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Sacred Space


SACRED SPACE . A sacred place is first of all a defined place, a space distinguished from other spaces. The rituals that a people either practice at a place or direct toward it mark its sacredness and differentiate it from other defined spaces. To understand the character of such places, Jonathan Z. Smith has suggested the helpful metaphor of sacred space as a "focusing lens." A sacred place focuses attention on the forms, objects, and actions in it and reveals them as bearers of religious meaning. These symbols describe the fundamental constituents of reality as a religious community perceives them, defines a life in accordance with that view, and provides a means of access between the human world and divine realities.

As meaningful space, sacred space encompasses a wide variety of very different kinds of places. It includes places that are constructed for religious purposes, such as temples or temenoi, and places that are religiously interpreted, such as mountains or rivers. It includes spaces that can be entered physically, as the outer geography of a holy land, imaginatively, as the inner geography of the body in Tantric yoga, or visually, as the space of a maala. Sacred space does not even exclude nonsacred space, for the same place may be both sacred and nonsacred in different respects or circumstances. In traditional Maori culture, for example, the latrine marks the boundary between the world of the living and that of the dead. As such, it is the ritual place at which an unwanted spirit can be expelled or the help of the spirits obtained. Therefore, it is sacred. And it is still a latrine. Similarly, a house is a functional space, but in its construction, its design, or the rites within it, it may be endowed with religious meaning. A shrine that is the focus of religious activity on certain occasions may be ignored at other times. In short, a sacred place comes into being when it is interpreted as a sacred place.

This view of sacred space as a lens for meaning implies that places are sacred because they perform a religious function, not because they have peculiar physical or aesthetic qualities. The tradition articulated by Friedrich Schleiermacher and developed by Rudolf Otto links the perception of holiness to religious emotion. Originally or authentically, therefore, sacred places ought to have had the power to evoke an affective response. And many sacred places do precisely that: The sacred mountains of China, the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, and the sources and the estuaries of India's holy rivers have a beauty and a power that are elements of their religious dimension. But such qualities of place are not inevitable. Many sacred places, even places that are central in the religious life of the community, are unimpressive to someone outside the tradition. The form of the place, without a knowledge of what and how it signifies, may not convey any religious sense whatever. ddhipur, for example, is the principal pilgrimage place of the Mhānubhāvs, a Kaite Maharashtrian sect. It is the place where God lived in the incarnate form of Guam Rāül, where he deposited divine power, and where he performed acts that revealed his divine nature. It is the place visited by another divine incarnation, Cakradhar, who founded the Mhānubhāv community. But ddhipur itself is completely unexceptional, and the places where Guam Rāül performed his deeds are indicated only by small stone markers. There is nothing there that gives rise to a sense of awe or mystery, and yet the village is revered and protected by religious restrictions. The place is not aesthetically profound, but it is nonetheless religiously powerful.

Establishment of Sacred Space

Both the distinctiveness of sacred space and its reference to the ultimate context of a culture are often expressed in the conviction that sacred space is not arbitrary. Objectively, and not only subjectively, a sacred place is different from the surrounding area, for it is not a place of wholly human creation or choice. Rather, its significance is grounded in its unique character, a character that no purely human action can confer on it.

In traditional societies, the whole land of a culture is normally sacred, and this sacredness is often communicated in the narratives of its foundation. Sometimes the land is uniquely created. The Kojiki and Nihongi record the traditions of the age of the kami when Japan and its way of life were established. According to these texts, the divine pair, Izanagi and Izanami, looked down upon the waters of the yet unformed earth and dipped a jeweled spear into the ocean. From the brine that dripped from the spear the first island of Japan was formed. The divine couple later gave birth to other deities, among them the sun goddess, Amaterasu, whose descendants rule over Japan. Thus, Japan is different from all other places: It is the first land, and the land whose way of life is established by the gods. Or a land may become sacred because it is given by a god, like the land of Israel. Or again, a land may be established by ritual. According to an early Indian tradition in the Śatapatha Brāhmaa, the land lying to the east of the Sadanira River was unfit for habitation by brahmans. It became fit when the sacrificial fire was carried across the river and established in the land.

Similarly, a sacred structure or place within a holy land possesses somethinga character, a significance, or an objectthat sets it apart. The traditions of the greater Hindu temples and pilgrimage places declare that they are intrinsically, not ascriptively, sacred. The holiest images of the Śaiva tradition are the svayambhūlin̄ga s, images of Śiva that are not human creations but self-manifestations of the god. Similarly, the holiest places of the goddess are the pīha s, the places where the parts of her body fell after her suicide and dismemberment. In other cases, not an object but the very ground itself fixes the worship of a divinity to a particular spot. According to the traditions of the temple at Śrīragam, the shrine originated in heaven. From there it was brought to earth, to the city of Rāma. Rāma then gave it to a pious demon, who wished to take it with him to his home in Sri Lanka. On the way, however, he put it down near a ford on the Kāverī (Cauvery) River, and when he tried to pick it up again he could not move it. The god of the temple then appeared to him and told him that the river had performed austerities to keep the shrine within her bounds and that the god intended to stay there (Shulman, 1980, p. 49). The current location of the temple is therefore where the god, not any demon or human, chose it to be.

The gods may also communicate the special sanctity of a place through signs. Animals often serve as messengers of divine choice. So, for example, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán was founded at the place where an eagle landed on a blooming cactus, and Aeneas followed a pregnant sow to the place where it farrowed and there founded Alba Longa. The search for such signs could develop into a science of divination. Chinese geomancy is just such an attempt to sort out the objective qualities of a place by studying the contours of the land and the balance of waters, winds, and other elements.

In other cases, a location becomes holy because of religiously significant events that have occurred there. From the time of Muammad, Jerusalem has been a holy place for Islam. Although various traditions were attached to the city, it was above all the Prophet's journey there that established its sanctity. One night Muammad was brought to Jerusalem and to the rock on the Temple mount, and from there he ascended through the heavens to the very presence of God. The mosque of the Dome of the Rock and the establishment of Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage both expressed and intensified the sanctity of the city. That sanctity was heightened by the discovery of tokens of Muammad's journey: his footprints on the rock, the imprint made by his saddle, and even the place where the angel Gabriel flattened the rock before the Prophet's ascent. And it was further intensified by bringing other religiously significant events into connection with it. The stories of Abraham and Isaac, of Melchizedek, king of Salem, and of Jacob's ladder were among the other biblical and nonbiblical narratives set there. As this example illustrates, a sacred place can draw a variety of traditions to itself and thereby become even more powerfully sacred.

Places may also be made sacred through the relics of holy beings. A grave may sanctify a place, for the tomb marks not only the separation of the living from the dead but also the point of contact between them. In early Christianity, for example, tombs of martyrs became places of communion with the holiness of the deceased. Later, beginning about the sixth century, the deposition of relics became the center of rites for the consecration of a church. These sanctified the church and, within the church, the sanctuary where they were installed.

Finally, the form of a place may give it meaning and holiness. In different cultures, various kinds of places suggest the presence of deities. As has been seen, the land of Japan is holy because it is created and protected by the kami. Within Japan there are particular places where the kami are manifestly present: Mountains, from Mount Fuji to the hills of local shrines, for example, may be tokens of the presence of the kami. In India, rivers and confluences are sacred, for purifying waters and meeting streams suggest places where gods are present and approachable. In these cases, the shape of the land suggests meanings to which the sacredness of the place draws attention.

At the beginning of this section, it was stated that sacred places are typically not arbitrary. But there are places of religious activity that are meaningful precisely because they are arbitrary. If the tendency to institute sacred places is universal, so also is the tendency to deny the localization of divinity. The Indian devotional tradition, like other religious traditions, is pulled in two directions: one toward divinities located in specific places, the other toward the denial that divinity should be sought in any place other than within. "Why bow and bow in the mosque, and trudge to Mecca to see God? Does Khuda live in the mosque? Is Ram in idols and holy ground?" asks Kabīr (Hess and Singh, 1983, p. 74).

Mosque architecture shows the tension between the sanctification of a place and the denial of any localization of divine presence. The mosque carries values typical of other sacred places. The interior is oriented toward a holy center: The mirāb (prayer niche) directs worship toward the sacred city of Mecca. The space of the mosque is differentiated from other kinds of spaces: Persons must leave their shoes at the entrance. Within the area of the mosque, the holiest area, the sanctuary (aram ), is clearly marked from the courtyard (an ). Some mosques are pilgrimage places because they are burial sites of holy men or women who endow them with spiritual power. The most prominent of these is the mosque at Medina built over the tomb of the Prophet.

At the same time, the architecture can be read quite differently as the meaningful negation of sacred space. The primary function of the mosque is to serve as a space for common prayer. It has significance in Islam because the community gathers and worships there, not because of the character of the place. "All the world is a masjid," a place of prayer, says one tradition (cf. Kuban, 1974, p. 1). In Islamic lands the mosque often does not stand out from secondary buildings or call attention to itself as a holy place. Even the dome, which typically surmounts it and which recalls the arch of heaven, has a generalized meaning of power or place of assembly and does not necessarily designate a sacred place. Neither is that symbolism of the sky pursued within the mosque, nor does it have liturgical significance. While the sanctuary is oriented toward Mecca, the remaining parts of the building do not have any inherent directional or axial structure. Even the mirāb, which might be a place of particular holiness, is kept empty, emphasizing that the deity worshiped is not to be located there or anywhere. All this accords with the Islamic view that while God is the creator of the world, he is above it, not within it. The mosque is sacred space according to the definition of sacred space as a place of ritual and a place of meaning. But it is expressive, meaningful space because it denies the typical values of sacred places.

Similar negations of localization occur in Protestant architecture, particularly in the Protestant "plain style." During the Reformation in Holland, for example, larger Gothic churches were not destroyed but were re-created into places of community prayer and preaching. Sculptural ornament was removed, clear glass was substituted for stained glass, the high altar was removed, and the chancel was filled with seats. In short, all the visible signs of the sacredness of a specific location were eliminated. The architecture made positive statements as well, but statements that again located sanctity elsewhere than in place. A high pulpit was centrally situated and became a focal point, but the pulpit was not itself a place of divine power or presence. Rather it pointed to the holiness of the word of God, which was read and preached there. Again, these churches are sacred places by being visible denials that the holiness of divinity is mediated through the symbolism of space.

Functions of Sacred Space

The symbols that give a place meaning typically refer to the religious context in which a people lives. This section examines the ways in which sacred space acts to fix this context and to create interaction between the divine and human worlds. Three roles of sacred space are especially significant, for they are widely attested in religious systems and fundamental to their purposes. First, sacred space is a means of communication with the gods and about the gods. Second, it is a place of divine power. And third, it serves as a visible icon of the world and thereby imparts a form to it and an organization to its inhabitants.

Places of communication

First, sacred spaces are places of communication with divinity, places where people go to meet the gods. This function is often indicated by symbols that represent a link between the world of humans and transcendent realms. Such symbols might be vertical objects that reach from earth toward heaven, such as mountains, trees, ropes, pillars, and poles. North Indian temples, for example, connect the realm of heaven, symbolized by the amtakalaśa ("jar of the elixir of deathlessness") atop the temple, with the plane of earth. The spires of these temples are also architectural recapitulations of mountains, which are the dwelling places of the gods. The Kailāsa temple, for example, bears not only the name of the mountain on which Śiva dwells, but even its profile. But symbols that express the intersection of realms can be of other forms as well. In Byzantine churches, to walk from the entrance toward the altar is to move from the world of humans toward that of divinity. The doorway between these realms is the iconostasis, the screen between the chancel and sanctuary. As they pass through the doors of the iconostasis, priests become angels moving between realms. The icons themselves provide visual access to heaven. In general, "the iconostasis is not a 'symbol' or an 'object of devotion'; it is the gate through which this world is bound to the other" (Galavaris, 1981, p. 7).

Another way of joining gods and humans is through symbols of the gods. A sacred place may include images of the gods or other tokens that make their presence manifest. A Hindu temple is a place of meeting because it contains a form in which the god has graciously consented to dwell. The Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem was the throne of Yahveh, a visible sign of his presence or of the presence of his name. Shintō shrines are dwelling places for the kami, whose material form is a sacred object called a "divine body" or "august-spirit substitute." It is housed within the innermost chamber of the shrine, kept from sight by doors or a bamboo curtain, but its presence invests the shrine with the presence of divinity. Similarly, a Japanese home becomes a sacred place when it has a kamidana, which enshrines symbols of the kami, and a butsudan, an altar that holds both Buddha images and ancestor tablets.

Even without explicit symbols of communication or tokens of the gods, a place may be understood as a point of contact between gods and humans. Islam strongly resists localization or visible symbols of divinity. Although the Kaʿbah is the center toward which worship is directed, it does not house an image of God, nor is it the dwelling place of God. Nonetheless, Islamic interpretation occasionally characterizes it as a place of particular access to divinity. A medieval tradition describes the Black Stone embedded in the Kaʿbah as God's right hand, "which he extends to his servants (who kiss it), as a man shakes hands with his neighbors," and a 1971 newspaper article urges: "When you touch the black stone and kiss ityou place your love and your yearnings in it and turn it into a mailbox from which your love is delivered to the creator of this world whom eyes cannot see" (Lazarus-Yafeh, 1981, pp. 120, 123). As these cases suggest, the deity is not exactly present, yet the Kaʿbah does become the point of communication between God and humanity.

As a place of communication with divinity, a sacred space is typically a place of purity because purity enables people to come in contact with the gods. There, the imperfections and deficiencies, the "messiness" of normal life, are reduced. The sacred place reveals the ideal order of things, which is associated with the perfect realm of divinity, with life and vitality among humans, or with the values to which people should aspire. The Shintō shrine is a place of purity, for it is a place of the kami and it is a place that excludes pollution, for pollution is decay and death. The shrine's purity is expressed in the rites of approach to it. Traditionally, an open pavilion with a stone basin provides water for rinsing the hands and mouth, and three streams spanned by bridges lead to a shrine, so that worshipers purify themselves as they cross these streams. Its purity also is expressed in clarity of definition. Torii (Shintō gateways), fences, enclosed spaces, and bridges mark distinct areas and signal the approach to the deity. Other sacred places mark the movement from a zone of impurity to one of purity by defining an intermediate space for rites of purification. Some churches, synagogues, and mosques have such an area at the entrance to the principal space of the sacred precincts.

A sacred place can be a place of communication not only with divinity but also about divinity. For example, a central paradox of religion is that if divinity is everywhere, then it must be somewhere. Even if the whole world is "full of God's glory," that glory must be manifest in some place. This paradox is reflected in the Temple at Jerusalem, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, symbolizing the throne of Yahveh, but which enshrined no image of Yahveh. Similarly, in Deuteronomic theology, Yahveh has made his name but not his person to be present at the Temple. In their different ways, therefore, both the Temple and the text sought to mediate the paradox of the simultaneous localization and universality of Yahveh. Larger Hindu temples, on the other hand, normally have a variety of images of deities. Typically, worshipers will see other gods and goddesses or other forms of the central divinity of the shrine, or they will worship at shrines to other divinities in preparation for their approach to the central deity. A Hindu temple thus reflects Indian views of a divine hierarchy, which culminates in a particular divine being. Or, again, in Renaissance churches architectural balance and harmony reflect divine beauty and perfection. In all these instances, the form of the place expresses the nature of the deity worshiped there.

Places of divine power

Because it is a place of communication with divine beings, the sacred place is also a locus for divine power, which can transform human life. The nature of this transformation varies according to the religious tradition and reputation of the sacred space. According to a Hindu tradition, pilgrimage places provide bhukti ("benefit") and mukti ("salvation"). Typically, one benefit is healing. In medieval Christianity, for example, many pilgrimages were inspired by a desire to witness or to experience miraculous cures. Pilgrimage was so closely associated with healing, in fact, that a young man of Warbleton refused to go to Canterbury, "for I am neither dumb nor lame and my health is perfectly sound." Another person argued, "I am in excellent health. What need have I of St. Thomas?" (Sumption, 1972, p. 78). Lourdes remains a place of pilgrimage for millions seeking miraculous cures, though the Catholic church has certified few healings as true miracles. A place may even specialize in its cures. As the location of a manifestation of the god Śiva, the mountain Arunācala heals especially lung disease and barrenness, and two ūfī shrines in the Punjab help leprosy and leukoderma (Bharati, 1963). The power of divinity encountered at sacred places may also secure more general goals of physical and material well-being. Success in business or in school, the birth of children, or simply the blessing of the deity may all be reasons to visit a sacred place.

Salvation can also be attained at sacred places. According to various Hindu traditions, to die at Banaras, to be cremated there, or to disperse the ashes of the dead in the Ganges at Banaras assures salvation for the deceased. Often salvation is directly related to the purity of a sacred place and its ability to purify those within it. An English reformer, Hugh Latimer, lamented that the sight of the blood of Christ at Hailes was convincing pilgrims that "they be in clean life and in state of salvation without spot of sin" (Sumption, 1972, p. 289). The sacred place as an access to divinity thus also becomes a way to the perfection of human life.

Places as icons of the world

Sacred space is often a visual metaphor for a religious world. The connection between the ordering of space and the ordering of human life is a natural one. A life without purpose or meaning is often expressed in spatial metaphors: It is to be "lost," "disoriented," and "without direction." Because they are defined spaces, sacred places are natural maps that provide direction to life and a shape to the world. They order spaceoften geographic space, always existential spaceand by ordering space, they order all that exists within it. The Lakota sweat lodge provides a good example of the ordering of space in the image of a sacred place. The outer perimeter of the lodge is a circle. Its frame is created by bending twelve to sixteen young willows from one quadrant of the circle across to the opposite quadrant. According to Black Elk, "the willows are set up in such a way that they mark the four quarters of the universe; thus the whole lodge is the universe in an image, and the two-legged, four-legged, and winged peoples, and all the things of the world are contained in it." A round hole, which will hold heated rocks for making steam, is dug in the center of the lodge. This center "is the center of the universe, in which dwells Wakantanka [the Great Spirit], with his power which is the fire" (Brown, 1971, p. 32). The center belongs to Wakantanka, for he is the summation of all divine powers. The sweat lodge, therefore, encompasses physical space and draws the other realities of the Lakota world into its form. Its center becomes an ultimate point of reference in which space, all beings, and all powers finally converge.

Another spatial metaphor closely connected with sacred places is orientation. The sacred place focuses attention on a symbolically significant region by being itself turned, or turning those within it, toward that region. Sacred places show a variety of orientations and values of direction. First Coptic and Eastern churches, and later Western churches, were oriented toward the rising sun, which was the symbol of the resurrected Christ. Hindu temples face various directions for various reasons. For example, the temple of Taraknatha at Tarakeswar faces north. The head of the monastic community at the temple has explained that north is particularly auspicious, first, because it is the opposite of south, the direction of the world of the dead; second, because it is the direction of Mount Kailash, the home of Śiva; and third, because by beginning in the north, circumambulation of the inner shrine first proceeds east, the direction of the sun and of the light of knowledge (Morinis, 1984, p. 291). The abbot's explanations show the restless logic of sacred space, which finds significance in its every facet. In other traditions, the cardinal directions are not the basis for orientation: Synagogues traditionally are oriented toward Jerusalem, and mosques toward Mecca. These places are similar not because they express similar systems of orientation but because they all make direction meaningful.

Sacred places also create actual and functional divisions of geographic space, divisions that are at the same time metaphors for different ways of life. In ordering the world, they may be not only centers on which the world converges but they may also mark boundaries between realms. These may include both boundaries between visible and invisible realities and geographic boundaries. The Maori latrine mentioned above formed the border between the world of humans and that of the dead, which was associated with excrement. But the world of the dead was also the world of the gods. A ritual of biting the latrine beam opened up communication across this boundary. Those who wished to expel an unfriendly spirit bit the beam to send the spirit back to its realm. Those who wished to obtain the help of the gods bit it in order to establish contact with the gods. The border formed by the latrine was thus open in both directions.

Boundaries created by sacred spaces can also define the limits of the visible world or create distinctive spaces within it. In a northern Thai tradition, for example, a series of twelve pilgrimage shrines created a system of nested spaces. Beginning from the innermost and smallest area, this system encompassed successively larger concentric areas and defined the successively broader communities to which the people at the center belonged. These communities were seen from the perspective of the Ping River valley, in which four of the twelve shrines were located. These four shrines and four other shrines associated with the major northern Thai principalities outside the Ping River valley defined the second community, that of the Lanna Thai people. The third community included all adherents of northern Thai and Lao Buddhism, which were perceived as closely related. This community was defined through the addition of a shrine in northeastern Thailand sacred to the Lao peoples of Thailand and Laos. Fourth, the addition of the Shwe Dagon shrine in Rangoon, Burma, identified Thai Buddhism with that of the peoples of lower Burma, to whom the Shwe Dagon shrine was especially sacred. Fifth, the shrine at Bodh Gayā, where the Buddha gained enlightenment, joined Northern Thai and Burmese Buddhism to the community of all Buddhists. The last shrine was in the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods. This location is still within the sphere of the worlds governed by karman, and thus it defines the community of all sentient beings in heaven and earth who are subject to death and rebirth. In this way, the sacred shrines both distinguished and integrated the various spaces and beings of the world to which the people of the Ping River valley were related.

Similarly, in South Asia the traditional pattern of city planning created a series of concentric spaces around a central temple in the urban heart of a region. This pattern occurs, for example, in Kathmandu. The city is surrounded by twenty-four shrines of the Mātkās, the eight mother goddesses. A ritual of sequential worship at these shrines arranges them into three sets of eight, which form three concentric circles around Kathmandu. The widest circle encompasses the area traditionally under the kings of Kathmandu. The second encloses the valley of Kathmandu, which includes surrounding villages and areas familiar to the urban population. The third defines the city itself. The central part of the city was laid out in twelve rectangular wards centered on the temple to Taleju, a goddess closely connected with the Malla kings. The geometric clarity of the city distinguished it from the surrounding areas and marked it as the most sacred area in which the realization of divine order was most perfectly articulated. In this way, the shrines define different levels of sanctity extending from the sacred center of the city to the entire kingdom.

Encoding of Sacred Space

The functions of sacred space are, in their different ways, aspects of its essential function: to identify the fundamental symbols that create the patterns of life in a culture. This section will sketch some of the symbolic systems that make sacred space meaningful. These systems are superimposed on the structure of a place and thereby joined to one another and to the manifest form of that place. A space can encompass, among many other things, the human body, the cosmos, the stages in the creation of the cosmos, the divisions of time, the sacred narratives of a tradition, and the various spheres of human life. The more central a place is in the religious life of a culture, the more numerous the systems to which it refers.


The human body is a primary systemif not the primary systemthrough which people order and interpret the world. It is itself a space, sometimes even a sacred spaceas in forms of Tantric yoga, in which the body becomes the field for the transformations effected by yoga. It also can be a correlate of external spaces, to which it imparts a shape and character. In many instances that correlation between body and place is explicit. The horizontal plan of Gothic churches represented not only Christ on the cross but the human form more generally. In the symbolism of the Byzantine church, the nave represented the human body, the chancel the soul, and the altar the spirit. In South Asian culture areas, body symbolism of sacred places is pervasive. Hindu temples, for example, are explicitly recapitulations of the body. The symbolic blueprint of a temple is the Vāstupurua Maala, a diagram drawn on its future site. This diagram incorporates the directions, the lunar mansions, the planets, the gods, and the human body and symbolically transmits their forms to the temple rising above it. Indian architectural manuals explicitly liken the temple to the body: The door is the mouth; the dome above the spire is the head. Just as the human skull has a suture, from which the soul at death departs to heaven, so also the dome is pierced with a finial; and the inner sanctum of the temple is the place of the soul within the human body. "The temple," summarizes the Śilparatna, "should be worshiped as the cosmic man" (cf. Kramrisch 1946, vol. 2, p. 359).

A variety of meanings is invested in such correspondence of place and body. Both the Gothic church and the Hindu temple are images of the cosmos as well as the body, and thereby both portray the sympathy and parallelism between microcosm and macrocosm. The Gothic church signifies the body of Christ, who is the whole Christian church, who is the incarnate deity, and upon whom the world and history center. The correspondence of the church and the body of Christ thus gives visible expression to the centrality of Christ in the world and his presence in the life of the community. Because the Hindu temple represents a human body, the journey into the temple is also a journey within oneself. Contact with the image of divinity in the heart of the temple is the symbolic replication of the meeting of divinity within the center of one's being. Thus, while the shape of the body generally imparts meaning to space, the specific meaning is developed in the context of individual religious traditions.


Sacred space often imparts form to the world by taking the form of the world. According to Mircea Eliade's paradigm of sacred space, the major vertical divisions of the world intersect at the sacred place and are represented in it. These divisions are frequently the upperworld, the earth, and the underworld. David D. Shulman has found this pattern in the temples of Tamil Nadu, which contain not only symbols that rise from earth upward but also symbols of a bilādvara, a doorway to the underworld. Other structures express more unique cosmological conceptions. At Wat Haripuñjaya in Thailand, for example, the ceitya, which is the central structure of the sacred complex, vertically encompasses the three fundamental realms of the Buddhist world: the sensuous, the formed, and the formless. The ceitya not only represents these different spheres but also the possibility of ascent to full enlightenment.

Sacred places may represent not only the vertical realms of the world but one or another of its layers. As noted, the sacred place is often the place where humans enter the realm of the gods or, conversely, the place where the gods are among humans. In either case, it becomes the place of the presence of divinity and therefore an image of the realm of divinity. Through its use of simple geometric forms, proportionality, and light, for example, the Gothic cathedral was imagined as the image of the heavenly city. The holy cities of Jerusalem and Banaras have heavenly prototypes, according to Christian and Hindu traditions, and hence they are the forms of heaven.

Heaven may be not only the realm of the gods but also the exemplar of divine order and regular progression. The sacred place may be a heaven on earth, which transposes the eternal and sanctified order of heaven onto the plane of earth. At the founding of cities within the Roman world, for instance, the augur drew a circle quartered by lines running east-west and north-south. This diagram replicated the heavenly order and thereby established it on earth. Through ritual formulas, the diagram was then projected onto the whole tract of land to be encompassed by the city, so that the periphery of the city reproduced the boundary of the universe. The east-west line represented the course of the sun; the north-south line, the axis of the sky. The augur and the city thus stood at the crossing point of these two lines and hence immovably and harmoniously at the center of the universe.


Sacred space may also reproduce the successive steps through which the world came into being. Again, according to Eliade's paradigm, because the sacred place is the center around which the world is ordered and the point of intersection with the realm of the divine, it is also the point of origin. Creation began there and from there it extended. That symbolism is apparent in the architecture of the Hindu temple. In the innermost shrine of the temple is the dark center from which emerge the forms of the world, portrayed on the walls or gateways of larger temples. The naturalness of this symbolism can be illustrated by its secondary attachment to places whose primary meaning lies elsewhere. According to Midrash Tanumaʾ, Qedoshim 10, for example, Jerusalem and the Temple are holy because the Holy Land is the center of space and the Temple is the center of the Holy Land: "Just as the navel is found at the center of a human being, so the Land of Israel is found at the center of the world and it is the foundation of the world. Jerusalem is at the center of the Land of Israel. The Temple is at the center of Jerusalem. The Holy of Holies is at the center of the Temple. The ark is at the center of the Holy of Holies, and the Foundation Stone is in front of the ark, which spot is the foundation of the world." Such symbolism conveys the primacy of the place, for what is first in time is naturally first in significance.


The divisions of time may also be represented in the sacred space, especially when time is ordered or governed by the rites performed there. For example, the sides of the mingtang, the Chinese calendar house, represented the seasons. Each side was further divided into three positions representing the months of one season. The rituals enacted at the place guaranteed the orderly progression of these cycles of time. They also guaranteed that the movement of time, and thus the fate of all living beings, depended upon the emperor, who carried out these rites. A different kind of temporal symbolism was connected with the brick altars created in particular Vedic rites. The layers and bricks of the altar represented the seasons, the months, the days and nights, and finally the year, which was the symbol of the totality of time. The completion of the rite was the consolidation of time and ultimately the attainment of immortality for the sacrificer.

Sacred narratives

Sacred space may not only bear the imprint of the natural world but also of sacred narratives. A particular place may be a reminder of events said to have occurred there, or it may contain tokens or depictions of sacred narratives which recall them to memory and reflection. At Wat Haripuñjaya in Thailand, the walls of the vihāra (monastic compound) are adorned with illustrations that tell the lives of the Buddha in his earlier incarnations and express the basic moral values of Buddhism. Similarly, Christian churches of both the East and the West contain paintings and sculptures depicting the history of salvation. In Eastern churches, for example, the upper part of the iconostasis contains depictions of the twelve great events in the life of Jesus, which are celebrated in the great feasts of the Christian year. Other icons might depict scenes from the Bible or from the lives of saints and martyrs, all of which recall the history of God's work in the world. Or again, the rites of the ājj move within a space that reminds the pilgrim of two critical moments in Islamic sacred history: the time of Abraham, who built the Kaʿbah and who established monotheistic worship there; and the time of the Prophet, whose final pilgrimage is recalled in rites at the plain of Arafat. In this last instance, the sacred place not only recalls an event but is also the location of the event, for the Prophet gave his last sermon during his farewell pilgrimage at Arafat. The place removes the physical distance between the worshiper and the event, and in doing so, it also mitigates the temporal distance between the time of the Prophet and the present. By thus collapsing space and time, it endows the event with an imposing reality.

Spheres of human life

In their form or function, sacred places organize human life and activity. Grounding the precarious and fluid structures of social organization in these places imparts to them a sense of conformity to a system that is not arbitrary but intrinsic to the very nature of things. The sacred place often creates a vivid parallelism between the objective order of the universe, the eternal realm of the gods, and the constructs of human relationships.

This aspect of the sacred place has been investigated in an extraordinary work by Paul Wheatley, The Pivot of the Four Quarters. In it, Wheatley discusses the ceremonial complexes that were the seed and integrating center of ancient urbanism. These ceremonial centers "were instruments for the creation of political, social, economic, and sacred space, at the same time they were symbols of cosmic, social, and moral order" (Wheatley, 1971, p. 225).

In Wheatley's description, the ancient Chinese city functioned in just this way to anchor the human order in the divine. The city was laid out as an image of the universe: It possessed cardinal orientation and a major north-south axis corresponding to the celestial meridian. The center of the city was the most sacred spot, corresponding to the polestar, the axis around which the sky turned. And in the center was the royal palace. The city, therefore, re-created the celestial order on earth and its pivot in the ruler. As the heavens eternally moved around the polestar, so the state revolved around the emperor. The political order was firmly established in the objective order of the universe, which was made plain in the sacred images of space.

The ceremonial complex as cosmic center also helped make it an economic center. In Mesopotamia, for example, agricultural labor was apparently under the centralized control of the temple officials. The preeminent economic function of the ceremonial center lay in its role as an instrument of redistribution. This could imply either storage and reapportionment of goods or merely rights of disposal. The ancient cities of Sumer, the temple cities of Cambodia, and Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire, are all examples of cities whose sacredness confirmed the economic control they exercised.

A sacred area may also project the image of the social order. The villages of the Boróro of Mato Grosso, Brazil, for example, were laid out in a cosmological image. The houses formed a rough circle around the men's house, and this circle was divided into quarters by axes running north-south and east-west. But these divisions also governed the social life of the village and its systems of kinship and intermarriage (cf. Lévi-Strauss, 1973, pp. 227ff.). A sacred space may be the center of a system of social prestige that divides and structures society. In the South Indian temple town of Srirangam, the two innermost ring roads closest to the temple are inhabited almost exclusively by brahmans. Other, less prestigious, castes live farther toward the periphery.

In one way or another, sacred space orders space in a socially meaningful way. Because a sacred place is both visible and comprehensible, it lends concreteness to the less visible systems of human relationships and creates an identifiable center of social and political organization.


This article began with the assumption that if a place is the location of ritual activity or its object, then it is sacred. To designate a place as sacred imposes no limit on its form or its meaning. It implies no particular aesthetic or religious response. But if sacred places lack a common content, they have a common role. To call a place sacred asserts that a place, its structure, and its symbols express fundamental cultural values and principles. By giving these visible form, the sacred place makes tangible the corporate identity of a people and their world.

See Also

Architecture; Basilica, Cathedral, and Church; Caves; Center of the World; Cosmology; Geography; Geomancy; Human Body; Mosque, article on Architectural Aspects; Mountains; Orientation; Relics; Rivers; Sacred Time; Temple.


For recent scholarship, the agenda for the study of sacred space has been largely set by Mircea Eliade. His paradigm of the form and meaning of sacred space is presented in a number of his works, especially The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York, 1959), pp. 2067; Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), pp. 367387; and "Centre du monde, temple, maison," in Le symbolisme cosmique des monuments religieux, edited by Giuseppe Tucci (Rome, 1957), pp. 5782.

A number of scholars have made significant contributions to the discussion of the symbolism of space by opening up or refashioning elements of Eliade's paradigm. Among the most thoughtful are Jonathan Z. Smith's Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Leiden, 1978), esp. pp. 88146, and Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago, 1982), esp. pp. 5365. The final chapter in Paul Wheatley's The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A Preliminary Enquiry into the Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City (Chicago, 1971), titled "The Ancient Chinese City as a Cosmomagical Symbol," pp. 411476; Davíd Carrasco's "Templo Mayor: The Aztec Vision of Place," Religion 11 (July 1981): 275297; Benjamin Ray's "Sacred Space and Royal Shrines in Buganda," History of Religions 16 (May 1977): 363373; and Kees W. Bolle's "Speaking of a Place," in Myths and Symbols: Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Charles H. Long (Chicago, 1969), pp. 127139, are case studies that also advance the discussion of sacred space in this general line.

For other approaches to the meaning of architectural space, see the essays in Traditional Concepts of Ritual Space in India: Studies in Architectural Anthropology, edited by Jan Pieper, "Art and Archaeology Research Papers," no. 17 (London, 1980), and Shelter, Sign, and Symbol, edited by Paul Oliver (London, 1975). Kent C. Bloomer and Charles W. Moore's Body, Memory, and Architecture (New Haven, 1977) is an especially clear introduction to meaning in architecture and the role of the body in establishing meaning.

Studies of the religious significance of urban space include Joseph Rykwert's The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World (Princeton, 1976); Diana L. Eck's Banaras: City of Light (New York, 1982); and the previously cited work by Wheatley. This essay also utilized Niels Gutschow's "Ritual as Mediator of Space: Kathmandu," Ekistics 44 (December 1977): 309312, and Jan Pieper's "Three Cities of Nepal," in Paul Oliver's Shelter, Sign, and Symbol (cited above), pp. 5269.

For pilgrimage places and the religious definition of space, see E. Alan Morinis's Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: A Case Study of West Bengal (Oxford, 1984); Jonathan Sumption's Pilgrimage: An Image of Mediaeval Religion (London, 1972); Charles F. Keyes's "Buddhist Pilgrimage Centers and the Twelve-Year Cycle: Northern Thai Moral Orders in Space and Time," History of Religions 15 (1975): 7189; Agehananda Bharati's "Pilgrimage in the Indian Tradition," History of Religions 3 (Summer 1963): 135167; Anne Feldhaus's The Deeds of God in ddhipur (Oxford, 1984); and Hava Lazarus-Yafeh's Some Religious Aspects of Islam: A Collection of Articles (Leiden, 1981). The last has three excellent essays on both popular and classical traditions concering Jerusalem, the ajj, and the Kaʿbah.

Study of the places of worship is an engaging entry into the subject of sacred space and into history of religions generally. For Hinduism, the fundamental work has long been Stella Kramrisch's The Hindu Temple, 2 vols. (Calcutta, 1946). The temple is analyzed from the ground up and placed within the tradition of Brahmanic thought. David D. Shulman's Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Śaiva Tradition (Princeton, 1980) draws on localized traditions that explain the origins and power of shrines.

In Buddhism, one of the most richly symbolic structures is Borobudur in central Java, and the classic study is Paul Mus's Barabudur: Esquisse d'une histoire du bouddhisme fondée sur la critique archéologique des textes, 2 vols. (Hanoi, 1935). For more recent interpretation, see Barabuur: History and Significance of a Buddhist Monument, edited by Luis O. Gómez and Hiram W. Woodward, Jr. (Berkeley, 1981). Borobudur is both a maala and a stupa. For the former, see Giuseppe Tucci's The Theory and Practice of the Maala, translated by Alan H. Brodrick (London, 1969), and for the latter, The Stupa: Its Religious, Historical and Architectural Significance, edited by Anna Libera Dallapiccola, Beiträge zur Südasienforschung Südasien-Institut Universität Heidelberg, vol. 55 (Wiesbaden, 1980). Donald K. Swearer's Wat Haripuñjaya: A Study of the Royal Temple of the Buddha's Relic, Lamphun, Thailand (Missoula, Mont., 1976) shows the expression of the moral, spiritual, cosmic, and social orders in the symbol systems of a Buddhist religious complex.

For the interpretation of Islamic architecture, Dogan Kuban's Muslim Religious Architecture: The Mosque and Its Early Development (Leiden, 1974) provides a brief introduction and a useful bibliography. See also Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning, edited by George Michell (London, 1978).

The Gothic cathedral illustrates one expression of Christianity in architecture, and its symbolism has been luminously explored in Otto von Simson's The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order (New York, 1956). Harold W. Turner's From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship (The Hague, 1979) interprets the history of church architecture as the tension between buildings that localize the presence of divinity and those that serve for congregational worship. The sanctity of Eastern Christian churches is communicated largely through its icons. See, for example, George Galavaris's The Icon in the Life of the Church: Doctrine, Liturgy, Devotion (Leiden, 1981).

The interpretation of the Maori latrine presented in this essay follows F. Allan Hanson's "Method in Semiotic Anthropology, or How the Maori Latrine Means," in his edited volume, Studies in Symbolism and Cultural Communication, University of Kansas Publications in Anthropology, no. 14 (Lawrence, Kans., 1982), pp. 7489. For Black Elk's description of Lakota rites and places, see The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, edited by Joseph Epes Brown (1953; Baltimore, 1971). The analysis of the Boróro village is found in Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes tropiques, translated by John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (New York, 1973).

Kabīr is only one of the many saints of various traditions who had little use for the sacred places. For Kabīr as iconoclast, see The Bījak of Kabīr, translated by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, edited by Linda Hess (San Francisco, 1983).

New Sources

Alcock, Susan E., and Robin Osborne. Placing the Gods: Sanctuaries and Sacred Space in Ancient Greece. Oxford, 1994.

Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. "Religion and Sacred Space." In The Religion Factor: An Introduction to How Religion Matters, edited by William Scott Green and Jacob Neusner; pp. 213226. Louisville, Ky., 1996.

Brockman, Norbert C. Encyclopedia of Sacred Places. Santa Barbara, 1997.

Chidester, David, and Edward Tabor Linenthal, eds. American Sacred Space. Bloomington, Ind., 1995.

Eckel, Malcolm David. Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Holy Texts, Sacred Place. New York, 2002.

Gordon, Matthew. Islam: Origins, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Persons, Sacred Places. New York, 2002.

Kelly, Klara B., and Harris Francis. Navajo Sacred Places. Bloomington, 1994.

Littleton, C. Scott. Shinto: Origins, Rituals, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places. New York, 2002.

Oldstone-Moore, Jennifer. Confucianism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. New York, 2002.

Prawer, Joshua, B. Z. Kedar, and R. J. Zwi Werblowsky. Sacred Space: Shrine, City, Land. New York, 1998.

Joel P. Brereton (1987)

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