While Jews have worshipped at the Western Wall nearly continuously since the Second Temple’s destruction, Ottoman policy forbade any sort of formal congregational prayer. The British Mandatory authority tried to preserve the existing status quo, but during the 1920s the site saw periodic outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence. In August 1929, just after the bloody pogrom in Hebron, three proposals emerged for placing the Wall and the area in front of it under Jewish control. Two of these proposals came from Jews, but not the third, which until now has been forgotten. Steven E. Zipperstein writes:
Prince Mohammad Ali Pasha of Egypt . . . was the uncle of, and later the regent to, Farouk, the future king of Egypt. Those who knew Ali Pasha regarded him as a “very liberal-minded man,” with a “courtly bearing.” . . . The Jewish, Alexandria-based lawyer Alec Alexander once described Ali Pasha as “the one person who could use his good offices to bring about peace between Muslims and Jews.”
On that fateful day of August 29, 1929, Ali Pasha, while on a visit to Istanbul, hand-delivered to the British ambassador to Turkey, Sir George Clerk, a letter addressed to the high commissioner chancellor in Jerusalem. The letter contained a stunning proposal from Ali Pasha for settling the Muslim-Jewish dispute over the Western Wall.
Ali Pasha’s letter explained that “the Mohametans may be willing to accept a sum of money which would help them to do good for the community, and as the Jews are rich,” they ought to be willing to pay for the Wall, thus preventing further violence and ill will. He went on to clarify that “Mohametans and Arabs will not accept a small sum such as £10,000 or even £20,000 for a matter in which their honor is so far involved,” but that £100,000 would certainly be enough. Zipperstein adds:
The letter . . . seriously undermines Muslim claims regarding the holiness of the Buraq, [as the site is known in Arabic]. Surely Ali Pasha would never have dreamed of proposing to sell any truly sacred Muslim shrines, such as the Dome of the Rock or the al-Aqsa Mosque, to the Jews. . . . Indeed, no evidence exists of any Muslim prayer or veneration at the Buraq since the 7th-century Muslim conquest of Jerusalem.
The ambassador passed the letter on to the Foreign Office, which promptly filed it away and let it linger in obscurity.