Land Rites

Karen Armstrong's writings fascinate me. Her well crafted, well thought and unbiased articles on issues pertinent to our contemporary strife filled world give us hope. When the nutcases are flaunting their naked hatred and inciting more racial and religious tensions by mentioning their wistful wishes that include bombing and incinerating sacred places around the world, killing unknown many, Karen Armstrong's is the voice of sanity and moderation that our world needs in such a desperate time.


Land rites

In our secular, sceptical society, sacred spaces remind people of their true spiritual orientation

Karen Armstrong

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: Muslims, for example, turn five times a day towards Mecca as a reminder of their true spiritual orientation. Even in our secular, sceptical society we have never managed to desacralise the world entirely. Many of us have special places that we like to visit because they are inextricably bound up with our conception of ourselves.

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.

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 India, Ayodhya, one of the seven Hindu sacred cities, has become a symbol of bitter communal tension with the Muslim minority. When in 1992 the BJP dismantled the Mosque of Babur, founder of the Mogul dynasty, Muslims feared that this presaged their eradication from India.

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, the oppressed and the stranger.

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. Jerusalem has always become more precious to a people after they have lost it. Many Jews see Jewish Jerusalem as a near-miraculous symbol of their continued existence, rising phoenix-like out of the ashes of Auschwitz, while the Palestinians, who feel Jerusalem slipping daily from their grasp, regard the city, surrounded by Israeli settlements, as an emblem of their beleaguered identity.

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 Jerusalem 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.

The emotions that lie behind many traditional religious practices have not been swept away by the cool rationality of the Enlightenment. If they become infected by the experience of cruelty, oppression and terror or by a lust for power and control, they can, as we know to our cost, result in atrocity.

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.

· Karen Armstrong is the author of A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.