Tom Mayes, a 2013 Rome Prize winner in Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome is back in Washington, D.C., these days. But he hasn't stopped thinking and writing about why old places matter. His series of essays about his experiences and research continues here.
Throughout the world, people revere old places as sacred.
On my first visit to the Catholic pilgrimage site Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico, like many people of many faiths (or no faith at all), I was stunned into reverent silence by the palpable sense of sacredness at that old place. I don’t know if it was the altitude, the impact of coming into the dim, dusty chapel from the brilliantly sunlit skies of New Mexico, the lingering smell of incense and burning candles, the rhythmic voices of the pilgrims in prayer, the old paintings of Santos, or the sight of aluminum crutches lining the walls of the side chapel, left behind by those who believed themselves healed, but something touched me. I felt that I had come in contact with the sacred, even though I’m from a different faith.
People all over the world find old places like the Santuario moving, and actively seek to experience the feelings I had at that remarkable place. From the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, the Ka’aba at Mecca, St. Peter’s Basilica, Santiago de Compostela, to the Shrine at Ise in Japan, Varanasi in India, and Mount Taylor in New Mexico, sacred places have been revered for thousands of years by many different cultures. The age-old experience of visiting a sacred place remains so meaningful today that millions of people continue the tradition of pilgrimage, travelling to sacred places that have also become tourist destinations.1
Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, explained to me that the word sacred is often interpreted as meaning set apart, separate, different, like a sanctuary. As Jaeger says, “these are places that are viewed as different, as set apart by the community—and there is something awesome in these places, something that lifts you up and takes you out of your normal life.” Martin Gray, a photographer for National Geographic and author of Sacred Earth, listed different factors that he thinks cause people to perceive sacredness in places—visual beauty, geophysical characteristics, building materials, light and color, sound and music, aromatic substances, the awareness of centuries of ceremonial activity, collective belief, the power of ceremonial objects or relics, and others. Gray writes, “I believe that the nature of a person's experience of a sacred site may be influenced by them having what Devereux [author of a book titled Sacred Geography] calls a "multi-mode" approach to the sites, that is, by experiencing the sites from the vantage points of both knowing and feeling, both mind and heart.2 Reading this, I was struck by how similar this explanation seems to be to my own experience at the Santuario de Chimayo—and at many other old places.3... Read More →