I recently stumbled across a scholarly article entitled “The Poetics of Concealment,” by Samir Akkach, which articulates an idea that has really struck a chord with me in my work. We attribute great significance to the architecture erected over sacred sites.
The narrative about such sites is often centered on the building’s historical origin and the original intent of its builders, or what we suppose it to be. The building is often the central focus of our attention when visiting great monuments, whether at an actively used temple such as a gothic cathedral in France, or the ruins of an ancient holy city such as Machu Picchu in Peru. In part, our fascination can be attributed to the architectural mastery of the builders, and the fact that we humans naturally gravitate toward imposing structures and symbols of power.
Yet most of these monuments simultaneously reveal and conceal the sacred. The monument itself reveals the site to be significant while at the same time containing, concealing or covering that which is significant about it. The story we are often told at a temple is about how and why the men (usually men) envisioned and built the temple, implying that only when the temple was consecrated (made or declared sacred) does the rest follow suit.
But what if we turn this around and view the temple not as the focus of the narrative, but as one part of the full narrative of the sacred site? In other words, the site is sacred in its origin, and the building is something acquired by that already sacred site. This removes architecture from the center of the narrative, and with it the importance of who built it and why. This frees our attention and shifts us out of the head, away from facts, and into our experience in the presence of the sacred. This is when we shift from traveler to pilgrim.
Akkach writes about one particular sacred site, the Dome of the Rock, but I believe this premise applies to many more sacred places. Akkach describes it:
“At this point, it no longer matters what the original intent was, or who the author was, for the Rock seems to have its own ulterior motives that are independent of the consciousness of human agents. This inversion gives primacy to the sacred and its hierophantic acts and objects over human intentionality and architectural intervention.”
When we travel to sacred places, it’s easy to get caught up in the photos, the facts, and the materiality of the place as the central focus of our visit. This is natural, because we have physically journeyed to be physically present in this physical structure. At times I’ve heard people say, “I don’t feel anything.” At these moments, it helps to remember that the sacred is always veiled, and must be, as we would find it nearly impossible to behold in its unveiled manifestation.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” said Henry Miller. And likewise Akkach so eloquently suggests that the challenge “seems to lie in one’s ability to see beyond the materiality of both the Rock and its beautiful architectural veil, to comprehend the enduring secrets that lie deep beneath the transience and ephemerality of both architecture and history.”
To “see beyond the materiality” is part of being a pilgrim. This resonates with me and why I find it so meaningful to go beyond history and explore the myths and legends of the places I visit.
Every myth contains a bit of truth, but the very nature of myth is to be a narrative that draws the imagination “deep beneath the transience and ephemerality of both architecture and history.”
By letting ourselves be drawn into the mythical realm, we may briefly get past the veils of materiality. For as Fernando Pessoa put it, “Myth is the nothing that is everything.”
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