From Tomb to Mountaintop to Mosque

A logic emerged out of the three sacred places in Tirana and Istanbul I was privileged to visited this Sunday. The three took me from the trauma of finitude through the temptation of transcendence to the challenge of interfaith peace. As I reflect on each place, and on them together, I feel lucky—first, and I feel hopeful, second, that we might someday learn peace from recognizing the deep human longing to encounter God or the Unconditioned, or whatever one wants to call the desire to reach beyond our fragility that leads humans around the globe to designate and visit such diverse sacred space.

My day began at the Bektashi Teke, or tombs, in downtown Tirana. The Bektashis, a Sufi order, had a strong presence throughout the Ottoman Empire. They were outlawed as a political threat first by the Republic of Turkey in 1923, and then by the Communist regime in Albania a few years later.  Despite this repression, a continuity of spiritual leadership remained in an Albanian Bektashi underground.  The tombs of the Bektashi Dedes, or Grandfathers, some dating back to the 16th century, had been preserved.  Today, in downtown Tirana, about a dozen tombs are gathered together again at a modest shrine.  Our brief stop signaled the new religious freedom in Albania—and a reminder of the durability of tradition.  Rulers may seek to contain and control religion.  They may succeed for a time.  But sacred desire cannot be domesticated.

A sacred place of a very different kind beckoned in Mt. Dajti (pronounced Die-ee-tee).  Mt. Dajti is a granite dome rising 1600 meters (a mile) above Tirana.  A few years ago, it was designated a national park, and the Albanian government built a Swiss-engineered cable car to enable with technological ease the twenty-minute, breathtaking ascent.  

Dajti was an immovable miracle; a spiritual spectacle; a permanent gift.  It was going nowhere, which gave it the power of a permanent gift, as I described such places in my book Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place. Our ascent put us in ancient company, not only literally in the granite underneath us, but spiritually in the long history of discovering transcendence on mountaintops.  As we walked through the cool woods, wandered along paths near the edge of the dome, and wondered at the vista of miles and miles below us that encompassed the entire city of Tirana and beyond—it was impossible not to feel both one’s own fragility and at the same time the tempting lure to associate one’s ego, or one’s parochial path, with transcendence. 

For Christians like me, it’s Lent.  And the Lenten story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan takes place on a mountaintop.  I wasn’t tempted, like Jesus was, to throw myself off the mountain.  But I did note the pillbox concrete bunkers dotting the crest of the mountain, placed there to defend against some imagined enemy by Communist ruler Enver Hoxha.  But the bunkers seemed far too apart to do much good, and their random locations pointed to more than a touch of megalomania.  The empty pillboxes spoke a poignant point about paranoid power.  Just as sacred desire resists domestication, so too does the Unconditioned refuse to be contained in our ego-driven demands for power beyond our fragility.  It is an ego-driven delusion to imagine possessing the power to “hold” or “defend” a mountain, much less hold or defend any more than what is allotted to one in life.  Any individual will die well before the mountain erodes. Hoxha’s bunkers sit perpetually, pathetically empty; concrete pimples on the face of God.  

On Dajti, we eventually gathered at a terrace coffee shop, where over espresso we enjoyed the lovely view and each others’ company for the last time (we would all be flying out within hour).  I sat with an Israeli couple and a political scientist from Melbourne.  We talked about sacred space, how they often trigger violence, and I dropped on the group my favorite new word about American devotion to graveyards and military monuments:  thanatopophilia--or love-of-places of death.  My Israeli partner saw the wisdom of the word, and invoked Jerusalem as a place where death was with you “in every step.”  I supposed he was right, but if you were walking through the holy city, then LIFE was there too, in your breath, and your movement, and your presence. 

My day ended, after a short flight and a brief van ride, at one of the holiest spots on Earth.  It was my second visit to ancient Istanbul, and to the stunning piece of real estate where stands the Church of Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia in Greek, or Holy Wisdom in English) and the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet.  There can be no place on Earth with two such impressive sacred places in close conjunction—separated only by a courtyard of several hundred meters which features a large circular fountain. 

After an amazing Turkish dinner at  Marmara, which looks out over the Bosphorus, we strolled the grounds, wandering through five-hundred year old gates, in the vicinity of the mlllennia-old city walls..  The call to prayer beckoned.  We removed our shoes to enter the massive mosque, and my Muslim traveling companions Hakan and Radhi joined the line of those in prayer.  Off to the side, I soaked in the lilting refrain of Allahu Akbar, “God is Great.”  The cantor had a beautiful tenor voice that echoed off the millions of tile mosaics that decorate the intererior space.  I sat under the soaring blue mosaic dome and stentorian pillars and simply looked at the beauty all around me.  It had rained. The air was fresh.  It was Springtime.  I felt peace, and I prayed for peace.  

Of course, the realization of such a prayer must face realistically the many contingencies involved.  As James Carrol puts it in his interesting, if uneven, new book entitled Jerusalem, Jerusalem:  “God sanctifies creatures through creatures."  All of us creatures see only in part, yet we desire for the sanctity of being in holy presence, or at least in a secure and safe place where we might flourish.  That is no utopian dream.  Dreams of utopia have often turned the desire for sacred places into hellish conflict.  But in some ancient tombs, in a sturdy mountain, and in the stunning conjunction of Christian and Muslim sacred places in ancient Istanbul, my prayer seemed possible. Peace might come, or at least get a start, merely from recognizing the beauty of such diverse sacred places, and protecting the people who find in them cultural power—not with pillboxes, but with our prayers.