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What do sacred places have in common

Tap here to turn on desktop notifications to get the news sent straight to you. Religion is often the identity that people use to rally communities together, resulting in the formation of bounded and closed identities and significant network closure. As we focus on the narratives and the news of violence we often ignore that in many places where ethnic and religious conflict and violence occur, there has also been long periods of peace and coexistence.

We tend to forget that Hindus and Muslims, Jews and Muslims, Muslims and Christians, Sunni and Shi'ia and many other divided groups have accommodated to each other for long periods of history. As such, groups of different ethnic and religious experience often shared secular and sacred resources, space and beliefs.

However, given the prevalence of conflict today, we would be hard-pressed to imagine religious spaces, churches, shrines, mosques and mausoleums that are shared by more then one religious and ethnic group. There are today in the post-Ottoman world, just to take one example, countless sacred sites that are venerated by more then one religious group. Shared sacred sites are religious sanctuaries where people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds are able to live with difference, accommodate to each other's religious needs and negotiate in public their otherness.

The sharing of spaces and traditions by multiple religious communities demonstrate the numerous and varied practices and possibility of accomodation between potentially antagonistic communities, and the study of such sharing provides key insights into characteristics and features crucial to the cultivation of tolerance and understanding.

Hundreds of such sites can be counted in historical sources and many still continue to be shared despite the often violent "unmixing of peoples" and nationalizing policies of nation-states that emerged in the post imperial, post colonial world.


Practices of sharing religious space have survived in both urban and rural settings, showing their rich and textured fabric of mixed traditions, amalgamated narratives and jointly incorporated superstitions and beliefs. In these spaces where people still mix, they constantly innovate within a traditional practice, they add on, they rationalize and explicate to make sense to themselves and their interlocutors why they belong, why they keep coming and appropriate what is different or why they welcome the "other.

We can start with a few preliminary statements about the contemporary features of sharing sacred places in Turkey and especially in Istanbul in the 21st century. In Istanbul, Greek Orthodox churches are an important site of religious mixing between Christians and Muslims who share devotion to the space. These Greek Orthodox sites often share the common feature that they all have a spring or a source of "holy water" ayasma that brings blessings, cures illness and provides health to worshippers.

The legend of the benefits of these sources of holy water was established in Ottoman, Byzantine and even in pre-Byzantine times. Each ayasma has a particular history, a narrative of discovery and is referred to in various historical descriptions.

Sacred Places

The discovery is associated with a miracle of curing an illness often of a dignitary, who then establishes a church in the said location. The benefits of the water and the sacrality of the space are transmitted from generation to generation, through multiple accounts.

It is through such processes of inter-generational transmission that these spaces have survived, even as social and political change led to much unmixing with the loss of religious pluralism on the ground. First, such practices are part of an Ottoman legacy of sorts. Possessing tremendous religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, the Ottoman Empire 1299-1923 gave rise to many forms of coexistence peaceful or otherwise that now offer us a genuine laboratory of research possibilities that have yet to be exhausted.

There is ample proof that the Ottoman empire is still relevant to discussions of diversity and that the millet organization of religious communities is understood as a relatively successful historical example of ruling diversity. One of the ways that this diversity expressed itself was through the explicit sharing of sacred sanctuaries, whether they were Christian, Muslim or even Jewish.

Therefore, it is clear that there is the effect of a long standing cultural and religious symbiosis, a society that has for many centuries had a high level of Muslim Christian interaction and has developed certain ritual practices which could be seen as partially "syncretic"--symbols have been absorbed and exchanged overtime, without a full merging of religious traditions.

Such similarities between practices, traditions and meanings attest to a larger cultural field that has been articulated over centuries, that collected ways of doing things, habits, skills and dispositions; local knowledge about cures, remedies; forms of instruction and learning passed down through generations.

Many visitors to shared sites nowadays mention Ottoman practice, their ancestors, their immediate grandparents and family as embedded in these common solutions to daily life and in rituals of sharing. What do sacred places have in common young Muslim woman who came to Vefa, a Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul, with her friends told of how her grandmother use to visit churches and take her when she was a young girl, but then added "no self-respecting Istanbullu lives here and does not know about the many churches.

Sacred place

It is part of the mix of Istanbul. We go to church, we go to yatiris Muslim shrines. This touring from site to site brings us closer to understanding each other. People explicitly bring back the memories of these past practices as they were carried out by their ancestors and share a sense of nostalgia for the past. Such nostalgia is exacerbated by the new revival of Ottoman "everything" that plays to the emotional memory of people and represents the past as simply magnificent.

As the new Ottomania plays out in the media, in the politics of the AKP who claim Ottoman history, especially the glory and toleration, and in the cultural production of Turkish society, it is appropriated for different purposes. Even in territories where such Ottoman nostalgia does not operate, the historical and cultural memory of an Ottoman past remains in the habitus of the generations that have experienced the transition from what do sacred places have in common to nation-state.

Another context for this participation is contemporary politics. In a manner that reminds us of Michel de Certeau's analysis of everyday forms of resistance 1988people engage in practices of sharing, some trying to subtly subvert, others to affirm their understanding of the system. This is especially expressed by many secular, middle to upper class participants for whom sharing is a rebellious response to the Sunnification of Turkey; remembering a multi-ethnic past, reproducing a multi-cultural setting through involvement is a way to oppose the policies of AKP, even though AKP uses the same rhetoric of the multi-religious past and toleration to claim a continuity between such Ottoman practices and Turkey under AKP rule.

Yet, many participants were eager to separate themselves from the AKP claims and say: As such sacred spaces known for their diversity and inclusive traditions have come to represent a form of secular opposition. Far from the politics of secular opposition the same churches are also visited by an increasingly religious Sunni population who have become aware of the benefits of these religious spaces and come to make wishes and get some holy water.

Such supplicants are mostly religious women who might come to this space they define as belonging to an "other" but where their practical and rational interests help them cross religious boundaries for prosperity, progeny and a sense of general well-being that derives from being blessed by a Greek priest.


In such cases, such attendance is not a subversion of the system, but a particular lens into a hierarchy of ethnic and religious pluralism. To conclude, it is imperative to explore the phenomenon of sharing sacred religious spaces in modern cities, though this has to be done with an eye to the historical, practical and political considerations that are embedded in such practices.

  1. The journey of pilgrims is symbolized by an intricate labyrinth on the floor of the Chartres, which people follow while saying prayers.
  2. Located in the city of Ise in Mie prefecture, about an hour's train ride south of Nagoya , it is dedicated to the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, from whom the imperial family is traditionally believed to descend through her grandson, Honinigi, who, according to the Kojiki 712 c.
  3. The pagoda is famed for holding the relics of four Buddhas and savvy visitors should visit at night to enjoy the chants of the faithful, the wafting incense, and the great golden stupas shining in the spotlights.

These spaces represent diversity, but the social and cultural meanings attributed to the diversity can often be complicated and contradictory.