Living the questions II (sacred spaces edition)

Church and neighboring mosque in Aleppo

Tomb of Hussein's head in Damascus

• The Quran says God is closer to you than your jugular. Christians are supposed to see God in every person, according to the Bible. What, then, is meant by the idea of sacred space? Isn’t the entire world sacred?

I ask this somewhat naively, knowing that theology is worlds away from folk, lived religious practice. Nonetheless, I reflected on this question at the Ummayid Mosque in Damascus while observing the scene in the tomb of  the head of Husayn (one of five or so such tombs in the region. Husayn had a lot of heads, apparently).

Unlike in Turkey, where religious sites are patrolled and sanitized by state authorities, in Syria there is no dam to staunch the flow of emotional (Shiite) piety. Men and women pushing, reaching, praying, singing, chanting, kissing, crying, taking photographs, touching. Black-cloaked Iranian women crashing through the writhing crowd like bowling balls, men with Farsi-inscribed signs directing their big groups of pilgrims and religious tourists through the motley crowd. It was without a doubt the most intensely, aggressively religious atmosphere I have ever been privy to, although the birthplace of Abraham in Urfa (Turkey) was similarly intense.

We visited many religious sites besides these, such as The Monastery of St. Sergius and Bacchus in Ma’alula. Here the oldest Christian altars still stand, complete with rimmed edges. Why? Pagans needed rims to stop blood from flowing over during sacrifices, and it was not until the Council of Nicaea (Nicaea is present-day Iznik, Turkey) in 325 AD that Christians abolished rims from their altars. Ma’alula, incidentally, is one of the only places where Aramaic, the Semitic language that Christ would have spoken, is still used.

There was also the Cave Church of St. Peter, an early Christian place of worship established around 40 AD and carved into a cave, outside of Hatay (a.k.a. Antakya or Antioch, present day Turkey). It was in Antioch that Christians first were first called Christians, where St. Peter preached extensively, where apostles organized their missionary efforts. In the Cave Church, Christians would worship and hide from religious persecution, and thus there is still a (now partially collapsed) series of tunnels that lead out of the grotto and onto the mountainside.

A dead cities church outside of Aleppo, Syria.

And then, of course, there were the extinct religious spaces–the Church of St. Simeon the Stylite outside of Aleppo; the temples in Anemurium, a 4th-century BC roman town in Anemur (between Antalya and Adana in Turkey); the eerily poignant and somehow still-standing churches of the Dead Cities, scattered between Aleppo and Hama in Syria. These spaces may not have seen worshipers for hundreds of years, but they maintained a sense of holiness.

Where is your sacred space?

PS. In Aleppo, we stayed at the Baron Hotel, which is this cool old historical hotel where cool historical people like Agatha Christie and Lawrence of Arabia also stayed back in the day. My roommate M.R. and I got the same room in the Baron Hotel that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk once used, which means we are badasses which might constitute a sacred space for a certain type of person.


2 thoughts on “Living the questions II (sacred spaces edition)

  1. Martin Huennekens November 1, 2010 / 3:00 am

    Glad to have you back.
    My sacred sites include a particular chair where I read or watch storms on the lake. I make holy corners or spots of peace and tranquility all over my daily life. The holy sites are most blessed when sacred nieces come join in the meditation.
    But your descriptions of no dam to staunch the flow of emotions made me think more about going out to a great dance club on Halloween as I did last night. Men and women pushing, reaching, praying, singing, chanting, kissing, crying, taking photographs, touching were there. They were black-cloaked and clad in every possible constume – they intensely and aggressively crashed through the writhing crowd like bowling balls. Yet in all of its intensity there is a great peace for those taking part. I do not think the peace can be observed without taking part. You cannot take part unless you totally believe.
    I sometimes wonder if this is not more animal than spiritual but then I cannot really say what the difference is.


    • C. Puls November 4, 2010 / 1:24 pm

      Thank you UM. I am glad to be back. Yes, I remember Halloween in Milw. as being transcendentally crazy. I have never found peace in these huge crowds but I can see how one could. You can be sure that the sacred niece will be taking a pilgrimage to the holy avuncular temple before the end of the year 😉


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