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New Worlds: Sacred Architecture

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Religious sites have come up before, way back in Year Two, but at that point our focus was more on where and why such things tend to be set up. We paid very little attention to the structures themselves — so let’s remedy that now!

As with urban housing, I do think there are a couple of visible (though not universal) patterns. Since ideology and symbolism play a more significant role, though, the variation between them is potentially more significant — we’ll touch on that at the end of this essay. But before we get there, the two things I see cropping up most often can be shorthanded with a pair of prepositions: up and in.

We’re naturally inclined to be impressed by tall things, and when it comes to architecture, height sends multiple signals. It’s expensive to build upward, and it’s also difficult; you need much more engineering know-how to support a taller structure without it collapsing under its own weight. This is why Gothic architecture was so revolutionary in Europe, as innovations like pointed arches and flying buttresses allowed for a better distribution of forces without having to build walls six feet thick.

But of course, it isn’t just all about expense and skill. Every religion I’m aware of associates at least some of its gods with the sky, the source of light and weather and other such wondrous phenomena. By sending our sacred structures upward, we draw closer to the divine — for good or for ill, as the Tower of Babel story shows . . .

Exactly how this manifests varies from faith to faith. In Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica, it showed up as pyramids, with the latter two regions actually placing temple structures atop theirs. In Islam, it’s the minaret, from which the call to prayer is sounded. For a broad swath of Asia it’s the pagoda, though this is often either a solid structure, or (if hollow) has its altar at ground level inside. Indian temples often have an entrance tower called a gopuram, which in southern India especially can loom like a mountain over the rest of the complex, with truly gobsmacking amounts of carving adorning its sloping, quasi-pyramidal sides.

There’s a secondary effect from building upward, one which can be easy to forget in our modern cities: it’s visible. Old paintings and woodcuts show that St. Paul’s Cathedral in London used to absolutely dominate the landscape of the city, especially since it stands atop a low hill. Even where structures like apartment blocks may rise high, a pre-industrial holy site stands a good chance of having some component of it showing above the rest of the skyline. This serves as an ever-present reminder of the divine as people go about their days.

Not everything goes upward, though. Going in, while less visible, may be even more important.

By this I mean that the second common pattern involves increasing amounts of holiness and restricted access the deeper you go in the site. Even in a Protestant church, which tends toward radical egalitarianism as religions go, there’s often a sense that the average worshipper should only approach the altar under specific circumstances. In other faiths, the restriction is far more explicit than that.

The honden or main hall of a Shintō shrine is placed toward the back of the complex and not open to the general public; the doors are ordinarily kept closed and even priests only enter when it’s time to perform rituals. When the Jewish Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies was the most sacred part of the structure, divided off by a curtain and (in the days of the First Temple) kept in total darkness. A grand Hawaiian heiau often consisted of multiple enclosures, the inner ones being more kapu (taboo) than the outer, with only individuals of great mana — i.e. kings and priests — accessing the central one . . . I could add more examples, but you get the idea.

This impulse toward interiority can in some circumstances go even farther. Just as tall structures reach for the divinity of the sky, subterranean ones evoke telluric and chthonic gods (those associated with the earth and the underworld, respectively). They operate as symbolic caves, and the process of descending into the earth for ritual purposes before emerging once more often echoes myths of agricultural fertility, bodily resurrection, and other such motifs.

The collision of those motifs with the element of secrecy provided by enclosed surroundings means that these kinds of holy sites feature heavily in mystery cults. I’ll discuss those more on a future day, but for now it suffices to say that restricting access to the most sacred objects and rites of a faith means that this type of architecture lends itself to esotericism, the idea of there being “hidden knowledge” shared only with initiates (possibly multiple gradations thereof). The more exoteric or open a religion is, the less it’s likely to truly close things away: they may still be held in an inner location, but more people will be allowed in there when the time comes.

Which leads us to my final point — a concept that’s less about an overall pattern and more about how to decide what a given religion’s physical structures might look like. The question to ask yourself is, how do people practice this religion? What kinds of rituals do they perform daily or on special occasions? Islamic mosques have a mihrab, a niche in the wall toward which everyone faces when praying, because the religion is centered on the Kaaba in Mecca. Catholic churches may depict the Stations of the Cross around the walls so that worshippers, in walking that path and pausing to pray at each spot, symbolically follow the route Jesus took to his crucifixion. Torii, the Shintō gateways so ubiquitous in Japan that they can serve as a symbol of the country, not only demarcate the boundary between the profane and the sacred, but welcome the kami who are believed to pass through them.

So for an invented religion, while those up and in elements may be relevant, the really flavorful details will be those linked to specific aspects of the faith. Maybe the entrance is deliberately built low so that everyone must enter on their hands and knees, humbling themselves before the divine. (With consequences for those who have limited mobility . . .) Maybe there’s a central pit into which offerings and prayers are dropped, because the deity is associated with hollow spaces of the earth. Maybe the innermost area is an island because that’s where this religion began, and subsequent architecture finds ways to represent “island-ness” with moats or mosaic floors or something else symbolic.

All of these and more are possible — and even glancing mentions of them can imply a whole world of faith.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Sacred Architecture”

  1. One more aspect that bears thought: Permanence. Religious structures tend to be the most-solidly-built, most-permanent-possible-with-current-abilities structures being built at any one time. Think about all of the stone structures for Catholic buildings in Bavaria, where wood and brick dominated even for physically larger buildings; the excessive internal buttressing of Notre Dame (the main structure survived that fire, and I read somewhere a long time ago that despite being nowhere near an earthquake region it’s up to current earthquake-zone codes); the extraordinarily-difficult-to-transport stone mosques in Jidda and Medina; Angkor Wat; and so on.

    1. Though as an exception: I think Shinto didn’t even _have_ sacred buildings until Buddhist influence, and buildings still tend to be wood. Maybe more massive wood than the traditional paper house, say. But the “holiest grand shine” at Ise Jingu is rebuilt every 20 years by design, in what is said to be a tradition going back 1300 years. Which is a different kind of permanence, I suppose.

  2. Step-pyramids in several other regions of the worlds too; I was thinking of Cambodia, but the Wikipedia page lists others.

    I like the island idea.

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