Immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews evidently continued to pray either on the Temple Mount itself,or on the adjacent Mount of Olives, from which they could look down on the ruins of the sanctuary. In later years, Jews in Jerusalem found a variety of places on or near the Mount to gather for prayer and mourning, but only in the 16th century did the Western Wall—one of the outer retaining walls built by King Herod during his 1st-century-BCE renovations of the Temple—become the city’s most important Jewish sanctuary. F.M. Loewenberg explains how that came to be:
What is currently known as the Western Wall . . . is not mentioned in any source prior to the 16th century. . . . There exists an ancient tradition [dating to at least the 12th century] that “the Sh’khinah [Divine presence] will never move from the Western Wall.” But this saying does not refer to the present Western Wall but, instead, described the ruins of the western [inner] wall of the Second Temple building mentioned by many pilgrims. . . . Over time, as the visible ruins of the original temple walls disappeared, this saying was applied to the current Western Wall. . . .
Fourteen years after he had ordered the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s city walls, the Ottoman sultan] Suleiman the Magnificent instructed his court architect to prepare the area that came to be known as the Western Wall as a place for Jewish worship. Such a move became possible because on January 14, 1546, a severe earthquake hit the region. . . . The area hardest hit by this earthquake in Jerusalem was the Temple Mount and the quarters surrounding it, including many of the houses that had been built along the Western Wall. These were the houses that had prevented access to most of the wall. Now that the approach was blocked by ruins rather than by houses, . . . Suleiman felt ready to instruct his engineers to clear the ruins and to prepare a Jewish prayer site at the Western Wall.