A Comparative Ethnography of Shared Sacred Sites
Greece, Turkey, 2013-2016
In the last fifteen years or so, with the growth of the internet and media outlets and the globalization of news, a particular religious world and religious practice that had previously been tucked away in local communities began to receive global attention and consideration. This religious world is experienced in shared sacred sites: religious spaces and locales that are used by more than one religion. In these holy places, whether Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches, Sufi Shrines, or Sunni tombs of saints, people of different religions gather and pray together – not as one community, but as eclectic groups of people sharing their belief in a God of a monotheistic religion. Yet, as individuals they come together, as Muslims, Jews and Christians, defying the contemporary discourse of the “clash of civilizations” and the struggle between religions to show that coexistence and cohabitation are possible today as they also were in the past. The faithful who come together in churches, shrines and mausoleums today, in many ways represent continuity with a past that is seen as multiethnic and multi-religious, much more comfortable in the experience of difference. This past is particularly evident in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean where post-Ottoman legacies, traces and memories of coexistence and inter-communal interaction are still visible and resonate with local communities. This is the case both in major urban centers like Istanbul, Beirut, or Thessaloniki as well as rural sites that are part of periphery networks and pilgrimage routes.
We have tried to capture these traces and practices through comparative ethnographic research in different religious sites (churches, mosques, monasteries, tekkes and turbes) in Turkey and Greece.
Fieldwork originally started in Istanbul in 2013, but was extended in 2015 and 2016 to include different sacred sites in Greece. In expanding fieldwork to Greece, we wanted to trace a multi-ethnic, multi-religious past and also examine these sites within a comparative perspective, in different geographical settings, social contexts and majority-minority relations. We also wanted to explore, through the Greek cases, different, perhaps less visible traces of the presence of the “other”. While in Istanbul communities come together in a very visible way within a vibrant urban setting, the cases we studied in Greece often involved a more discreet or implied sharing or co-presence in and around religious sites and monuments. Our aim was to provide historical depth and geographical diversity and highlight different perspectives and nuances of what was observed in the first season in Istanbul. We were interested in the ways in which different actors and communities interact and negotiate their presence in Christian sites within a predominantly Muslim setting and in Muslim sites within a predominantly Christian setting.
Over the summer of 2013, Karen Barkey, Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, with assistance from Noah Arjomand, PhD candidate in Sociology at Columbia University, traveled to Turkey to conduct field research for the CDTR. The majority of their work was carried out in three churches in Istanbul: the Church of the Mother of God and the “Aghiasma” known as Vefa in the Vefa neighborhood (featured in the short documentary video here), the Church of Aya Demetrios in Kuruçesme, and Saint Anthony of Padua Church in the Beyoglu (Pera) distict of Istanbul. The first two are Greek Orthodox Churches featuring aghiasma, or holy waters, and the third is a Roman Catholic Church.
View the Summer 2013 Ethnographic Research report here.
In April 2015 Karen Barkey and Dimitris Papadopoulos traveled to Greece and Turkey and conducted fieldwork in Northeast Greece and Istanbul. They visited both rural (Kutuklu Baba turbe, Budali Hocha turbe) and urban (St. Demetrios and St. George in Istanbul, Haci Evrenos Imaret in Komotini) sites that are part of different communities or minorities. Their objective was to produce field-based evidence about sacred space and the practices of sharing it, mixing it, converting it or erasing it in the geographical and historical context of the Balkans and more specifically within a comparative Greek-Turkish perspective. In this sense this was project of comparing notes across boundaries: nation-state borders, languages, minorities, identities as well as through historical legacies, temporal and material layers. The team revisited some of the sites that were included in the 2013 season (St. George, St. Demetrios) to follow up on local stories and actors involved and trace any changes.
View the Spring 2015 Ethnographic Research report here.