Saturday, October 24, 2009

Seeking and Sensing the Sacred in Jerusalem_Part 1

Originally published in the July 1998 Newsletter from the "Colorado Architect", the journal of the American Institute of Architects state wide Colorado chapter. This is a two-part blog article. I traveled to Israel and Jerusalem specifically as mentioned in prior posts in the summer of 1994. I had received a small travel grant from AIA Colorado. It was an especially troubling time with much strife between Israelis and Palestinians. This article isn't about that though. It's about searching for the sacred in one of the holiest places. There I learned how ironic it was that as sacredness increased so did the intensity of the profane.......

It was one o’clock in the afternoon. Since early morning I had been sitting in the tall belfry of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, located in the Muristan or Christian Quarter of the Old City. From this high point I could see the roof-tops of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters, the Mt of Olives and Western and Eastern Jerusalem beyond the walls. My dreamy reverie was interrupted by the minaret of the nearby Mosque of Omar, crackling into life with the mid-day call to prayer. Soon, its sound was joined by minarets of other mosques. What began as a single voice, slowly grew into an amazing chorus of Arabic readings from the Koran blaring loudly all over the city, until a single sound formed which penetrated the very pores of my skin. People emerged out of their homes, offices and stores walking to their neighborhood mosque to pray and gather in community with one another. Slowly, the single voice started to break apart as the calls to prayers ceased and all was silent again but for the doves cooing in the vaulted steeple above my head.

All of us have experienced sacred places and spaces in our lives. Whether they were the special hiding places of our childhood, the kitchen table or campfire, the concept is clear. They are places which provide sanctuary, a sense of respite from the harsh forces of life. They are also found in our places of worship, the temples, mosques and churches which form the center of spiritual and cultural life for many. For others, natural spaces and places have the same kind of personal and collective power.

For two months in the summer of 1994, I traveled to Jerusalem and various parts of Israel and the West Bank on an AIA Colorado Fisher Traveling Scholarship. In preparation, I read much about the region, its history and texts about sacred place and space. I was most interested in experiencing these places outside of their dry academic context. To describe them I would sketch, photograph, interview others and write about what I was experiencing. As a maker of space and place, I felt much of which I lived in and experienced at home was devoid of spiritual depth.. I sensed studying sacred places and spaces in their context would help me to design more meaningful and unified communities back home. Thus I sought out Jerusalem.

As one of the longest continually settled places on Earth, the city presents an incredible richness of cultures and urban conditions to experience and study. Digging down into the Old City one finds a tightly woven mesh of physical, spatial and mythological relationships unparalleled in complexity and significance. I sought to compare and contrast the differences between the physical design and cultural use of space and notions of place exhibited in the Old City by the Western or Wailing Wall of the Jews, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher of the Christians and the Dome of the Rock of the Muslims. Surrounding each Holy Place lay a district or residential area which supported the sacred activities within. As sacred precincts, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters exhibited profound differences and similarities as compared to one another. Each revealed essential qualities of how space and place were culturally perceived and expressed through their design and history.

In numerous conversations with others and through my experiences, I concluded that without those who use the spaces, the places themselves can not remain sacred. The continuity over four millennium of the presence of people practicing the rituals and traditions within the monuments and holy places, saturates them with sacredness. These holy shrines and places are mere instruments or containers which promote and enable the rituals to be practiced and engaged in. Without this human imprint of activity and use they would stand inactive and forgotten, hence not sacred. It is in the remembering and renewing of the great stories of the Talmud, Old and New Testaments and the Koran which enlivens the silent monuments with a sense of narrative space and sacred time.

A favorite memory was walking the ramparts of the great stone wall surrounding the Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim Quarters within the Old City. One traverses each area without actually entering them. From the ramparts one could also see the different sections of Western and Eastern Jerusalem and the outlying hills and valleys beyond, each with their own rich layers of physical design and symbolic qualities. From this high place it was easy to assess the physical and symbolic aspects of the city, drawing relationships impossible to arrive at on the ground. I spent a number of afternoons slowly moving along the walls, sketching, thinking and taking photographs, trying to unravel and make sense of what I saw. The city and its history awakened before my eyes and under my pen.

end of part 1 - to be continued

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