Exploring the Archives of Nature and the Sacred in Malta

8 Jun 2017 - 16:30
Exploring the Archives of Nature and the Sacred in Malta - participants in Malta
Delos4 Workshop participants in Malta. Image: Susan - Molins Lliteras

Susana Molins Lliteras

Post-doctoral Fellow Susana Molins Lliteras travelled to Malta at the end of April to attend the Delos4 Workshop held at the Franciscan Retreat House of Porziuncola - Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq.  The Delos Initiative focuses on sacred natural sites in technologically developed countries, and is part of the Task Force on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas, a Specialist Group in the context of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA).

The three-day workshop involved the presentation and critical analysis of case studies of “sacred natural sites”—a term much debated—with a focus on Islam and on those relevant to more than one living religion.  The Delos Initiative aims to extract lessons concerning the integration of spiritual values in the management of natural sites and to provide guidelines and best practice examples to the bodies governing such sites.

Participants from twelve countries—Bosnia/Herzegovina, Greece, Indonesia, Lebanon, Malta, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Serbia, Spain, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey—gathered on this small island with a fascinating and layered history, marked by waves of conquests each leaving traces on its landscape and people.  Malta is a heavily overpopulated and over-developed island, making the discussions particularly relevant in the local context.

Day One began with opening addresses from our hosts from the Institute of Earth Studies at the University of Malta. Louis Cassar set the tone by asking participants to reflect on the lines between community development and conservation and the roles that religion should play in an increasingly secularised global context. Thymio Papayannis and Josep-Maria Mallarach, Delos Initiative coordinators, provided the context of the Delos Initiative’s work in previous workshops and the developments within the IUCN in the last fourteen years: the growing recognition of the need to include spiritual values in natural conservation practices and the gap found in the guidelines in that respect regarding the world’s major religions—as opposed to indigenous guardians and traditions which have been increasingly recognised.

The second session began with the presentation of “Encounters with a Lost Sacred Landscape: Late Neolithic Malta” by Reuben Grima of the University of Malta. Neolithic sites such as the ones found in Malta pose interesting questions about what happens when a natural site is linked to a religion/tradition that is no longer practiced and about which little is actually known.  Susana Molins Lliteras presented her study on the ‘Holy Circle’ of Kramats in Cape Town, showing the intrinsic relationship between place and tomb—nature and the graves of the saints buried around the Cape Peninsula and the strategies used by followers of a minority religion to conserve their heritage.  Erhan Kurtarir discussed the conservation practices of the Alevis, a minority community in Turkey, emphasising the need for the agency by all stakeholders in conservation practices.  Gulnara Aitpaeva presented the impressive work that her institute has accomplished in mapping the network of sacred sites in Kyrgyzstan, offering an emic approach to understanding the significance of these sites in the present.

The afternoon session began with examining conserved natural areas related to more than one faith.  Irini Lyratzaki offered the Larnaka Salt Lakes in Cyprus as an example of a natural site venerated by both Orthodox Christians and Muslims, while Svetlana Dingarac discussed the challenges faced by the site of Mt. Rumija in Montenegro—in terms of conservation threats to its natural environment and the deterioration of the multi-faith pilgrimage to the site due to the current political climate.  The focus of the session then shifted to case studies illustrating the concept of hima—an Islamic term translated as protected area or reserve, which directly links spirituality to management practices of natural sites.  Othman Abd ar-Rahman Lewellyn discussed the theoretical principles of the concept and their practice in present-day Saudi Arabia, while Bassam Alkantar demonstrated a modern take on the practice through a successful community youth project in Anjar-Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.  Finally, Josep-Maria Mallarach closed the day with a study of the Relict Forests of the Rif Mountains in Morocco, protected by the mazarat—or Sufi Saints tombs—echoing practices in Cape Town and linking this to the hima principles.

After the intensity of the first day, we welcomed the Day Two field trip to some of Malta’s outstanding natural and religious sites.  The abstract concepts became concretised as we walked around the Neolithic sites of Hagar Qim/Mnajdra and the tombs of Xemxija.  The sacred geography was evident in the landscape, in the locations and positionality of the monuments, pointing to both the cosmological function of the sites as well as their intimate relation to everyday practices, creating an integrated cultural landscape.  The Christian sites we visited in the afternoon, such as St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat and the chapel in Naxxar, reinforced the multiple methods used by the world’s religions to inscribe the sacred into the landscape.

The last few case studies presented on the morning of the last day focused on protected ecosystems and landscapes in Islamic countries.  Amra Hadzimuhamedović’s “Perceiving the Creator through the Veils of Oblivion: submitting nature to culture at Bosnian Sufi sites,” offered a powerful critique of political and religious reappropriation of sacred sites after a traumatic war, asking important questions of terms like ‘authenticity’ in relation to ever-evolving practices, as well as about the threats of ‘religious tourism’ to earlier forms of conservation.  The case study of a “customary forest” site in Minangkabau in Sumatra, Indonesia, by Fachruddin Mangunjaya highlighted issues of the conservation of communal land, the roles of customary and religious leaders, and the specificities of regional and local practices.  Finally, Pablo Domínguez, via Skype, demonstrated the successes of a communal approach of “Agdal Sacralisation” to the conservation of natural sites in the High Atlas in Morocco and the generational disruption of such communal practices today.   

The workshop closed with an afternoon session dedicated to a discussion on the way forward for the Delos Initiative’s contribution to the future IUCN-UNESCO guidelines for protected area managers on natural sites sacred to world religions.  As a concrete step, “The Delos4 Statement,” was drafted from the contributions of the different participants, and in an encouraging illustration of collective thinking and negotiation, corrected and unanimously agreed upon by all of those present.  In a refreshing departure from many other conferences, this workshop demonstrated the possibilities of linking academic studies and analysis to concrete practical outcomes.