Shrines as places of inter-communal connection & contestation

For the inaugural summer workshop we are particularly interested in shrines as ‘contact interfaces’, since they represent a form of continuity of the past and of re-creation in the present for the future, in terms of meaning and communal interaction. They are places of negotiation of heritage and present-day agency. Many shrines in the Mediterranean have a history of intercommunal worship (Albera and Couroucli, 2012). The most widespread network of shrines attracting a multi-religious audience are those dedicated to the connected and occasionally overlapping saintly entities of Nabi Khidr (Islamic), Mar Jurjus (Orthodox Christian) and Mar Ilyas (Jewish in origin, yet also Christian and Islamic).

These and other saintly entities are the epitome of an awareness of a historically shared sacredness that transcends communal, as well as present day national borders. Many of these shrines continue to be popular places of worship, leisure and social gathering. In contrast to the more formal religious institutions of assembly, such as mosques, churches and synagogues, shrines also attract a more varied audience in terms of gender and age. The larger ones often function as community centers and institutions offering social services.

However, the veneration of saints is contested, both by secular and fundamentalist voices, and in past and present war conditions many shrines in the Balkans and the Middle East have been damaged or destroyed by nationalists and/or Islamists. But saints and shrines, however contested, continue to offer space for communal and intercommunal exchanges, for alignment within and between, for outreach and reconciliation. Shrines are religious institutions that function next to, but also in association with more formal religious, social and other institutions, including those created by the modern nation-state.

Subsequently, the concomitant local and extra-local networks attached to these institutions, both formal and informal, connect to various (including more secular) networks. Shared sacred spaces and coexistent religious and social practice as a given historical condition, constitute important elements for empowerment of those who seek to recreate the common ground, countering the, at times, dramatic consequences of social and political fragmentation, and enhance processes of communal, national and regional reconciliation (see for Iraq: Sarkin and Sensibaugh 2009).

The inaugural workshop is intended as the starting point for a broader academic collaboration between Swedish, Dutch, further international and regional academic institutions in Turkey, the Balkans and the Levant, on the general theme set out – Recreating Pluralism – while at the same time exploring shrines as contact interfaces in depth, as particular instances where pluralism is recreated. We also intend to spend a day in engagement with the direct environment of Istanbul in relation to Recreating Pluralism and Shrines as places of inter-communal connection and contestation.

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