Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries

Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries


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While devotional practices are usually viewed as mechanisms for reinforcing religious boundaries, in the multicultural, multiconfessional world of the Eastern Mediterranean, shared shrines sustain intercommunal and interreligious contact among groups. Heterodox, marginal, and largely ignored by central authorities, these practices persist despite aggressive, homogenizing nationalist movements. This volume challenges much of the received wisdom concerning the three major monotheistic religions and the "clash of civilizations." Contributors examine intertwined religious traditions along the shores of the Near East from North Africa to the Balkans.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253223173
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/20/2012
Series: New Anthropologies of Europe
Pages: 290
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dionigi Albera is Senior Researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Director of the Institut d'Ethnologie Méditerranéenne et Comparative.

Maria Couroucli is Senior Researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Laboratoire d'Ethnologie et Sociologie Comparative.

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Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean

Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries

By Dionigi Albera, Maria Couroucli

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Indiana University Press and Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l'Homme (MMSH)
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35633-8


Identification and Identity Formations around Shared Shrines in West Bank Palestine and Western Macedonia


The recent wars in Yugoslavia, in which religious identities were foregrounded in ethnonationalist confrontations, fixed the region's reputation as a "fracture zone" between East and West (Islam and Christianity, Orthodoxy and Catholicism). Analogously, the "Holy Land"—already viewed as a setting for religious warfare—has become, with the establishment of a Jewish state in a demographically mixed territory, an icon of interreligious antagonism enduring since "time immemorial." These developments support popular discourse, already legitimated by some academics, contending that persons' religious identities are fundamental and fundamentally antagonistic to other religions. However, both regions, in living memory (and at some sites until the present day) have seen intensive intercommunal activities around both urban and rural religious sites. Such commingling was opposed by the religious authorities that "owned" some of these sites; it was encouraged at others by, for instance, the Sufic Bektashi. Although both regions were part of the Ottoman Empire, the different systems of religious and secular authority in the two areas during the Ottoman Empire, the different forms of religious activity fostered or suppressed by post-Ottoman states, and the development of ethnoreligious nationalisms provide grounds for comparative analysis of the development of religious communalisms in different contexts. This chapter will present beliefs and practices related to sites in southwestern regions of former Yugoslavia and along Israel-Palestine's Jerusalem-Bethlehem-Hebron axis to assess the impact of such "cohabitation" on cultural and political identities and understand the forces that work to undermine it.

Syncretism and Anti-syncretism: Teleologies of Culture Contact

It is impossible to avoid the term "syncretism" in discussing intercommunal mixing at shrines. Syncretism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the "attempted union or reconciliation of diverse or opposite sets of tenets or practices" (the OED furthermore notes that its usage is "usually derogatory"). As Stewart and Shaw point out in their introduction to Syncretism/ Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis (1994), "'syncretism' is a contentious term, often taken to imply 'inauthenticity' or contamination, the infiltration of a supposedly 'pure' tradition by symbols and meanings seen as belonging to other, incompatible traditions" (Stewart and Shaw 1994:1). They locate the roots of this pejorative usage of the term in the reaction of both Catholic and Protestant theologians to seventeenth-century efforts to reconcile Lutheran, Catholic, and Reformed denominations. Such ecclesiastical reactions were themselves examples of "anti-syncretism," defined as "antagonism to religious synthesis shown by agents concerned with defence of religious boundaries" (Stewart and Shaw 1994:7). Stewart and Shaw and their contributors demonstrate how anti-syncretism—and the charges of "inauthenticity" and "pollution" it mobilizes—has opposed syncretism in academic, political, and popular debate to the present day. Nonetheless, Stewart and Shaw also discern a laudatory approach to syncretism in modern anthropology, initially emerging in Herskovits's portrayal of syncretism in The Myth of the Negro Past (1941) as a mode of assimilation in "melting pot" America, and visible today in postmodern celebrations of "the invention of tradition" and "cultural hybridity" (see Stewart and Shaw 1994:5-6 and 1).

This "war of words" between syncretists and anti-syncretists tends to efface the original sense of syncretism and, when extended to the analysis of "shared shrines," distracts attention from what actually happens at those sites. Is a shared shrine necessarily "syncretistic"? Robert Hayden certainly does not believe it is; for him sharing serves—since the presence of the other appears to threaten the integrity of self—to fortify further the frontiers between sectarian communities. He writes that "processes of competition between groups that distinguish themselves from each other may be manifested as syncretism yet still result, ultimately, in the exclusion of the symbols of one group or another from a religious shrine" (Hayden 2002a:228). Thus apparent syncretism serves, for Hayden, to strengthen communalist identities rather than to dilute or meld them. If, however, we take up Herskovits's assessment of syncretism as instrumental in the progressive "acculturative continuum" (Herskovits 1941, cited in Stewart and Shaw 1994:6) proceeding from culture contact to full cultural integration, then syncretistic "sharing" at holy places forges new and irremediable "hybrid" or "creole" identities. For the anti-syncretists, and Hayden, there is, despite appearances, no sharing; for assimilationists such as Herskovits there is, after sharing, no going back. Identities are either fixed or irrevocably transformed.

"Syncretism" as a term first appears in Peri Philadelphias (On Brotherly Love), one of the seventy-eight essays of various dates that make up Plutarch's Moralia. Here the Roman historian (46-120 CE ) described "the practice of the Cretans, who, though they often quarrelled with and warred against each other, made up their differences and united when outside enemies attacked; and this it was which they called 'syncretism'" (cited in Stewart and Shaw 1994:3). This definition, which Stewart and Shaw note "anticipated Evans-Pritchard's concept of segmentation" (ibid.:4), circumvents the issue of identity transformation that renders incommensurate the two approaches to mixed shrines discussed above. Plutarch describes a situational assumption of a shared identity that, subsuming those that preceded it, can nonetheless be shed when the assault that brought it about has been overcome. Although Plutarch's usage does not explicitly pertain to religious practice or refer to sites constituted as "syncretistic" by shared practices, his definition easily extends to sites where common interests give rise to shared practices and even shared identities. Identities are mobile without being either fixed or amorphous; amity is possible, but neither necessary nor binding. Here issues of agency, and of those things that restrain or impel it, come to the fore. Unbinding the discussion of mixed shrines from the constraints of particularly "loaded" definitions of syncretism enables us to navigate between the Scylla of fixed, conflictual identities and the Charybdis of "evolutionary" transformations of blended identities. Shared practices at mixed sites may entail antagonism and may forge novel identities, but neither is necessary; sharing may just as well be the practice of a moment engaged by persons who return, after that "communion," to their traditional selves and ways.

That passage through definitional straits does not, however, simplify, but rather complicates the approach to mixed shrines. If syncretistic shrines cease to be exclusively either arenas for "competitive sharing" or sites of a "mechanical mixing" (Stewart and Shaw 1994:6), then we need to know much more of what goes on in them if we are to characterize them at all. Once commonality is disentangled from the "politics" of syncretism and anti-syncretism, generic discussions of mixed shrines become problematic and we are forced to pay close attention to the particularities of the field. What is the character of that mixing or sharing if engaging in common practices at the same site neither necessarily solidifies identities antagonistically nor opens them to transformation? To ascertain this we are forced to pay close attention to what people are doing—and saying they are doing—while they are in the process of doing it. It is vital to attend to who is saying what to whom and who is listening; long-term historical processes may bring about observable and documentable effects, but what actually occurs in reaching those ends and what sorts of silencings and debates take place in the process are important to note if we want to really know what goes on in "sharing"

Hayden's study (2002a) examines historical accounts as well as court records of an extended struggle over a shrine at Madhi in Maharashtra revered by Muslims and Hindus alike, and compares this case with the historical and ethnographic record of struggles between Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians in the Balkans leading up to the frenzy of expulsions and destructions that marked the Yugoslav "Wars of Secession" In all the cases he discusses he extrapolates the character of previous in situ intercommunal interaction around the respective shrines from processes taking place well after legal or literal conflict had become the sole form of interaction. If, however, we are not to assume "end results" are predetermined by the initial moments of mixing at shrines, then we must attempt to see what happens on the ground while syncretistic practices are occurring. Ex post facto descriptions, even when they are not themselves extensions of the struggles, are always shaped by what preceded them; we all know what happens when the victors tell the story, but even when recounted by victims it rarely accords with what preceded the crime. Furthermore, once we assume the role of agents and agency in activities around mixed shrines, we must also consider questions of power and resistance. It is likely that some persons or groups will work against sharing, while others engage in, if not actively promote, it; only close attention to the discourses operating around shared or mixed sites will allow us to know which of the multiple positions around the issue of sharing were occupied and how one of those, if that is the case, overcomes others and becomes hegemonic.

Mar Elyas and Bir es-Saiyideh: West Bank Communalisms

My original interest in the topic of "mixed shrines" was generated by observations in August 1984 at the Mar Elyas monastery located between Bethlehem and Jerusalem in the Israeli Occupied Territory of the West Bank (Bowman 1993). Muslims and Christians (both Orthodox and Latin), not only from the nearby cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem but as well from surrounding towns and villages, gathered on the grounds of the monastery on the day preceding the feast of the Prophet Elijah to picnic with friends and family. In the midst of barbecuing, playing musical instruments, and socializing, small groups would leave the olive groves bordering the monastic buildings to join a queue culminating at a large icon of St. George at the right front of the main chapel. The attraction seemed less the icon—although some (usually Christians) would kiss or touch the icon and leave small gifts in front of it—than the length of chain looped before it. This would be lifted by one member of an approaching group and passed three times over the heads of others in that group—adults and children alike—and down the length of their bodies so that the enchained had finally to step out of the loop.

What interested me were the very different explanations given by the various groups present at the monastery (priests, Boy Scouts, foreign visitors, Christian and Muslim Palestinians) of why they themselves were there, why members of other groups were in attendance, what the ritual of passing through the chain meant to them, and what they thought it signified to others (Bowman 1993:433-439). While explanations of why the chain was efficacious differed between lay visitors of different religious affiliations (Christians said that Elias or St. George acted protectively through the chain, while Muslims tended to argue that the chain simply worked to ward off madness, other illnesses, and bad fortune), all agreed that they had come—aside from for the good company of a summer feast—to take a prophylactic blessing from the chain on one of the rare days when liturgical celebrations opened the church and offered them access to it.

Members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, the elite of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land, variously explained attendance by local Palestinians and their "binding" with the chain either as manifest testimony of dedication to the Church and to God (those who rendered that explanation refused to acknowledge that Muslims were among those gathered) or as evidence of the pernicious superstition of uneducated "Arabs" among whom even the Christians were "no better than Muslims." Although the priesthood and the laity had little if any contact other than bumping into each other in pursuit of their respective rituals, the interaction of local Muslims and Christians was friendly and open both in the vicinity of the chain and in the fields around. Lay members of respective religions freely asserted their differences, while simultaneously affirming their community around the holy place: "the religious difference doesn't matter, we all come. It is for friendship and community as much as for religion" (Bowman 1993:438).

Five years later, during the early days of the first intifada, I was taken to an underground cistern in the center of the nearby mixed Muslim-Christian town of Beit Sahour, where, in 1983, locals had reported sightings of the Virgin Mary in its shadowed depths. The Beit Sahour municipality, which was to play a significant role in organizing nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation (Bowman 1990 and 1993), had subsequently built a shrine, Bir es-Saiyideh, over the cistern expressly for the use of both Muslims and Christians of all denominations. This was operated by a committee made up of representatives of all the significant religious communities in the town (Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic, and Greek Catholic). The exterior of the shrine appeared distinctly modern, and, aside from the cross surmounting it, bore less resemblance to a church than it did to a traditional Islamic makym (a building with a domed chamber characterizing a Muslim shrine). Inside, the walls were covered with icons and paintings of Christian subjects given by worshipers, but profusely and randomly scattered among these were a significant number of gifts, paintings and pictures that, in their avoidance of pictorial representation, appeared Muslim. The cross and the predominance of a Christian tone was not surprising; the site was, after all, dedicated to a figure highly revered in Christian worship (although also venerated in Islam). What seemed more important than a more thoroughgoing syncretism was the appearance of the devotional objects of other religions (objects that would be rigorously excluded in a church or mosque owned and operated by the religious institutions), and that no one visiting the shrine (and there was a constant flow of local people passing through it both individually and in groups) seemed offended by evident signs that a community wider than that of their own religious community used the place.

I was told by both the caretaker and the Greek Catholic priest who accompanied me on one visit to the site that religious practices at the shrine reflected this heterogeneity. As the shrine belonged to the municipality, representatives of all local religious communities were able to book time in it. Since the stories surrounding the Nativity of Jesus are celebrated by Muslims and Christians throughout the Bethlehem region as founding myths of the local communities, Muslims and Christians alike gathered at the shrine to celebrate their traditions in a place where the sacred had interacted with their locality. Sometimes these were shared celebrations, nominally organized according to the calendar of one of the religious communities (such as the Orthodox Ascension of the Virgin celebrated on the 15th of August), while at other times local Christian and Muslim officiants carried out ceremonies specific to their congregations. Moreover, as with the blessings available to all at Mar Elyas, water from the cistern in the back of the shrine was taken by both Muslim and Christian Beit Sahourans as a sacred substance for healing, blessing, and providing good luck. I asked the caretaker why the Marian shrine was owned by the municipality and not, as one would expect, by one of the Christian churches. He indignantly replied: "We are here Muslim and Christian, and there are two Christian groups. The municipality builds for all the people, and the people all own and use the well."

There was already, at Mar Elyas in 1984, sporadic evidence of a political logic of solidarity that, by the time Bir es-Saiyideh and Beit Sahour were caught up in the first intifada, came to subsume communitarian identities within an overarching, albeit temporary, nationalist discourse. At Mar Elyas national identification had come to the fore only in response to aggression toward "Arabs" expressed by the foreign priests and to the violent harassment by Israeli border police of Palestinian merchants who had set up booths to sell toys to children (Bowman 1993:457). In Beit Sahour by 1989 religious identity had, in the face of repeated Israeli aggressions against the community, become—at least in public discourse—relegated to a secondary position behind national identity. In a context in which the existence of the entire community and the lives of all its members were perceived as being at mortal risk, differences between individuals, families, religious communities, and political groupings were, at least in public fora, underemphasized: "The bullets do not differentiate between Christian and Muslim, P.L.O., DFLP, etc.... If I want to throw a stone [at a soldier] I will not call to my neighbour to say 'become a Muslim and then we will throw stones together.' We forget our religion; we forget our political groups" (Bowman 1993:447). The shared character of the shrine of Bir es-Saiyideh both reflected the common everyday experience of a mixed community with shared traditions and expressed the political program of a local leadership committed to defeating sectarian fragmentation. Subsequent developments, whereby formal Muslim participation in the Bir es-Saiyideh committee was terminated and moves were set in play to build a large Orthodox church over the site (Bowman 2007), reflected the collapse of that program, although I, in the spring of 2007, witnessed substantial popular Muslim participation in both praying at and maintaining the shrine.


Excerpted from Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean by Dionigi Albera, Maria Couroucli. Copyright © 2012 Indiana University Press and Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l'Homme (MMSH). Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Sharing Sacred Places—A Mediterranean Tradition / Maria Couroucli1. Identification and Identity Formation around Shared Shrines in West Bank Palestine and Western Macedonia / Glenn Bowman2. The Vakëf: Sharing Religious Space in Albania / Gilles de Rapper3. Komšiluk and Taking Care of the Neighbor's Shrine in Bosnia-Herzegovina / Bojan Baskar4. The Mount of the Cross: Sharing and Contesting Barriers on a Balkan Pilgrimage Site / Galia Valtchinova5. Muslim Devotional Practices in Christian Shrines: The Case of Istanbul / Dionigi Albera and Benoît Fliche6. Saint George the Anatolian: Master of Frontiers / Maria Couroucli7. A Jewish-Muslim Shrine in North Morocco: Echoes of an Ambiguous Past / Henk Driessen8. What Do Egypt's Copts and Muslims Share? The Issue of Shrines / Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen9. Apparitions of the Virgin in Egypt: Improving Relations between Copts and Muslims? / Sandrine Keriakos10. Sharing the Baraka of the Saints: Pluridenominational Visits to the Christian Monasteries in Syria / Anna PoujeauConclusion: Crossing the Frontiers between the Monotheistic Religions, an Anthropological Approach / Dionigi AlberaReferencesContributorsIndex

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