A look at the power conveyed by places of religious significance
You can’t go far in Palestine and the region around it without tripping over a site of great religious and historical significance, particularly for those of us brought up in the Judeo-Christian traditions. So many place names take me back to early school days, when at morning assemblies and the occasional obligatory church service, us numerous unbelievers were subjected to Biblical extracts and the moral lessons they were supposed to infuse in our impressionable young minds. Even the most devout of atheists couldn’t help but grow up with visions of ancient Jerusalem, Galilee and Jericho, augmented by illustrated story books of David and Goliath or Samson and Delilah. To my young mind these epic tales seemed devoid of the Jewish heritage my adult self knows them to have, but Christian teachings have often been keen to play down the Jewish identity of Jesus so it could have been quite deliberate. As for the Middle East’s other great religion, Islam, it only warranted one paragraph in a religious studies lesson on religions of the world and the odd mention of Saladin, opponent of the crusader Richard the Lionheart, who himself was more of a supplementary character in stories of Robin Hood than a meaningful historical figure.
So, decades later I finally stood on the pile of rocks and dust that was once the hallowed city of Jericho. The distant bellow of trumpets crumbling its walls echoing from the dim recesses of my childhood. You’d need a pretty vivid imagination to make anything of what remains now of the Jericho that was portrayed in my youth and its size defies anything that might be called a city in modern times: maybe fortified village or castle would be more appropriate for the rocky outcrop with some faint traces of walls and heaps of dirt that were probably once mud bricks. Despite this disparity between image and reality there still remains a shiver of power lurking in the dust and grit, not just from the stories but the enormity of its timescale. For most of the last twelve thousand years it has been home to a community of human beings, a multitude of civilisations have risen and fallen but a modern town still bearing the biblical name surrounds the humble ruins. Great age in itself bears a power even without stories to tell. Like ancient trees that never made the history books or legends, the mind can only wonder at all the lives and tales of humanity that must have passed under their gaze.
If there was one place I expected to feel some stirrings of power it was at the site of the Nativity in Bethlehem, it is after all the source of Christianity, its tale retold every Christmas, an annual reinforcement of religious imagery throughout my childhood. To be honest however, apart from a few nice mosaics, it inspired about as much divine wonder in me as the birth place of Dave from the accounts department, rather than that of The Messiah. Although relatively free of the kind of tackiness overload that can characterise some Christian sites, all the razzmatazz and queues requisite for such a notable place only served to detract from what should have been a place buzzing with historical and religious significance. Believers rushed to get a quick kneel and pray at the holy birthplace as others anxiously shuffled about waiting their turn behind them. To finally reach the mother lode of your faith, only to have a dozen people tutting, “c’mon c’mon”, behind you must feel an almighty disappointment.
For a lowly heathen like me you might say, “well what did you expect?”, but a brief survey of some close Catholic friends garnered a similar response. I imagine some people do manage to experience something profound but piety alone is obviously insufficient. If the Nativity was a nil – nil draw in the Holy Places League, a visit to The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was more of a two – nil down at the home ground kind of result. Being an Easter when even the Orthodox denominations, with their calendar lagging around a week behind ours had something to celebrate, the great church was packed with an international cavalcade of every kind of Christian while a dozen different varieties of monk and priest fought a liturgical soundclash. Syriac staves drummed on ancient flagstones, as monastic prayers fought Catholic hymns over the metallic clanging of the Greek Orthodox call to prayer. Experimental, freeform jazz gigs have sounded more spiritual than this. My Catholic friends had even recounted how an outraged priest had assaulted one of their group because one of them had stood on the wrong bit of carpet, quite what defined wrong in this case remained a mystery but tensions between the denominations were evident. I could only imagine the benign face of Jesus looking down upon his flock asking. “what in God’s name are you bloody people doing?”
A bit of noise and chaos doesn’t always detract from spiritual matters, as, at least for some, the Via Dolorosa with its crowds and shouts of shopkeepers advertising their wares was probably more like the atmosphere Jesus experienced on the same path, lugging his cross uphill for his final encounter with a sturdy set of nails and a big lump of wood. Muslim friends on the Hajj felt at times that sharing the experience with such a multitude, even with their elbowing and shoving, only heightened the buzz of sharing the peak Islamic experience – I’d hate to compare it to the marginally less spiritual event of being completely off my tits at festivals when the bass drum kicks back in after a massive snare roll and ten thousand people jump in unison but I certainly felt closer to God in that moment, just not sure which god it was mind you. Equally, several Muslim friends spoke of the sensation of peace in holy places being the feeling that remained with them long after and many even spoke of being brought to tears by the experience.
Certainly being where your prophet of choice had once been has the power to provoke often quite substantial emotions in believers, providing an almost tangible link to the dawn of the faith but that is not to say that others might experience nothing that could be described as religious. Where perhaps my infidel’s mind and that of religious friends most coincided were those places free from distractions or even, in places, any kind of religious structure at all. My Catholic friend who had experienced an entirely irreligious set of emotions at the Holy Sepulchre had her most profound experience in the Holy Land in a small boat on the Lake of Galilee: free from noise and grand edifices there was only herself and her faith to occupy the mind. Muslims in an empty, plain and simple mosque can experience a transcendent peace worthy of the most holy of places. You can’t get much more minimalist than the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem but the lack of features clearly doesn’t result in a lack of spirituality for Jews. For some African friends, the spirits tied to the site of an ancient, sacred Baobab tree, even after it has died, have a presence far more solid than you or I could perceive. I understood these kind of sensations myself standing on Mount Nebo in Jordan, where Moses saw the Promised Land he had strived so hard to lead his people to, only for God to deny him the chance to live to see it. There really is nothing of any great importance to see aside the view and it isn’t particularly remarkable at that, though pleasant enough. It is the three and a half thousand years of history, give or take a few centuries, depending on which sources you prefer to take, whose story is still being played out today. All stemming from a poignant tale of a man standing on a hill who would die, never to see the land beneath his gaze promised by God to his people. Even if you believe the story to be fiction, it is a story that has motivated and defined events in the land ever since. Epic battles; tales of heroism and sacrifice; the rise and fall of empires, all stem from that story, whether truth, fiction or something in between. Without that story there would be no Christianity or Islam and Judaism would almost certainly be a different thing entirely.
Can places convey a sense of power without some kind of story to stir the mind? I wouldn’t want to rule that out but it’s certainly a highly subjective area. A spooky, old abandoned house can still be unsettling even if you haven’t heard a ghostly tale to go with it, but would the view from Mount Nebo be much more than a nice view or Jericho be much more than a heap of rocks and dirt without understanding their significance? Whatever the answer we should never underestimate the power of a good story.