The Spiritual Dimension of Cities, Nader Ardalan
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #26
Biography: Nader Ardalan
As President of Ardalan Associates, LLC, Nader Ardalan is an architect with a long and distinguished international career in the fields of Planning, Architecture and Historic Preservation. He is a recognized world leader and expert in the field of environmentally sustainable and culturally relevant design with a particular focus on Islamic Countries. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Carnegie-Mellon University and a Masters in Architecture from the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University.
Academically, as of February, 2011, he is the Senior Research Associate and Senior Editor of the Persian Gulf Encyclopedia for Sustainable Urbanism at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From 2006 to 2010, he was a Research Fellow of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, where he was Director of the Persian Gulf Research Project. He was the joint recipient of a Harvard Kennedy School Research Grant with Anthropologist Dr. Steven Caton and co-author of the recent publication entitled: The New Arab Urbanism in the Persian Gulf. He is the co-author of The Sense of Unity, the Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture, Chicago University Press; author of Blessed Jerusalem, Harvard University and a number of other publications. He has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard, Yale, MIT and Tehran University. He has been a founding member of the Steering Committee of the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture. He is a frequent Jury member for major international design competitions, including The National Iranian Oil Company Headquarters, Tehran, Iran; The Saudi Aramco Cultural Center, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; and the Shams-e-Tabrizi Memorial in Khoy, Iran.
‘Learning to manipulate clay, stone, marble, and wood, man penetrated their properties, and his techniques gave expression to his aspirations toward the divine. In architecture, environmental harmony was known to the Chinese, the Indians, the Greeks, and others. It produced the temples of Karnak, the great mosques of Islam, and the cathedral of Chartres in France.’
In the course of human cultural and scientific development, we can identify five transformational phases of history to the present.2 From the Paleolithic and Neolithic we evolved into the phase of the Classical-Traditional cultures of the great religions. In the last five hundred years we have gradually transformed into the Scientific-Technological phase and have now reached a threshold where the dominance by science and technology under the control of modern corporations and their reign of quantity and material consumerism is now threatening the very existence of life on earth.3 Yet, we are still hesitant to awaken to the fact that for a species to remain viable, it must establish a niche for itself that is holistically beneficial both for itself and for the well being of its surrounding context.4 This “beneficial niche” needs an attitudinal change, a transformation to what some have termed an emerging Ecological Age that will succeed the Technological age and foster a deep awareness of the sacred presence within each aspect of the universe and man’s integral part in this web of existence. 5 Caught between the traditional past of religious beliefs and the yet not fully formed and comprehended new cosmology of the next Ecological phase of human consciousness, human beings exist in a transitional situation that is precarious and yet full of potential. Traditional Abrahimic religions have taught that the Divine is transcendent to the natural world; therefore they hold that we must negate the natural world as a locus for the meeting of the Divine and the human. This makes the conception of the natural world as merely an object to serve man’s material needs and this attitude has led to the plunder and near destruction of the natural resources of the earth by contemporary society.6 In Islam, this tendency is somewhat mitigated since man’s responsibility toward the natural environment evolves from his role as God’s Khalifa (inheritors or vicegerent) on earth. In this regard the Quran says, ‘He is that has made you inheritors in the earth: if, then, any do reject, their rejection (works) against themselves
The Hadiths frame this responsibility within the two principles: unselfish utilization of natural resources and preservation of the natural balance as good stewards of nature.8 However, even these worthy cultural precedence are mostly not heeded in contemporary thought and action by decision makers in the Middle East.
Perhaps, the social revolutions being experienced around the world and most recently over the last two quarter generations in the Middle East, highlighted by the recent “Arab Spring”, are testaments to the material pressures of a world that has multiplied to seven billion population and we are now 50% urbanized; water and food supplies have become increasingly more scarce; issues of income discrepancies, unemployment, financial crises and civil injustice characterize a growing number of contemporary societies. Faced with these daunting, disruptive forces, we seem to have no common ground visions or functional cosmology to guide us to viable solutions. Yet, at no time in history have humans had such access to the vast qualitative and quantitative knowledge made available to us that could discipline and generate sustainable new directions for a noble human survival.
Within this panorama and the limits of this article, my interest is to focus on one pivotal question related to the future of our urban built environments. In particular, the question is: How can holistic approaches to ecological spirituality inform and influence the form and life patterns of current and future cities in the Middle East? What is the potential of the city to spiritually uplift the human spirit, contextualize and symbolize our shared “human condition,” accommodate inclusive communal activities and rituals that give meaning to our lives, and provide connections to knowledge and understanding of the transcendent dimension of existence in architecture and the urban setting?9 Perhaps, one way to do that is to look at positive examples in the past and elicit key design principles; observe the shortcomings of this subject in the present; incorporate the vast new knowledge available to us about ecological urbanism and then proceed to suggest what innovative design paradigms might help produce the sustainable city sublime of the future in our region of the world? What have been the holistic environmental, social, cultural, economical forces and urban design policies that have produced the sublime places, the beautifully vital cities of the world and the architecture that we cherish and are transformed by?
Once we have explored and understood the elements of such transformative places that produce in us a sense of “wondrous awe” and integrated them with new criteria of ecological spirituality, we may proceed in the next phases to study how these considerations, as basic principles, might help produce the city sublime of the future and rehabilitate our existing cities. Within the limits of this short essay, might it be possible to gleam some lessons of what has been the role of spirituality in the more memorable and beautiful built environments of the Middle East? What are the highlight ‘spiritual’ foundations that have given birth, sustained, made
grow, and (when lacking) caused the death of cities in this region over the last ten millennia?
Selected case studies
The recent excavations of Gobekli Tepe, located in the mountains of the Kurdish districts of southern Turkey at the headwaters of the Tigris River and dated at 9600 BC, is regarded as an archaeological discovery of the greatest importance since it could profoundly change our understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human societies 10. It seems that the erection of monumental complexes was within the capacities of Neolithic hunter-gatherers and not only of the latter sedentary farming communities in Mesopotamia in the 3rd C BC, as had been previously assumed. In other words, as excavator Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Mission puts it: “First came the temple, then the city.” This revolutionary hypothesis will have to be supported or modified by future research. The site contains 20 round, (now) subterranean structures (four of which have been excavated). Each stone building has a diameter of 10-30 meters with massive T-shaped limestone pillars decorated with carved animal figures, the tallest are 6 meters high and are the most striking feature of the site. (See fig. 1)
These temples articulated belief in gods only developing later after 5000 to 6000 years in Mesopotamia. As the article in National Geographic entitled: The Birth of Religion described about the recent archaeological finds at Gobekli Tepe, it may have been the need to share our awe for the divine or give thanks to the ineffable that may have propelled humankind to build its first sacred spaces and thus the nucleus of a settlement … Not the accumulation of goods and wealth during the Neolithic time (as today’s narrative goes) … The deep and pure desire to be with others in a profoundly inspiring place is at the root of what is spiritual … The brotherhood of humanity … Returning to the one, being at oneness, and also being many in collaboration and peace, springing out of an spiritual source.
Ancient Thebes was founded in 3200 BC on the east bank of the fertile Nile River, which has served as an important part of ancient Egyptian spiritual life. Hapy was the god of the annual floods that irrigated the surrounding fields for abundant agricultural crops that made Egypt the breadbasket of the Middle East, and both he and the pharaoh were thought to control the flooding. The Nile was considered to be a causeway from life to death and the afterlife. The east was thought of as a place of birth and growth and thus the Temple Complex of Karnak with its sacred lake and the Temple of Luxor were built on the east of the Nile. The west was considered the place of death, as the god Ra, the Sun, underwent birth, death, and resurrection each day as he crossed the sky. The Theban Necropolis of the limestone Valley of the Kings and Queens dominated by the pyramidal Mt. Al-Qura (the Peak) were built west of the Nile because the Egyptians believed that in order to enter the afterlife, they had to be buried on the side that symbolized death. The focus of the annual Opet Festival included the cult statue of Amun-Re (Chief deity of Thebes) being barged down the Nile from Karnak to stay there for a while with his consort Mut (the Earth Goddess) in a celebration of fertility. In summary Thebes was a series of ecologically integrated places of spiritual meaning and ritual for the inhabitants and the greater Egyptian civilization 11. (See Fig. 2)
The Old City is symbolically the archetypal “City on the hill”. Situated at the ecological threshold between a Mediterranean and a desert bio climatic region, in fact, the hillock location lies in a basin, bounded on two sides by hills such as the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus that run north-south. Immediately to the east of the walled city is the Kidron Valley, and to the west and south, the Hinnom Valley. With over a 5,000-year history, Jerusalem is sacred to the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which means it is sacred to more than a third of the world’s population. The urban form is characterized by compact limestone building volumes of one to three stories terminating against the sky with domes, vaults and vertical minarets and steeples organized spatially around public and private courtyards and squares to which access is gained by winding pedestrian only pathways.
The rich textures, small scaled parts of the city are contained by massive city walls that are punctured by seven gateways leading to its four quarters, near the center of which sits the historic Dome of the Rock with its golden hued cupola.
The special aura of the Old City has had much to do with the balanced social patterns and behavior of its residents of all faiths, ethnic origins and income groups who have followed a rather traditional and pious way of life.
This traditional way of life, together with its related rituals, life forms, and images are subject to the changes of contemporary opportunities and maintains its vitality precisely because it is not static12. (See Fig. 3)
The city was founded by Berbers on a bank of the Fez River in the Atlas Mountains in 789. Fes features a Mediterranean climate, with hot dry summers and chilly wet winters. Fez might well be the largest and most enduring medieval Islamic settlement in the world. It is indisputably Morocco’s spiritual and cultural heart. Fez is considered as the soul of Morocco. “It’s the last bastion of what Morocco really is.” You need only watch the daily procession of candle-toting mourners entering the tomb of the city’s founder, Moulay Idriss II — believed to be a great-great grandson of the prophet Mohammed — to feel the city’s connection to its past. Kairouyine mosque, one of the oldest and largest in Africa, was built together with the associated University of Al-Kairouyine in 859. Fez’s Golden Age was in the 14th century, but still continues to pervade the spiritual life of the country. Few places on Earth seem so imbued with buried meanings: in the patterns of hand-knotted carpets; in the tattooed faces of Berber peasant women; in the cosmic swirls of carved plaster in its architecture; in the voices of traditional Sufi and Gnawa singers; in the techniques of expert craftsmen; in the ingredients of its cuisine 13. (See Fig. 4) The city plan follows the rule of five-geographically there are actually five concentric rings: At the center are the religious places; after those are the working places, like the souks; then come the residential areas; then come the walls of the city. Beyond those are the gardens, orchards and the cemeteries. Some 30,000 craftsmen ply their trades in small stores and back-alley workshops. For the Sufis, Islam’s most mystical followers, Fez has long been a hallowed land. The nooks of the medina are filled with Sufi sanctuaries known as zaouias, where brotherhoods meet, worship and sing. Their musical chants are the soundtracks of Fez, the sonic analog of the city’s deep spirituality.
The city is situated in a fertile valley between two mountain ranges. These ranges act as macro scale walls which define a regional space within which the positive shape of the city has evolved. The effect of this regional ’place’ is heightened by the judicious placement of points of reference within the landscape. Ancient Sassanian Bas reliefs have been carved on the stone cliffs of the mountain pass leading to the city which has thus become the symbolic gateway defining a regional place (Makan) of vast dimension. In more recent Islamic times a brick gateway arch, containing a Quran over the arch, thus its name, The Quran Gateway, has been built 14.
The earliest reference to the city, as Tiraziš, is on Elamite clay tablets dated to 2000 BC. In the 13th century, Shiraz became a leading center of the arts and letters, thanks to the encouragement of its ruler and the presence of many Persian scholars and artists. Shiraz is known as the city of intellectuals, wine, flowers and most notably of poets, such as the 14th C lyric poet Hafiz, whose poems are known by heart by most Iranians, who use them as proverbs and sayings to this day. It is considered by many Iranians to be the city of gardens, roses and nightingales, due to the many gardens and orchards that can be seen in the city. The great Eram Paradise Garden commences the pattern of gardens that continue to the city center where the pilgrimage shrine of Shah-e- Cheragh and Madrasah are situated. Shiraz has had major Jewish and Christian communities during its long history and remains a most open, receptive urban center of numinous beauty. (See Fig. 5)
Key principles of transcendent cities
From these brief glimpses of some of the most sublime cities in the Middle East, we may observe some key characteristics that may point toward the principles for achieving greater urban transcendence in our future cities and possible means of transforming and uplifting the existing fabrics from the phenomenal and spiritual decay into which most have fallen. It might be asked can the surge of religious movements today in the Middle East also bring a resurgence of spiritualism, or is the potential of that dimension overshadowed and stifled by radical fundamentalism? 15
The Structure of Being
Traditional man tends towards a mode of comprehensio which provides both a metaphysical and phenomenal interpretation of life.
This complementary interpretation affects all of his perceptions because it begins by situating him in the universe. Initially, this interpretation determines his awareness of cosmic space as an externalization of the macrocosmic creation which is analogous to his own microcosmic self. This traditional Hermetic concept forms part of the world view incorporated into the Islamic perspective, a view in which the space of the universe is structured of a phenomenally manifest macrocosm (Zahir) and a metaphysically hidden microcosm (Batin), each containing three great divisions: the body (jism), the soul (nafs), and the spirit (ruh) (fig.) 16. (See Fig. 6)
Orientation in Space
In such a structured space, man knows where he is and it provides him with a strong directional sense. It is only with reference to the heavens, the rising and setting sun and moon, the rotation of stars and the prevailing breezes that the infiniteness of space can be quantifiably and qualitatively grasped.
The order of the spheres and their movements through the six directions of north, south, east, west, up (zenith) and down (nadir) constitute a primary coordinate system within which all creation is situated. The quality of “Place Making” in the Islamic period is further enriched by the terrestrial magnet of the daily direction of ritual prayer toward Mecca 17.
The Sense of Place- Sustainable Urbanism
When order in cosmic space is achieved, the interpretative mind seeks regional order. Here adaptation to environmental context, the impact of memorable natural settings, such as distant mountain peaks, ocean views, river valleys, unique landscapes- the Genius Loci of a place- inspires and motivates the primary setting out of the urban form, its density and texture, and its pivotal visual axis.
While bioregions of the Middle East have certain geographic boundaries, they also have certain mythic and historic modes of self identification.
This bioclimatic cultural identity can form the basis of a spiritual ecology for our cities-both the emergent new urban centers and the self healing retrofitting of our existing cities. The most difficult transition will be to make an anthropocentric to a bio-centric norm of progress.
Somehow the more ancient the origins of a city’s founding date, the more imbued are these urban places with a cosmic consciousness, perhaps due to the influencing motivations of the founding fathers, whose mystical participation with life was more pronounced than ours today, while being equally conscious of security and defensive motivations in their city locations. What about new cities, which will characterize so much of the new urbanism? As world population continues to increase from the present 7 billion to more than 9 billion over the next 50 years, more than 60 % will live in urban centers.
Here modern science and astronomy’s search for humanities and the earth’s cosmic origins may provide some direction for answers. Can the cosmic story of the “Big Bang” and the drama of the expanding universe theory provide a new and profound narrative to impact city forms? Certainly, we know that historically, great cities became the abstract manifestations of man’s world views, spread large upon the surface of the earth. Commencing with the most ancient archaeological discovery of Gobekli Tepe, through to the Elamite cities of Choga Zambil and onto Ecbatana in North West Iran to the circular city of Baghdad by Caliph-al-Mansur and Heart, Afghanistan in the 12th C., the geometric city was a recapitulation of the diagram of the conceptual structure of the universe, as understood at the time. (See Fig. 7, 8 & 9)
The quest was to manifest the idea of unity (tawhid), but the contemplative mind can also conceive of unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity, as evidenced by the dynamically harmonic, linear order of the cities of Shiraz, Isfahan and other Iranian cities in the 16th C18. (See Fig 10)
Can such contemporary macrocosmic consciousness motivate new city forms, while also accommodating the microcosmic scale of the individual, the family and the social unit of the neighborhood?
Sacred Paths, Places of Religion & Pilgrimage- Places of Knowledge
Without exception in the selected cities sited above, they all shelter one or more sacred sites, shrines or religious places of pilgrimage. Thus the sanctity of their spirituality pervades key places of these cities and the boundaries of sacredness resonate throughout their urban precincts. Their sacred pathways or historic routes weave throughout the fabric of the city 19.
Often such cities have also become over time places of knowledge, centers of academic learning and a certain sense of wisdom has become associated with such places. This aspect has naturally created city nodes of student life that give these cities a zest and tingle of active, artistic and intellectual vigor.
Urban Space-The Public realm- The Paradise Garden- Pedestrian and Human Scale
The positive and vital concept of space generates many of the cities cited. This concept that space, not shape, should lead in the generation of form is one of the characteristics of these great cities. The dense urban fabrics of these cities, such as those in Isfahan, Iran, are often complemented by public realm places, be they linear bazaars, open plazas
or public gardens; they honor the pedestrian and bow to the human measure.( See Fig. 11) They are walking cities; cities of scalable motion and human activities where speech, song and music may be heard; they are organic, living urban entities of mixed use, averaging about two to four story volumes of compact courtyard textures, shaded pathways and unexpected vistas, at times focused upon symbolic architecture of quality 20.
Multi-cultural integrated Communities-Significant Political History, Economic vitality
The quality of openness to multiculturalism, where people of different faiths can commingle is another characteristic of a numinous city- the cosmopolitanism, the universality, the mosaic of world cultures living side by side activates the uniqueness of such cities- perhaps the common ground of a deeper foundation of spirituality, beyond the particularities of a given faith is a vital characteristic of the sublime city. Yet, these are not monastic cities. On the contrary, they contain sensual and artistically motivated centers; they are often seats of political power or of regionally significant influence;21 they are thriving economic places characterized by such city components as the Souk or Bazaar, as exemplified by the Khan el Khalili in Cairo (See Fig. 12)
“The process of creating Archetypes” is one definition of the purpose of Architecture, while all other definitions generate mere buildings that lie at qualitatively and aesthetically levels far below, if conceived within a pyramid with quality on top and quantity on the base. Cities that have nurtured the beautiful and the good, in Aristotelian terms, glow with a subtle elegance, not determined by material wealth spent upon them, but by the essence of their conception and realization. Here proportion, the use of numbers and geometry, as mathematical expressions should recall the Archetypes, as in the Platonic “world of hanging forms” or in the Islamic terminology, the Alam-i-Mithal 22. The Hermetic traditions of Alchemy provide the Architect with guidance for the use of matter and its transformation from basic heaviness to elegant lightness, through a depth of understanding of the proper use of symbols, colors, mathematics and geometry situated in elegant Paradise Gardens, such as the 19th c. Bagh -i Eram, Shiraz, Iran. (See Fig. 13)
Traditional man has the propensity for symbolic expression, which is deeply ingrained in both the Persian and Arabic languages. In Persian, it is said that a person has Ham-dami, or inner resonance and sympathy with the hidden (batin) qualities of the creation. Symbols are regarded as the theophanies of the absolute in the relative phenomenal world. Symbolic forms, which are sensible aspects of the metaphysical reality of things, exist whether or not man is conscious of them-“man does not create symbols, he is transformed by them”23 Thomas Berry notes that traditional man has an intimate communion with the depths of his psychic structure, which is one of the main differences with the psychic functioning of the Euroamerican in modern times. “We have so developed our rational processes, our phenomenal ego that we have lost much of the earlier communion we had with the archetypal world of our own unconscious.” 24 However, as the Pulitzer Prize winning scientist, Edward O Wilson, in Consilience writes: “The brain has a strong tendency to condense repeated episodes of a kind into concepts, which are then represented by symbols. He believes that these genetic, neural activity patterns are representative of the basic unit of particular cultures that he terms memes. His research indicates that people tend to gravitate to environments that reward their hereditary inclinations to these memes.
“The message from geneticists to intellectuals and policy-makers is this: Choose the society you want to promote, and then prepare to live with its heritabilities.”25 Nicholas Wade in the book: the Faith Instinct traces how such a meme, the spiritual or faith quest, became hardwired from ancient times into the human genes as an instinct for survival and despite the rise of secular societies today, that faith continues to be one of the key forces that fortify and maintains the social fabric 26.
Therefore, as the psychologist Carl Jung observed, the world of symbols, such as the mandala, the circle, Pythagorean geometries and mathematics, colors, the Ouroborous, mythic legends of heroic personalities, natural forces and the Earth Mother archetype are forever subliminally present for those that have the conscious eyes to see 27. (See Fig. 14) The challenge to our societies of the Middle East is to reawaken ourselves to our transcendent heritabilities and the symbolic forms and meanings that help nurture a more relevant and profound quality of urban life.
Such then is the nature and framework of this quest to shift our cities and their architecture from a kind of machine-inspired functionalist aesthetic to a more cosmic, ecological and spiritually inspired design approach. The resolutions of these values and aesthetic questions remain elusive, but provide profound inspirations for more meaningful answers that touch the individual soul and collective humanity.
‘When you become the pencil in the hand of the infinite,
When you are truly creative… design begins and never has an end.’ Frank Lloyd Wright 28
To truly understand the key issues of sustainability and cultural identity, we need to begin with a cosmic, systemic awareness of the context of human existence on both a tangible, phenomenal level and the less tangible, cultural level. We need to become aware of the particular world views of the indigenous civilization, the Genus Loci of the place, and the optimum ecological fit of cities with their context. The mandate of good design is to elegantly realize this holistic vision in physical reality. Such an approach may provide an important methodology by which common ground can be found between the profound world views of traditional civilizations and the highest aspirations of contemporary innovations in art and architecture. Without such a common ground, the new architectural creations lack a sense of place, are environmentally unsustainable and appear as alien usurpers of an existing civilization, thus causing the identity crisis that is observable in the cities of the Middle East as a whole, and particularly in the new developments of the Persian Gulf region.
Instead, the momentum of the new resurgent urbanism urgently needs to find new ways of designing in harmony with nature and our culture.
‘Every advance in technology has been directed toward man’s mastery of his environment. Until very recently, however, man always maintained a certain balance between his bodily and spiritual being and the external world. Disruption of this balance may have a detrimental effect on man, genetically, physiologically, or psychologically. And however fast technology advances, however radically the economy changes, all change must be related to the rate of change of man himself. The abstractions of the technologist and the economist must be continually pulled down to Earth by the gravitational force of human nature.’ Hassan Fathy 2