OP-ED: A common theory about New York City is that early in its history the city surged ahead of Boston and Philadelphia because, unlike those cities, New York was always more rooted in commercial materialism. Boston was the Puritan “City of God on the Hill,” Philadelphia was the Quaker ”City of Brotherly Love” and NYC was the city where people came to get rich.
This bit of urban mythmaking has lived in secular and religious visions of NYC as “Sodom and Gomorrah” and “The Secular City.” A Journey was founded to explore whether this story line now needs to be revised.
Since World War II, a similar narrative has prevailed in archaeological explanations of the rise of civilizations. A passionate Marxist Gordon Childe created the concept of “the Neolithic Revolution” with a materialist explanation of the origins of civilization. His explanation, accepted by many, is that a group of early humans stopped wandering and embraced agriculture as a way of life. Then, the agrarian economy generated enough surplus value so that hierarchies of wealth and status formed, religion, temples, and arts were created, crafts like pottery arose, and wheat and barley were domesticated.
Organized religion, in this view, “began as a way of solving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies…Though primitive religious practices—burying the dead, creating cave art and figurines—had emerged tens of thousands of years earlier, organize religion arose, in this view, only when a common vision of a celestial order was needed to bind together these big, new fragile groups of humankind. It could also have helped to justify the social hierarchy that emerged in a more complex society.”
In 2011, National Geographic reported in its June cover story that archaeology is facing its own paradigm shift. The article, “The Birth of Religion,” states that some archaeologists believe that religion is the cradle of civilization.
The story is based on the excavation of the earliest known temple, dating to 9000 B.C., by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. So far, the evidence is that the elaborate temple in Gobekli Tepe, which translates as Potbelly Hill, Turkey was constructed by nomadic tribes. Schmidt says this was humanity’s first “cathedral on a hill.”
The worshippers arranged massive carved stones in giant rings with an array of dangerous beings. The megaliths predate Stonehenge by some 6000 years. The tallest pillars tower sixteen feet and weigh thirty thousand pounds. With at least sixteen stone rings buried in the area, it appears that over the years, one after another each ring was abandoned for a new worship site.
The archaeologist believes that the tribes probably developed an elaborate social organization to cooperate in building the temple and that this led to developed settled communities, agriculture and various arts to build and service the temple. In other words the temple led to the first complex civilization.
So far, the archaeologists have found a lot of evidence that the temple was built by nomadic tribes and none that it was built by settled agriculturalists. A team of over a dozen German archaeologists , fifty local laborers and a stream of students have found plenty of arrowheads but no tell-tale sign of an agricultural settlement like cooking hearths, clay fertility figurines, houses or trash pits.
The archaeologists have examined more than 100,000 bone fragments, with gazelle bones making up more than 60% of the total. Their work will likely continue for several decades. The prevalence of bones of wild animals, Schmidt told Smithsonian magazine, makes it “pretty clear we are dealing with a hunter- gatherer site.”
There is also circumstantial evidence that an agricultural economy originated as a result of the temple building. Schmidt argues that the coordination of nomadic tribes to build a central temple led to a settled site and eventually a domestication of animals and grain. The area around the temple had wild sheep and grains that could be domesticated. Twenty miles away, geneticists have found the earliest evidence of domesticated wheat lying in a village that arose about 500 years after Gobekli Tepe. Stanford University archaeologist told Smithsonian, “This shows sociocultural changes comes first, agriculture comes later.”
Why did the nomads come together at this time to build a temple? Did some change in religious beliefs, practices or leaders bring the nomadic tribes together? Since existing written records only start with the Sumerian clay tablets dating around 3300 BC, it is hard to decipher what was going on religiously.
Some archaeologists suggest that fear played a role in the temple building. Hodder mentioned that figurines on the temple pillars are not the edible creatures like the gazelle but dangerous creatures such as lions, spiders, snakes and scorpions. Vultures who feed on the dead of predators are also present.
Perhaps, the best hypothesis is that some related tribal groups were pushed into the Gobelki Tepe area by marauding migrants. Religious change most often comes when people’s customs and habits are disrupted by outside social, religious or natural forces. Middle Eastern “crush zones” in which migrations and imperial armies crossed are the site of prophet awakenings like those of Jeremiah and Isaiah. Perhaps, new prophets arose among the nomadic tribes and told them to turn to their gods or else their enemies would crush them. The worshipers faced inward and the fierce animals clustered on the outside walls and pillars as if they were held at bay or tamed for use against enemies.
"Urfa is just a few miles from Turkey’s border with Syria, and is a key crossing point for refugees fleeing the conflict there. When the Syrian town of Kobani was under attack by ISIS last year, smoke from the battle could be seen from the mountaintop dig site," reported Andrew Curry in January 2016. Turkey is promoting visits to the site in the hopes of drumming up tourism that won't be scared off by a few artillery shells going off in the distance.
New York City is a similar “crush zone” in which migrants, immigrants, ideas, religions jostle together. We should not be surprised that revivals, reforms and new faiths are arising.
Our traditional urban myths of “Sodom and Gomorrah” and “The Secular City” served their secular and religious believers with some plausibility pretty well for several decades in the mid-Twentieth Century, but now it is time to re-imagine the city.
The secularists pointed to the “wicked” character of NYC as evidence of its liveliness and unbridled gusto for life. This sentiment lay behind all the laments about the disappearance of the old creepy peep-show hustler culture of Times Square in favor of a cleaned-up Disneyfication.
On the other hand, religious people liked the mythology of the evil city as a way to rally their troops to reform our great social and spiritual problems. Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recounted one such safari of the righteous.
She talked about her mixed feelings of fear and excitement of crossing the street to sing with a church choir at The Bowery Mission. In her case, as with many other religious folk, the vision of the city, or least parts of it, as a Sodom and Gomorrah acted as a spur to a life-long commitment to help the poor and downtrodden.
However, such denunciations were self-fulfilling as “the holy” avoided coming to the “the unholy city” except for a little controlled excitement.
The images of the city as evil and secular also caused many do-gooders to underestimate the character and resources among the urban poor. The flip side to the secular and religious mythology about NYC as the primeval secular city is that it leads to secular and religious versions of paternalism.
A Journey was founded to see if the city is thicker with religion than either the secular or religious folk imagine. Perhaps, future solutions to helping the poor and downtrodden need to incorporate an appreciation of religious resources already in the city’s bloodstream. Trying to kill out religion as the US court of appeals panel did at one time with their decision to prohibit churches from using public schools while allowing secular groups to operate without restriction is the type of paternalism that weakens the city’s social fabric. The court’s discrimination against certain religious groups (it cited evangelicals Christians as the problem) parallels the secular mythologizing of the city’s past and present. The urban myths of the city as “Sodom and Gomorrah” and “The Secular City” that sustained secular and religious visions miss the bigger picture.
The roots of New York City are in the temple at Potbelly Hill, not in the materialism of an agricultural economy.