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Bringing peoples together

War and religion divide peoples, but sites of communal gathering, such as shrines, can help bring them together. That’s the cornerstone of ongoing research by Kent anthropologist, Glenn Bowman, acting Head of the School of Anthropology and Conservation.

Glenn is a leading authority on shrine-sharing – where Muslims, Christians and Jews have shared the same holy places – in regions such as Macedonia and Palestine. He is also looking at the impact of ‘walling’ or enforced separation of populations in Israel/Palestine, as well as Cyprus and Morocco.

‘I first went to Jerusalem in 1983, while researching Christian pilgrimage,’ he says. ‘I was really fascinated to see how one place could have so many different meanings. Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre, for example, drew pilgrims from 27 different Christian denominations. Usually, in such places, members of each community either ignore the others or, at times, treat them as threatening intruders. “However, I carried out fieldwork at a local shrine between Bethlehem and Jerusalem where local Muslims and Christians, drawn both by the powers of the site and the occasion of the festival, gathered as a community amongst the olive groves. That got me interested in the whole idea of sharing.’

Shrine sharing

Glenn travelled out to Jerusalem again in 1989/90 when the first Palestinian Intifadawas breaking out. While there, he visited a town, Beit Sahour, which had had a visitation by the Virgin Mary. ‘The town council decided,’ he said, ‘that she didn’t just come to the Catholics, or to the Greek Orthodox, or to the Muslims but to all the people of the town. It built a municipal shrine over the well where her image had been sighted. This must have been one of the only, if not the only, non-denominational religious sites in the world. This communal solidarity was reflected in the town’s unity in the intifada.’

Impact of walling

Following his experiences in the West Bank, he extended his research to cover ‘walling’ or the enforced separation of populations. ‘I look at areas where walling exists and compare those with areas where populations that are different are able to interact productively with each other,’ he says. ‘People who are denied contact with the other are easily convinced of their demonic character; everyday contact, even in hierarchic relations, undermines simple stereotyping.’

As well as the obvious case of Israel/Palestine, he has undertaken field research in Cyprus, looking at the ‘Green Line’ between North and South Cyprus, and has research students working in Morocco, focussing on the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

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Last Updated: 15/12/2011