So which types of religious building have been around longest? It’s a straight draw, and an illuminating one, too.
In the ‘east’ corner, we have the stupa. As all stupas are legendarily derived from the burial mound requested by the Buddha himself, one might say that its invention can be dated to 4485BCE, the year of his death. But the size and significance of this particular monument at the time is unknown (as, indeed is the veracity of the account itself, though I understand the earliest accounts of the Life of the Buddha probably dates to within a century of Shakyamuni’s death); and even more so the extent to which it differed in either respect from other high-status burials — though we do know the Buddha anticipated some kind of pilgrimage dimension, requesting it to be situated at a cross roads so it could be more easily accessed. The Indian landscape contained other such mounds, and perhaps, too some others were so posiitioned and so used.
The next milestone in its story is the C3BCE, when, especially under the emperor Ashoka, a step-change occurs: stupas are built in their thousands, they are built of, or have an outer shell of, stone, and they are major focuses of pilgrimage and worship, equipped for rites of circumambulation. Arechaeology, as far as I know, tends to support the idea that is something new: a permanent form of religious building, on a scale that — given India did not at that point have a permanent religious architecture — must have transformed the landscape of the subcontinent.
Turning to the ‘west’ corner, we have the synagogue. Its emergence is undated, but many have asked how the Jewish community would have continued to worship during the Babylonian exile of 586BCE, especially as their Temple in Jerusalem had also been destroyed. Would they have tried to continue some form of Temple or worship, given that they already (I believe this is true, rather than a later view read backwards) held that priestly sacrifice was only valid at one place on earth? And if they did not, would they then have found an alternative form of worship that was valid, one in which people met in small groups to pray and study the holy word, facing Jerusalem when they did so? The question is mired in more qualifiers and maybes about this stage of Jewish history than I have the expertise to unravel, but it raises the possibility that the synagogue was born at some point in this period, a few decades long. Even so, like the stupa it raises formal problems. By the time we have any sense of what shape synagogues are, they are axial buildings with the focus of prayer at one end of the long axis: rectangles with a visual focus at one end. Now as an architectural form, pure and simple, this goes back to ancient Mesopotamia, that is it reflects the simplest form of the kind of building that would have been around the exiled Jews in the Babylonian landsape: what is different about the synagogue is not its plan or general form so much as its use, which couldn’t be more different from that of a Mesopotamian temple: no sacred image, no sacrifice, no mighty priesthood, merely a hall for prayer and the study of the Word. Anyway, here, unlike with the stupa, the point of origin is entirely speculative: the synagogue is not *known* to exist, and even then its architectural form is rather unclear, until the end of the third century BCE. By then its context is going to be with the religious buildings of the post-Alexandrine eastern Mediterrean, ie a there will have been a massive dollop of Greek influence in the culture as a whole, though the leap in terms of function is no less profound.
In other words, its a draw. Stupa: reasonable case for emergence C5, in serious business C3; synagogue, rather speculative case for origin C6, in serious business C3. The origin of the stupa is later but also more solid; the synagogue older but very speculative, and neither become an established ‘religious building type’ until the c3, when current knowledge might even make the stupa the older of the two, if by a margin that is rather meaningless given the uncertainties.
Both have been used continuously ever since. The stupa had spread throughout the ancient world from central asia to Japan by the C6CE, and shape-shifted in a multitude of ways, from the Chinese pagoda to the south-east asian mandala-temples — I call them — from Pagan to Borobodur. The latter are, to me, the high-point of the ‘Indian origin’ tradition of aesthetic ideas about sacred space. The synagogue spread with the Jewish diaspora, and thus was commonplace in the Middle East and Europe alike, its reach increasingly wide during the first millenium CE and then became global with the globalisation of western culture from the C18. More to the point, without synagogues, no churches or mosques; in particular the fusion of Temple ideas about ritual with synagogue ideas about congregation (in the case of the church), and the Islamic pursuance on a scale never permitted to Jews of an art of the Word and an architecture of congregational prayer, fuelled several of the great creative achievements of the ‘Middle Eastern/Western’ tradition of religious architecture — not least the gothic church and the Timurid/Safavid and Ottoman visions of the mosque, arguably the greatest achievements of those cultures.
Here the inheritance is as much conceptual as to do with specific forms; just as existing east asian architectural traditions made the pagoda, and indeed the Buddhist temple as a whole, almost unrecognisably different from the stupa in China, Korea and Japan, so the colossal formal and patronal influence of ancient Rome – the dome, the arcade, the stone vault, the Constantinian basilica, the domed Greek-cross church – mean that, again, the synagogue DNA in the great churches and mosques of the high medieval era needs a little study before it can be discovered.
Still, these pereginations illustrate the extent to which these building types can form landmarks from which wider patterns of religious architecture, or ideas about sacred space, can be analysed. The ‘east’ and ‘west’ division illustrates the extent to which the middle east, with a strong redirection from Greece and Rome, and the Indian subcontinent (very broadly defined), is basically the fons et origo of most of what has comme to matter in the world, both in terms of religious ideas and in terms of religious architecture. The relative continuities of the eastern tradition, in which ideas can be traced about sacred space that are, ultimately undatably ancient, lost in time with the origin of the Vedas; the relative complexities and disruptions of the middle eastern/western one, in which the spread of monotheism and the loss of the Jewish Temple are but two of the more obvious points of increased complexity/trauma, can easily be overstated — but they are still worth pointing out. More to the point, these two building types embody two broad traditions in sacred space, traditions which occur in all cultures, but which they perfectly encapsulate.
From this point of view, the stupa, which has its roots in the simple act of raising a heap of earth over a significant burial — that is, in prehistoric Europe, the barrow — embodies the tradition in which sacred buildings do not need to have functional interiors: in which the structure itself is a kind of shrine, and also has qualities analagous to sculpture: that is, it’s very form has meaning and presence and impacts as a three-dimensional object to be aphrended in all kinds of levels. It can thus be compared to the man-made mountains of the ancient world – the Egyptian pyramid, the pyramids of the Americas, the Mesopotamian ziggurat, the great mounds of north-western Europe, and more: these are truly ancient building types, originating in the 3rd millennium BCE, and none are any longer in use. They are also often linked with burial, as well as with attempts by man to imitate mountains.
But it can equally fruitfully be compared to more unexpected structures that are external objects of devotion; the giant Buddha-image is perhaps not a shock; more so is the Ka’ba, a cube to be circumambulated in prayer rather than a semidome to be circumambulated in meditation (and still in use, and believed to be ancient when Mohammad cleansed it of its images in the 620sCE), and the saint’s shrine, in form and usage more varied than both but still possessed of comparable ideas: this is something one moves around, an architectonic shape one interacts with. These structures are ultimately reminders of one thing that most religious buildings have in common: the quality of place-making, of marking out or enhancing specific spots in the landscape as sacred, and the idea that a form may itself somehow embody a certain sacredness.
The synagogue, on the other hand, embodies a tradition in which religious buildings are venues, houses, palaces even, for the divine: often – as in ancient Mesopotamia, here by the fifth millennium BCE – axial in plan, with the focus of devotion at one end. This can be seen in religious buildings of all traditions, though the axis is turned around in most mosques and many Buddhist prayer halls (not to mention Taoist, Confucian and Shinto temples), it is true of the plaza-pyramid complexes of the Americans, the Hindu temple, the church. The idea that a focus is at one end and some kind of human activity is at the other is the core here: in other words, while they also enclose a spot of the earth, these buildings express the other main way in which religious buildings are defined: by the enhancing and enclosing of a human activity by putting a wall around it and a roof over it, in other words, the architecture to some extent maps patterns of human usage – even when it’s makers consider themselves to be building palatial residences for divine entities, as in Egypt, in Hinduism, and eleswhere.
Here again, while the synagogue can stand for this broad and fundamental theme in sacred space just as well as the stupa can stand for the other — and the two themes are by no means at all exclusive of each other — there is a significant disjuncture within this broad tradition, because the synagogue embodies a specific idea about this type of building which is followed by the majority of the world’s population today because it was inherited from Judaism by Christians and Muslims. That idea is that, no matter how much power is accorded any priesthood that may be present at one end of the building, the presence of a congregation at the other end, even if only once or twice a year (but in Islam and most modern versions of Christianity once a week at least), is an essential part of its function; and that ideas about sacrifice and the embodiment of the divine in physical objects are either transmuted (in Christianity) or abandoned (in Islam). This, then, is a very powerful idea and in retrospect the moment of the Temple’s destruction is crucial to its later spread and development, a kind of defining fracture in the ongoing narrative of sacred space in the western/middle eastern tradition.
There is another fruitful way in which stupa and synagogue can be compared: as a comparitative study of how religions turn themselves into architecture. If we take the accounts traditional in Buddhism as true, the stupa was to some extent invented within the lifetime of the founder of the faith, and then transformed by a reforming and imperial royal power a couple of centuries later. Let’s have fun comparing and contrasting: the mosque was likewise invented within the lifetime of Mohammad, and then transformed into a work of architectural art rather than a functional and simple space for prayer within living memory of his death, by the Ummayads. The Christian church, by contrast, rather like the synagogue – indeed, in many important respects, to the same timeframe (for we only have synagogues that look like modern ones from the C3-C6ce, precisely when the church appears in a form we would recognise it) – develops its essential requirements away from archaeological or art historical view, in works patronised on a small scale by groups of the faithful, often in houses rather than purpose-built structures, to some extent making it up as they go along. The role of Constantine in transforming this model into a work of architectural art in the C3CE then becomes even more radical than that of Ashoka in the C3BCE vis a vis the stupa or the caliph al-Walid in c.700CE with respect to the mosque, though it is broadly comparable in various ways; and an even greater leap, again comparable in a general way, can be attributed to the pharaoh Djoser in third-millenium BCE Egypt, inventor of the cut stone place of worship.
Sadly, no equivalent story can be told for Judaism, the role of which in this grand picture is confused and easily overlooked as a result of the traumatic onward story of Judaism itself; no imperial sponsors, widespread persecution, the synagogue a marginal religious building throughout the millenia when the mosque and the church (and the stupa) came to dominate the sacred spaces of much of the planet. If there is any upside to this, it is the local, the human, the ordinary. Synagogues continued, and continue, to be generally sponsored by small groups of devout human beings: that the transformation from house-church to St Peter’s, Rome; from Sanchi to the Bayon at Angkor; from the Prophet’s House to Cordob,a has never been made arguably brings us closer, in the synagogue, to the more human aspects of the origin and development of religious faith.
Places are now limited on my main remaining events for this year:
: my ‘turn’ at the Swindon Festival of Literature, talking about cathedrals and history, in Christ Church, Swindon next Tuesday 7 May at 7.30pm. Tickets £6, £5 concessions, from 01793 46645; firstname.lastname@example.org
: residential tours of East Anglia, based in the lovely Villiers Park, just outside Cambridge; a series of delicious/fascinating buildings and extraordinary historical stories; the food’s fantastic, too! Medieval Churches, Monasteries &
Cathedrals of the Fenlands runs from Friday 21-Sunday 23 June 2013; Medieval Cambridge: History & Architecture runs
Friday 26 – Sunday 27 July. £360 and £345 respectively; for further details and bookings contact Christine Hall at Villiers Park, 01223 872809; email@example.com.
: detailed dayschools, including tour, on Salisbury cathedral and Tewkesbury abbey, running on 13 July and 21 September. Costs are kept low and reduced according to the number of participants; to book contact Liz Cooper, firstname.lastname@example.org.
: the full Monty: an eight-day residential tour of the cathedrals of England, run by the brand-leaders in the field of luxury cultural tours, Martin Randall Travel. 2-10 October 2013; a snip (but seriously, accomodation etc will be first class) at £2520. 0208 742 3355;email@example.com.
Fantastic stuff, from a fellow-blogger:
Royal Academy, London, sometime in 1985: a tense-looking guard suddenly approaches me and tries to usher me out of the room in which I stand. I prevaricate, and seconds later in walk a phalanx of men in black suits at the middle of which is a tiny, fragile-looking woman in a blue dress.
The eastern Crimea, sometime in 1941: Joseph Beuys, downed Luftwaffe pilot, is rescued by Tartar tribesmen and wrapped in animal fat and felt to be kept alive.
He later builds a career out of art installations, colossal structures of fat and felt.
For a few brief moments, then, it was just me, Maggie and Joseph Beuys. We stare blank eyed at each other and at the cathedral-like Tartar presences that fill the room, then everything moves on. Ding dong.
The daily commute, 1985-9: six miles by bicycle, through east Hackney, past Limehouse, down the Isle of Dogs, through the Greenwich tunnel to east Greenwich. No dome yet; Brunel’s tunnels not yet in fashion for film shoots; just a shattered wasteland of forgotten industries. Witness to strange new landscapes: Peabody estates and abandoned Victorian chapels overshadowed by the spires of late capitalism, as if the city had relocated east to a new redoubt, its moats the docks of lost empires.
Frank L. Baum’s polical allegory of the 1890s, recast into the fruit of a Kansas hurricane, recast into a text received around lunchtime on 17 April 2013, redolent of a crowd of dancing Munchkins, and yet whose meaning I understand instantly. Wizard.
Central London, 1990: a carnival atmosphere; like a massive, endless street party of protest. The first demo I have ever been on at which middle England is as massively represented as the more obvious lefties. I note a group of well-dressed men, holding a placard simply reading, ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’. The next day, I return to witness the way in which riot recasts landscapes: upturned paving slabs in Trafalgar Square, a smoke-blackened building, events as sudden and violent as a chemical reaction, unpresaged in their occurence, rapid in their impact, scars time-consuming to heal.
A neo-Renaissance chateaux in Barnsley, north Yorkshire, 1993: lit in an upper window, the shining half-bald pate of a spent force, Arthur Scargill in his castle, the proud, late Victorian NUM offices, holding forth at some committee meeting, backlit in neon.
Brighton, Sussex, 1984. An early morning trip, to witness another changed place, another Victorian pile: the great gash that appeared in the upper parts of the Grand Hotel the night before. Salt and carbon fill the air. An eerie silence.
Hong Kong, 1985: glimpsed across the barbed wire, the shining spires of Shenzen: free market experiment on China’s edge, the transnational, the global, the wealth-creating, blinking and dumbfounded in the grey light, across the border. A pale imitation of the free market. For now.
Wiltshire, 1984: after driving for seemingly hours through a landscape of flares and explosions and heavy machinery, the greatt Plain gripped by work-outs for the cold war, we reach Stonehenge. The sarsens of Fyfield and the bluestones of Pembroke, ringed again with barbed wire: outside, in the beanfield, a medieval/psychedelic vision: semi-permanent structures selling Cocaine, bands set up on soap boxes, a small handmade town. The freeest, most unregulated of markets; the following year, the enemy within.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Streets Paved with Gold. Loadsamoney.
Nottinghamshire, 1986: Eastwood, birthplace of D. H. Lawrence, in the Nottinghamshire coalfields; camped out beneath slag heaps being rapidly planted and landscaped; near to the industrial offices being remade a into a museum of the suddenly-vanished past; organising community events, where the Wakes were held, beneath the pitheads that have evaporated. A silver band, uprooted. Older locals, bemoaning the celebration of this man who made money writing about their sex lives; England’s fault line, of Civil War and Miner’s Strike and north and south, all around us, within miles of the south bank of the Trent.
1989. Five fragments of a vanished Wall, still retaining traces of spray painted grafitti, flung to the grand by the pickaxes of freedom. Crossing through Checkpoint Charlie in 1985, after six months in a universe shaped by Lenin, Stalin and Mao, blinking like a medieval peasant glimpsing a cathedral, unable to sleep by the shock of electricity, of variant humanities, of synthesizers blaring from all-night bars, of energy packed into this tiny statelet of the east, Shenzhen reversed in time, Docklands inside out.
Bradford, late 1980s. A ring-road sprouting strange things: shops in massive hangars, asphalt access, orbital no-places among the brick terraces and enormous hulks of the mills. Out of town, out of mind.
Imagined landscapes: the ding-dong jingle-jangle urban romanticism of the no-place satellite town, the bare violence of the city centre, fuelling a thousand unregulated 7 inchers and Peel sessions, a bewildering and infinite and inspiring landscape of resltess grassroots experiment; a new layer of mythologies for the story-laden places of Britain. Bands don’t play no more: too much fighting on the dancefloor. Under the iron bridge we kissed: and though I ended up with sore lips. To the centre of the city where all hope sank waiting for you. A hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts. Coventry, Manchester (so much to answer for), Macclesfield, Woking (‘… Dublin/Dundee/Humberside’). Lie dreams of casino souls. I’m in love with Maggie T. Diving for dear life, when they could be diving for pearls.
Devon, 1981: a pub special night for the Royal Wedding; packed public beer full of rugby players in dresses. The current no. 1, Ghost Town, on repeat.
The walk from Aldgate to Spitalfields: the walk home/the walk to work, c.1989. The all-night burning of construction, a new Roman wall, Broadgate, dominating the horizon as it climbs inexorably up. The invisible boundary between City and Tower Hamlets, a line in the deserts of tarmac and brick., the wild East. Spitalfields market a wasteland in which people stand around braziers, burning pallets to keep warm. The Huguenot houses a sudden density of migration: alone with Rodinsky and the abandoned synagogue. The streets alive at Eid.
Alive indeed: nights spent living out, documenting the lives of the legions of homeless youth who have appeared in the last few years, where before the only people who lived on the streets where ‘down-and-outs. Long nights eking out a single coffee between a dozen of us in the Charing Cross Macdonalds. Longer nights in doorways, begging, making a pound or two, often abused by strangers. People with fractured pasts, suddenly in the community.
Ashington, Northumberland, c.2000. Camping beneath the all night racket of the aliminium works. Nothing to eat that isn’t disgusting. A large town without a bookshop. Beers in the Working Men’s Club, where men in flatcaps sit and ritually keen nightly over that Thatcher woman. Seacoal slagheaps from which flames lick as the tide works its way in, soon to be cleared and landscaped, a heritage coast cleansed of its past. Far to the south, oligarchs buy manor houses, parallel lives of global capital.
Big ben falls silent; Michael of Canterbury dreams up St Stephen’s Undercroft. Occupy, stop the city, guildhall and Cruise. Pugin’s phallic clocktower, skyscraper dressed as Perp civic-imperial glory. The Eirene chapel at USAF Molesworth, beyond the wire-cutters, between the legs, keeping the peace. The snow falls on bender tents. Dong, Dong. And then the world changes. Again.
Few landscapes on earth can be more presciently formed by their history than this borderland, much in the news lately. Crossing the border by train in winter, the river-ice thaws in mid crossing, as if marking the dotted line in a map between a state that is part of the present and one that is wilfully trapped in its own past. It’s all something of a reminder of my own (award-winning, or nearly so) published trip from China to North Korea…
Here’s a list of this year’s talks and tours. The big news is the 9-dayer on English cathedrals for Martin Randall Travel; a series of residential tours and dayschools, and the publication of The Secret Language of Sacred Spaces (Duncan Baird Publishing), in the autumn. A sumptuously illustrated overview of the sacred buildings of the world, explaining their history and how they reflected the faith that shaped them.
TALKS AND TOURS 2013
13-17 May 2013: East Anglian towns, cities and villages, Villiers Hall, Cambridge
21-23 June 2013: Churches of the Fenlands, based at Villiers Hall, nr. Cambridge
26-28 July 2013: Medieval Cambridge, based at Villiers Hall, nr. Cambridge
2-9 October 2013: The Cathedrals of England, Martin Randall Travel
20 April 2013: Gloucester cathedral (includes full tour)
13 July 2013: Salisbury cathedral (includes full tour)
21 July 2013: Tewkesbury abbey (includes full tour)
2 March 2013: Annual Friend’s Lecture, Bristol cathedral
7 March 2013: Merchant’s House spring lecture, Marlborough
12 March 2013: Lent talk, Bristol cathedral
13 April 2013: Wiltshire Local History Society, Bromham
7 May 2013: Swindon Festival of Literature
… and NADFAS lectures in Wimborne, Bath, Birmingham, Horsley, Glaven Valley, Norwich, Gainsborough, Tiverton, Cirencester, Harrogate, Kennet, Beaconsfield, Fife, Cheam, Tenterden, Titchfield, Lovelace, Solent, Surrey, Ascot, Taporley, Tenterden, Walberton, Osnabruck and Hamburg.
To be published in Autumn 2013:
The Secret Language of Sacred Spaces: decoding churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship around the world (Duncan Baird Publishers)
To be published in Spring 2014:
Medieval Architectural Style: a handbook (Shire books)
Contact me for more details, or for private bookings: 07768 234168
… please ask to join my mailing list!
NEW LECTURE 2013
The Secret Language of Sacred Spaces: religious architecture of the world
A thousand years of medieval cathedrals as time machines
Monks and canons: daily life in the cathedral
Sacred feminine: The English Lady Chapel
Medieval architectural style
… all available as one-hour lectures or dayschools. Bespoke tours also available
Contact me for more details, or for private bookings: 07768 234168
… please ask to join my mailing list!
Stumbled on the loveliest Amazon review one could ever wish for today…
…. then, while researching something else, a headline that reminds me of an arguement I myself have made — click through and lo if it’s not a right wing thinktank Downunder reviewing the same book by yours truly (not that he says much at all about the book itself)!
I had intended to go down there at 5.15am, which is when, on the Winter Solstice, the emperor would have left his Palace of Abstinence within the enclosure of Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven, and headed for the sacrificial altars at the heart of this complex.
The ‘temple’, really a complex of interlinked roofed and open-air ritual sites (and today a museum), is not open that early , but I wondered if a tiny and elderly crowd might form there, or someone unlock a side gate for a huddled group to rush in. After all, this sacrificial event is marked out in texts, the Zhou Li or Rituals of Zhou, that go back some three thousand years and from them it is clear that this, the Winter solstice sacrifice at the imperial altar in the southern suburbs of the capital city, was the most significant single event in the entire religious calendar of the empire. A grand rite on which man’s relationship with the universe depended. There must be one or two battered and elderly residents of Beijing who remember and honour this, relatives, perhaps, of the Manchu dynasty and its court, or devotees of a Confucianism which is the most mysteriously vanished of China’s traditional faiths…. even if it was last performed in earnest almost exactly a century ago.
Not that anyone but an emperor can perform the sacrifice for it to have been valid. Yet without it, the contract of man and heaven, of people and cosmos, falls apart.
In any case, the emperor’s silk-lined finery must have been heavily insulated, for even at 3pm, when we finally arrive, the cold is minus 10 and biting, razor-sharp in its intensity, with mounds of hard-packed snow against the bone-white marble of the altar platforms. How 64 dancers, a host of courtiers, and the many butchers and other specialists prepared themselves at that twilit hour and in that temperature, I can only guess.
Animals, thundering along the sharp orthogonal turns of the corridor built for them, from in-temple to farm to in-temple slaughter house, oblivious to an imminent and steaming fate.
Enormous masts, from which long lanterns shift in the wind, throwing flickering and shadowy light onto the proceedings, reassuring the populace that the holy contract is sealed.
A figures moving around on frozen platforms.
It is easy to misread this place. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (itself renamed many times, possibly rarely used, and certainly the result of centuries of ritual reinterpretation and prevarication between construction of the complex in the 1420s and the end of sacrifices here in the early C20) is the best known building in the complex, and arguably the best known building in China. Yet it is an oddity, a circular roofed building covering the surface of the uppermost level of a sacrifical altar, a building of a type only occasionally repeated elsewhere, and never to the same design. None of the other surviving imperial altars of China have buildings on them, and as far as I know no other architecturally expressed open-air altars existed: this is exclusively an architecture of emperors, with succeeding complexes at (for example) Chang’an and Nanjing abandoned when new dynasties moved to new capitals.
Because it looks like a temple, and is very beautiful, this Hall receives all the attention: unlike the Circular Mound Altar, to which it is joined by a X metres long, raised processional way. Yet it is the latter that mattered most. This ‘building’, in turn, looks like what it is: a sacrifical, open-air religious structure, a primeval form of ritual setting made into a work of elegant architecture. It is simply a series of flat, tiered circular platforms, structure, rather like the take-off point for a rocket ship, or — more to the point — one of the great open air circular ritual complexes of the ancient world, such as Avebury or Stonehenge. Perhaps the ritual architecture of the West, then, would have ended up looking like this, if continuity rather than energetic reform and dogmatic rejection of the past had marked our religious history.
Which brings me to why this place matters to the wider world of architecture and religion. Chinese religious architecture is unique. All the other major world cultures at some point demoted their open air altars and sacred landscapes, replacing them with (or placing within them in a manner that made the building, rather than the place, the focus of attention) permanent, roofed structures of stone which were invariably also the most ambitious buildings that culture created. China did not. It kept building such complexes, albeit only for the use of the emperor itself. And its other religious buildings are generally of wood, and for all their beauty and grandeur, small in scale compared to (say)Angkor Wat, Srirangam, Karnak or Cologne, and basically identical to other kinds of Chinese building. There is no special architectural language for the temple, as there is for the mosque, the church, the Hindu temple, the stupa. Its survivals are also rarely very old: the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was last rebuilt in 1889, using American timbers because Chinese ones of appropriate size could not be sourced; each of its various rebuildings since 1420 (itself ‘recent’ by global standards for major religious buildings) has also changed its design. But here, and in the four other surviving such complexes positioned on the cardinal points around Beijing, Chinese imperial ritual architecture took the ancient principle of the open air sacred complex and preserved and continually reinvented it into the modern era.
These altars, then, are China’s one unique and indigenous contribution to religious architecture. In this they, for all their rarity, are as significant a form as the church, the mosque, the synagogue, the Hindu temple and the Buddhist stupa. The latter, in its sinicised form as the pagoda, is China’s other main claimant to this status: but the pagoda,, though far more ubiquitous in the Chinese landscape than the sacrificial altar, was as an adapted foreign form for an adapted foreign faith, and thus more a regional variant on someone else’s architecture than the unique architectural expression of an indigenous tradition: in other words, the pagoda is a sinicised stupa; the imperial sacrificial altar is as unique to its ritual tradition as a church or a mosque). And even more significantly, once the south American temples and altars had been closed, such complexes were the only example in world architecture in which the open air sacrificial/ritual complex, arguably the birthplace of religious architecture of all kinds, survived, uniquely as and a permanent and sophisticated building type.
So it’s worth a visit, even on a freezing afternoon, on 21 December 2012. Hard sunlight shines off the sweeping blue-tiled roofs of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, and throws low winter light onto the ritual implements stored inside it. Both here and at the Circular Mound Altar, a great glazed platform and a series of metal ritual stands were used to cook and send to heaven the scents and smokes of various animals, and later to burn the implements used in the rituals and send their scents to heaven, too. Inside, a veritable banquet of the gods was laid out, and Chinese prescriptions for events here reveal the rich, and very Chinese, delight in the smell, textures and flavours of the sacrifical animals alongside the more arcane laws, of a kind familiar in many cultures, about how, when and where to perform this or that prescription, so as best to please Heaven and the gods.
Though it is off-season, this building is one of China’s must-sees, and groups of tourists both Chinese and foreign move around the enclosure. No one shows any awareness of the significance of the day. Leaving the gates that set this temple aside within the wider complex, and moving along the processional path towards the Circular Mound Altar, people reach the small, circular Imperial Vault of Heaven, where they troop up and down the steps and numbly view the tablets within. These embodied the spirits of various imperial ancestors, and — raised high above the others in a niche — Shangdi, the Godhead himself. They would be moved temporarily to whichever of the two main altars was to be used for a given ritual, the calligraphy they bear somehow bringing with it the the spirits evoked themselves. This idea, that the writing of a word is sufficient to embody a deity, is also very emblematic of Chinese culture, in which the written word assumes a cultural significance and artistic importance matched only by that of written Arabic for Muslim cultures.
The Wintere Solstic ritual, of course, took place at the Circular Mound altar, built in 1532 and reconstructed by the Qianlong emperor in 1751-2: it’s near-abstract beauty, with each finely cut piece of blank marble playing a role in a complex numerology of the turning year (there are said to be 360 stone panels on the balustrades, for example), and its simple rising broad series of platforms are a powerful sequence to inhabit and climb. Signs suggest a curious official nervousness about this place: cellphones prohibited during thunderstorms.
The circular mound altar also sits within a gated enclosure, which is square, symbolising the earth, in contrast to the circular and heavenly form within. The red enclosing walls, with their honorific gates, look out onto a giant parkland, part of the temple complex, and in one direction, open out onto the din of Beijing traffic.
A hard grey light presses down as the sun sets, and something bright is lying in one of the stoves adjacent to the altar itself. I walk over. A band of yellow silk; some incense sticks; some food (nutes; an orange; some sweetmeats), all freshly left. The day has not been forgotten. Was this the discrete act of some closet devotee of the Rituals of Zhou? Can its location, in the stoves rather than on the altar, be ascribed to a desire to honour the spirit of the emperor rather than to maintain some connection to a sacrifice which, after all, only he could have performed? Was there an attempt to light these items on this cold, hard day, an attempt thwarted by some discrete but vigilant official, watching out for a lone pensioner’s ritual insurrection? Or has one of the rookie soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms who ‘gaurd’ the complex been slipped a few yuan to put his lighter to it after the park has closed? I’ll never know.
As light falls, groups of hardy people are singing popular songs and playing cards in the passageway along which the animals thundered to their fate. The Palace of Abstinence has closed for the night, its moat is empty. The vast park is said to be planted with 3,000 cypress trees, a great grid in the middle of this mighty city; yet few are of any age. Occasionally a raven caws, a reminder off the curious rarity of birds here. The stillness becomes intense, almost eerie, as if all of us are to be plunged into a deep freeze: such a scenario, would perhaps have been seen as the most dangerous corollary of the cessation of sacrifice here, for with man’s contract with heaven broken, there was no need for the year to turn at all. A great ritual winter would fall over the city of concrete. Cold Wars and Second Ice Ages would ensue: they did, perhaps they will. Perhaps the upheavals of the twentieth century can be ascribed to the lack of an old man in heavily padded silk, surrounded by castrated courtiers, offering the smoke of cooked meats to invisible spirits on a circular platform. But it feels oddly safe here, as if History itself has been frozen out of the atmosphere.
By the eighteenth century, the Mughal glories of Agra were fading, and its great riverfront sequence of aristocratic gardens and mausoleums, of which the Taj is the most famous, were less exclusive spaces than they had once been. The people of Agra started practising an annual swimming festival, in which the still unpollauted Yamuna was crammed with a mixed Hindu and Muslim crowd, and great effigies of Krishna were floated on the water and set alight, fireworks pouring over the slow-moving waters. The swimmers devoted their splashing play to two religious figures: Krishna himself; and al-Khidr, the enigmatic figure of rebirth who is the Absent Presence of the Quran, and who many miles further west overlaps with Elijah, George and the Green Man.