Holy Networks

Locating, Shaping, and Experiencing Palestinian Loca Sancta (1187-1852)

SNSF-Advanced Grant Research Project TMAG-1_216202, coordinated by Prof. Michele Bacci, University of Fribourg, Switzerland, 2024-2029

The present project aims to provide a methodological reassessment of and a new interpretive frame to the materiality of Palestinian loca sancta, their interaction with the surrounding environment, their interconnectedness in the frame of topographic networks meant to be experienced through physical movement, and more generally, the construction of sanctity through and in things and its sensory apprehension.


  • Subject and Objectives

    The project deals with the dynamics by which the three “Abrahamic” – Jewish, Christian, and Islamic – traditions in the Holy Land gave shape to forms of religious experience strictly associated with specific geographic locations, i.e., worship-worthy sites invested with memorial qualities and deemed, more or less explicitly, to provide a direct, inherent and unmediated access to the supernatural, divine, or transcendental dimensions. The topic will be investigated by analysing the visual, spatial, sensorial, performative, and narrative strategies whereby site-bound holiness was located, evoked, staged, and perceived in the chronological frame of the post-Crusader period of Islamic (Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman) rule in Palestine, from Salah ad-Din’s reconquest of Jerusalem (1187) to the establishment of the so-called status quo by Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid in 1852. Its focus will be on a corpus of ca. 400 holy sites belonging to, and often shared by, different religious groups.

  • Methodology

    The project relies on a teamwork combining the expertise of scholars with different training, academic age, and geographic origins. It is committed to simultaneously gather textual, visual, geographic, and material information about the holy sites and the topographic networks they were involved in. Typically, it raises questions as to: 1) the material features which were viewed in pre-modern times as indicators of a site’s exceptional status; 2) the narratives and legends worked out to legitimate the site’s exceptionality and the ways in which such narratives were communicated; 3) the site’s interaction with the natural environment around it; 4) the different kinds of hallowed matter offered to believers’ devotion; 5) the nature and material appearance of the main cultic foci, their setting in space and the framing, enshrining, lighting, veiling devices used to visualize their holiness; 6) the narrative, performative, emotional associations carried by holy sites and their cultic foci and the impact of their staging on their worshippers’ attitudes and devotional behaviour; 7) the social actors involved in the promotion of site-bound worship and the specific contexts in which the latter emerged; 8) the role played by ephemeral and permanent décors in shaping the experience of holy sites and the extent to which believers themselves contributed to their staging; 9) the latter’s transformations in time and space; 10) the extent to which specific sets of forms came to be associated with distinctive cult-phenomena; 11) the interconnectedness of the holy sites in the frame of wider topographic networks defined by pilgrimage routes and kinetic devotions; 12) the role played by the loca sancta as stopovers in the pilgrims’ embodied experience; 13) the impact of landscape’s evocativeness on the location of site-bound holiness; 14) the specific interaction between the pilgrims’ physical movement and their contemplation of Palestinian landscape as a sequence of mutually interrelated holy spots.

  • Outcomes

    Apart from the golden open access publication of the research outcomes in the form of articles and multi-authored books, the team will be committed to the creation of an interactive map documenting the circuits of pilgrims and the topographic networks of the Holy Land. The latter will also integrate simulated 3D virtual reconstructions, or interactive panoramas, of the same routes.