For 60, 000 years, our species Homo Sapiens lived as nomads. We worshipped nature upon which we were dependent. We worshipped animals and plants, rivers and lakes and striking geographic features. All of these were sacred and we worshipped a multiplicity of divine beings.
It was after we entered the agricultural revolution, commencing about 10,000 years ago, that our worship underwent a profound change. Farming required us living in one place and never moving. Our stationary existence led to us worshipping kings and priests, and our gods like us, inhabited a single, stationary place. It was then that we began building temples – houses of God – where we believed that we could go to be closer to the divine.
Yet our need for closeness to the Divine, manifested in the construction of Houses of God and our need to visit these houses, is something which was never experienced by our nomadic ancestors and – is not a part of the culture of those nomadic people still alive today.
The construction of Houses of God reflects a specific historic development experienced by the human race in general, yet at the same time, the different human cultures constructed very different Houses. Supreme gods were worshipped within Houses with very different architecture and with very different symbols. Countless wars have been fought over which Gods were the true ones; which houses were the real ones.
Here are some of the houses of God I have encountered during my travels:
Hindu Temples India
No religion has such a multiplicity of Gods and Goddesses as Hinduism. it’s enormous and diverse and colourful pantheon is often quite confusing to an outsider. Nevertheless, behind this seemingly endless diversity of sacred beings, there is a Divine Creator which manifests itself in many different incarnations. In the Hindu houses of God then, the puzzling diversity of sacred beings reflects aspects of a single creator. There is diversity in unity.
The place of the gods, one of the pyramids constructed by a Maya related civilisation at least 1500 years ago by the Teotihuacan – and well before the arrival of the Aztecs. This pyramid is about 30 kilometres outside Mexico City. Strangely enough, When we went there early one morning in 2008 by local bus, we were the only people there.
Synagogues are usually small and rather unprepossessing in comparison with other houses of God. There are two possible reasons for this; firstly, historically where ever they were, Jews had to keep a low profile. Two thousand years of relentless persecution and constantly having to move meant that there was no basis for ever establishing imposing houses of God. At the same time, Jews regarded Jerusalem as their temple, one which they could never visit, which was a idea embraced by the symbolic Ark in their synagogues. In 70 AD they were driven from Jerusalem, their holy city by the Romans and dispersed all over the world. Yet to be a Jew meant to embrace the memory of Zion, when they had their own land and their own holy city.
Synagogue in Bucharest, Romania, in use until The Holocaust.
The Wailing Wall Jerusalem – the remains of the Jews most sacred temple destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, a Big Bang moment in the history of the Jews which led to their dispersal all over the world until 1947.
Islam and Christianity, the world’s greatest monotheistic religions, grew out of Judaism. The Jews were the first people in history to worship a single, all powerful God. Everywhere else, people worshipped a multiplicity of Gods (eg, the ancient Greeks and Hindus). The hallmarks of the Jewish heritage are all too obvious in both Christianity and Islam, yet both religions never experienced a debt of gratitude to the Jews – on the contrary, both religions persecuted Jews relentlessly.
Both Christianity and Islam were expansionist religions which sought to convert by proselytization if possible, by the sword if necessary. Christianity’s record of horrors saw it expanding into Central and South America. Islam’s record of horrors, saw it expanding across Northern Africa and at the same time, Northern India and Indonesia.
In their imperialist expansion, both religions embarked upon the construction of Houses of God which were unique, magnificent and beautiful.
Orthodox churches, Belarus
Catholic Church, Mexico City
Catholic Church Austria
Catholic Church, Flanders, Belgium
One of the magnificent, ancient mosques in Cairo, Egypt.
The famous Jama Masjid in Old Delhi – this photograph taken in the 1980’s from the balcony of my dingy backstreet hotel.
The golden domed mosque of the Temple Mount – and adjacent the Jews’ Wailing Wall.
Village mosque, Southern Thailand.
Mosque, Eastern Turkey
The Parthenon in Athens.
When it was built in 500 BC it was one of the most magnificent houses of God ever constructed – although in this case it was a house for the great goddess of ancient Athens – Athena. Athens was then at the pinnacle of its power, a power exercised not in terms of military might but rather, its power as a centre of science and the arts – a heritage which was of enormous influence on the western ideas. Athens greatest achievement was the establishment of a unique system of government called ‘democracy’ or ‘demo’ people and ‘kratia’ power.
Inside the Parthenon was a giant statue of Athena gilded in gold with a large pool of water at her feet. Over the centuries, the Parthenon was sacked and looted by the Christians and the Moslems, both of whom regarded ancient Greek gods as heretical.
When we look at the Parthenon today we are essentially looking at a pile of ruins – a pale shadow of what it once was.
An model of what the original Parthenon might have looked like.
A model of Athena in the U.S, constructed with all the information to hand of what she looked like.
At the same time that Athens rose to greatness, Gautama Buddha left his opulent home in Nepal and head to India’s holiest city Varanasi and spent a life time studying the great texts of Hinduism such as the Vedas. Near the end of his life he attained Enlightenment under the famous Bodhi tree. A great religion was born, one based on a psychology of detachment and the cultivation of inner peace. It is quite possible hence to be an atheist and also a Buddhist. To this day, Buddhism has the aura of a religion of peace, its most famous representative today being the Dalai Lama.
Buddhist Temple, Laos
Monastery Grounds, Cambodia
Buddhist Temple, Myanmar
Buddhist temple at the outskirts of Chang Mai in the north of Thailand.
The House of God at Karnak, Egypt
In ancient times, the Karnak temple was a part of the city of Thebes (where today’s Luxor is situated). Quite unlike every other major archaeological site in the world, the temple was not constructed during a specific dynasty or time period. It was, rather, an amalgam of spectacular architectural monuments constructed during the reigns of 30 pharaohs over a period of approximately 2000 years. Some of the monuments were amazing, such as the 134 giant columns in 16 rows, 122 of them 10 metres high and the rest 20 metres high. Each one of these columns was very wide in diameter and resting on top of them were immense stone beams.
At the same time, there were many equally impressive and subtle features of the temple; for example, the statues, the wall engravings and the numerous courtyards and for me, of particular interest: the illumination of the temple. Unlike ancient temples in other parts of the world (e.g., The Parthenon in Greece or Angkor Wat in Cambodia), rooves had never a part of the timeless construction of the Karnak temple. Irrespective of the gods they worshipped, and these periodically changed depending on the pharaoh in power, ancient Egyptians regarded the sun as sacred and the last thing that occurred to them was to block it out. Whilst the Karnak temple was continually added on to and expanded over the course of thousands of years, one theme remained consistent in the conception behind its monuments and buildings: there was an interplay of light and shadow, one which changed with the transit of the sun from morning to evening. It was here that the gods, human forms with animal heads, were worshipped.
Categories: Houses of God