Shared Sacred Spaces and the Politics of Pluralism

photos by Anna Bigelow and Glenn Bowman

Shared sacred sites where people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds are able to live with difference, accommodate each other’s religious needs, and negotiate otherness in public are positive examples of pluralism and tolerance on the ground. When we hear about shared sites, most of what we hear is about violence and conflict, in places like Babri Masjid in India or the Temple Mount in Israel/Palestine.

With Shared Sacred Spaces and the Politics of Pluralism, we focus on cases of accommodation and coexistence to identify the local discourses and practices that work best in sharing sacred spaces. The work of coexistence is difficult and it does not happen naturally. Thus we intend to examine the conscious decisions arrived at jointly by members of different religious communities to increase common access and decrease conflict in shared sacred sites.

Project leaders will focus on the local, public practices inside and surrounding shared sacred sites to understand how communities that have maintained shared sites for long periods of time reproduce their practices in the midst of forces pushing for national and/or religious homogeneity or cross-communal conflict. They will focus on shared sites in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the Ottoman legacy has left hundreds of sanctuaries shared in more or less convivial ways between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

The following projects were made possible through the continued support of the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs. In 2014, the IRCPL’s Center for Democracy, Toleration, and Religion was awarded a three-year grant in order to continue to examine how societies are rethinking and remodeling ideas and practices of religious accommodation to create more democratic outcomes and more inclusive cultures. Other CDTR projects supported by the Henry R. Luce Initiative are Sufi Islam in 21st Century Politics and Islam, Democracy, and Pluralism.

Choreography of Sacred Space: State, Religion and Conflict Resolution

CDTR’s project Choreography of Sacred Space: State, Religion and Conflict Resolution, headed by Elazar Barkan and Karen Barkey, examines particular sacred sites, primarily in former Ottoman Empire areas, to look at historical as well as present-day issues surrounding shared sacred spaces. By delving into the past more carefully, they show, we can provide the legacy of shared sites and lived experience, informing contemporary events. The product of this project is Choreographies of Shared Sacred Sites: Religion, Politics, and Conflict Resolution, published through Columbia University Press, is out now.

Summer 2013 – Ethnographic Research in Istanbul

Over the summer of 2013, Karen Barkey, Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, with assistance from Noah Arjomand, PhD candidate in Sociology at Columbia University, traveled to Turkey to conduct field research for the CDTR.  The majority of their work was carried out in three churches in Istanbul: the Church of the Mother of God and the Aghiasma known as Vefa in the Vefa neighborhood, the Church of Aya Demetrios in Kuruçesme, and Saint Anthony of Padua Church in the Beyoglu (Pera) distict of Istanbul.  The first two are Greek Orthodox Churches featuring aghiasma, or holy waters, and the third is a Roman Catholic Church.  The results of this trip and the associated research are now available at

Visual Hasluck


Visual Hasluck is a digital humanities sub-project of the Shared Sacred Sites and the Politics of Pluralism project. Visual Hasluck will develop an interactive version of Christianity and Islam under the Sultans, a milestone work by antiquarian and archaeologist F.W. Hasluck (edited and published in 1929 by his wife Margaret), and publish it as an open and expandable online resource for the spatial history of sacred sites and religious monuments in the (post-)Ottoman world. Dr Dimitris C. Papadopoulos, Columbia University PhD candidates Matt Ghazarian, and Nathanael Shelley work with Dr Karen Barkey on this digital expansion of the project.  More information on the Visual Hasluck project is available at

Past Events

Project Leader

Karen Barkey is a former Professor of Sociology and History at Columbia University and Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life.  Currently, she is the Haas Distinguished Chair of Religious Diversity and Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her research focuses primarily on the Ottoman Empire, and recently on comparisons between Ottoman, Habsburg, and Roman empires. She is the author of Bandits and Bureaucrats: The Ottoman Route to State Centralization, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective, and the co-editor, with Elazar Barkan, of Choreographies of Shared Sacred Sites: Religion, Politics, and Conflict Resolution, from Columbia University Press.