Magazine article The Christian Century

Whose Holy Ground?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Whose Holy Ground?

Article excerpt

In his poem "Little Gidding," T. S. Eliot warned his readers not to take too intellectual an approach to places of worship; instead, he urged, "You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid." Yet around the world many believers wrestle with the question of just whose prayers have been valid at particular sites. In Europe particularly, that question may prove to be inflammatory.

From a global perspective, American Christians are unusual in that their churches rarely occupy sites sacred to other faiths. But throughout history new religions often appropriated older sacred places for their own purposes. London's St. Paul's Cathedral stands over the remains of a pagan temple, and the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City is within the sacred precinct of Aztec Tenochtitlan. Invaders normally assumed that dominant religions should by right occupy the greatest buildings, and they grabbed sites accordingly. Great religious buildings are often palimpsests: a little investigation can uncover older layers of faith. Cambridge's beloved Round Church (a longstanding center of evangelical zeal) reputedly replaced the synagogue of the city's medieval Jewish quarter.

Such displacements are much in evidence across Europe and the Middle East, where Christians and Muslims so often battled each other and where frontiers shifted frequently. For a thousand years, the world's greatest Christian church was Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which became a mosque in 1453. Some great Islamic centers, like the Great Mosque of Damascus, have a Christian (and often pagan) prehistory. When the Muslims conquered Spain, they naturally converted Toledo's venerable Roman church into a mosque, which it remained for 400 years until the Christian reconquest. That mosque in turn gave way to the High Gothic cathedral that we see today.

Across much of southern Europe and the Balkans, many Christian churches stand, literally, on Islamic foundations. The process of conquest and Christianization is most obvious in Cordoba, which at its medieval height was the greatest Islamic city in the Mediterranean world. Visitors to Cordoba are very familiar with the Moorish architecture of the former Great Mosque, the Mezquita. Following the Christian takeover in 1236, the building became a cathedral and the minaret became a bell tower--but the place is still generally known as the Mezquita Catedral.

So frequent, in fact, have been such turnovers of ownership that it seems pointless to argue over the original title of a given place of worship. If a given sacred site was once pagan, then Christian, then Muslim, then again Christian, the most painless solution would seem to be to accept present realities. …

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