The power of holy places
LONG BEFORE human beings began to map the earth scientifically they created a sacred geography. Certain features of the landscape — a rock or river that was particularly arresting — stood out from their surroundings and spoke of something else: people experienced a richer, more potent reality there. Men and women have formulated the perception of sacred space in different ways over the centuries, but certain themes tend to recur, suggesting that they speak to some fundamental human need.
People tend to identify deeply with their holy places, because the sacred is not simply a reality “out there” but is also immanent, within the self. Their sacred spaces help them to find their place in the world.
Holy places have been in the news recently. Last week, plans for a new visitor centre at Stonehenge were quashed amid indignant complaints that the present facilities were a “national disgrace,” a slur on the reputation of the country. And yet again crowds of pilgrims have congregated in Glastonbury, a site associated with the numinous origins of our nation, sitting caked in mud — as if in some arcane ritual — and listening to music that gives them intimations of transcendence.
Explosive political issue
Sacred space has also become an explosive political issue. The final status of Jerusalem, for example, is now one of the most intractable problems in the Middle East. Unless a solution can be found that satisfies everybody — Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians — we cannot hope to achieve a lasting peace.
In such conflicts, everybody insists the site is “holy” to them, so essential to their identity that they can experience its violation as a rape. But the cult of a holy place, properly understood, always has a strong ethical component. From the beginning the cult of Jerusalem was inseparable from the ideal of social justice. Psalmists, priests and prophets all insisted that it could not be a holy city of shalom (peace, completion and wholeness) unless it was also a city of tzedek (justice); Jerusalem must be a refuge for the poor and the oppressed.
Similarly, violence of any sort has always been forbidden in Mecca. To this day, a pilgrim may not even kill an insect or speak an irritable word during the hajj, a discipline designed to teach Muslims, at a level deeper than the purely rational, that hatred and aggression are incompatible with the sacred. It is not enough simply to have a warm glow when visiting a holy site. Instead of becoming a major obstacle to world peace, the cult of sacred space should contribute to harmonious coexistence.
Part of the problem is that people feel so at one with their shrines that the integrity of their holy places comes to symbolise their own survival.
The cult of sacred space often involves a ritual separation of the site from its profane surroundings, which can make the cult exclusive. Gentiles were barred from the Jewish temple, while non-Muslims are still forbidden to enter Mecca. But Muslims had a more inclusive vision of Jerusalem’s holiness.
Under the Christian Byzantines, Jews had never been allowed to reside permanently in the city, but when Caliph Omar conquered it in 638 he invited them to return. He also ordered that Christian shrines in the city must not be expropriated or attacked. In contrast, when the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem in July 1099 they slaughtered 20,000 Jews and Muslims in two days, clearing them out of the holy city like vermin.
Religion is often misunderstood in our secular society. Like art, it is difficult to do well. It is not about private ecstasy or self-affirmation. While it can endorse our sense of identity, the chief aim of religion at its best is to introduce us to transcendence by curbing the destructive forms of egotism, hatred and greed.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
(Karen Armstrong is the author of A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.)
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