Lecture 2 – (1.1) Jerusalem as Sacred Space

This was the first “true” lecture of Jerusalem: Holy City, a course at UCLA taught by Dr. Robert R. Cargill. In this lecture, entitled “Jerusalem as Sacred Space”, we began our exploration of Jerusalem by first acquainting ourself with its physical characteristics and position in the world (which was especially appreciated by those of us who have had pretty much no previous exposure to it). Next, we built further upon this description by delving into the topography of the city and the other characteristics of a great city as a means of analyzing whether Jerusalem seems to fit into this picture. Finally, and arguably most importantly, we looked at the concept of sacred space: what this means, how it is formed, and its application to this Holy City that is Jerusalem. We began a journey into the steps leading the Jerusalem’s sacred nature, but some was left for the next lecture.


Jerusalem is arguably the holiest city on earth, regarded as the most holy by the Jews, 1 of the 2 most holy by Christians, and 3rd most holy in Islam. While almost everyone has some knowledge of the fact that wars have been fought many times over for control of Jerusalem, which we will get back to later in the course in more detail, it is first important to examine what exactly made it holy to begin with.

So, what is it that makes a place sacred? Why is Jerusalem sacred? There are two main causes of sacred origins: (1) supernatural occurrence (heirophany and the like) and/or (2) someone great is born there. However, this is only the start, as a place only becomes truly sacred if it has witnesses, or followers, people who agree that this supernatural occurence or great person has come from this place and who stress the importance of viewing this space

  • Dr. Cargill used the analogy of those road-side shrines we sometimes see driving along Highway 1, commemorating the loss of a loved one. He used this analogy to have us imagine how this could become a sacred space if it were to suddenly accumulate more followers or witnesses, whom are truly the catalysts of the formation of a sacred space, which grows rapidly and becomes more widely known as the number of believers in its holiness increases.

Next, we looked at some general features that make Jerusalem a great city, including its location alongside some main trade routes (Via Maris to the west and King’s Highway to the East), its ideal location between the Mediterranean Sea and the Desert (the stretch of habitable land that people use to migrate between 3 continents!), and its location on the earthquake fault between Africa and Asia.

Then we looked at some of its physical features to examine whether it continues in this realm to fit the profile of a “Great City”. The 1st physical feature we looked at was topography, and with the location of its primary establishments on 2 major hills overlooking 3 valleys (Hinnon, Kidron, and Central), this trait seemed to fit the bill for a “Great City”. However the lack of low ground on its northern face made that the vulnerable point of attack over the ages (not so “great” aspect). The second characteristic to examine is trade routes, and while trade routes run to the west and east, Jerusalem really has nothing else to offer in terms of trade: “No harbours, no river, no trunk-road, no convenient market…The whole plateau stands aloof, waterless, on the road to nowhere. There are non of the natural conditions of a great city” (Historical Georgraphy of the Holy Land).  This description makes it clear someone thinks Jerusalem has nothing to offer in terms of resources for a great city. However, it ends up that one thing was false about the description above, Jerusalem did, in fact, have access to water, giving it another characteristic necessary for the birth of a great city.

Water was crucial for ancient cities, as no technological means of pumping it around were present at the time, and thankfully Jerusalem had some source of water (Gihon Spring), which did not provide a lot of water, but enough to live and allow Jerusalem to grow. It turns out this water was not only crucial for its obvious means for sustaining human life in Jerusalem, but also because of the common view of water as sacred. In other words, the water present in Jerusalem contributed to its flourishing in spiritual sense, as references to water in a “great city” are common throughout many sacred texts. Combine this with Jerusalem’s terrain, which is also a hint to its presence as the “holy city” in other texts, and you begin to see how Jerusalem began to “build up its history”. This “building up” its “mythical” history was crucial. Even with its own stories, Jerusalem may have flourished into the sacred space it is today, but it was importantly the many stories it began to “grab up” or attract to itself that really catalyzing its evolution into one of the world’s most sacred places. You can see how reflected throughout the Hebrew Bible, Mesopotamian texts, and many other nearby cultures that stories not necessarily attributed to Jerusalem originally began to blend with Jerusalem stories and essentially transformed into Jerusalem stories with time.

So, these factors just presented were crucial to present as showing its survival as a great city (topography, markets, water) as well as some of its growth into sacredness. However, there must have been other events that took place to actually make Jerusalem sacred, right? Right. For one, a sacred space must have been founded at some point. Keep in mind this is founded in the “religious” sense. A hierophany (the act of the manifestation of the sacred) or some other presentation of the world above (heavens) usually is referred to when we talk about the founding of places in this sense. For Jerusalem, this meant looking over bible passages and seeing where Jerusalem was brought into the picture with such references to “heavenly connections”. There are many passages that refer to Jerusalem and its position as one where divine forms came down (theophany) and vairous sacred acts occur…thus portraying Jerusalem as an axis mundi, a place that at once connects the heavens and earth. It represent a “break” in the 3 cosmic planes. Jerusalem, in being represented as having a history of hierophanies, has clearly been founded in the sense that it has been given life, or been used as a place of communication with the heavens. Throught the break, Jerusalem has created an axis around which all else rotates. Oritentation has been made possible. It has become a sacred space amongst a vastly profane world all around. Bible Passages such as the one referring the Jacob’s Ladder (interpretted by our professor as a fertility blessing), portray this crossing betweeen cosmic planes as being witnessed by Jacob…giving meaning and reality to his existence and the existence of his offspring which are all apparently blessed in this passage. The lecture closed with the series of events centered around the Jewish Temple, including its repeated rise and fall.

All in all there was a lot more information about the topography and geography of the city than I expected, but I guess it was a good introduction and I think it’s safe to assume it will become more important as we move ahead. I also don’t really mind it, as I find maps and visuals like Cargill has presented pretty interesting. The visuals presented were also of high quality and I think the way Cargill has taught so far has shown his command of the subject, which I think means we are in for a real quarter of learning.

I really liked the way he showed us the cool meanings behind certain words as well, like that fact that “Jordan” actually is derived from “to go down” or “to descend” due to the topography of its river. I am looking forward to what lies ahead for this class, especially when we start to examine the histories of the people that have inhabited the city and their lifestyles.


~ by Andru on January 8, 2011.

One Response to “Lecture 2 – (1.1) Jerusalem as Sacred Space”

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