Tag Archives: Israel

Mosques, Churches, Temples: History’s Most Used (and Abused) Religious Real Estate

Cathedral of Seville, early 16th Century. The Giralda, or bell tower was once a minaret for the mosque that was there previously.

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:







The Parthenon, Athens, Greece (447-431 BCE)

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.








The Temple Mount [Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Western Wall], Jerusalem, Israel (957 BCE-692 CE)

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.








Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey (532-537 CE)

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.










The Great Mosque of Cordoba [Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption] Cordoba, Spain (784-987)

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.








Synagogues of Spain: El Transito, Toledo and Old Main Synagogue, Segovia (1300s-1492)

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.







Babri Mosque, Ayodhya, India  (1527-1992)

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.








Brick Lane Mosque, London, England, UK (1743)

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.

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Who “owns” the Holocaust? – The delicate nature of genocide

Sometimes it’s probably best to not lead with a picture, and today is one of those days in the Neighborhood.

Few subjects have as many landmines in the popular discussion as the Holocaust.   It is often extremely difficult to think about this horror in an objective way, and with good reason.  Many people today–Jews and non-Jews, friends, relatives and acquaintances–still have primary knowledge of those horrific years.  My own great-uncle was sent to a concentration camp in Austria during the war.  Another relative was sent to the Russian front, never to be seen again. 

My mind returned to those dark times through a recent Daily News article.  Apparently, the Holocaust Memorial Park in Brooklyn is about to get a facelift by the city Parks Department–adding five new markers to commemorate the non-Jewish victims of Nazi Germany, such as Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals.  The local Jewish community is in an uproar over this, stating that the city acted unilaterally and that the additions undermine the Jewish nature of the memorial.  The city is defending the addition as a way to “reinforce its educational purpose to remind us of the historical circumstances of the Holocaust.”

What struck me the most was Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s remark.  Hikind (D-Brooklyn) is an orthodox Jew, represents a heavily Jewish district and is descended from Holocaust survivors.  At a news conference to draw attention to the memorial, Hikind mentioned that “The Holocaust is a uniquely Jewish event.”

The fact that the Holocaust is a major, if not the major, even in modern Jewish history is beyond dispute.  Yet to label it as “uniquely” Jewish seemed rather off-putting.  After all, how much should an ethnic group–even one with such a tumultuous history as the Jews–take ownership of a tragedy that imperiled their very existence?

To be fair, in terms of sheer numbers, Jews can easily claim the Holocaust as a tragedy that specifically targeted Jews.  6 million Jews–roughly 60% of the Jewish population of Europe–perished in the slaughter, slashing the worldwide Jewish population by a third. 

Yet other groups also suffered at the hands of the Nazis.  2 million non-Jewish Poles also succumbed to the tragedy.  13.7 million Russians cannot be discounted, either.  There were also 1-1.5 million Gypsies who died, 250,000 physically or mentally challenged people, 50,000 homosexuals, 200,000 Freemasons, 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and thousands of Communists, trade unionists, pacifists, dissenters, and Christian clergy of every denomination.

Most of the actual planning of the “Final Solution” had the Jews in mind as a “storage problem,” as borne out in the transcripts of the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Berlin.  Other groups, however, also sustained persecution in a systematic manner.  Homosexuals had been targeted even before the Nazi period, through imperial Germany’s anti-sodomy law, Paragraph 175.   The T-4 euthanasia program, which targeted the mentally and physically handicapped, became the basis for the methods used in the death camps of the east. 

None of this is meant to belittle the experience of Jews in the Holocaust.  Rather, it is meant to place the suffering of the Holocaust in a broader context, especially in showing the universal nature of Nazi hatred.  It wasn’t just Jews that stoked their fire–ANYONE who wasn’t the Aryan ideal had to be out of the picture, else they ruin the facade.  This is probably the rationale of the city in placing the five new markers.

There is also this problem of “owning” the Holocaust, making it strictly a Jewish experience.  The problem with placing ownership–even if it is deserved–is that it sometimes places an implicit value judgement on another person’s experience.  Yet this is not always the case.  Often, I have found that actual Holocaust survivors are the most empathetic to others who have suffered the horrors of genocide, such as Bosnians, Armenians, and Tutsis.  It is those generations that succeed the survivors that sometimes grips to ownership, that often compare every event to the Holocaust such that no other group could have suffered like they did.

It’s amazing that the more removed we become from the experience, the less objective we can become about it.  In most instances, it’s the other way around.  Much the same problem happens with another sticking point–policies toward Israel.  My Israeli friends tend to take a fairly open-minded, balanced approach to the problems of their country.  Yet many who have, at best, a remote connection to Israel are ready to defend it against any real or perceived slight, often while distorting or ignoring factual information.

As bad as genocidal situations can be, we must often take a step back to look at the facts from a different perspective.  Believe me, looking at any lens, the suffering of Jews and other oppressed minorities in the 1930s and 1940s is a catastrophe beyond compare.  It is a shame that we often have to use rhethoric to drown out the loud, clear voice of fact. 

So if I had to counter Assemblyman Hikind, this is what I would say:

“Assemblyman, I understand your pain and ardor at an arbitrary and unilateral change to a monument in your community.  The fact that community leaders were not consulted is truly reprehensible.  However, your claim that the Holocaust is a ‘uniquely Jewish’ event belittles the suffering your ancestors endured, as well as the suffering of so many more.

Let me be clear: your mother was a hero.  I feel all survivors of the Holocaust are heroes.  Yet you speak as if you were there with them.  You were not, nor was I.  Let us not claim a heroism that doesn’t exist.

As much as the pain of the Holocaust still dwells in Jews across the world, we are now at a point where we can–and should–see these events through a different lens.  Those lenses are the eyes and ears of the millions of other victims who were persecuted simply for who they were.  To label the Holocaust as ‘uniquely’ Jewish diminishes their suffering and demeans the memory of Jewish survivors and victims–survivors like your mother.

The Holocaust–by spirit, and by numbers–is a tragedy shared by many people, Jew and non-Jew alike.  Nothing can diminish its evil; the numbers are simply too staggering to even contemplate.  Yet keeping ownership of this catastrophe does diminish the good that the Holocaust can teach to others.  Future generations have to learn that prejudice and bigotry, in ANY form and against ANYONE, is immoral, unjust and against the tenets of every major religion.  Don’t diminish the suffering of others in glorifying your own.”

Mr. Hikind is more than free to post a response on this blog, if he so chooses.  I’m looking forward to his, any other, responses.

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Holiday Wishes and Random Thoughts

I’d like to wish everyone in the neighborhood a happy Easter and a joyous Passover.  Whether its celebrating the resurrection of Big J, the exodus of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, or the fact that we may finally leave winter sometime this month–remember that every day is a celebration.   Party on!

Some random thoughts today before the holiday preparations:

  1. My call for help with my children’s book is still open.  I have received some feedback, but could use more opinions out there.  Any thoughts on this is welcome.  Even if you want to berate me for continuing on this quixotic quest for publishing glory–that way I have something to read as I whimper in the fetal position.  So, to repeat, any help on this would be much appreciated.
  2. My Las Vegas trip is coming up, and the Neighborhood can also assist here.  I need to take future Mrs. D out to dinner at a nice restaurant when we sojourn in Las Vegas this week.  I’d like any suggestions sooner rather than later, as I’d like to reserve a table while I’m here.  Furthermore, I’m looking for a NON-Cirque du Soleil show to attend while I’m there–future Mrs. D doesn’t care for half-naked Quebecois leaping to New Age music.   I’d be much obliged for suggestions.
  3. Lastly, I’ve been intrigued by this pirate situation as of late in the Horn of Africa.  This has been going on for quite a while, and it makes a very good teachable moment for those kids still enamored with Johnny Depp mincing in pirate gear.  Pirates are not cool.  In fact, they are no better than drunken criminals.  As the students can see by the news stories, real lives are at stake.  Keep it in mind for a quickie lesson after your break.

It’s a short one today, as I have relatives to see and shopping to do.  Have a great holiday, and I’ll see everyone on Monday.

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