Whose holy site is it, anyway?

At the root of the political conflict over Jerusalem is a tale of sociocultural dominance that history has seen played out through religious identity.

December 22, 2017 08:00 pm | Updated December 30, 2017 03:33 pm IST

At the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict around Jerusalem is a land considered to be Holy and sacred by three different Abrahamic faiths. | Reuters

At the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict around Jerusalem is a land considered to be Holy and sacred by three different Abrahamic faiths. | Reuters

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Symbols are easy to understand. Symbols are powerful. Symbols lack nuance and do not require explanations. They aren’t necessarily constrained by facts — facts are often a nuisance — and instead they feed off legend, myth and perception. They possess the power to transform groups of otherwise independent, intelligent minds into an unthinking mob. And they are used cleverly by rabble-rousers and demagogues as justification for hatred and cruelty. History is littered with examples of religious oppression, expressed by converting or demolishing a place of worship.

In 1938, Adolf Hitler ordered the demolition of the main Synagogue in Munich . No human beings were injured when the structure was brought down, but it was a cruel move, symbolic of Hitler’s anti-semitism, and a move designed to break the spirits of jews across Germany. It was a move to demonstrate his absolute power over a culture that he wanted to exterminate, a culture that was no longer welcome in Germany in 1938. This wasn’t about a building or how holy it was, or whether it could be moved, or accommodated elsewhere. It was a display of dominance, and a sign of things to come for German Jews.



The Hagia Sophia was a spectacular church, built in Constantinople, by the Christian Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century AD. Upon conquering Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks lost no time in converting the ancient church into a mosque. The Ottomans had to demonstrate the dominance of their religion, and chose to do so by establishing a mosque in the very building that served as the headquarters of the Orthodox Church.

In 1935, Turkey’s first President Mustafa Kemal converted the mosque to a museum. In the decades that have followed, a lot of effort and money has been spent to restore the Hagia Sophia as a museum of history as opposed to being a symbol of any one faith. And because Turkey was successful in managing their symbolism, for decades, people referred to Istanbul as the city where ‘East meets West in harmony’. Not to be outdone, extremist groups, and right-wing Islamic politicians started a movement to restore the Hagia Sophia as a mosque, and are demanding that it function purely as a religious hall of prayer. In recent times, however, Turkey has struggled to maintain this balance between cultures, and is no longer the symbol of cultural coexistence that it was a couple of decades ago.

Funnily enough, even as recently as a few years ago, more than 500 years after it was last used as a church, United States politician Chris Spirou recognised the symbol of a magnificent Orthodox Church in Turkey as a potential opportunity to gain political mileage and started a movement to restore the Hagia Sophia as an Orthodox Church, as a self-proclaimed Champion of the Orthodox Faith.


The Jerusalem conflict has been political, no doubt, and has become a surrogate for larger global power-plays, but at its heart — and inseparable from the politics — is the question of religious identity.


And at the heart of it all, is the grand old building, showcasing the very best examples of human ingenuity, skill, excellence, craftsmanship and artisanship, and yet, simultaneously, at the core of a conflict created by the worst tendencies of human nature. Ironically, ‘Hagia Sophia’ roughly translates to ‘The Shrine of Holy Wisdom’.

It all sounds remarkably familiar.

The Mughal Emperor Babar, when he first invaded India, decided to impose his cultural dominance upon the lands that he had vanquished by building a mosque on a site that Hindus across the country considered to be the birthplace and capital city of their Lord Rama. Centuries later, the mosque would be destroyed by Hindu right-wing extremists in a bid to re-establish their cultural dominance. Decades later, Ayodhya remains a sensitive issue a festering wound that never heals, and a looming presence in the background of every election. The Ayodhya issue is invoked by incendiary politicians to whip up frenzy on either side. It has become a symbol of the struggle for cultural dominance and identity in a multicultural society.

In his writings, Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea in the 3rd Century AD, describes a pagan temple built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, above a cave on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where Jesus of Nazareth was supposed to have been buried.



He constructed this temple on the very same site that Christians held sacred to demonstrate the dominance of Roman Paganism over this new faith that appeared to be gaining traction, even though its founder had been crucified more than a hundred years ago. It was an attempt to replace a symbol of one faith with the overpowering symbol of another.

The sequel is fascinating. Several decades later, Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor, ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the very site of Hadrian’s temple. Over the next few hundred years, under the reign of emperors like Constantine, Theodosius and Justinian, almost every pagan temple in the empire was Christianised — Christian emperors felt the need to assert their cultural dominance over the Pagan faith that had persecuted Christians for a few hundred years before Constantine.

The very same Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, believed by devout Christians across the world to be built on the very spot where Jesus was supposed to have been resurrected, was destroyed by the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim in the 11th Century AD, when he conquered and invaded Jerusalem, to assert his cultural dominance.

The theme is repeated across history again and again and again, across faiths, across countries, with very few exceptions. And it has nothing to do with the ‘tolerance’ or ‘intolerance’ preached by the faith itself. It is the by product of a cruel, destructive, dominant streak in human nature.



Interestingly, archaeologists today can confirm the existence of a tombstone, deep down below the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There isn’t enough conclusive evidence either way to definitively state that Jesus was or was not buried there, but the power of symbols is such that it renders facts, evidence and accuracy irrelevant beyond a point. The Church becomes ‘Holy’ because enough people around the world believe it to be built on the spot where Jesus was buried and later ascended to the heavens — whether it was really built upon the tomb of Jesus Christ or not is more of an academic question. Clearly, there is some factual basis/context upon which the faith is built. Whether that context translates to definitive hard scientific evidence is another matter altogether. The same is true of the Ram-Sethu. And Mecca. And Jerusalem itself.

It is in this context that we must view conflicting claims made by different faiths on a building site, city or state. To recognise the legitimacy of one side over another on the basis of ‘who built it first’ is a dangerously flawed approach — this is never about who established the city first, or whether a temple existed before a mosque did. This isn’t even about a few hundred or thousand years of history, nor is it only about strategic diplomacy or a votebank. This is about giving legitimacy to a group of individuals who claim to represent a culture and their attempts to stifle and suppress another culture.

And so, when Donald Trump recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he sends out a few messages to the world, loud and clear. The first rather obvious message is that he greatly values his relationship with the Israelis, and is willing to jeopardise his relationship with the Islamic world, in order to woo Israel. The second and much more subtle message that he sends out, intentionally or otherwise, is that he would not mind seeing the Islamic cultural identity being suppressed by a Jewish cultural identity. And if that seems like a huge leap, I would refer you to the history of Israel, Palestine and Jerusalem.



The conflict has been political, no doubt, and has become a surrogate for larger global power-plays, but at its heart — deeper than the politics of it — is the question of religious identity. When we strip away the politics, at the heart of this dispute is a land considered to be Holy and sacred by three different Abrahamic faiths. At various points in time in history, bloodthirsty self-proclaimed champions of these faiths have committed acts of unspeakable cruelty to establish dominance and wipe out any conflicting claims to the holy land. Any support or endorsement of one claim is a direct rebuff of conflicting claims and consequently of the cultures that those claims represent.

Whether Trump fully understands this or not, is another question altogether.

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