Sunday, 7 July 2019

Historical Middle East, five: Sacred buildings

This is the fifth in a new (third) series of blogposts based on my ME trip. In this series I have already written about orientalist art, funerary customs, ritual objects, and applied and decorative arts.

In the earlier post in this series on funerary customs I touched on a number of buildings that were seen during the trip. One of them we went inside but others we just viewed from without. Buildings that are devoted to burial are particularly common in Petra, and I will revisit that place in the post you are reading. As with previous posts in this series, I will start from the items that are oldest and then chronicle the more modern ones.

This new post is, like the ones that come before it in the series, a bit of a jigsaw puzzle where I have tried to provide a picture of the subject that lets the objects speak but that also respects its complexity. So much time passes in the course of these posts, and there are so many different individual civilisations involved in their construction. But by starting at the beginning and proceeding to the end you can sometimes make a story that has meaning. It isn’t always true, but I think that if you look closely in these posts you can form a coherent narrative in your mind.

Temples are only significant inasmuch as they can do at least one of two things. They either continue a tradition that is current in the present day (like the Temple Mount, which I will talk about below) or else they tell us things about a civilisation whose influence has disappeared (as in the case of the Temple of Hercules talked about later in this post). People ascribe importance to temples particularly if they still believe in the same ideas that inspired their construction. They can have a more distant relationship with a structure and regard it as an artefact that has a certain relevance in terms of its historical importance but that does not personally touch them or people close to them.

The intellect and the emotions are engaged with these structures in either case. It is clear from visiting Petra that many Westerners have an abiding curiosity about the Nabataean Kingdom and what it represents but this feeling is not superficial. Antiquity inspires deep feelings in people even if the beliefs that animated people in the past who were responsible for the construction of the buildings have passed into oblivion. With Roman ruins even if you have no personal connection to Hercules you can still get a sense of the feelings that animated the people, thousands of years earlier, who built his temple and used it for their devotions.

How much stronger, then, are the feelings that people experience when they come face to face with an ancient structure that has personal relevance for them! I have tried in this post to consider the feelings of all sorts of readers who might come across this text. The Middle East is such a contested place and the aspirations of millions of people are focused, in the countries that make up the place, on religion of one brand or another. Even people living elsewhere have strong feelings about the religious structures that you can find there. But while it is clear from written evidence how some of the buildings talked about below were used and what they looked like, that is not always the case.

My catalogue starts in Jerusalem with what is referred to now as the Western Wall. I capitalise the term as it has a distinct relevance for Jews everywhere they live – be it in America, in Australia, or in Israel itself – although it is really just part of what was, at the time of its construction in Judea under King Herod (a client of the Roman emperor) in the final decades before the birth of Christ, a larger structure. There are written records concerning this edifice but there are no actual drawings that might tell scholars today how big or wide the temple compound originally was. The Romans later destroyed the temple and the Western Wall is all that is left of it. In the city’s Israel Museum there is a model of Jerusalem showing what scholars think it would have looked at the time (see photo below).

Visitors to the museum might be locals or they might be tourists and the place is busy most of the time. Groups of school children fill its galleries and halls with conversation. You can stop and have a cappuccino at the Mansfeld Café if you need some refreshment. The staff at the front desk offer audio devices that can be used while you are walking around the buildings in the complex to get more information about some of the exhibits.

When we went to the museum on day six of our stay in the city, our first point of call was the Second Temple reconstruction, located near the entrance. The model shows what Jerusalem would have looked like in 66AD just before the temple was destroyed by the Romans following what is called the Great Revolt. You can see in the photo above the large square in the foreground. When you are on the viewing platform, which is where this photo was taken from, you are putatively standing on the eastern edge of the city, looking west. 

So the Western Wall is the part of the temple compound at the western edge of the large square shown in the photo. The actual temple (of which nothing now remains) is the tall building in the middle of the square that has a colonnade and open space. For Jews worldwide the holiest place for their religion is the remains of a wall that used to surround and support a temple. That is all it is, but people come from all over the world to visit it. The photo below shows a group of Colombians visiting the compound and taking photos to commemorate their trip. Below that is a shot of the compound showing the men’s section. The women’s section is to the right on the other side of a fence.

On the day after we saw the model of Jerusalem at the Israel Museum, so on our last full day in the city, we went on a tour of the tunnels that have been dug under the old city in order to uncover the remains of ancient construction. At 10.20am we went through the doors behind the lobby that sits in front of the tunnel complex into a room where we were greeted by a man named Eliazar Finer. He told us things about the Temple Mount using a diorama and some slides on a screen, some of which were animated. He then took us on a tour and we emerged into the lobby again at around 11.30am.

The photo above shows Eliazar standing in front of our tour group answering questions. On the left-hand side is a large stone that constitutes part of the foundation for the temple compound. It is estimated to weigh 500 tonnes and it is around 13 metres in length.

Not all of the wall is as massive however. As you can see in the photo above, some of the stones used to construct the wall in Herod’s day were much smaller than the great block talked about earlier. The tunnels go on for quite a distance and they are very cramped so it was a bit of a challenge to navigate through them and by the end my friend and I both felt quite uncomfortable being in there. It was a relief to emerge into the lobby once again once the tour finished.

In Petra, which is located about 250km south of the Jordanian capital of Amman, there is a building that is known as the “great temple” but this attribution is uncertain. The structure – or, at least, what remains of it – is situated right in the centre of the area that comprises the lost city of the Nabataeans and it is massive in scale.

The photo above show me standing in front of the stairs that lead up to the courtyard of the “temple”, which is estimated to date from the first century AD. The courtyard itself is paved with very large hexagonal stones (see photo below).

It had a colonnade around its perimeter but most of the structure has been destroyed by time, earthquakes, and neglect. The Bedouin who live in Wadi Musa and other settlements in the area are devout Muslims so for them all this malarkey is only of value inasmuch as it attracts thousands of tourists every day to the place. Once there, tourists are a reliable source of income. 

Outside one kiosk where we stopped to get a drink because of the heat a boy named Mohammed, who was riding a donkey, offered us a ride on the beast he was sitting on and one he was leading by a rope but we declined. He said, when asked, that the animals were named Shakira and Karolim. This boy was typical of the hundreds of Bedouin who go to Petra every day from their village to offer tourists goods and services such as drinks, scarves and bracelets, and camel rides (see photo below).

Neglect is also evident at the remains of the Temple of Hercules (see photo below) that sits on a hill overlooking the downtown area of Amman, the capital. Locals call it the “Citadel” and because of the location’s elevation above a valley there is also a later, Muslim, construction in the form of a watchtower.

It was early on day two in the city when we set out after breakfast and as we were walking east along the main street I saw some stairs heading north, so we took them. We kept on going up and up one flight after another until, eventually, the stairs gave out and there was only a well-trod path through some weeds where a cat was wandering. I followed the cat and we came out at another set of stairs, then continued up the hill until we came to where the ruins of the Temple of Hercules is situated. 

After taking some photos a man came along and said we had to buy a ticket. We went first to a museum on the site and had a look around the exhibits, which are housed in a series of glass display cases. We spent about 30 minutes inside then went and dutifully bought tickets to the temple compound at the street entrance.

There is very little information about the temple onsite and the museum was a bit disappointing compared to what we found later in Jerusalem. You learn that the temple was built at about 100AD by the Romans, who called the city Philadelphia.

In Jerusalem – where my wanderings now take me once again – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was consecrated in 335AD once the Roman emperor had converted to Christianity. The building is reportedly on the same site as a temple to Jupiter had once been in the days when the emperor was a pagan. I talked about this church in the post on funerary customs, but I will include one photo of it here for the sake of completeness.

As with Petra, thousands of tourists visit the church every day. In the photo above you can see a crush of people. They are standing near the sepulchre, which is where Christ is reported to have been buried after his crucifixion, and from where (according to religious orthodoxy) he ascended to heaven. What is markedly different here, compared to Petra, is that the visitors are mostly devout Christians who, when they are in the building, are seeing something that they believe to be sacred according to their creed. The church is a working church and has been since it was built.

Now to Istanbul, where Hagia Sophia (or, “holy wisdom”, see photo above) was inaugurated in 537AD. It was built on the site of two other churches that had been destroyed. This brick structure is, simply, massive, measuring 55.6 metres at its highest point (see photo below). 

It is easy to understand, if you go inside the building, why the Ottomans decided to convert it into a mosque (which it was from 1453 to 1935). The space inside is quite the most incredible thing I have ever seen in terms of built environment. And it is a palimpsest: you can see in the photo below the Arabic signs that were installed in the church by the Ottomans.

The photo below shows the altar. There is a minbar (a pulpit that is usually installed in mosques) just to the right of this space that can be ascended by stairs but naturally tourists are not allowed to go up there.

The photo below shows a detail of the floor. Green and red stone similar to what you can see here is used as cladding for the walls. In addition, there are red porphyry columns, green granite columns, and white marble columns that help to keep the roof up. The flags of the floor are crazed with age in some parts and inside the building when we were there in May it was a good 15 degrees C cooler than it was outside.

Now back to Jerusalem, where on day three we visited the Church of the Flagellation on Via Dolorosa in the old city. From Al Wad Street we turned east into the second half of Via Dolorosa at 10.25am and soon after entered the grounds of the Sanctuaries of the Flagellation and the Condemnation. 

Inside were a number of buildings around a courtyard including what was labelled the Terra Sancta Museum. There was also a chapel with pews and signs in English instructing visitors to be silent. To the other side of the courtyard was the Church of the Flagellation with, inside, in a mosaic on the floor, the words “Custodia Francescana terrasanta AD MCMXXIX”, indicating that the place had been at least partly constructed in 1929. Wikipedia says that the church was built by the Crusaders.

It is a Catholic church. The first photo below shows the outside of the church and the second photo below shows its interior. People go there to pray and to contemplate the passion of Christ. Via Dolorosa is reportedly where Christ was paraded carrying the cross he was killed on.

In Istanbul, the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) was built in the early 17th century and it still stands, close by Ayasofya (which is what the Turks call Hagia Sophia). The photo below shows the mosque with its forecourt and the plaza that people use. You notice immediately how similar in appearance the building (you can see the central dome at the left of the photo) is to Ayasofya. 

In Jerusalem the Hurva Synagogue was built in the early 18th century but the structure that is standing there in the old town is not the original. Unfortunately, much of this part of Jerusalem (though not the Western Wall) was blown up by the Jordanians when they took control of it after a military action in 1948. For the next 16 years they occupied east Jerusalem. After the Israelis took back control of the area a lot of rebuilding started, and the building that you can visit today dates from that time. The photo below (facing northeast) was taken from Hadad Street on day two in the city.

Earlier in the Jewish quarter we had met a local man in his fifties who had an American accent and who introduced himself as Shlomo. He suggested that we go into the Hurva Synagogue, which is located next door to his shop, to see the view from its roof. He then lured us into his shop with the promise of a view of some ancient ruins, visible through a glass wall at the back of the store, and tried to get us interested in an illustrated book of psalms priced at 450 new Israeli shekels (A$180). There was a smaller version too and it also didn’t appeal. 

But we did duck into the synagogue as suggested and paid 20 shekels (A$8) each to gain entry at the front door of the building. After visiting the main room inside as well as the women’s gallery, at 11.30am we went to the basement where you can see some of the walls of the old town as it existed millennia before. On the last day in the city I would bump into Shlomo again, this time inside the tunnels under the city (which I talked about earlier here). At that time he was with a group of people I didn’t recognise.

Next door to the Hurva Synagogue is a mosque (see below). The Al Aqsa Mosque is, similarly, located next to the Western Wall and next door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands the Mosque of Omar. 

The photo below shows an Indian miniature painting, made with watercolour, ink, and gold, depicting Mohammed and members of his family. Mosques around the world are designed to resemble Mohammed’s own home. Here, he is shown sitting in the company of his grandsons Hassan and Husayn. On his left is his servant Bilal and at his feet are the three orthodox caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, and Othman. Opposite him is the caliph Ali. This mid-18th century painting is in the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem so the description given here is presumably based on scholarship.

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