A Sense for the Sacred

There they were, standing in neat rows as if in a dance aerobics class, rock-stepping and swinging their arms to music funneled out of the tiny speakers of a smartphone. The only problem was that this was definitely not a dance studio and these people were not in a dance aerobics class. Instead they, along with a diverse crowd of other visitors, were in the Göreme Open-Air Museum in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, home to a complex of Byzantine monasteries and other dwellings carved out of the soft, volcanic rock over 1000 years ago.

This site has long moved imaginations and drawn visitors from all over the world. In the early 18th century, one of the first Western visitors, Paul Lucas, described the caves as a sort of fantastical, spiritualized landscape. His illustrations, which quickly became popular with Western tourists, evoked the shadowy, mysterious rites of romanticized Byzantine monks who topped their cone-shaped rock dwellings with religious statues. A more recent article, on the other hand, describes Göreme as “a moonlike landscape of giant rock cones,” while a travel guide extolled the quaint, traditional culture in almost saccharine terms, describing fruits laid out to dry under the hot Turkish sun and vines woven into lattices on carved-rock rooftops, the remnants of a bygone era. Whatever the characterization of the Cappadocian Cave Monasteries’ aesthetic appeal, there is also, importantly, a rich Christian history underlying the landscape’s charm. Dating back to the 3rd century and still, in many places, replete with painted floor-to-ceiling iconography in rich earth tones and azure blue, these are some of the oldest Christian monasteries. These very caves, in fact, housed the councils that laid the foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity as it stands in the Christian church today.

Given their fantastical appearance, the unique culture that surrounds them, and their rich history, it’s no surprise that the Cappadocian cave monasteries have become a huge tourist attraction and the source of a booming tourist industry in Cappadocia. What I found troubling during my visit, however, was that much of the wonder that each aspect of the site should have inspired was much overshadowed not only by the sheer volume of tourists but also by the ethos that seemed to direct the attitudes and actions of the crowds within the site. This ethos, which in spite of the site’s historical and theological significance somehow gave itself to group dancing and loud laughter, disallowed reflective pauses or a quietly contemplative attitude within the churches and thus seriously hindered the ability to come to a full appreciation of the churches and their significance.

This is not how I, for my own part, would most like to encounter a church, or frankly any site of sacred significance. Compare, for example, the experience I had in an active Greek monastery called Osios Loukas. This monastery, while not dating all the way back to the 3rd century, is also over 1000 years old, and has been active almost continuously since it was founded in the 10th century. Entering this space, a space nearly luminous with gold-and-jewel-toned mosaic iconography, I felt an immediate sense of its gravity which arose not only from my desire to feel reverence for the place, which was present also in Cappadocia, but also because of several identifiable characteristics of the space itself. The nave of the church contained a stillness and quiet that was almost tangible. Visitors spoke in hushed tones that footnoted the echoes of the liturgy being sung in the annexed chapel. It felt altogether fitting to pause, look up and around, and soak in the many stylized, Byzantine depictions of saints and lofty paradisal floral motifs that fill almost every square foot of the church’s interior. The place was made for prayer, and a spirit of prayer reigns. This spirit manifests itself also in the way the art itself is arranged. While the art is wonderfully preserved and spectacularly executed, its purpose as a part of living tradition and as part of daily reverence takes obvious precedence over mere display or even artistic appreciation. This attitude takes on visual form in Osios Loukas, where one depiction of a saint has been partially obscured or cut off in order to create a doorway into an addition to the church. Liturgical function and the accommodation of active, living worshippers, while not overriding the historically significant beauty of the place, stands as the place’s guiding principle and the motivation of its curators.  

The ethos that defines the reigning attitude at the Cappadocian Cave Monasteries, so vastly different from the spirit of reverence inspired in Osios Loukas, is at least in part, I would argue, the result of a process some call “museumification.” This process invites the viewer to approach historical objects, including the cultures, religious beliefs, historical events, and human beings that surround and define them, as objects of curiosity, worthy of our vacationing attention but ultimately irrelevant to our own lives. It can take many forms, but most basically consists in the creation of a physical, intellectual, or emotional distance between the viewer and the artifact (artifact here broadly construed as something produced by or proceeding from human action and intention). This distance can arise from a number of factors in a site or artifact’s presentation whether physical, as when a site is roped off, or intellectual, as by the presentation of a myopic narrative that limits the viewer’s understanding of the site, its purpose, and its history. Artifacts, when placed under glass or neatly explained away by a paragraph of bold-type text on an informational sign, lose their human complexity and their human context and are thus relegated to the realm of spectacle and of amusing trivia.

At the Cappadocian Cave Monasteries, this effect flows out of a number of the site’s characteristics both visible and intangible. Physical cues, like the long row of entrance turnstiles, the wooden walkways through the churches, and pushy attendants who tell you to keep moving, emphasize practicality and crowd control over a sense of wonder or a contemplative attitude, while the cultural context, namely the site’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has increased tourism and, therefore, both radically expanded the type and range of visitors that come through the site and tangibly altered the local communities surrounding it. Through museumification the organizers of this site, while they have successfully drawn a huge international audience, also seem to have destroyed any ethos of reverence or respect for the place and the cultures and peoples for whom this place has stood and, in effect, paved the way for potentially destructive attitudes toward the site itself.

The destructive effects of museumification are easy to see in Cappadocia, just as the effects of the spirit of reverence in an active site like Osios Loukas are evident in the experience of the place. The huge volume of daily visitors, especially visitors without a particular sense for the value of the space, pose challenges to preservation efforts in a site where soft, volcanic rock and ancient pigments are compromised by their natural environment, even sans the effects of heavy foot traffic, flash photography, and noise. There are destructive cultural effects, too, where the traditional lifestyle, or even the normal, small-town rhythm of life that prevailed even just about 30 years ago has been massively altered by the tourism industry and its accompanying ideas. A 2010 article tracing the effects of the site’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site lays out some astounding statistics: between 1985 and 2010, despite laws restricting large, tourism industry construction, Göreme gained “80-plus pensions and ‘boutique’ hotels . . . 25 tour agencies; 30 restaurants; 10 bars or discotheques; 15-20 carpet shops; several general stores; and numerous other souvenir shops and stands,” along with car, bike, and horse rental companies and hot-air balloon operations, and all of this in a small town with a permanent population of about 2000. 

These drastic tangible changes in the make-up of the city of Göreme itself seem to have had several widespread cultural effects that are similarly destructive. In addition to throwing real human lifestyles into the path of danger—such a boom in tourism almost necessarily revolutionizes daily life in the town itself with half-lost, often (unfortunately) inconsiderate tourists clogging the streets, coach buses causing traffic mayhem, and trinket shops and tourist traps packing the main drag—such a shift results in the very change of ethos mentioned above. The viewer is encouraged, perhaps subconsciously, to come merely as a tourist to a spectacle, armed with camera and fanny pack and ready to come away with the necessary memorabilia, maybe a postcard-perfect photo or a specimen of the region’s finest, traditional pottery. But in so approaching a religious site, or even any historically, culturally, or otherwise humanly significant site, we risk missing out on what each site has to offer, on its true significance—and missing out on this significance is detrimental not only to us as viewers and students of humanity, but to the site and the people that inhabit and surround that site in a real, even tangible way.

Approaching a site that has become “museumified” without correcting for it in some way jeopardizes our ability as viewers to realize the human concern that attends upon any historical site of human significance. We risk remaining untouched by human experience which is relevant to us as human beings ourselves, no matter how far removed in time or distance. These historical sites have something to teach us about what it means to live as a human being, as cliché as that may sound, and I believe that most of us have probably gone through the process of realizing this at some point in our educational careers. Whenever we read a genuine work of literature with a sincere and compassionate lens, for example, compassion taken here in its more etymological sense as an experiencing or suffering alongside another, it is possible for us to learn something from it, both in a dialectic, rational sort of way and as an exercise of our ability to recognize human motivation and intention, since every (again, genuine) work of literature must have made sense to some thinking and feeling human author.

In order to make some sense, to take a truly compassionate view of a museumified site as we might of a work of literature, we need to be aware of and correct for the often over-simplified narratives that are presented about historical sites. This effect is perhaps most evident to us when we stand outside of a culture and in a position of tension with the narrative presented. In a place like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, for example, or even the tomb of the medieval Islamic mystic Rumi at what is now the Mevlana Museum in Konya, there is a relatively evident tendency toward downplaying the spiritual in preference for the nationalistic and therefore toward making the space a matter of Turkish history rather than of reverence or pilgrimage. The Hagia Sophia has become a sort of “neutral,” apparently strictly historical, ground in which elements of Islamic worship, like geometric frescoes and stained glass and huge medallions with Arabic script, stand alongside Byzantine Christian iconography that has been revealed with the crumbling and the removal of aging, Ottoman-era plaster. Rumi’s tomb, in a similar way, has become a monument to Rumi as an important Turk, and even as a sort of humanist, instead of a site of religious devotion dedicated to Rumi as a Sufi mystic. Each of these sites thus becomes a tribute to the Turkish people or the Turkish government and in some way appropriates or narrows down the history of each site in order to make it simply part of a secular Turkish narrative by downplaying or ignoring their roles in other human narratives, here the more sacred narratives of the Christian, Islamic, or Sufi traditions.  

Lest we miss the plank in our own eye for the speck in our brother’s, we ought to recognize that this tends to happen even in our own historical sites. In places like historically important Early American churches, for example, it is easy enough to walk into a huge, chairless, high-ceilinged space lined by glass-covered cases that present more of a window into Early American political or secular life than into the spiritual life of a congregation. In addition, in numberless museums across the US and across the world one can find artifacts of faith, such as Christian icons, which were and are intended for worship, displayed on the walls of art galleries as if they should be viewed in the same way as any other painting hung in the airy light of a museum gallery. Here, the narrative shifts with the context, and the viewer is invited to see the icon as an artifact in the long run of art history rather than as an object of reverence. The object is decontextualized and, as a result, loses a good part of its significance.  

If we do not correct in some way for the limitations that attend upon museumification and the presentation of sites and artifacts more generally, we risk unwittingly imbibing a limited or even a propagandistic narrative without ever recognizing its limits or its bias. Just as we should not be unquestioning consumers of a piece of literary criticism or scientific research, we should not allow ourselves to be unquestioning consumers of any museum or museum-like site. And, just as there are ways to conscientiously consume academic literature, there are also several ways in which we can go about enacting the re-contextualization necessary to correct for the blind spots that accompany such a limiting of narrative.

First, we could make a movement toward either keeping or viewing objects in their proper context, as with active places of worship. I have seen this successfully executed in both active Christian and Islamic sites, as at Osios Loukas, the Greek monastery mentioned above, and at one of the Islamic mosques that I visited in Turkey. In this mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, I was struck not only by the coherent, wonderfully unified beauty of the building’s geometrical decoration, but also by the beauty of the community that finds its home in the mosque’s courtyard, where families come to wash and to inwardly prepare themselves for prayer, something I would not have been able to appreciate without the mosque’s full and living context, and even its aesthetic unity.

There are, however, obvious dangers to this approach. Inviting visitors into a place of worship, a sacred space, runs the risk of having the site trampled, overrun, damaged, or disrupted by tourists or sight-seekers. In addition, some sites seem pretty irreparably separated from any one religious tradition. Take, for example, a site like the Hagia Sophia, which now has so much significance for both Christians and Muslims that to give it to either as a place of worship would cause huge conflict. In such a case, the attempted solution is often to present both narratives, as has been done in the Hagia Sophia, which might be the best possible solution given the circumstances, although much of each narrative’s individual richness is lost when it has to share its literal, physical space with the other.

There are two things we can do as viewers to correct for the limitations that attend upon the museumification of sacred and historical sites, barring the possibility of materially and appropriately recontextualizing objects. First, it is important that we, as responsible, respectful, and interested viewers, approach museums or historical sites with a critical and responsive eye. We ought to be on the lookout for the narrative or narratives that a site’s presentation emphasizes so that we can properly and effectively recognize them. Then, having recognized the dominant narrative presented, we ought as much as possible to remain alive to the biases inherent in any presentation of information and, if possible, to correct for them in our own understanding. This might require asking questions, doing research, visiting other sites, or comparing notes with others who have seen and experienced the site.

In addition, it is of the utmost importance that we approach all sites and artifacts, and particularly those of religious significance, with an immediate consideration, if not reverence, for the legitimate and actual human experience and knowledge that stands behind them. This can totally change the way in which we understand and interact with sites, almost regardless of the way in which they are presented. In this way my previous knowledge of and attitude of respect for the Cave Monasteries in Cappadocia allowed me to at least seek out the significance of the place; at Osios Loukas and Süleymaniye Mosque, too, this attitude allowed me to see at least a glimpse of the beauty of these places which, if I had been going merely as a tourist, I might still have missed or mistaken for a mere spectacle rather than a human or a sacred site.

Such a sense of reverence, of the legitimacy and utmost importance of the many particular human narratives that make up the context of a site or an artifact, allows us to see the humanity in the sites and artifacts themselves. In this way a sense of reverence enables us to experience a sort of compassion, through the site, for the human beings who have used or inhabited, or who do use or inhabit, the site. In addition, it helps us to respect the culture and the community that surrounds the present day site both as the home of this site and, more importantly, as a human institution rather than a convenience. If we are approaching the tourist centers of these cultures as bearing human significance and weight, we are more likely to act in a compassionate manner when we interact with the people of the town and the country surrounding them. We might treat the barista in the local cafe not as a commodity that makes our tourist experience possible, but as a human being with a narrative of her own who participates in the culture in which we have now invested ourselves. In this way we could, and ought to, become more aware of human individuals and therefore less likely to trample on sites, contemporary or historical, and this will hopefully lead us to become more aware of the hospitality extended to us and less likely to mistake generosity for some kind of gratuitous right afforded to us as tourists and spectacle seekers looking to entertain ourselves.

In a similar way, this sort of reverence or compassion for the humanity that underlies all human “artifacts” goes beyond historical sites and even foreign cultures and can revolutionize not only the way in which we travel, but also the way in which we approach strangers or artifacts within our own community. I believe that a similar sense when approaching any human artifact, like literature, philosophy, art, or even the spoken ideas and opinions of those around us, can lead us to interact more often with other human beings in a direct, full, and even compassionate way. In this way we can better reach out to and sincerely attempt to understand others in a real way and, hopefully, be touched and changed by them as they enter into our own inner dialogue.

Marcella Brylski is a senior studying English.