Joan Bakewell: Let sacred places be temples to reconciliation

If Muslims and Christians can both pray at Cordoba, it will send a message to the world
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Europe is dense with history, but all too often it is piled high, one era's civilisation stacked on top of another. It means a field day for the archaeologists, a goldmine for the historians and a headache for religious leaders. Does "being there first" constitute a claim that continues down the ages, giving implicit rights to eternal occupancy? Where religions become a matter of real estate, then conquest and rival claims could beset religious sites for ever.

Europe's buildings are among the glory of world architecture, and the bedrock of its tourism. In Spain, the city of Cordoba has at its heart the world heritage site centred on its famous mosque/cathedral. This is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Its picture dominates the tourist publicity, most spectacularly the elegant curving arches of the original mosque begun in AD784 by Abd ar-Rahman during the Umayyad rule in what was then the Muslim state of Al Andalus.

The mosque was built on the foundations of a Visigoth temple to St Vincent, which in its turn covered a Roman temple to Janus. But that's small beer compared to what came later. In 1236, Cordoba was reconquered from the Moors, while Andalusia was the last territory to fall to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. The Catholic monarchs were hard-liners, expelling the Jews and tearing out the heart of the great mosque to build a Catholic cathedral within its walls. On the evidence of the architecture, both religions currently co-exist on the same site.

Now Spain's Muslims have asked the Pope for permission to pray before the mosque's mihrab, the arched niche, still in place, that indicates the direction of Mecca. The President of Spain's Islamic Board, Mansur Escudero, has written to Pope Benedict hoping that, after his recent visit to Istanbul, he might be inclined to make a further gesture of co-existence between Christians and Muslims.

The Spanish bishops have already declared themselves against the idea, but it will be for the Pope to make the final decision. If he decides on a conciliatory response, it will be a gesture of more than local significance. It will send a message to the world that there is another way than rivalry between religions. If Muslims and Christians can make their own prayers within the same precincts in Cordoba, then the possibility exists for Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Christians elsewhere to be reconciled. It is far hope, but historic change has to start somewhere.

The history of religions is the strange narrative of how certain places become sacred. It probably began with some local life-giving natural resource - a spring, say, a well, an oasis. In Europe, Greek and Roman temples were built on pagan sites, and Roman columns were later integrated into Christian churches . In Syracuse, a wall of the great 5th-century-BC Greek temple forms the flank of the cathedral. Roman foundations underpin many of Rome's churches.

Islam followed the same pattern: the Umayyad mosque in Damascus is built over a Byzantine church. Not surprisingly Jerusalem has the most contentious complex of buildings, with the Dome of the Rock supposedly built on the site of Solomon's temple, and Christian churches sharing their inner spaces between the different forms of Christianity. I once witnessed an almighty row between Armenian and Catholic monks over the violation of their particular sectors - not conducive to Christianity's claim to be a religion of brotherly love.

The same pattern occurs beyond Europe. In India the rivalry for sites is increasingly between Hindus and Muslims. The most damaging clash happened at Ayodhya in 1992, when extremist Hindus demolished the 16th-century Babri Mosque, claiming that it was built over the sacred birthplace of Rama. In riots that followed, some thousand people were killed. In February 2002, Muslims ambushed Hindus returning by train from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya. Again rioting followed, with thousands dead. What is at stake is not beliefs, but sites. Prayer and devotion are identified with bricks and mortar. It is a formula for trouble.

There is further reason for the Pope to extend his tolerance. Religions worldwide are declaring themselves concerned about the spread of secularism. Christianity is in relative decline in the West, but is growing fast in Africa and South America. In the UK Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are growing, more traditional congregations are dwindling. The Islamic community - the umma - is growing steadily, although the appeal of its more extreme movement - the Wahabbis - is dwarfed by the millions who follow more moderate forms. An aggressive form of Hinduism, championed by the VHP - the World Hindu Front - is on the march in the subcontinent.

Wherever religions identify sanctity with specific objects - whether it be buildings or holy books - the possibility of sacrilege is all too available. The power exerted by such artefacts is almost magical, suggesting the personal violation of the God they revere. But the greater claim made by religion is, surely, to the inner life it offers, the personal and spiritual communion with God. This is unassailable from without. Even the tortures of the Inquisition could only exact a verbal retraction. Who is to read the human heart? So let religions share rather than dispute their real estate. Otherwise the whole lot risks falling to the secular God of today - tourism.