Sacred Cityscapes: Religion, Identity and Conflict in a Global City

Academic year2019-2020                                                                     
Period1 and 2
Number of meetings        15 (including excursions)
Dates of all meetings5, 12, 18 (afternoon), 19, 26 September, 3, 10, 17, 31 October, 7, 14, 21, 28 November, 5, 12 December 2019
LocationVrije Universiteit, De Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV Amsterdam
RoomBV0H54 (BelleVU building, number 1091 at this map)
Lecturers Faculty of Social Sciences
  • Dr Younes Saramifar, coordinator, 
  • Dr Pooyan Tamimi Araba
  • Dr Thijl Sunier
  • Dr Peter Versteeg
  • Dr Miranda van Holland
  • Dr Muhammad Amer
  • Dr Victor van Bijlert
  • Dr Irene Stengs
Lecturers Faculty of Religion and Theology
  • Dr Katya Tolstoj, coordinator,
  • Dr Victor van Bijlert
  • Prof dr Eddy van der Borght
  • Dr Jan Jorrit Hasselaar
  • Prof dr August den Hollander
  • Prof dr Mirjam van Veen
Time Table Sacred Cityscapes 2019-2020
  Time Schedule Sacred Cityscapes 2019

Course Description

Chasing the ‘divine’, seeking the ‘spiritual sublime’ and indulgence in the ‘holy’ have been recurring struggles of humanity across the ages. The caves of Lascaux in southern France from the Upper Paleolithic roughly 17,000 years ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame, the cinder block Pentecostal churches on the coast of Ghana, the shrines of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq are all exemplars of how the divine was expressed through space and materiality. These spaces and material expressions are tokens of memory which generate a religious  sense of belonging for the faithful and believers. For outsiders, however, these sacred spaces are architectural marvels, cultural objects or spatial boundaries. The sacred spaces are seen by outsiders somewhere apart from the world based on their impressive and outstanding designs or the sacred spaces are dismissed as religious propaganda. Therefore, during this course we encourage the students to see sacred spaces by asking how religion is lived through these spaces. These spaces are modes of architectural and material expressions which mediate human actions and regulate religious behaviour within themselves. The sacred spaces acquire an autonomy and socio-political character that determine how people would experience them and what meanings should be inferred from them. Sacred space becomes a conduit, a medium for interactions either between human and divine or people who experience the space regardless of its sacred associations. However, these interactions and encounters are often contentious, challenging, and even cause conflicts.

Attainment targets/learning outcomes

Students learn

  • Critically engage with links between religion, spirituality, and place.
  • To examine religious practices cross-culturally, and in historical perspective.
  • How frictions and contentions are expressed and embodied in various religious setting in the urban environments.
  • The connection among the ritualized bodies, architectural designs, and religious experiences.
  • To think spatially.

Working format
The course consists of the following elements: 

  • Excursions around the selected themes (3 excursions). 
  • Interactive lectures
  • Class Participation
  • Group project
  • Individual study of literature

Individual Essay
It is your final assignment for the course and you can choose the topic and question according your own personal interest. However, the topic should remain with the main four themes of the course and we strongly advise to remain within the theoretical framework of suggested literature. Your individual essay should entail reflections on excursions, guest lectures and larger socio-political issues that explain the configurations of sacred cityscapes.  We advise you to keep in mind these point in order to deliver a more astute final paper. The exact format of the individual essay will be discussed in class.

Observe and think about: 

  • What is the underlying Structure of the Sacred Space? If it’s a building, how is it held up? Study and observe the structure, first concentrate on the exterior of the space and then on the interior. Sometimes the two are in opposition to one another and not the same! 
  • What is the Context? How does the space fit within the environment in which it is located? Is it in a dense urban environment, sharing its space with many other buildings? Or is it freestanding on its own block? Consider whether it is on the corner, or bordered by a public square or plaza. 
  • What is the Orientation? What direction is the space facing? Is there a direction defining the placement of the altar, for example in a church? Is the space aligned with the underlying organization of the city or neighborhood where it is located? If so, does its orientation deviate from the regular grid, or layout of the surrounding streets? 
  • How does the Façade appear? What kind of façade or face does the space present to the street? Does it look welcoming or foreboding? Inviting or off-limits? Is it highly ornamented on the outside, or simple and streamlined? Does it stand out from its surroundings, or blend in? 
  • What is the Materiality? What kinds of materials were used to construct this space? Are they local, from the surrounding area? Or were they brought here from far away? Is there fine craftsmanship apparent in the materials that were used? Or is there a sense of utilitarianism, which is simple and functional? 
  • What was the original Purpose of this space? Has it always been a sacred space? Or has it been repurposed by adaptive reuse? Was it once another kind of building or space and if so, how can you tell? 
  • What is the source of Light within the space? How does the light enter the space? Are there areas of light and dark? Can you see the outside from within? Do you feel connected with the sky? Or is this a grounding, earth-bound space? 

Group Presentation
The students will form groups according their common interests and they choose the topic for the group presentations. The students should choose their topics according to the four themes addressed in the course.

  • Form your group by the end of the first or second session (in the first week).
  • Discuss the chosen theme for your project.
  • Define a research statement that you will address.
  • Brainstorm: share your ideas and list everything that might be interesting for dealing with the problem.
  • Analyse: discuss and connect the ideas, suggestions and finally identify the missing piece of the puzzle and knowledge gap, then tell us how will you contribute to it.
  • Study and do the research (fieldwork): every team member should contribute to finding the answers to the research questions. Everyone should pitch in by identifying appropriate sources (literature, data, people), gathering the material needed and conducting the observations and fieldworks.
  • Output: The group brings together all the material and reports/presents in a coherent way to the other students and lecturers (PowerPoint, hand-out, Prezi are allowed, but posters are not).

Class Participation
Your class participation is 20% of the final grade. The class participation is not only your attendance and in-class interactions but also your contributions to the topics that will be put forward in the online platform (either Facebook group or the class on Canvas). Teachers will place pictures, video clips and other relevant topics online. The students are expected to react to it accordingly. The students are encouraged to add other materials, provoke and collaborate with their fellow classmates online. These interactions determine your 20% of your final grade.

You are allowed only two absences. The teachers should be informed formally via email.