Architectural strategies for socially constructed sacred space

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Mountains are often sites of natural holiness. For this reason and others, the identification of temples as mountains, and mountains as temples, runs throughout the Bible as well as other ancient literature. Sacred mountains were viewed as natural temples; their remoteness and rugged quality added to their sacred character and their status as sites of natural holiness. When possible, temples were built on high mountains; in flat terrain, as in lower Mesopotamia, they were constructed on elevated platforms or ziggurats designed to resemble mountains. Temples as mountains bring us into intimate contact with ancient yet widespread notions such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial mound, and the navel of the earth; on the mountain are found the Tree of Life and the Waters of Life.


Possibly no other characteristic of ancient Near Eastern temples is as widely known and accepted as the relationship between temples and sacred mountains. ‘Mountains, real or constructed, crags, cliffs, even unprepossessing hillocks rising from an otherwise flat landscape, all are liminal spaces denoting points of contact with celestial realms and their divine inhabitants or sacred powers. They are focal points for the divine-human encounter, for illumination, transformation, and passage’ (Knipe 1988:110). A mountain peak ‘represents a pristine and therefore undesecrated region. It is a natural temple,’ wrote Truman Madsen (1984a:107), ‘a place of altar, of consecration, of ordination, even of coronation.’
The doctrine of mountains as sacred space was not limited to the Near East; it figured prominently in virtually every culture where mountains were present.56 The examination of this topic will commence by first considering the various words used in the Bible to indicate mountains or hills, and the sacred nature of mountains in general throughout the ancient Near East. It will be seen that the Garden of Eden was both a mountain and a temple, a concept easily demonstrated from both Biblical and non-Biblical sources.57
Mountains are regarded as sacred space because they are often considered to be natural temples. One facet of temple/mountain symbolism originated from the perception of temples as built upon the primordial mound or hillock, the first land to emerge from the chaotic waters of creation. Related to this idea was the equally widespread notion of mountains as the navel of the earth. Yet another area of temple/mountain symbolism included the consideration of certain mountains as cosmic in nature. The characteristics and qualifications of cosmic mountains will be enumerated, and it will be seen that the Garden of Eden, Mount Sinai, Mount Zion, Mount Hamon, and Mount Zaphon all fit the qualifications of a cosmic mountain.
Finally, the theoretical concepts mentioned above, especially those of the cosmic mountain, will be applied to Mount Sinai, home base of Yahweh and the originating point of the Israelite national experience, and to Mount Zaphon, the headquarters of Baal as detailed in the Ras Shamra tablets. It will be seen that the cosmic nature of Sinai was  Jubilees 8:19: ‘He [Noah] knew that the Garden of Eden was the holy of holies and the dwelling of the Lord’. Hayward (1996:90) wrote: ‘Both ben Sira and Jubilees, in their different ways, bring Adam into direct association with the temple understood as Eden. According to Jubilees, the first ritual act of worship was offered by Adam immediately after his expulsion from the garden’.transferred to Mount Zion as the tribal league of the Israelites gave way to the monarchy; furthermore, Zion assumed many of the features assigned to Zaphon in the Ugaritic texts.


A glance at a concordance reveals the prolific use of terms meaning “mountain” or “hill” in the Jewish Scriptures. The most common Hebrew word for mountain, har, appears 520 times in the Hebrew Bible, and is found in every book of the Hebrew Bible save Ruth, Esther, Ezra, and Ecclesiastes. There are two prevalent meanings: one, a mountainous region in general, thus har yehuda, ‘the hill country of Judah’; two, a specific mountain, of which twenty-three individual mountains have names. Another Hebrew term, gib’ah, appears sixty times and is commonly translated ‘hill’. Gib’ah is more common in the prophets than in the historical books, and is frequently found in poetic passages. As a rule, gib’ah applies to smaller hills rather than mountains58 and is never used to indicate a hilly region or a group of hills. Similar usage prevails in other Semitic languages.59 Finally, the Hebrew word bamah, ‘high place’, is commonly used as a religious designation referring to hilltop sites used in Canaanite and other fertility cults.60
Mountains were considered the ‘pillars of heaven’ (Job 26:11) as their tops were often lost in the clouds and were thus a natural point of contact or communication between earth and the upper world. Mountains were also considered the ‘pillars of the earth’, as they were thought to arise from the ocean floor, and thereby facilitated communication between earth and the netherworld (Wensinck 1978:5). Several scriptural sources suggest There is no predetermined point at which a hill becomes a mountain, and even small hills can occasionally be referred to as mountains. Consider the relative heights of Mount Lebanon (3000 meters), Mount Hermon (2760 meters), and Mount Zion in Jerusalem (743 meters, only 50 meters above the adjoining Kidron valley).
the ancient idea that mountains were the pillars or the foundations of heaven and earth (Pr 8:25-29; Ps 75:4; 104:5-9; Job 9:6; 1 Sm 2:8). It was in this sense that Micah and Isaiah spoke of ‘the mountain of the Lord’s House’(Mi 4:1-2; Is 2:2-3).
The scriptures are replete with theophanies that occurred on mountains, e.g., Abraham’s interrupted sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, Moses on Sinai, Elijah on Mount Carmel and later Mount Sinai, and Jesus and the three apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration. Mount Zion (adjacent to and contiguous with Mount Moriah) was the site of the temples of Solomon, Zerubbabel, and Herod, and was a political as well as a religious centre.61 Mount Nebo was a site of vision and revelation for Moses. The Sermon on the Mount was the scene of one of the greatest sermons in all recorded history. The Mount of Olives features prominently in the New Testament as well as in the Apocalypse. Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, in the Samaritan highlands, played significant roles in the religious life of the Israelites and their predecessors, the Canaanites. The most important mountain in Canaanite religion was Mount Zaphon, the home of Baal, the Canaanite storm god.
From a very early period, mountains have been regarded as sacred places where kings and prophets could go to receive revelations. It was not particularly necessary to have any buildings or shrines constructed; the elevation itself was sufficient to impart holiness to the site.62 Yet the impetus to erect structures atop mountains, or to erect structures that resembled mountains where there were none, was compelling.63
61 The characterisation of Mount Zion as sacred space derived from its being the site of the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac, as well as other events significant in the history of Israel. In reality these events occurred on Mount Moriah, not Mount Zion. The two mountains (both are physically insignificant hills) are adjacent to one another. As a result of the accumulated debris and rubble of centuries of habitation, and due to the building projects conducted by Herod, any sharp demarcation between the two elevations have long become blurred. In accordance with common usage, I will refer to Mount Zion as the Temple Mount, as it is so described in virtually all the literature on the subject.
62 This is certainly true of the Hittites and, to a lesser extent, of neighbouring civilisations as well. Mountains ‘were considered to be adequate in their natural shape’ and ‘the mere altitude of the summit [rather than any building or structure] was the decisive element’ (Bittel 1981:66).
63 Hindu temples, among others, were constructed to require pilgrims or priests to circumambulate the building in ever-ascending spirals to reach the top, which was marked by the most sacred shrine. It is possible that part of this architectural pattern was intended to mimic mortal life, where we struggle with the challenges and vicissitudes of life before reaching death, that mysterious journey that reunites us with the gods. ‘Onward and upward’, the mantra of productive living, was a journey ritually and literally commemorated within the temple.
Those who live close to nature have an innate appreciation for the sanctity of mountains. There is something about mountains that tugs at our very core as we contemplate their majesty, their beauty, their raw sensuality:
Another time I stood by the river and looked up at the mountains, which rise almost another six thousand feet above the plateau. I was just thinking that this was the roof of the American continent, and that people lived here in the face of the sun like the Indians who stood wrapped in blankets on the highest roofs of the pueblo, mute and absorbed in the sight of the sun. Suddenly a deep voice, vibrant with suppressed emotion, spoke from behind me into my left ear: ‘Do you not think that all life comes from the mountain?’ An elderly Indian had come up to me, inaudible in his moccasins, and had asked me this heaven knows how far-reaching question. A glance at the river pouring down from the mountain showed me the outward image that had engendered this conclusion. Obviously all life came from the mountain, for where there is water, there is life. Nothing could be more obvious. In his question I felt a swelling emotion connected with the word ‘mountain’, and thought of the tale of secret rites celebrated on the mountain. I replied, ‘Everyone can see that you speak the truth’ (Jung 1965:251).
In short, sacred mountains figure prominently in all literature, in poetic imagery as in historical narrative. Mountains capture human imagination as obvious sites for divine intervention in human affairs. Israel’s consciousness of the surrounding mountains included an awareness of their physical reality, their place in literature, and their nature as sacred space (Cohn 1981:25). Mountains were viewed as places of strength, security, and refuge,64 and were associated with the protection of Yahweh.65 In the various cosmogonies of the ancient Near East, mountains were regarded as symbols of the forces that controlled and contained the unruly primeval waters, while at the same time they were the source of that sweet water upon which all life depended. The prophets called upon the mountains to be witnesses of God’s covenant with Israel,66 but even the When Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot and his wife fled ‘to the hills’ (Gn 19:17). On past occasions even the wicked have attempted to seek refuge in the mountains when hiding from the Lord, but to no avail (Am 9:3).
65 ‘I turn my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come?’ (Ps 121:1). Clifford (1972:69) claimed that it is not unreasonable to maintain that a temple on a mountain, or a mountain as a temple, offered a logical point for reconciliation between heaven and earth.
66 ‘Hear what the Lord is saying: Come, present [my] case before the mountains, and let the hills hear you pleading. Hear, you mountains, the case of the Lord—You firm foundations of the earth!’ (Mi 6:1-2).
mountains could not withstand the wrath of God.67 In Israel mountains were the site of revelation, whether the giving of the Law at Sinai or the ceremony of divine blessings and cursings associated with Gerizim and Ebal (Dt 11:26-32; 27:11-13).68
Due to their prominence in the natural landscape, mountains protruded into the religious thinking of other peoples of the Syro-Palestinian littoral,69 as well as the residents of the Anatolian plateau.70 In the Ugaritic texts each mountain featured a different deity (Clifford 1972:34-35). Among the Canaanites, mountains were venerated as the meeting places of the gods, the source of water and fertility, the battleground for conflicting natural forces, the meeting place of heaven and earth, and the place where effective decrees were issued (Clifford 1972:3). In Phrygia the presence of stepped altars suggests a cult that thrived in the free areas of the mountain, overlooking plains, forests, rivers, and the wildlife that were the concern of the Great Mother (Mellink 1981:102).
It is clear that the theme of mountains as sacred space was nearly universal throughout the ancient Near East. Wensinck (1978:11-12) flatly declared that ‘among the northern Semites it was essential that the sanctuary should be a high place or still better a mountain.’ However, there is some divergence of opinion regarding the importance of 67 ‘… mountains melt like wax at the Lord’s presence’ (Ps 97:5); ‘When he stands, He makes the earth shake; When he glances, He makes nations tremble. The age-old mountains are shattered, the primeval hills sink low’ (Hb 3:6).
69 One characteristic of the Levant in the second millennium was to separate temples (and often palaces, for that matter) from densely populated areas (e.g., Nahariyah, Gerizim, Amman, Alalakh). It was thought that placing the temples in remote regions, away from polluted urban areas, somehow added to their holiness. This effect was heightened, one might say, by constructing temple sites on top of mountains or other areas of high elevation (Uziel & Shai 2007:165-166).
70 Insufficient scholarly attention has yet been paid to the place held by mountains in Hittite and Hurrian religion. Hittite religion is known to have been strongly syncretistic and open to foreign influence; however, it is not easy to be definite about the role of mountains in this belief system despite the interchange known to have existed among the religions of the Canaanites, Hittites, and Hurrians (Clifford 1972:29, 31, 33).
sacred mountains in Mesopotamia.71 Another way by which the mountain functioned as a symbol in ancient temples was hidden in the mystical concept of attaining union with deity, an important role in some (particularly Asian) temple rituals. God was approached by rituals and rites of passage that caused the worshipper to ever ascend and approach the most holy place where one hoped to commune with the divine. In a word, a person underwent an initiation. Initiation was a journey to the “centre,” a belief and tradition common to all the great world religions. The mountain was the centre place because it was the first point to be created. As the cosmic mountain represented the axis mundi,72 the vertical plane connecting three worlds, one must climb the mountain to reach the throne of God. This can be accomplished in a literal sense, as Moses at Sinai, or in a figurative sense within a temple that represents the mountain.

Research questions
Case study: gradations of sacred space in Egyptian temples
Creating sacred space
Architectural strategies for socially constructed sacred space
The Garden of Eden as mountain
The cosmic mountain
Creation and cosmogony
The temple and the Tree of Life
Water and the temple
Description of representative temples in Mesopotamia
The first millennium
Analysis of descriptions
Architectural features of Mesopotamian temples
Description of representative temples in Egypt
Ptolemaic temples
Egyptian temples and sacred space
Description of representative temples in Canaan
Analysis of descriptions
Description of representative temples in Israel
Summary of the concept of sacred space
Summary of regional expressions of sacred space
Foundation deposits
The Tree of Life

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