The discovery that stones which shepherds had used for generations for resting and animal hitches were actually parts of a 12,000 year old temple at Gobekli Tepe was shocking. How old, the question was raised, is temple building? And how ancient are the oldest sacred spaces?
Throughout past ages of the earth the most astounding artifacts and structures, for the most part, are linked to religion and sacred observance. What else, we think, could motivate people to build tremendous pyramids around the world, monuments that stand the test of time, and the oldest examples of narrative writing? And thousands of years after their construction, we still marvel at the power these sites, structures, and testaments have on us.
In one of my classes recently I asked the question, “What are the oldest temples?” Egyptian and Nubian monuments were mentioned as well as Gobekli Tepe, the Lascaux Caves, kivas in the Southwest US, Stupas in India, and other sites and structures. Although all these are holy and sacred places, I mentioned I don’t believe they are the oldest. “Groves of trees and mountain tops,” several students said, mentioning references from the Bible and other sacred texts. This, I think, is almost the case.
The oldest temples – sacred sites where humans connect most closely with their Creator, sites consecrated for the purpose – were dedicated places symbolizing the abode of Deity. Maya reverenced caves, particularly ones with water, Mohamed mentioned Mt. Arafat as the site Adam visited with God after the expulsion from Eden, and the Bible gives several other examples of mountains (Moses, of course, and Elijah come to mind). However, I think the original sacred site was much more encompassing.
In his book Islamic Art and Spirituality, Dr. Nasr speaks to the purpose of sacred structures. The home and the mosque (or church, synagogue, or temple) are sacred ground. Blessed and consecrated for the purpose, the are dwelling places for the Divine – when they are reverenced properly. But this is not because of what they are so much as what they represent. They are dedicated symbols of something even more sacred, and their sacredness comes because of their association with that even more sacred space, the undefiled earth.
The entire planet was created for humankind to use – to learn, to grow, to develop into the creatures we were created to become. Setting aside questions of original sin, our habit of despising that with which we are most familiar has created a wedge between the individual and his or her appreciation of our earthly abode as the original sacred space. The temple, however old it may be and however sacred it is, is still primarily a symbol of the earth; the temple site is filled with holiness because it is an undefiled representation of that with which we have grown most accustomed. Although mounds of dirty diapers are rarely sealed in the walls of our most revered religious structures, the legacy we will leave those who inherit our planet after us will be cubic miles of landfill holding nothing but. The symbol has become more sacred than that which it represents.
The answer doesn’t reside with removing ourselves or all evidence of our existence, the earth after all was created as a home for humans. But if we leave a space cleaner than when we arrived, are wise about our consumption, and reuse whenever possible – those habits, I believe, will lead to the thinking required for developing the answers.
Next time I finish my candy bar and think about tossing the wrapper, I’ll consider how Gobekli Tepe would be if they had hidden their dirty diapers in the walls. I am certainly glad they didn’t.