A new issue of the Levantine Review has just been published, and appropriately enough in the lead up to Christmas it includes my review of Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean, a scholarly volume of papers from European anthropologists and ethnologists detailing shared customs, rituals and devotional practices.
Christmas may not necessarily be a ‘space’ that is shared, but in our globalised world it is observed well beyond the bounds of Christendom. Perhaps this is partly due to pervasive Westernisation, but of course the Christmas story and festival has echoes and parallels in other traditions, and Jesus, at the heart of the celebration, in theory at least, is revered in Islam as well as Christianity.
Christmas is often sold as the season of goodwill to all men (OK, humanity may be more appropriate); Sharing Sacred Spaces records many an instance of goodwill amongst adherents of various faiths. It is an investigation into shared experiences, intermingling, communal living and devotional practices in the Mediterranean littoral, from Morocco to Lebanon, by way of Turkey and the Balkans. I have already referred to this volume in earlier blog posts, including one about St George and one about Sarajevo (a post which, two months old, is still receiving a gazillion hits – anyone got any idea why?).
The chapters of the book are ethnographic studies, most of which include the ‘thick description’ that was called for by the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, that is, close observation of cultural and social practices, human activities, everyday rituals; what makes the description truly ‘thick’ is the in-depth analysis of the political, environmental and societal contexts in which these events occur.
Even though the volume may be looking at sharing and intermingling in sacred spaces, it struck me how commonplace so many of these interactions were, not out of the ordinary but part and parcel of daily life as it has been unfurling for, in some cases, centuries, life as it had been before the encroachment of the perils and constraints of modernity. There may also be something of the all-happy-families-are-the-same/every-unhappy-family-is-unhappy-in-its-own-way dictum in the intercommunal and interconfessional interactions recorded in this volume for they are as complicated as they are diverse.
And while this is a scholarly collection, there is enough observation of ritual, custom and practice to appeal to some general readers with an interest in the cultures of the Mediterranean. Some of the chapters are exercises in immersion, or so they seemed to me as I read. They evoke the feel of olive-wood tesbih/rosary beads, the curls of incense smoke, the excitement of crowds gathered, the whisper of feet on flagstones, light through arched windows, icons, candles. The miscellany of religious practice, the accoutrements that contribute to sanctity, the power of objects invested with spiritual dimensions, the soulfulness of things.
The various authors who contributed to Sharing Sacred Spaces clearly spent a long time in the field: to observe, analyse, and in some way understand the customs, events and ritual related. It was enough to evoke some melancholy on my part at missed opportunities in my own itineraries over the years, places that I have observed but not sought to truly comprehend, places like St Anthony’s in Beyoğlu in İstanbul, the neglected, yet operational, Armenian churches in Diyarbakır in Turkey’s southeast. These are places where tradition persists and modern practice evolves and people come and go despite perceived divisions that may exist between them and despite sometimes hostile political environments. Intercommunal interaction can continue in places such as this, as Galia Valtchinova elegantly put it in her chapter of this volume, as long as there is an ‘equilibrium between earthly powers and divine order’. Long may this equilibrium reign…