Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Seeking and Sensing the Sacred In Jerusalem_Part 2

Continued from the Part 1, 10/24/09 post....

Friday, Saturday, Sunday.....

...I also visited

each of the sacred sites during their weekly holy days. Each called the faithful to prayer and worship through sound. Five times a day the call to prayer of the Muslims rang out around the city. Fire-raid sirens shrilly whistled at sunset on Friday, not to blow again until the next night, signaling the beginning

or end of Sabbath, the day of rest for the Jews. On Sunday morning bells from church steeples rang all over the Old City heralding the holy day services of the Christians.

Together, their sounds indicated the coming to an end of the week and the beginning of yet another within the context of each religion’s holy year of festivals and sacred time. The calls to prayer, horns and bells all reached out and defined the sacred territory of their

neighborhood or section of the city in a sound net. Often, during the week, confusion and tension would result from overlaps in calls to worship where calls to prayer would occur when bells were being rung for Christian services.During these moments the heterogeneous nature of the city became apparent.

I befriended an Imam or teacher at the Mosque of Omar near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter. I asked if I might accompany him to Friday services at the great Al Aqsa Mosque adjacent to the Dome of the Rock within the Haram esh Sharif. This Mosque served all of the Muslims of East Jerusalem and the Old City, and was the equivalent of a great cathedral or synagogue which serves an entire city. He was delighted.

That Friday I met him at his small mosque, ritually washed myself at the wash-basin and walked with him towards the larger mosque area. We joined thousands of faithful pouring through the streets of the Old City towards the many gates which surrounded the mosque sanctuary space. Because it was Summer it was an outdoors service with everyone lined up facing the entry of the Aqsa Mosque in a great mass of humanity. From there the hour-long service was given. At different points, in unison, the many thousands of people prostrated

themselves on prayer mats directing their bodies and uttering their intentions towards Mecca to the south. My hair rose on my neck in reaction to the expressive sounds of unity.

By participating in this ritual, I suspended my fear of another faith and culture, willfully projecting myself into the service. The clapping and chants of thousands of people at once during different point of the service reinforced the sense of unity and harmony I felt in general between Islam and the Old City. The market areas or Suqs, as they are throughout the Islamic Middle East are the belly of the city, the Al Aqsa Mosque or the Friday Mosque, the spiritual heart. Together with nearby housing, they formed a hierarchy of large outdoor rooms connected by narrow canyon like streets.

Here also, the joy of movement and connection to the Land were of equal importance in serving and shaping sacred space and place. The sites were reached by walking through the Old City along proscribed routes each with their own quality of movement and path. To enter a succession of thresholds and interlocking spaces had to be passed through before gaining access to the innermost sanctums. Instead of the topography being shaped by the layout of the Old City, the hilly terrain and system of valleys and ridges radically affected the design of the city.

To gain access to these special places, one must ascend or descend in an almost choreographed or deliberate manner through narrow and dark streets. Some streets were like dark tunnels, burrowing below streets and housing above, with narrow skylights and ventilation shafts providing dusty air and sharply focused light striking the cobbled streets. Others were wider with more of a sense of the sky above.

All paths which led to the three great shrines, ended with a sense of wide expansion of space in contrast to the strong sense of compression felt earlier. Usually this was preceded by entering a gate and passing through a threshold. In this way, the sacred sanctuary differentiated itself from its profane surroundings. The cardinal directions of north, south, east and west in conjunction of the rise and fall of the sun and the moon contribute to the design and layout of the Holy places and shrines. Each employs movement in proscribed ways through their spaces in relation to these forces.

If asked where and what was my most sacred place and space in Jerusalem I would answer an earthwork sculpture by James Turrell located in the garden of the Israel Museum situated in West Jerusalem. There a large unobtrusive mound is sighted, the visitor descends along a path winding around behind the breast-like form to the single entry of the space to the west. It was named Space that Sees. Like much of the work of the Turrell, it presented a frame upon the sky above. You experienced it from below in a very simply detailed chamber of stone with seats located along the four walls of the space.

Unlike all of the other historically sacred places in the Old City, this one was devoid of all narrative imagery, decoration and cultural conflicts. Instead of being focused on an altar or inner sanctum, the changing qualities of the sky above dominated the space. On hillsides near the Old City, similar older sepulchers or burial chambers and deep cisterns punctuated the landscape. Turrell’s earthwork captured a primordial element common to these spaces, framing nature and its forces in a peaceful, yet spiritual manner.

Playing my harmonica and singing softly, I played an ode to the primordial spiritual forces of the Land pervading the place, enframed in the sky-frame above. My harmonica and voice activated the space, inert before my sounds, into a place of celebration and joy. I participated with and made a place sacred through my own self-made ritual. By doing so, I experienced how these places are mere instruments whose walls, ceilings and roofs stand inert until engaged by action of the people using it. I could make up my own narrative in this simple, abstract space strikingly modern, yet of the earth and sky, endearingly primal to its core.

I finally found my own sacred place and space.

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