Today in the sacred city of Peoria...
April 7, 2008 7:08 PM   Subscribe

What makes a city or place sacred?

We keep hearing about the sacred city of (fill in the blank) in Iraq and Pakistan, et al. I understand that these places are sacred because of ancient religious connotations and events. My question is, how does a place go from being the tourist site (Hey, family, let's go on the tour of Mohammed's birthplace!) to being a sacred site. For instance, right now the Alamo's a tourist destination. But it figures in our national mythology too. How long before it's "sacred." What other sites might be sacred in another 10 (or whatever) generations? What sacred sites weren't sacred in Ur-grandpa's day?
posted by nax to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a novel with an interesting take on this question. You might enjoy it in conjunction with thinking about this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:23 PM on April 7, 2008

I read something about this topic by Mircea Eliade.
posted by ofthestrait at 7:28 PM on April 7, 2008

I can't speak for Eastern religions, but in the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), I'd say that in order for a site to be sacred, at least one of two criteria must be satisfied:
1) Event of major religious significance occurs there (Mohammed ascends to Heaven, site of ancient Jewish Temple, Jesus overturns moneychangers' tables, etc.)
2) Someone very important dies or is buried there

I should add though that this deals with the BIG sacred sites...I'm sure most Jews/Christians/Muslims will tell you that any synagogue/church/mosque is sacred, and if they want to get really metaphysical, point out that since God is everywhere, everywhere is sacred.

Archaeologists have dug deep into some hills and found that civilizations tend to build temples and sacred sites on top of previous civilizations' holy sites. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is a prime--and potentially explosive--example.
posted by j1950 at 7:28 PM on April 7, 2008

The Alamo won't ever be a sacred site because what happened there wasn't a religious event. It wasn't seen that way then, and it isn't seen that way now.
posted by Class Goat at 7:38 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would agree on principle with what Class Goat said, however there are times (9/11?) when historical world events happen, and I'm sure you'd find plenty of people who believe "ground zero" is a sacred place. (or Pearl Harbor, or concentration camps) Whether those physical locations fit the traditional definition of sacred or not, I guess is open to debate.

Personally I think "sacred" is defined by experiencing something profoundly moving. For me, sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or climbing a 14'er (14,000ft mountain) are pretty sacred things. Although I havent been to any, I'd be willing to bet ancient sites like the Pyramids, Angor Wat, Easter island or Stonehenge would be pretty sacred.

I think the turning point is a social-meme moment when people start to collectively believe the location has some "more than human" significance, be it historical, religious or culturally enriching.
posted by jmnugent at 7:46 PM on April 7, 2008

My question is, how does a place go from being the tourist site (Hey, family, let's go on the tour of Mohammed's birthplace!) to being a sacred site.

What makes you think there was ever a time when Mohammed's birthplace was a tourist site? Sanctity isn't just about age; although time can strengthen the meaning of a place, it can't inject from nowhere an entirely new meaning just because a certain number of years have passed. The Acropolis is ancient, and is revered in a sense for being ancient, but it isn't exactly sacred. But 2500 years ago, it was sacred, because religious beliefs about the gods at that time imbued it with significance relevant to Olympus rather than significance related to 'the birthplace of western civilization' or that kind of thing. And other ancient sites have likewise in a sense become less sacred over time, because the people who visit them now visit them for historical or anthropological reasons, rather than for personal religious reasons.

Modern sites that will become sacred are less likely, because we live in an age of technology rather than mythology; we can revere sacred sites from the past, but starting new religions now - really claiming to speak directly to god, to heal the lame, to raise the dead, to part the seas, etc, is culturally considered a bit fringy, and religions that do that are often categorized by others as "cults" rather than respectable religions. But presumably modern day prophets & their followers do have sacred sites, and if their belief systems last, so will the sites.

Places of great disasters like the 9-11 site or pearl harbor are somewhat different from sites that can be called holy for reasons of faith. They are memorial sites, and like any grave or memorial, are respected, visited, and perhaps can be said to be held as sacred in the simple sense of reverence for the dead. There is no reason to believe that the level of reverence at those sites will change over the years either.
posted by mdn at 8:04 PM on April 7, 2008

Lay lines.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:43 PM on April 7, 2008

I'd've thought the Alamo already was sacred. Sacred is about, well, how many people revere it as sacred, basically.

eg: there's a brouhaha on at present regarding a section of the Kokoda Track. The locals would like to get on with their lives (and, by extension, dig up all the copper underneath it), but because of what happened there, what, 70 years ago, it's sacred to a lot of Australians.

In the terms you've used, I'd say this is in the process of 'becoming sacred', but really, it's presently sacred to some, and not to others.
posted by pompomtom at 9:07 PM on April 7, 2008

If a news reporter calls a city "sacred," what he means is that a large number of people believe it's sacred.

So what you're really asking is, "What makes people believe?" And that's a big, hairy question with no simple answer.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:34 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, here's one well known opinion on the subject.
posted by washburn at 9:43 PM on April 7, 2008

My question is, how does a place go from being the tourist site (Hey, family, let's go on the tour of Mohammed's birthplace!) to being a sacred site.

Well, for one thing Mecca (Prophet Mohammed's birthplace [pbuh]) isn't meant as a tourist attraction, strictly speaking. If you're not a muslim, then you can't enter unfortunately, and if you are a muslim, and lucky enough to reach Mecca, then the only thing on your mind will be reaching the Haram-Sahrif and praying in front of the Kaaba.

As for other sites, where people of all denomination are welcome, in Islam and other religions, like say Dargahs and Mosques, although you have to be respectful of the way you present yourself (and Temples and Churches), then it might be a tourist attraction for you, but not so for the followers who are there, who have come to worship and pray, so you have to be mindful of their presence as well.

Which is kind of what's the difference between visiting a monument that's a tourist attraction like the Gateway of India and doing whatever you want/wearing whatever you want, and maintaining some kind of decorum whilst visiting the other places.

For instance, right now the Alamo's a tourist destination. But it figures in our national mythology too. How long before it's "sacred."

I'm not too sure about the "religious significance" of The Alamo, although I am aware of its cultural and historical significance, I'm not sure if you can technically call it a "sacred site". I don't know, I may be wrong on this, so you may want to look this up. Intersting question though. Thanks!
posted by hadjiboy at 10:02 PM on April 7, 2008

People use the word 'sacred' to mean respected, worshiped, or 'special' in some way, but like so many terms that people overuse, that isn't really what it means. Although if you want to get metaphysical about it, you could argue that it does mean that if everyone thinks it means that. Point taken.
I second ofthestrait's recommendation of Mircea Eliade, especially 'The Sacred and the Profane'. Also Rudolf Otto, 'Idea of the Holy', and various writings by Georges Bataille.
The original meaning of the word 'sacred', as all of these writers knew, is something that is outside of and irreconcilable with the 'profane'. (Another word whose meaning has changed; although people use it pejoratively, it actually just means 'everyday', e.g. something that is normal, expected, and routine). The sacred encompasses everything outside of 'normal' life, including (and this is the part that has been forgotten), things that are horrifying, grotesque, and 'unavowable'.
SO...what makes a city or a place sacred? In my opinion, there is no such thing as a 'sacred city', since by definition a city is where people live their everyday lives, and it can't be separated from itself. What makes a place sacred is it's separation from the everyday, therefore any place that is recognized as representing the unknown, usually having to do with sex and death. Cemeteries, churches, temples, etc.
Bataille said that his true church was a whorehouse, so the whole thing is a bit subjective in the end.
Read the above authors and they'll explain it 1,000 better than I just have(n't).
posted by arcadia at 12:12 AM on April 8, 2008

How geography becomes sacred is a fascinating topic. The place that first made me aware of the issue is Kataragama, a holy site in Sri Lanka. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Aborigines all have independent but strangely interrelated myths and rituals about the place, and it is a center of pilgrimage for them all. More on Kataragama's sacred geography here.
posted by BinGregory at 12:17 AM on April 8, 2008

"The sacred is precisely the continuity of being revealed to those who fix their attention, in a solemn rite, on the death of a discontinuous being."

- Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit), p. 27.
posted by arcadia at 2:41 AM on April 8, 2008

"Sacred" is about religion.
Any "religion" is made of stories related to higher planes of existence.
So to make a place "sacred" you can just pick up any place and link it to events related to higher powers.
Death being at the same time one of the basic need for religion and the door to any "higher plane of existence", a couple of deaths related to the place can't hurt.
But death is not a necessary ingredient. Look for example to the Virgin apparitions (Lourdes, Fatima, etc.), or to the Delphi Oracle and no death is involved: only a direct link to any kind of god.
posted by bru at 6:41 AM on April 8, 2008

Just for an alternative perspective, consider Japan. Japan's indigenous religion, Shinto, is animistic. Special rocks, mountains, etc, are thought to be inhabited by a spirit (kami). Either it's there or it isn't. That makes them sacred. I don't think that constructed artifacts like buildings ever have kami (could be wrong). I suppose if people ran across a new rock, some Shinto authorities would be able to determine whether it was inhabited by a kami. Curiously, the most sacred natural feature in Japan, Mt Fuji, has been defaced by a 10-story parking garage halfway up it. Go figure.

Also, IMO, the concept of "sacred" must have a secular component. Is the Vietnam War Memorial sacred? Technically no, but it clearly has an emotional force and importance very much like any sacred place. This has nothing to do with the place's age, and everything to do with how people respond to it. And the pyramids of Egypt? Clearly they were built as sacred monuments, but nobody practices that religion anymore. Even so, they've been ennobled by the epic labor that went into their construction, their importance as architecture, their age, and their size. If one of the pyramids were destroyed, I imagine we'd be as shocked and saddened as if any technically sacred place were.
posted by adamrice at 6:54 AM on April 8, 2008

Philip Larkin's poem, "Church Going" quietly considers this question.
posted by washburn at 7:33 AM on April 8, 2008

Varanasi is an example of a "holy" city that is also very ancient (San Antonio isn't.). And I don't know how many people make a pilgrimage to The Alamo. I'd say more Americans take one to Ground Zero or even Gettysburg.
posted by mattbucher at 9:52 AM on April 8, 2008

The way I generally try to use the word sacred when referring to secular events/places is that they must cause in most people a form of 'sober reflection'. Senses of awe, gratitude or sorrow are guidelines to when locations are sacred.

Worth checking out is Velcro Ripper's Scared Sacred. All about finding the beautiful in horrible places.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:05 AM on April 8, 2008

Outside of religion, the only reasonable answer to this question is what pompomtom said: All sacred means is that some group of people believe it is sacred.

I've visited the Alamo and I'd say it fits that definition already. Partially because a nationally significant battle was fought (and lost) there, and partially because it used to be the Mission San Antonio de Valero. There are certainly a great number of people who visit it who seem to hold it as sacred.

If I had to predict the future, I'd say the Alamo will be considered less sacred in 10 generations, as we become further and further removed from the people who died there. I'm not sure how the passage of time after an event would make more people regard a place as sacred.

Sacred is in the eye of the beholder, of course. In the case of the media, I think they refer to "The sacred city of whatever" both as a gesture of respect and as an informative aside for their audience, despite the fact that they are unlikely to personally consider it sacred.
posted by mmoncur at 6:05 PM on April 8, 2008

Response by poster: I apologize for characterizing Mohammed's birthplace as a one-time tourist destination. I confess I was being a bit flip, which was probably inappropriate. I think people understood what I meant. I find it interesting that all of the American places mentioned here are ones that I thought of as having potential to become sacred: Gound Zero, Gettysburg, Vietnam War Memorial. I also thought of Niagara and Mount Rushmore-- places that figure into a currently-secular national "mythology" but that have such strong emotional resonance for Americans that they might be termed "sacred." So then a correllary to the question becomes, does "sacred" equate to religion? Must something be specifically associated with a religion to become sacred? Or can a religion evolve around the "sacredness" of the site?
posted by nax at 11:11 AM on April 9, 2008

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