped their waste in the 13 foot gap left between the houses and the holy wall.
In 1517, the Ottoman Turks conquered Jerusalem. Under the Ottomans, several legal rulings were issued, both allowing Jews to come to the Wall to pray and, at the same time, prohibiting them from paving the narrow walkway in front of the wall, making noise and setting up tables.
When the British took control of Jerusalem from the Turks (1917), the Jews had to constantly fight for their rights to pray at the wall. After the 1948 war, the Jordanians took control of the entire Old City. Although the 1949 Armistice Agreement stated that Jews would be permitted access to the Wall, the Jordanians never actually allowed them to do so.
During the Six Day War of 1967 (on the 28th of Iyar), the Israeli Defense Force took back the Old City. Shortly thereafter, they demolished the “Moroccan Quarter” and greatly expanded the plaza in front of the Wall, allowing access to anyone who wished to come to the holy site.
*The term “Wailing Wall” is actually a modern term that appears only in the late 1800s/early 1900s. It may be based on the ancient Arabic name for the Wall, El-Mabka, which means “the place of weeping.” Both El-Mabka and Wailing Wall refer to the Jews who have, throughout history, come there to cry for the lost Temple.