Sacred Places, Emerging Spaces

Religious Pluralism in the Post-Soviet Caucasus

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Tsypylma Darieva, Florian Mühlfried, Kevin Tuite
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , February
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This collection of ethnographies of post-Soviet desecularization and of sacred places in the Caucasus begins appropriately with an ethnographic example, a comparison of a ritual at a single sacred place in Georgia, Alaverdi—a Georgian Orthodox cathedral fittingly bearing a Muslim Turkish name—viewed by one editor (Tuite) in 1997 and another (Mühlfried) a decade later in 2006. In 1997, the sacred space is divided into three concentric circles: a more or less secular space outside the churchyard featuring a bazaar and a campground; a middling space of folk religious heterogeneity, where laypeople were leading animals for sacrifice counterclockwise around the church and where Chechens had just recently visited ruins, allegedly of a quondam mosque, the day before; and finally the church interior itself, where pilgrims engaged in Orthodox worship led by an Orthodox priest. In 2006, the second space of mixture and heterogeneity had been “purified,” turning a sacred-secular continuum into a binary opposition between secular exterior and Orthodox religious interior. This ethnographic moment strikingly illustrates the themes of this volume: the contested status of sacred spaces; the different actors including states, religious institutions, and laypeople for whom these spaces are a matter of concern; and the problematic hybrid spaces to be purified, preserved, erased, appropriated, or tolerated. 

Grounded in a broader literature on desecularization, this volume tracks strikingly analogous changes ethnographically across the varying confessional and political landscapes of the Caucasus. While countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia under postsocialism differ greatly in religious and political terms, what they have in common is that each country is fairly homogeneous in terms of official religion, potentiating identity projects of religious nationalism. This same landscape is dotted with sacred spaces and pilgrimage spots, including unofficial shrines and the ruins of churches and mosques, that belong to no specific religion or people. Such sacred places are known by various names, but all seem to have similar material and spatial properties and afford comparable potentialities for control and contestation as they become a shared matter of concern for actors of varying scales: states, national religious institutions, priests and laypeople, members of different religious groups, men and women. The volume addresses the way these sacred places become the sites for articulating changing relations of church, state, and laypeople of different confessions. We see, for example, how the reassertion of control by religious authorities leads to the marginalization of women who had previously played important roles in lay religion. The powerful and detailed ethnographies here should be read alongside other ethnographies of desecularization in the area such as Ketevan Gurchiani’s recent works “How Soviet is the Religious Revival in Georgia: Tactics in Everyday Religiosity” (Europe-Asia Studies 69 [3],2017)) and “Georgia In-Between: Religion in Public Schools” (Nationalities Papers 45 [6], 2017).

Amid this welter of human actors of varying scales, the most striking feature of this volume is the role played by nonhuman actors, the shrines themselves. A recurring theme is the way informal lay shrines differ spatially and materially from clearly delineated, closed, and categorized official religious monuments (e.g. churches and mosques that are not in ruins). While the latter embody a puristic principle of “not-sharing” (Mühlfried) between groups, the former seem to be open to potentiate rhizomatic relations that do not affirm borders as much as cross them. In contrast to the overdetermined symbolism and semiotic closure of churches and mosques, the very material heterogeneity and indeterminacy of shrines and sacred places afford a range of engaging sacred affects not delimited to any specific confession and thus afford potential social relations of “sharing” (Bruce Grant calls this their “mixing capacity” in “Shrines and Sovereigns:Life, Death, and Religion in Rural Azerbaijan”(Comparative Studies in Society and History 53 [3], 2011, 655n1). Shrines, after all, unlike churches and mosques, are strikingly similar to each other in their abject, ruinous quality (see Paul Manning, “Materiality and Cosmology: Old Georgian Churches as Sacred, Sublime, and Secular Objects,” Ethnos73 [3]; Bruce Grant, “Shrines and Sovereigns: Life, Death, and Religion in Rural Azerbaijan,” Comparative Studies in Society and History53 [3], 2011). They are often announced by little more than natural landmarks like a tree, a pile of rocks, or an ancient mossy ruin that may have been a church or a mosque, usually with some sort of associated legend. The heterogeneous materiality of these ruins elicits inchoate, inarticulate, indexical affects of sacredness but lack an official "puristic" symbolic narrative that would assign them to some discrete, closed-off, confessional order (see Paul Manning, “No Ruins. No Ghosts.” Preternature[1], 2017; and Sasha Newell, “The Affectiveness of Symbols,” Current Anthropology 59 [1], 2018).

Throughout the volume we see how the very material heterogeneity of these places, and the attendant lack of any symbolic narrative defining them as being objects of this or that religion, affords equally heterogeneous affective connections both between people and between objects based on shared qualia, whether these are wanted or not. For instance, badly made lay candles made for illumination produce flaming liquid masses which make a lay Armenian monophysite piety frequently unpleasantly resemble some sort of pagan fire worship (for a similar incident in which sacred light becomes the accelerant for an infernal machine, see Paul Manning and Anne Meneley. “Material Objects in Cosmological Worlds: An Introduction,” Ethnos 73 [3], 2008). Meanwhile, the planned presence of features of sacred rock and water, and the unplanned incursion of a spider, turn an already hybrid Yezidi shrine, containing both Christian and Yezidi symbols, into a likeness of the original sacred cave of the Yezidi Lalesh Temple. In short, in this volume the “vibrant matter” (Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, 2009) of the shrines themselves as material actors join other, more traditional, social actors of different scales to produce a dynamic ethnographic picture of a crucial moment of desecularization in a neglected area of the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Manning is Professor of Anthropology at Trent University.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tsypylma Darieva is a senior research fellow at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin and is teaching at Humboldt University Berlin. Her research and teaching interests include anthropology of migration, diaspora and homeland, urbanity, and sacred places in Central Eurasia. She has conducted fieldwork in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Germany. Darieva is the author of Russkij Berlin: Migranten und Medien in Berlin und London (LIT, 2004), co-editor of Cosmopolitan Sociability: Locating Transnational Religious and Diasporic Networks (Routledge, 2011), Urban Spaces after Socialism: Ethnographies of Public Places in Eurasian Cities (Campus, 2011) and of the forthcoming volume Sakralität und Mobilität in Südosteuropa und im Kaukasus.

Florian Mühlfried is a social anthropologist in the Caucasus Studies Program at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena. Previously, he was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and a visiting professor at UNICAMP, Brazil. He has published the monograph Being a State and States of Being in Highland Georgia (Berghahn, 2014), a book on feasting in Georgia (ibidem, 2006), and edited the volume Mistrust: Ethnographic Approximations (Transcript, 2018).

Kevin Tuite is Professor of Anthropology at the Université de Montréal. He also directed the Caucasus Studies Program at the FSU-Jena from 2011 to 2014. His publications include Language, Culture and Society: Key Topics in Linguistic Anthropology (co-edited with Christine Jourdan) (Cambridge, 2006).



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