Most of the world's religions have their holy places, thought to offer closer access to the divinity. Sometimes they are associated with key events in the history of the religion concerned. They may, like Bethlehem and Mecca, have been the founder's birthplace, or, like Jerusalem and Lourdes, the scene of apparitions, martyrdoms or miracles. Mount Ararat in Turkey is sacred to the Armenians because it is where Noah's Ark came to rest. Mount Kailas in Tibet is venerated by Hindus as the paradise of the god Siva, and by Buddhists as the centre of the cosmos. Even when they lack any historical associations, natural features can take on religious significance, particularly if they are intrinsically mysterious and awe-inspiring. Ayers Rock, that giant monolith, is spiritually important to Aborigines, just as the symmetrical, snow-capped cone of Mount Fuji is sacred to the Japanese. Rivers and springs with healing qualities can become objects of worship. Caves and grottoes may be associated with deities and credited with prognosticatory powers. Other holy spaces are built by human hands. Churches, mosques and temples assume a numinous quality when they are seen as places where, as T.S. Eliot put it, prayer has been valid. Often containing relics and other holy objects, they are sites where wonder-working rituals may be performed. Their interior space is frequently differentiated, with some parts more sanctified than others; access for women may be restricted and entry to the holiest areas confined to the priesthood.
LRB 19 May 2011 | PDF Download