Whenever the neighbors have their friends move nearby, you know the neighborhood is changing.
In most urban (and suburban) areas, this has been a pattern for the last half century: people move in, other people move out, for various reasons. Then another group displaces the last group.
Religion has also played such a real estate game over the past few millennia.
The recent controversy over the proposed mosque near the Ground Zero site had us at the Neighborhood thinking about how religion played a role in the use of real estate. I, for one, am not convinced that the proposed mosque in that location is a good idea. There are better, less confrontational areas to erect a mosque and promote understanding (isn’t the whole project about avoiding confrontation, anyway?).
Yet this is not the first time buildings and religion has collided in controversy.
Here is a sampling of other sites around the world that have changed religious hands, sometimes multiple times. Some resorted to violence, while others simply entered a space vacated by someone else. There were many others to choose from, but these are my favorites:
Like a Times Square callgirl, this old broad has had a rough life. The Parthenon was designed as a temple to the goddess Athena, the protector of the city of Athens. It replaced an earlier Parthenon that was destroyed by the Persians, and also served as the city treasury. Later, under the Byzantines, the Parthenon became a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, while the Ottoman Turks converted it into a mosque in the early 1460s. After a Venetian bomb exploded the powder stores inside it in 1687, and Lord Elgin made off with the choice goods in 1806, the Parthenon was better used as a backdrop for every Greek diner from Astoria to Chicago.
Sure, people fought over the Parthenon, but never was the fight as fierce as for the Temple Mount. According to Biblical scholarship (since archaeological digs are forbidden on the mount), the first Temple of Solomon rose at that sight around the mid 900s BCE. It was subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians, and then rebuilt by the Persians in the early 500s BCE. Herod the Great expanded the Temple Mount in 19 BCE, only to have it destroyed by the Romans after the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE. A temple to Jupiter arose from the site in the 130s BCE, starting another Jewish revolt and banning Jews from the city (are you getting all this?). In 325 CE a Catholic church arose on the mount, followed by more churches, and culminating in the building of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque by the Umayyad caliphs in the late 600s-early 700s. Three religions considered the place sacred, and the true ownership and usage rights are still in dispute.
You got to give Kemal Ataturk credit here. The first president of the secular Republic of Turkey needed to do something with a building that charged emotions among Christians and Muslims. The building was created by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I and served as the eastern headquarters of Christendom, later the headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Following the Ottoman conquest of 1453, Mehmed II had Hagia Sophia converted to a mosque, adding minarets, a mihrab, a minbar and also covering up or removing the more Christian aspects of the place. In 1935, Ataturk decided everybody can use it—and nobody can use it, either. He had the place restored and converted to a museum, and no religious group can use it as a place of worship. Since Ataturk controlled the voting bloc that had machine guns, his edict settled the matter.
I had the pleasure of visiting the Great Mosque, or Mezquita as its known in Spanish, and it is truly a wonder—even if the Spanish managed to shoe-horn a Renaissance chapel smack-dab in the middle of the thing. Originally a Visigothic church stood on the site where Emir Abd al-Rahman I decided to build a grand mosque. Using the original church as a template, the mosque was enlarged and decorated over the centuries. It became the cultural, political, social and economic center of Muslim Spain, known as Al-Andalus (today’s Andalusia). When the Christian kings of Castile took it back in the mid 1200’s, the Mosque became a church again. It’s amazing how much of the original Islamic structure was relatively untouched; that is, until you find the gleaming golden Catholic interior chapel. Even I find it a little garish.
The Catholic Reconquest of Spain (1200s-1492) ended the thriving Muslim culture in Al-Andalus. It also shattered the other thriving minority culture in Spain: Jews. There had been Jews in Spain since the Roman period, and they had risen to high places in politics and business. Yet with the Reconquista, and the subsequent Spanish Inquisition meant to homogenize Spanish society under one church, the Jews were now a pariah and a threat. Both the Synagogue of El Transito and the Old Maine Synagogue in Segovia defied Christian laws meant to keep Jewish houses of worship small and unadorned. In fact, both were grand and highly ornate: in the style of the people that tolerated them the most, the Muslim Moors. After the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, both became churches or parts of Catholic institutions, although now El Transito is a museum documenting the history of Toledo’s Jewish community.
In 1992, a mob of 150,000 rioters, mostly Hindus, settled a centuries-old debate by destroying a mosque that was built over 400 years earlier. In 1527, Babur I, first Mughal emperor of India, built this mosque on the site of an earlier Hindu temple. According to Hindu mythology, the area around the Babri Mosque was the birthplace of the god Rama—even Babur acknowledged this in naming the mosque Masjid-i Janmasthan, or Mosque of the Birthplace. By the 1980s, a new militant Hindu nationalist movement had agitated to purge the area of Muslim influences, culminating in the 1992 riot. A commission released a report in 2009 that blames Hindu nationalists and members of the Indian government for the demolition of the mosque. It didn’t settle matters: the debate over the mosque’s history and significance, known as the Ayodhya debate, rages today.
All those other stories were so morbid, so let’s end on a good note. In London, particularly in the working-class East End, communities have come and gone over centuries, and 59 Brick Lane in the Spitalfields neighborhood of east London has seen them all. It began as a Protestant chapel for French Huguenots, and it serviced this French exile community for over 60 years. In 1809, it became a Wesleyan chapel for a group ministering to London’s Jewish community. This didn’t last long, as it became a regular Methodist church in 1819. Russian and Eastern European Jews, funny enough, did take over the building in the late 19th century, becoming the “”Machzike Adass” or “Spitalfields Great Synagogue.” As these Jews migrated to north London, the building was eventually abandoned in the mid 20th century. In the 1970s, an influx of immigrants from Bangladesh settled in Spitalfields to find work in factories or textile mills. The now-empty 59 Brick Lane then became the Brick Lane Mosque in 1976, which stills serves the Bangladeshi community of east London today.