Performing the City

Performing the City August 6, 2015

And now, for something (not) completely different.

In recent months, I have been working on Old Testament and early Jewish history. As a total break, I thought, I would read a book on Aztec history and mythology, David Carrasco’s City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization (1999). It’s a fine book, but for my purposes, it was a fool’s errand. Wherever I go, I keep finding new approaches to that ancient Jewish world.

Carrasco studies the role of mass human sacrifice in that Mexican culture, but he also focuses particularly on the role of the city – what the city is, and how it was defined by ritual and cosmology. The Aztecs saw their capital of Tenochtitlan as the axis mundi, the pole around which the world existed, and the channel uniting sacred and profane worlds. The city epitomized the world, it was the world in little, an idea familiar from the work of Mircea Eliade. Of itself, that is not an unusual concept, and the theme of localizing the universal in a particular place might well be hard wired in our consciousness. Many cultures do it: we think of Varanasi in India, or of Jerusalem itself.

Claude Lévi-Strauss famously quoted a Native American (Pawnee) who eloquently declared that “All sacred things must have their place.” The anthropologist continued, “Being in their place is what makes them sacred. If taken out of their place, even in thought, the entire order of the universe would be destroyed.”

As religions become literate and hierarchical, the great ritual sites become centers of scholarship and writing, where priests and scribes write ever more exalted hymns to the role and function of their mighty temples. We see the escalation:

The city is a microcosm of the universe –

The city is the center of the universe –

The city IS the universe!

And it is that Jerusalem theme that struck me in Carrasco’s work. Not, I hasten to add, because of any wild claims of human sacrifice in Palestine, but because of the ritual and cosmological nature of the city’s identity. Drawing on so many writers and scholars, including Italo Calvino and Clifford Geertz, he explores the idea of the City, and how it takes shape in our minds. For Eliade, of course, Jerusalem was one of the prime examples shaping his axis mundi theory, with Mount Zion as the sacred mountain par excellence.

Central to Carrasco’s theory is the concept of performance, which we can never stress too strongly in studying religion. The city is a performance in itself as well as an arena of performance. “Performance spaces and cultural performances did not just re-present city values but also functioned to re-generate and re-make the cities as meaningful landscapes. The ceremonies brought the city to life.” He writes of “the capacity of cities to perform culture, communicate cosmo-magical meanings, and direct processes of social, political and symbolic change and metamorphosis.”

In such a vision, Jerusalem occupied this central role because of the Temple itself, which was the earthly House of God, but also the whole city. The Temple itself was the site of complex performances, available to spectators to varying degrees. The frequent animal sacrifices united worshipers with the heavenly court, and the cosmic realities. Depending on the era, the Temple’s role was echoed and reinforced by that of the royal court, a linkage that was all the stronger during the Hasmonean era when the kings also occupied the role of High Priests. Factional struggles for control of the Temple apparatus inevitably raised sordid worldly rivalries to a cosmic dimension.

So many of the debates we hear in religious writings focus on the role of the Temple, as a setting for divine action on earth, and also of a blueprint for future ages. Even when they rejected the earthly Temple, as did many sectarians, it was because the Temple that did exist fell so badly short of the desired purity and perfection. (To take another book I have been referencing recently in other contexts, check out Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History, by Bill Hamblin and David Seely (Thames and Hudson 2007).

Apocalyptic writings often depict the role of the Temple itself, but also of the city and its geographical setting, often in remarkable and specific detail. In Zechariah 14, for instance, the prophet foretells that

The Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward. … The whole land shall be turned into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem shall remain aloft upon its site from the Gate of Benjamin to the place of the former gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hanan′el to the king’s wine presses.

The Book of Revelation, of course, culminates with a vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the sacred space in which human history would be performed.

You could write a good history of the changing shape and character of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by tracing how ideas of the Temple, and the larger city, have emerged and evolved over time.




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  • RoyMix

    This is what archaeologists have been saying for a very long time, if you had read Wheatley on the Chinese city, or read about Ancient India the same connection would be there. In so many ways the temple in Jerusalem is like every other temple to the city god, the parallels to Sumeria are so obvious they are part of the Old Testament otself.

    This is so universal that in places where we have no textual evidence we just declare certain spots temples. Much of the work involving Stonhenge in the last 40 years, and when something appears to be a temple and yet archaeological evidence suggests that a state level society did not exist we get massive studies on why say Chaco Canyon’s great houses are not citadels or temples.

    There are even strange exercises like that of the MacIntoshs’ at Rice who write about the Niger, where great effort is made to show that this isn’t a universal rule, even when it might just be that they are looking at a post temple society. Just as the Jews started to become one during the first exile and became one after the 2nd destruction of the Temple.

  • philipjenkins

    All good points. But please don’t assume that because I do not refer to things exhaustively that I don’t know them or haven’t read them? I am trying to keep blog entries within reasonable length.

  • Blaine Johnson

    You might find this lecture interesting. Michael Coe compares the Maya and the Angkor civilizations. Around the 43 minute point he talks about the axis mundi & Mount Meru parallels in temple architecture.

  • philipjenkins

    I am a huge fan of Coe!

  • RoyMix

    I didn’t mean to communicate the sort of tone I can see is apparent in my post. I genuinely respect your scholarship and have read several of your books.

    When I was taking a seminar on the cosmology of the Chinese city at Minnesota in the early 1990s I noticed how similar it was to the Mesoamerican models I had learned growing up, and this led me to read about the Mesopotamian origin of the city/temple. When I returned to the faith and began reading the Bible with educated adult eyes, I was constantly struck by this. I guess reading your post my enthusiasm overcame my internal editor, for this I apologize.

  • MesKalamDug

    Mecca is curiously different. There is no question about its serving as The City in the sense you describe here. But it never (so far as reliable history goes) had any
    political power to speak of. Perhaps Stonehenge is another example of the same
    situation. But mostly The City is like Tenochtitlan – in western thought like Rome.
    The City of God.

  • philipjenkins

    Quite alright. It can be so difficult to convey nuance online! As I say, all your points were well taken.