Sacred Space Unbound


Photo: Orlando Woods

All religious belief implicates space; all religious practice makes geography. In the broader sense, the term ‘sacred’ indicates something ‘different’, ‘set apart’, ‘other’, as well as something to which is ascribed special meaning. Yet, where do the boundaries of the sacred lie? Is sacred space an ontological given, or is it a social construction? Is it a portion of territory, or is it the product of a set of practices? Is it something we walk on, or is it something we perform? Is it permanent or ephemeral? Is it private or public?

Over the past decades, geographers and other scholars from across the humanities and the social sciences have approached sacred space in different ways: as a well-defined space set in opposition to ‘the secular’; as a contested domain continuously articulated and rearticulated through performance; as a repository of powerful symbols and meanings; as a dynamic assemblage of materials, sounds, and human emotions. This virtual theme issue presents a small selection of articles published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space and Environment and Planning A which have developed some interesting approaches to sacred space and which reflect some broader epistemological shifts occurred over the past twenty years. While the concept of the sacred has been often extended to non-religious spaces and rituals, especially in the context of memorialization and national identity making, for the purposes of this issue we will limit our selection to spaces associated to religion.

Until about two decades ago, sacred space was generally conceptualized as a well-defined ‘ontological given’, that is, as a self-bounded space qualitatively different from its surroundings; as an entity territorially fixed around an ‘axis mundi’ and articulated through a trans-cultural geometry of boundaries, pathways and thresholds (Eliade 1959; Wright 1966). The sacred space of a church, of a mosque, of a temple, or of a graveyard, for example, was understood as limited and defined by their walls, which set it apart from the rest of the world—both physically and symbolically. In the 1990s anthropologists influenced by post-structuralism started to challenge this vision and theorize sacred space as a point of convergence (or friction) between competing narratives and social practices enacted by different groups of people. In other words, the sacred space of a shrine was no longer defined by its physical structure per se, but came into being through their users and the (often conflicting) meanings ascribed to it. Scholars were thus called to shift their attention from the ‘poetics’ to the ‘politics’ of religion and the sacred (Eade and Sallnow 1991; Chidester and Linenthal 1995).

As powerful cultural symbols and oft-contested landmarks in the urban landscape, churches, mosques and other ‘formal’ sites of worship provided the new cultural geographers of the 1990s with obvious, if long overlooked, objects for critical analysis. As with monuments and memorials, these sites functioned as lenses through which geographers could interrogate the politics of landscape, identity and memory, especially in contexts of diaspora and territorial conflict.

Sacred spaces and religion start to feature on the pages of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space precisely, and only, at this time. A subfield long marginalized by mainstream human geography, the geography of religion traditionally focused on distribution and diffusion patterns at global and regional scales (Sopher 1967). In other words, it was considered part of a Sauerian tradition condemned by new cultural geographers for its lack of critical insight and for being “socially irrelevant” (Mitchell 2000). Conversely, religious experience and sacred space were largely deemed the pertain of humanistic geographers and phenomenologists criticized by new cultural geographers for similar reasons (see Cosgrove 1985).

Among the first geographers who brought the geography of religion in line with the new cultural geography of the 1990s, and put the sacred back on their map, was Lily Kong. Kong is also the author of the first article featuring religion in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, which we reproduce in this virtual theme issue (Kong 1993). In investigating religious state policies’ constrains on the construction of religious buildings in Singapore, Kong moved from a descriptive to a critical approach to religion and its spatial manifestations. Landscape was not a simple collection of material forms, but of cultural symbols, amidst which religious buildings held special power. Giving voice to different religious groups and minorities, Kong aimed at bridging ‘the religious’ and ‘the sociopolitical’—two realms which, she claimed, had been separated by scholars for too a long time.

Kong’s critical approach has continued to inform much of twenty-first-century geographers’ research on sacred space and religion. Christine Chivallon’s (2001) article on religious space as a space for the expression and consolidation of Caribbean identity in the United Kingdom and Nimrod Luz’s (2008) “politics of sacred places” in Palestine are just two out of many examples (see also Dunn 2005). Alongside these two articles, we also re-propose Keith Lilley’s (2004) reflections on the medieval cosmopolis. As with the other contributions focussed on contemporary case studies, Lilley investigates the socio-political and symbolic dimensions of sacred space—in this case the space of the Anglo-Saxon medieval city, with its hierarchies, inclusions and exclusions.

While these articles all focus on spaces of ‘formal’ religious belief and their symbolic power, more recent scholarship has come to recognize religion and spirituality as spatially and temporally unbound, which is, as not necessarily practised only in officially designated spaces (or at allocated times). Instead, as Kong showed, “there are many ways in which everyday spaces can be implicated in religious meaning-making, legitimating, maintaining and enhancing, but also challenging religious life, beliefs, practices and identities” (2010, page 758). Over the past decade or so, the study of sacred space has extended to what the Singaporean geographer termed “the unofficial sacred”.

While usually maintaining their empirical focus on minority groups, recent studies following this line of enquiry have often moved beyond traditional religious denominations, or delved into the realm of everyday practices. Particular attention has been devoted to the production, enactment and contestation of ‘unofficial’ sacred spaces beyond churches, mosques and temples, reaching, for example, into suburban domestic spaces and media spaces (see, for example, Dwyer, Gilbert and Shah 2013; Knott 2013; Poon et al. 2012).

To represent this shift from the ‘official’ to the ‘unofficial’, we have selected another trio of articles which we believe is illustrative of the diversity, as well as the new directions opened by this new line of enquiry. Through her journey through Muslim schools in Singapore, Kong (2005) challenges binaries such social/spatial, sacred/secular, private/public (see also Jones 2014). Sacred space is extended from the mosque to the ‘unofficial’ spaces of the school and of the body of its attendants as sites for negotiation and resistance to state strategies for nation- and consensus-building. Daniel Abramson (2011) similarly shows how the resurgence of unofficial folk-religious spaces in post-Mao China has been acting as an important counter-hegemonic force in a country in which pluralism has a weak political expression (see also Yuan et al. 2014). Orlando Woods (2013) takes the ‘unofficial’ even further. In studying church-houses in Sri Lanka, he conceptualizes sacred space less as a symbolic realm, and more as a temporary space articulated through practices, mobilities, and contingent ‘sacred networks’; as an assemblage that is continuously made and dissolved [1].

A further line of enquiry that has emerged over the past decade or so focuses on more-than-representational aspects of sacred space. These include the spiritual, the emotional, and the therapeutic. Challenging both the structuralist narratives and the sociological determinisms of traditional approaches, this research is concerned with the role of personal experience in the production and perpetuation of sacred spaces. Focus is thus recast from the contested politics of religion to the intimate poetics of spirituality. Sacred space is conceptualized not so much as an empty vessel filled with conflicting narratives and meanings, as a complex texture of materials and affects holding a transformative potential on their users.

Some of these ideas find distant echoes in Wilbert Gesler’s early work on the “therapeutic landscape” [2]. Here we re-propose one of his early articles, which appeared in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (Gesler 1993), alongside two pieces featuring in Environmental Planning A respectively ten and almost twenty years after its publication (Holloway 2003 and Finlayson 2012).  Placed side by side, these three articles reveal interesting conceptual and methodological shifts in the study of the poetics of sacred space.

Gesler intended the “therapeutic landscape” in a holistic sense, as encompassing natural and built environments, social conditions and human experience. These, he argued, combined to produce an atmosphere which was conducive to healing. While the concept of “therapeutic landscape” can be, and has been, applied to various non-religious contexts, Gesler here chose to focus his analysis on the ancient temple of Aesculapius in Epidaurus (Greece). The sacred ground of the temple was experienced by its users as a clearly demarcated entity, that is, as ‘sacred space’ in the ontological Eliadean sense. Yet, Gesler argued, its therapeutic qualities appeared closely interrelated with the surrounding natural landscape, its aesthetics and its complex symbologies.

While maintaining their focus on transformative experience, Julian Holloway and Caitlin Finlayson’s articles are more concerned with emotion, performance, and embodiment than with social meanings and symbolisms. Likewise, they both expand the boundaries of sacred space to ‘unofficial’ domains. As opposed to traditional structuralist approaches, Holloway, for example, challenges the association between the everyday and the profane, by investigating “practices that seek to (re)enchant the routine spaces and times [of modernity] in and through which we make sense of our lives” (2003, page 1961). Sacred space is understood first of all as an affective space constructed and experienced through embodied performance.

Building on Holloway’s work, Finlayson (2012) considers the emotional experiences of being in two very different sites of worship: a United Methodist Church and a branch of the Taoist Tai Chi Society located in a former residential home in Florida surrounded by natural landscaping. Finlayson extends her analysis from embodied performance to the specificities of the sites and their immediate surroundings. Sacred space is explored via the materialities through which experiences are shaped and the emotional responses they engender. Thus understood, sacred space calls to mind Alexej Lidov’s concept of ‘hierotopy’. The Russian art historian coined this neologism to capture the combination of material texture, ritual performance, and topographic specificity, as opposed to the abstract, geometrical dimension conveyed by the word ‘space’ (Lidov 2006).

Overall, not only does this brief selection of articles suggest an increasing interest in religion and its symbolic, material and social dimensions, but it also shows a progressive shift in the understanding of sacred space. Altogether, the articles suggest a move from sacred space as a secure ontological given towards a plethora of approaches and research foci that hi-light its contested, emotional, relational, and fluid dimensions. Far from being the exclusive domain of geographers, the study of sacred space and religion continues to intersect with everyday habits and behaviors, with environmental belief, attitudes, and practice, with social mobility, hybridity and identity, with the relations between private and public space, with geopolitics and territorial imaginations. At a time of increased global mobility and multicultural interaction, these intersections are perhaps as relevant as never before. As well as being of interest in their own right, we hope that the ten articles selected for this virtual theme issue will inspire further discussion and challenge readers to think new ways to approach religion and conceptualize sacred space in a rapidly changing world.

Kong L, 1993, “Ideological hegemony and the political symbolism of religious buildings in SingaporeEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space 11(1) 23 – 45

Gesler W M, 1993, “Therapeutic landscapes: theory and the case study of Epidauros, GreeceEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space 11(2) 171 – 189

Chivallon C, 2001, “Religion as space for the expression of Caribbean identity in the United KingdomEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space 19(4) 461 – 483

Holloway J, 2003, “Make-believe: spiritual practice, embodiment, and sacred spaceEnvironment and Planning A 35(11) 1961 – 1974

Lilley K D, 2004, “Mapping cosmopolis: moral topographies of the medieval cityEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space 22(5) 681 – 698

Kong L, 2005, “Religious schools: for spirit, (f)or nationEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space 23(4) 615 – 631

Luz N, 2008, “The politics of sacred places: Palestinian identity, collective memory, and resistance in the Hassan Bek mosque conflictEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space 26(6) 1036 – 1052

Abramson D B, 2011, “Places for the gods: urban planning as orthopraxy and heteropraxy in ChinaEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space 29(1) 67 – 88

Finlayson C, 2012, “Spaces of faith: incorporating emotion and spirituality in geographic studiesEnvironment and Planning A 44(7) 1763 – 1778

Woods O, 2013, “Converting houses into churches: the mobility, fission, and sacred networks of evangelical house churches in Sri LankaEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space 31(6) 1062 – 1075

Veronica della Dora, May 2015


Chidester D and E Linenthal, 1995, American Sacred Space (Indiana University Press, Bloomington)

Conradson D, 2005, “Landscape, care and the relational self: therapeutic encounters in rural England” Health and Place 11 337-48

Cosgrove D, 1985, “Prospect, perspective and the evolution of the landscape idea” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 10 45‐62

Dunn M, 2005, “Repetitive and troubling discourses of nationalism in the local politics of mosque development in Sydney, Australia” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23 29-50

Dwyer C, D Gilbert and B Shah, 2013, “Faith and suburbia: secularisation, modernity and the changing geographies of religion in London’s suburbs” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38 403-19

Eade J and M Sallnow Eds, 1991, Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage (University of Illinois Press, Urbana)

Eliade M, 1959, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Harcourt, Brace & World, New York)

Harris A, 2013, “Lourdes and holistic spirituality: contemporary Catholicism, the therapeutic, and religious thermalism” Culture and Religion 14 23-43

Jones R D, 2014, “University challenges: negotiating secularism and religiosity in higher education institutions” Environment and Planning A 46 1983 – 1999

Kaeppel L and V Pothou Eds, 2015, Human Development in Sacred Landscapes: Between Ritual, Tradition, Creativity, and Emotionality (Goettingen, V&R Unipress)

Knott K, 2013, “Religion, space and contemporary media”, in Religion Across Media: From Early Antiquity to Late Modernity Ed. K Lundby (Peter Lang, New York) pp 105-120

Kong L, 2010, “Global shifts, theoretical shifts: changing geographies of religion” Progress in Human Geography 34 755-76

Lidov A, 2006, “Hierotopy: the creation of sacred spaces as a form of creativity and subject of cultural history”, in, Hierotopy: Creation of Sacred Spaces in Byzantium and Medieval Russia Ed. A Lidov (Centr Vostočnochristianskoj Kul’tury, Moscow) pp 32-58

Mitchell D, 2000, Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction (Blackwell Pub., Malden, MA)

Poon J P H, Huang S, Cheong P H, 2012, “Media, religion and the marketplace in the information economy: evidence from Singapore” Environment and Planning A 44 1969 – 1985

Robinson B, 2013, “On the rocks: Greek mountains and sacred conversations”, in Heaven on Earth: Temples, Ritual, and Cosmic Symbolism in the Ancient World D Ragavan (Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Chicago) pp 175-200

Sopher D, 1967, Geography of Religions (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ)

Wright J, 1966, Human Nature in Geography (Harper and Row, New York)

Yuan Z, Qian J, Zhu H, 2014, “Between God and Caesar? Christianity, ethnic identity, and resistant politics in Shimenkan, China” Environment and Planning A 46 1620 – 1637


[1] A photographic companion supplementing the article can be found here.

[2] Gesler’s conceptualization of “therapeutic landscape” influenced a number of recent studies by geographers and pilgrimage scholars, who have nevertheless re-focussed their attention on the relational dimensions of the self-landscape encounter through the presence of other individuals (Harris 2013; Conradson 2005). At the same time, approaches to sacred sites that engage with their symbolic dimension and integration in the landscape have marked much of the recent work by archaeologists and scholars of the classical world (Robinson 2013; Kaeppel and Photou 2015).

One thought on “Sacred Space Unbound

  1. Very interesting. I work with sacred spaces in Argentina from cultural geography..

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