At 1 am on Saturday, October 29th, 1995, myself and my friends Matt and Emily woke to go to the Western Wall. Though it was the Jewish holy-day of Shabbat (the Sabbath), and I'm not really into celebrating these kinds of religious observances, we had decided to spend the entire night at the Wall compound to observe what kinds of people might show up during the wee-hours. We were not disappointed in our quest for the bizarre. The following is a rough catalogue of our activities and encounters. For those of you who aren't familiar with the layout of the Wall compound, it's not really important spatially-speaking.
When we arrived at 1:44 am, there were about 8 people outside praying. It wasn't at all warm, but, all-in-all, not a bad night to pray-till-you-drop, if you're into that sort of thing. I'm not.
2:07 am - a scruffy looking man emerges from the tunnel on the men's side carrying two Tallitot (prayer-shawls). He lays down on the dirt hill at the far back of the compound on top of one Tallis and pulls the other over himself as a blanket. He proceeds to fall asleep. I took this opportunity to take my first picture of the Western Wall on Shabbat. (Usually there are untra-Orthodox men running around telling you not to do so.) I also took a picture of this guy asleep in such an odd place. It turned out, later, that he was most-likely homeless. The Wall is a good place for homeless men on a cold night, becuase they can sleep in the tunnel where the lights keep it pretty warm. We saw about 6 guys asleep in there, none of whom looked like they were Orthodox...
2:25 am - Emily and I poked around the women's side of the Wall. Yes, I'm not supposed to be there, but I don't believe in such discrimination. We checked out the little room on the side (far right, for those who've been there). Inside there were dozens of small candles burning on the floor and a large sign, in English and Hebrew, which read "No lighting candles." We pulled a few notes out of the Wall to read what people would write to God. I took an airmail letter and translated a message in Spanish asking for peace and health. There was also a note from a young English woman asking not to break up with her boyfriend. There was also a letter (at this most holy of Jewish sites) a not that began "In Jesus' name..." OK - it was sacrilegious to read God's mail, but hey, I'm Sacrilege Boy!
2:50 am - a little, old Hasidic man arrives. He will spend more than two hours arranging chairs and tables obsessively. When I say obsessively, you must keep in mind that the chairs, though small and light, weigh more than he does! And he spends much energy moving them and then re-placing them. He even opens up the tables and organizes the prayer-books inside of them. He sets up chairs for a congregation of about 20 people. Then he sits down, alone, and begins praying. No congregation ever arrives to sit in his chairs.
At 4:05 am, about one hour before dawn, major activity began at the Wall. First, three women arrived, independently, and went to pray on the women's side. Also, the "movers and shakers," as we dubbed them, began arriving. These were the men who had keys to lockers inside the tunnels. Some began setting up for organized prayer groups (minyans), while others simply opened up their lockers to get personal prayer items.
4:10 am - As Matt and I stood watching the movers and shakers, a well-dressed man in a white suit with a white brimmed hat stabbed Matt in the foot with his umbrella (it had not been raining, but the white umbrella was a perfect fashion accessory for this guy) and waved a siddur (prayer-book) at us questioningly. Though his offer to pray was quite friendly, and, I guess, generous, Matt and I politely refused. He then stabbed my feet and walked out.
At 4:15 am, the minaret of Al-Aqsa mosque began to broadcast the Muslim call to the dawn prayer. The sun would not rise for another hour, but they want to give people a chance to wake up. The Wall compound was filled with booming garbled Arabic, "There is no God but God and Muhammad is His prophet... It is better to pray than to sleep... God is most great..."
At 4:40 am (Mind you, this is, pardon the pun, an UNGODLY hour!) four men approached the Wall, danced in circle with Tallitot (prayer shawls) over their heads, and left.
A small squad of Israeli Border Police came and sat near us. They were chatting amongst themselves (probably trying to figure out what we were doing there since we didn't look religious by any means). They played with their walkie-talkies as though they were new toys, and then went out towards the Dung Gate goofing around. I guess the graveyard shift is boring for those guys!
At 5:10 am, Matt, Emily, and I left the compound to find a sunrise view of the Old City. We got a cab ride up to the top of the Mount of Olives for free! The guy wouldn't charge us because we'd let him take the "hard" (but faster) route. We watched the sun turn Jerusalem's walls into the color that inspired the phrase "Jerusalem of gold." We marvelled at the peaceful look of a city we knew to be anything BUT at peace with itself, and then we went to bed.