Debre Berhan Selassie Church, Gondar, Ethiopia

The Church of Debre Berhan Selassie – Photo by Bernard Gagnon – November 2012

Debre Berhan Selassie Church and Monastery is located in northern Ethiopia in the town of Gondar. It is part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Fasil Ghebbi, Gondar Region, inscribed in 1979 for its Outstanding Universal Value.

King Fasil (Fasilides) officially founded the town of Gondar in 1634 as the capital of the Ethiopian Empire. The World Heritage Site is home to royal palaces, historic libraries, monasteries and churches dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, built by King Fasilides and his successors.

The church of Debre Berhan Selassie is a modest stone building surrounded by an exterior stone wall.  It is particularly well known for its interior filled with extraordinary examples of Ethiopian Christian Church art painted in what is known as the second Gondarine style.

Interior of The Church of Debre Berhan Selassie – Photo by A. Savin – February 2018

The biblical scenes are vividly remarkable and the interior paintings cover the walls and ceilings in richly applied red, blue and golden hues. Subjects include the Holy Trinity – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, seated above Christ on the Cross.

The Holy Trinity – Photo by Sam Effron – October 2008

Be sure to locate the symbols of the four Evangelists surrounding the Trinity. These are painted in a charming Medieval style: the lion on the lower left represents Saint Mark; the oxen on the lower right symbolizes Saint Luke; the winged bird on the upper right illustrates Saint John; and, on the upper left, a winged man stands in for Saint Matthew.

The upper sections of the church walls are covered with panels that depict familiar biblical figures and stories.

Frescoes of Saint George Slaying the Dragon, The Assumption of Mary, and other biblical Subjects – Photo by Bernard Gagnon – November 2012

Pictured below is perhaps the most endearing sight – the ceiling of the church is completely covered by the faces of cherubic angels peering down at visitors.

Ceiling Painting – Photo by A. Savin – February 2018

My Son Sanctuary, Vietnam

By Tung Nguyen

My Son Temple, Stele, Lingams and Yoni -Photo by Bernard Gagnon (1992)

My Son Temple, Stele, Lingams and Yoni, Photo by Bernard Gagnon (1992)

Deep among the forest and mountains of the central part of Vietnam lies one of the most significant sacred sites of Southeast Asia – My Son Sanctuary of the ancient Champa kingdom. About 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) to the southwest of the bustling city of Da Nang, My Son valley is home to a temple complex with about 71 standing structures, 32 epitaphs and a wide array of cultural artifacts from a long-lost kingdom. My Son served as the religious center for the worshipping of Hindu deities, especially Shiva. It also was the site for Cham kings to carry out important rituals and was a burial site for kings and religious leaders. 1 Like other Cham temples spread throughout the territory of modern-day Vietnam, the temples and towers at My Son are the combination of the cosmology of Hinduism and the Cham’s technical as well as cultural ingenuity. My Son’s towering structures, built from fired clay bricks and adorned with extremely detailed carvings and sculptures, have withstood hundreds of years of weathering and wartime destruction. This is a testimony to the unique and impressive building technique of the Cham. The site is still considered sacred by the Cham people, who are currently a recognized minority in Vietnam, and to a certain extent the larger Vietnamese population. Although the site was recognized as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999 and is being preserved continuously by the Vietnamese government, My Son still faces the issues of pollution, deterioration and misinterpretation.

Temple A1 Drawing after Henri Parmentier (1871-1949) The site was studied by Parmentier and his successors from the École française d'Extrême-Orient

Temple A1 Drawing after Henri Parmentier (1871-1949) The site was studied by Parmentier and his successors from the École française d’Extrême-Orient

The creation of My Son was imbued with religious and cultural beliefs. One can say the geographical position of My Son is a reflection of Cham cosmology, one that is heavily influenced by Hinduism coming to the Indochina Peninsula as early as the 4th century CE. My Son Sanctuary was built in a valley encircled by three sacred mountains: the Kucaka Mountain to the north, the Sulaha Mountain to the south and the Mahaparvata Mountain to the west. 2 The Mahaparvata was considered particularly sacred and was compared to the holy Mount Meru of Hinduism. To the north of My Son is Thu Bon River, or Mahadani River in Cham language, which was believed to be an avatar of the goddess Ganga. Surrounded by such natural elements, in addition to the tranquility of the forest, My Son was considered an ideal location for a Hindu sacred site. It was here in the valley of My Son to the west of then Champa’s capital city of Simhapura (“The Lion City”) that King Bhadravarman (reigned from 380 CE – 413 CE) built a wooden temple to worship the deity-king Bhadresvara, 3 whose power was represented in the form of a lingam. After a fire destroyed the temple in the 6th century, King Sambhuvarman (r. 577 CE – 629 CE) rebuilt the site with fired bricks and renamed it Sambhu-Bhadresvara. Since then, My Son had been one of the largest and most important sacred sites of Champa. Throughout the history of the site, generations of Cham kings and religious leaders had maintained it. They also carried out religious rituals and burials, as well as added more temples and towers to the original site. Thus, over several hundred years, from the 7th century CE to the 13th century CE, My Son Sanctuary became a temple complex with a rich history and a collection of architectural styles from different periods.

The storehouse known as "B5" (background) is the outstanding surviving exemplar of the My Son A1 style– Photo by Doktor Max – Summer 2007

The storehouse known as “B5” (background) is the outstanding surviving exemplar of the My Son A1 style– Photo by Doktor Max – Summer 2007

While the environment surrounding My Son had a certain spiritual meaning for the Cham, their religious and cultural values are exhibited more heavily in the structures within the temple complex. Structures and carvings are spread across the valley and separated into distinct groups – evidence of the continuous expansion of the complex through several dynasties in Champa’s history. Despite the grouping and the apparent differences in style, most of these temples bear similar characteristics that reflect the dualist Hindu worldview of the once thriving civilization.

Map of Temple Groups – Photo by Khuong Viet Ha

Map of Temple Groups – Photo by Khuong Viet Ha

Each temple group contains a main temple, complemented by towers and auxiliary structures. They were mostly designed on the east-west axis, with the main gate usually pointing east as homage to the rain god Indra. An agricultural civilization like Champa would generally consider rain to be beneficial and a sign of prosperity, thus explaining such design in holy places. The main temple can be divided into three parts that resemble the holy mountain Meru in Hinduism: bhurloka (the base) resembles the realm of the ordinary and is decorated with patterns, humans and animals on reliefs; the bhurvaloka (the body) resembles the rise to the spiritual world and has columns and vertical pattern decoration; svarloka (the top) has finely-carved decoration of mythical creatures and holy men, which resembles the spiritual realm at the summit of Mount Meru. Another similar characteristic between temple groups is the presence of a set of stone monuments – a cylinder called a lingam mounted on a square pedestal called a yoni. The lingam is an icon of the masculine power of Shiva, while the yoni symbolizes the creative power of the goddess Parvati. 4 It is symbolic of the dualist worldview of the Cham as they believed in the creation of life through a combination of masculinity and femininity in the universe.

Lingam and Yoni – Photo By Shankar - 2016

Lingam and Yoni – Photo By Shankar – 2016

It is impossible to talk about My Son without mentioning the technical ingenuity that created it. All of the temples and towers in My Son were built with red-fired bricks that vary in thickness depending the part of the structure they were used for. The materials used to manufacture these bricks created a substance that absorbs water but also releases it quickly under dry conditions. Thus, although light and spongier, Cham bricks were far superior to modern bricks in terms of quality and durability. 5 Despite the massive size of the structures, there are no visible signs of mortar between the bricks. This creates a homogenous exterior that adds to the grandeur of the structure. Once masons built a structure, carvers and sculptors would then decorate the external surfaces. The continuous stability of the standing temples is a testimony to the quality of Cham masonry.

All of the buildings are made of red bricks with stone pillars and have sandstone bas-reliefs showing scenes from Hindu mythology, except for one - labeled B1, which was made of stone. – 2016 By Shankar S.

All of the buildings are made of red bricks with stone pillars and have sandstone bas-reliefs showing scenes from Hindu mythology, except for one – labeled B1, which was made of stone. – 2016 By Shankar S.

My Son Temple Bodhisattvas. The temples at Mỹ Sơn are made of a reddish brick. Decorative carvings have been cut directly into the bricks. Photo by Tycho December 22, 2017

My Son Temple Bodhisattvas. The temples at Mỹ Sơn are made of a reddish brick. Decorative carvings have been cut directly into the bricks.
Photo by Tycho December 22, 2017

As magnificent as these temples were, no man-made structure can stand the test of time forever. When the Champa Kingdon fell at the end of the 13th century, My Son Sanctuary fell into a state of disrepair. The site was later rediscovered in 1898 by the French and scholars and other experts began to study and somewhat maintain it. My Son temples suffered heavy damage from wars, especially during the Vietnam War – 1959 to 1975. With peace after 1975, efforts have been put into preserving what is left of the site. As a result of continuous promotion and nomination, My Son was recognized as a World Heritage site in 1999. However, the site faces three major issues, namely pollution, deterioration and misinterpretation.

Temple Damaged by U.S. Bombing During the Vietnam War Photo by Pierre Dalbera

Temple Damaged by U.S. Bombing During the Vietnam War
Photo by Pierre Dalbera

Pollution is mainly caused by the increasing influx of tourists and traffic into the main temple area. It is estimated that about 350,000 tourists visited My Son in 2017. As of 2013, private cars, buses and minivans were allowed to freely enter the main area of the site. 6 The concentration of traffic inside My Son, especially during rush hours, created a risk of significant air pollution, faster ground deterioration, as well as deterioration in the integrity of the structures. To combat these risks, the site’s management board implemented several traffic control methods, including a separate parking zone outside of the main temple area, electric shuttles to the site and tourist guidelines on site protection. However, as the number of tourists continues to rise, stricter planning and stronger implementation are needed to properly maintain the quality of the natural beauty that made this site a holy place.

A more immediate threat to My Son is the deterioration of its integrity. Due to its position inside a valley surrounded by three mountain ranges and a large river, My Son is susceptible to annual flooding during the monsoon season. A solution to this issue came in a joint preservation project sponsored by the government of Italy in 2003. Following a proposal by French architect Pierre Pichard from the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, a drainage system was installed to improve the site’s ability to resist heavy rains and flooding. 7 The original drainage system built by the Cham was also discovered and integrated where possible to the new one. 8

The structures also face severe deterioration due to a long period of disrepair and weathering. Early restoration efforts in the 1980s, aided by Polish preservation experts, could only temporarily improve the integrity of major structures. This was because the construction techniques and materials used by the Cham were not entirely clear due to lack of information remaining from the original builders. Another project, from 2003 to 2013, was funded by the Italian government and continued research on the brickmaking and masonry techniques employed by the Cham in the past. All of these activities aim to stabilize and restore the structures as close as possible to their original design.

Corbelled Arch disintegrating – Photo by Bill Bradley, 2010

Corbelled Arch disintegrating – Photo by Bill Bradley, 2010

Finally, every heritage site needs an accurate and educational narrative that serves to further the cultural understanding of it. However, as Champa has long cease to exist and the Cham are only a minority in Vietnam, the responsibilities of maintaining and narrating the history of My Son now rests in the hands of the dominant Kinh people. Because of this, there is a risk of misinterpretation and bias in the presentation of Cham cultural and religious values. There are plans to implement eco-tourism that incorporates modern Cham guides to enhance the tourist experience of the site. These plans will improve the integrity of My Son and preserve Cham cultural identity through more accurate narratives.

My Son has been a sacred site since its creation. Over the centuries, it expanded beyond the original temple to become a complex that exhibited not just the technical ingenuity but also the worldview of a people. Like many other heritage sites across the globe, My Son faces issues like deterioration, pollution and misinterpretation. A lot of challenges still lie ahead for the preservation of My Son. It is my hope that the conviction to preserve the site with cooperation between governments and international organizations, and proper site management, will mean that future generations can fully appreciate the cultural and spiritual beauty of My Son.

Tung Nguyen is an Anthropology student at the University of California in Berkeley and a cultural enthusiast from Vietnam whose focus is the preservation of cultural heritage in Southeast Asia.

UNESCO, Safeguarding of My Son World Heritage Site 2003-2013 Project Completion Report, Vietnam, 2013.

© 2018 Sacred Sites International

The Site of Palmyra, Syria

By Sehee Liz Lee

Palmyra, located north-east of Damascus, in the Syrian Desert, was a caravan oasis on a trade route that linked the Mediterranean world with lands to the south and east such as India and China. In that sense, Palmyra was the crossroads of different ancient civilizations and cultures.

The site of Palmyra has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980 and was also designated a national monument by Syria for its cultural and historical value. Thus, Palmyra has been receiving worldwide attention because it contains numerous important ancient ruins, which are now endangered due to numerous rounds of military presence and destruction by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

History of Palmyra

Palmyra, also known as its pre-Semitic name Tadmor, is firstly mentioned in the Mari tablets in the 2nd millennium BC. Palmyra became prosperous as an oasis on the caravan trade routes that linked the Persian Gulf and the Eurasian continent to the Far East, India and China. Profiting from its strategic location, Palmyra remained autonomous for over half a century, primarily populated by Aramaeans and Arabs. When it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD, Palmyra was incorporated into the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Roman emperor Tiberius (14-37 A.D).

Palmyra lost its influence over the trade routes due to the foundation of the Sasanian Empire of Iran in 224 A.D. Odaenathus, had been appointed by governor by Valerian, (253-260 A.D.) He drove the Sassanian’s out of Syria. After his assassination, his second wife, Zenobia ruled the city and expanded the border to Egypt and much of Asia Minor, or Anatolia. Although the city declared its independence from Rome under the rule of Zenobia, the Roman emperor Aurelian reconquered Palmyra in 272 A.D.

In 634, Palmyra was conquered by the Muslim general Khalid Ibnal-Walid in the name of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr. Afterwards, it had been ruled as part of Muslim caliphates until it became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516.9 In 1678, the ancient ruins of Palmyra were rediscovered by English travelers.

Inscription in Greek and Aramaic in honor of Julius Aurelius Zenobius, the father of Queen Zenobia. Photo by MyOlmec.

Inscription in Greek and Aramaic in honor of Julius Aurelius Zenobius, the father of Queen Zenobia. Photo by MyOlmec.

The artistic & architectural significance of Palmyra

The site of Palmyra bears witness to the mixture of these ancient cultures. Nasser Rabbat, a Syrian art historian, explained that the Palmyrene culture was “Arab in origin, but then classical in influence and in temperament and inclination” and thus, Palmyra is “a mark of how cultures can come together creatively”. Art found on a number of public monuments including the Temple of Ba’al, Diocletian’s Camp, the Agora, Theatre, and other temples exhibits the Greco-Roman art integrated with local traditions and Persian influences.

Specifically, architectural ornaments including distinctive funerary reliefs demonstrate that Palmyra produced a unique artistic style based on its multicultural landscape. While the funerary monuments contain Aramaic inscriptions, they “provide some of the best evidence of jewelry in the Greco-Roman world.“ According to Maura Heyn, an Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of North Carolina, monuments “provide us with an abundance of evidence for cultural change and negotiation.”

This Palmyrene artistic style placed its emphasis on the delicate details of clothing of deities and the frontal representation of the person depicted, and is considered a forerunner of Byzantine art.

The design of the temples is also distinctive, although the basic style is closely related to Greek temples; the roofs are decorated with stone triangles known as merlons, of which the edges look like rows of pointy teeth. The grand colonnade that stands along a street of 1100 meters’ in length also represents a major artistic development. The discovery of the ruins of Palmyra by Western travelers in the 17th and 18th century greatly influenced subsequent architectural styles and urban design in the West.

Palmyra as a Sacred Place

Palmyra is also considered a sacred place with its numerous temples such as the Temple of Baalshamin, the Temple of Nabu and the Temple of Bel.

The temples were dedicated to multiple deities, and as Nasser Rabbat explained, “Inside you have to turn either right or left because the temple had two altars.”

Among those temples, the temple of Ba’al was dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel, or Ba’al. The temple is considered “one of the most important religious buildings of the 1st century AD in the East and of unique design.” The temple is a symbol of religious tolerance since the temple, originally dedicated to local deities and Mesopotamian and Arab gods, later became a Christian church during the Byzantine era and then was used as a mosque until 1920s after the Muslim conquest.

Stuart W. Manning, chairman of the Department of Classics at Cornell University, said the temple of Ba’al was “a tolerant home to different faiths and ethnic groups where Greco-Roman and local cultures merged.”

While, its religious and cultural value is recognized by all humankind in the world, Palmyra is a source of national pride for Syrians. Salam Al Kuntar, a Syrian archaeologist and visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, explained, “Syrians consider Palmyra so special, because it’s a source of pride for them. They feel very faithful to this past history and the monuments and art that signify it.” Rabbat, recalling his childhood memory of listening stories about Palmyra, also said, “This is the meaning of heritage – it’s not only architecture or artifacts that are representing history, it’s these memories and ancestral connection to the place.”

Temple of Bel 2005 before destruction by ISIL, by Zeledi. Courtesy of

Temple of Bel 2005 before destruction by ISIL, by Zeledi. Courtesy of

Threats due to Syrian Civil War and Destruction by ISIL

Palmyra, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, because it was a significant cultural site of incalculable value. It has been gravely threatened due to the Syrian Civil War that erupted in 2012 and the following destruction by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

As the violence spread across the Syria in 2012, the Syrian Army set up its military camp in Palmyra; a resident who escaped, described the chaos, “Palmyra is surrounded by the army from all fronts. Machine gun fire rains down from the citadel at anything that moves in the ruins because they think it is rebels.”

Temple of Bel before and after destruction by ISIL in 2015

Temple of Bel before and after destruction by ISIL in 2015

In the face of devastation from warring factions, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, repeatedly expressed her grave concern about further damage to Palmyra by saying “To date, three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Palmyra, the Crac des Chevaliers, and Aleppo including the Aleppo Citadel – are being used for military purpose and this raises the risk of imminent and irreversible destruction, in addition to that which these sites have already suffered.” And, “Damage to the heritage of the country is damage to the soul of its people and its identity.” She also called on the Syrian authorities for fulfilling their obligation codified in the 1954 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict.

In May 2015, the armed extremist group, also known as ISIL, took control of Palmyra, and in August, blew-up of the temple of Baalshamin, one of the best-preserved buildings in Palymra. According to UNESCO, “Its cella, or inner area, was severely damaged, …followed by the collapse of the surrounding columns.” UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova strongly condemned the successive destruction of Palmyrene ancient ruins, saying “The systematic destruction of cultural symbols embodying Syrian cultural diversity reveals the true intent of such attacks, which is to deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity and history. Daesh [ISIL] is killing people and destroying sites, but cannot silence history and will ultimately fail to erase this great culture from the memory of the world.”

Despite the international condemnation, the extremist group continued the destruction of cultural sites for three reasons, the first of which is that ISIL justifies its destruction in terms of iconoclasm. ISIL considers representative art depicted on the ancient temples as a form of idolatry based on the Muslim monotheism, the belief that there exists only one god. Therefore, pre-Islamic religious heritage, specifically the temples dedicated to multiple deities at Palmyra, is regarded as blasphemous for the group. Another reason behind the destruction is publicity. Destroying the culturally significant temples is the easiest way to attract media attention for ISIL, allowing the group to propagate its message all over the world. In this respect, Erin Thompson, professor of art crime at John Jay College, said, “They are using, essentially, the media to convey to potential recruits this idea that the West is powerless to defend against ISIS’ destruction of things that are so important to us.” In addition, ISIL has been looting the valuable antiquities from Palmyra, which became a source of funding for its activities, thus, meaning the group will continue the destruction of cultural sites such as Palmyra.

The efforts for preservation and protection

Prior to the capture of Palmyra by ISIL, UNESCO had been offering training courses for conservation experts from Syria and hosting meetings in order to create a team of observers to monitor and safeguard the site.

In May 2014, UNESCO held the meeting entitled ‘Rallying the International Community to Safeguard Syria’s Cultural Heritage’ in which more than 120 experts discussed the need to prevent the site from further illicit trafficking and looting of objects and to demilitarize the endangered site. At this meeting, the decision was made by the observers to assess the state of endangered cultural sites within Syria. In December 2014, UNESCO jointly organized a three-week training course for

In December 2014, UNESCO jointly organized a three-week training course for conservation experts from across Syria with the ICCROM-ATHAR, (The International Center for the Study and Restoration of Cultural Property and the Architectural and Archaeological Tangible Heritage in the Arab Region, and the ARC-WH (Arab Regional Center for World Heritage in Bahrain.) Its objective was “to secure the endangered cultural sites and take the appropriate preparatory procedures for the post-conflict recovery phase,” by improving technical skills of conservation architects, engineers and archaeologists.

While Palmyra was under the control of ISIL, the international community condemned ISIL’s destruction of the site and UNESCO also called for cooperation of all the partners and relevant parties to ensure safeguarding of Palmyra. Some experts even sacrificed their lives to protect the endangered sites. Khaled al-As’ad, who spent more than 50 years on the task of overseeing and preserving antiquities at the site of Palmyra, was murdered by ISIL since he refused to reveal the location of valuable antiquities.

After the Syrian army, backed by Russian warplanes, retook the site of Palmyra in March 2016, experts sent by UNESCO have been in the process of assessing the state of ancient buildings damaged in the wake of the conflicts. Specific emergency safeguarding measures to be undertaken are being discussed at the 40th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, held in June and July of 2016.

Now the site of Palmyra needs more worldwide attention and help than ever to rehabilitate the destroyed buildings and the glorious historical, religious, and cultural values instilled in them; the Syrian government and UNESCO need to collaborate in establishing policy to organize a team of experts who are able to conduct a systematic survey and restoration of the site. We also, need to avoid purchasing cultural artifacts of uncertain provenance in order to prevent further illicit trafficking and destruction of cultural heritage caused by ISIL.

Creating a Contemporary Sacred Site

By Stephen Fowler

Peace Site Overview — Photo by Stephen Fowler

“Every land should be a holy land. One should find the symbol in the landscape itself of the life there. That’s what all early traditions do. They sanctify their own landscape.”
~Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth” with Bill Moyers

In this article I will explore how Arthur Lisch organized a community of supporters to create a “Peace Site.” I will also give a brief history of the enterprise, which continues to this day, though Parkinson’s disease has forced Arthur to cease working there. I will also touch on the subjects of anthroposophy and geomancy.

Arthur Lisch and His Background

In 1986-87, Arthur Lisch and some friends set out to sanctify a small portion of land on the western edge of Sebastopol, located in Sonoma County, California.

Lisch was also a follower of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who founded the esoteric-spiritual Anthroposophist movement.

Arthur was well prepared for undertaking the creation of a peace park. He had been active in the counterculture heyday of San Francisco and was part of the Diggers, an activist community group, operating from 1967-1968, in the Haight-Ashbury district located in San Francisco, California. The Diggers had the radical idea that they could provide all the necessities of life to whomever wanted them – for free. It was here that Arthur learned the fundamentals of community organizing.

Lisch was also a follower of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who founded the esoteric-spiritual Anthroposophist movement. Steiner’s lectures on agriculture led to Biodynamics and his educational philosophy was manifest in Waldorf Schools. Steiner’s lectures on numerous subjects were infused with spiritual philosophy such as believing there was a spiritual foundation for all phenomena including earth’s features.

Steiner’s spirituality developed into a personal form of Christianity that was non-denominational and non-dogmatic. While Arthur, and his wife Paula, chose to attend an Eastern Orthodox Church in Calistoga, California. Arthur hoped for a reconciliation of the Catholic and Orthodox branches of the Christian church, a thousand year-old schism.


Geomancy identifies lines of force, alignments, patterns and invisible earth energies underlying the visible landscape.

For Arthur Lisch, all of his concerns and passions blended seamlessly with the art and science of geomancy – the study of earth’s energies – that was being taught in the 1980s by Richard “Feather” Anderson. Geomancy identifies lines of force, alignments, patterns and invisible earth energies.

Humankind’s response to these forces has resulted in countless efforts to modulate them through the acts of building temples, pyramids, barrow mounds, and standing stones that may align with landscape features and celestial phenomena, such as solstices and the progression of the planets.

Mother and Child Wood Carving

mother and child wood carving

– by Takayuki Zoshi; Mother and Child Wood Carving – Photo by Kate Broderson


As John Michell puts it in his book, The Earth Spirit,

“Like Kundalini, the vital serpent current that animates living bodies, the spirit of the earth is discernible only in its effects and not by analysis. It is therefore of no concern to physical science…yet its influence was formerly considered to condition every aspect of life on earth, and…heroic efforts have been made…to learn its secrets so as to bring forth its more socially desirable properties.”

Theory in Practice

With his knowledge and experience with geomancy and spirituality, Arthur began to execute his vision for a peace park. First, he examined the map of Sonoma County and discovered one striking fact that involved the early settlers of what is now Sonoma County. The Russians and their Orthodox priests and the Spanish padres had each created outposts precisely fifty-five miles apart. The Russians, in their trek down California’s coast, had stalled at Fort Ross, while the Spaniards and their evangelical padres had reached the northernmost point of expansion at the Sonoma Mission. For a while, until the Russians retreated, these two Christian cultures maintained outposts in a landscape that was already extraordinarily potent, with its Pomo and Miwok Indian sites, its redwood forests, rugged Pacific coastline, fertile inland valleys, cloud-topped Mount Saint Helena, and meandering river – now known as the Russian River.

Lisch began by drawing a straight line between Fort Ross and the Sonoma Mission. He noticed that it passed through the town of Sebastopol, and that a point on the western edge of that town was exactly twenty-two and a half miles from each outpost. Going to the vicinity indicated on the map, Arthur discovered a county regional park that was in the process of being constructed on the long-defunct Ragle family ranch. Wandering in the abandoned Ragle orchard, he discovered a unique chestnut tree formed from two trees wedded together. About fifty feet away stood a Bartlett pear also created from two trees springing from the same root. Using the chestnut as the hub and the Bartlett as the radius point, he circumscribed a circle one hundred feet in diameter and declared it to be a “national peace site.” Regional parks officials, of course, had doubts and questions when Arthur took his idea to them. However, Arthur’s persuasive presentation convinced the park’s chief, Joe Rodota, and Lisch was allowed to implement his idea.

First Steps and County Pushback

Arthur fashioned a mission statement for the Peace Site, stating his intent to build “ a stating his intent to build “ a work of public art with the maximum of community participation that makes a profound statement about world peace.” His mission successfully engaged the large pacifist community in Sonoma County who formed the volunteers who help build and care for the park.

At first, the site had no features other than its two trees and a stretch of rank weeds and grasses. A formal groundbreaking took place on November 8, 1987.

A year later, Arthur wrote a report to the Sonoma County County Parks Department. Some excerpts included:

“…Hundreds of people have taken part. A Pomo elder has prayed for the land. Fourteen Soviets, who had come across the country as part of a joint U.S./Soviet peace walk, came to the site. There have been visits by Russian Orthodox and Catholic priests. There was a group meditation on peace for all nations. The group donated a “peace pole” which has the message “May peace prevail on earth” in Russian, Spanish, Japanese, and English. Biodynamic compost…was incorporated into the circle. Ann Magnie, (Sebastopol’s then-mayor,) donated a Japanese black pine. At the spring equinox, there was a large celebratory event. Plants were put in at poles that had been placed in the four directions…We came to a decision that we would have a spiral path. The path was moved a bit in relation to “Feather” Anderson’s suggestions about the entrance.”

Despite all this activity, a design for the park had not been finalized.

Lisch and his supporters developed the Peace Site by interfacing with the Regional Parks Administration. The process was challenging, but a design was eventually developed and agreed upon by all parties. The plan called for the Peace Site to be circumscribed by a zig-zag split-rail fence, its outer points corresponding to the sixteen compass directions, a concept that grew from Arthur’s study of the chess board.

The Peace Site Takes Shape with a Central Focus

The Peace Site consists of symbolic natural plantings, sculptures and carvings added over time by a variety of individuals, groups and artists. It was decided that a central focus based on geomancy would guide the ever-evolving site.

The logarithmic spiral of the Nautilus Shell

The logarithmic spiral of the Nautilus Shell

The Peace Site began to take shape when Geomancer Richard “Feather” Anderson drew a spiral path that mimicked the natural form exemplified by the logarithmic spiral of a Nautilus Shell. The path culminated at the central chestnut tree. The tree embodied a different sort of symbolism, as well as being a botanical curiosity. When the peace site was started, the tree was in such decline that an arborist declared it would be dead within a few years. But, the tree recovered, even though the trunk still displayed large swaths of dead wood.

The central chestnut tree showing the “daughter’s” roots before the addition of Takayuki Zoshi’s “Mother and Child” wood carving. – Photo by Kate Broderson

The trunk also seemed to be divided into “sub-trunks,” which on close examination proved to be the exposed roots of a second tree – or daughter – which had sprouted from a seed some six feet up in the mother’s damaged heart.

The “mother” and “daughter” trees, wrapped in a tight embrace, became the peace site’s signature feature; both had withstood the ravages of time, weather, and neglect to become – as they are now – radiantly alive and once more producing nuts.

Another important element of the garden that is related to the central tree is a sculpture that was commissioned by the Peace Site Care Group who raised the money for this project.

A five-member jury comprised of artists, chose finalists out more than 50 entries. Six sculptors were selected to create models that were displayed for six weeks in order to allow County Supervisors and Park Officials to inspect them. Ultimately, Masayuki Nagase’s granite “Prayer for Peace” (see photo at the end of the article) was selected as the winner.

The sculpture consists of two upright slabs, each approximately seven feet high, between which visitors can stand, and a carved granite table, over which trickles a tiny, continuous stream of water. This stream is captured at the base and piped to the roots of the chestnut tree. The water is a magnet for birds and small children, and the sculptor has written that it “…symbolizes the source of the human spirit and our consciousness for peace.”

In 2012, the Peace Site Care Group decided to use some accumulated donations to commission a very talented local woodcarver, Takayuki Zoshi, to carve a mother-and-child sculpture into the dead wood of the original tree. Chestnut wood is extremely rot resistant, and it accepted Zoshi’s chisel gracefully. This sculpture made the dual nature of the chestnut explicit, and nowadays, if you stand between the upright slabs of Masayuki’s piece, you look right into the eyes of Zoshi’s celebration of motherhood.

Six or seven paces behind her, you can see a long, carved redwood and hammered copper bench, designed by sculptor Bruce Johnson, and completed by students in the Artstart summer arts program. Johnson also contributed a tall, tapered, octagonal peace pole, which now—thanks to the “Peace Crane Project” of the local Peace and Justice Center—displays the words “May peace prevail on earth” in eight languages, including Pomo.

Many additions to the Peace Site are encountered while traversing Feather Anderson’s spiral path before finally resting in the shade of the chestnut tree. At the far eastern compass point, there once grew a “Peace” rose, planted in a joint ceremony by local Jews and Palestinians to celebrate the famous handshake between Palestinian leader, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister, Begin. After Begin was assassinated, the rose withered and died.

Further on, a Gravenstein apple tree grows, placed by Orthodox priests who brought it from Fort Ross; in the same ceremony, the Catholic bishop of Santa Rosa contributed a grape grown from vines at the Sonoma Mission. The grape and apple are planted precisely along the Fort Ross-Sonoma line that first inspired Arthur.


A bit further, one passes a rosa rugosa, a species of rose native to Eastern Europe, planted by a group of Russian exchange students. Next, comes a group of memorial plantings that includes roses, a solitary boulder, and a mugo pine. All of these features culminate in a small rock garden dedicated to the late Danaan Parry, an international diplomat for peace and founder of the Earth Stewards.

Continuing on, one passes a Colorado blue spruce, brought by the grandson of Cyrus Eaton, who organized the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs; and next, a birch tree ceremoniously installed by Ukranian students. Finally, at “due north,” we see Mayor Magnie’s Black Pine.


“Peace” is an umbrella concept under which many causes can gather. The Peace Site at Ragle Park does not presume either to define “peace” or to advise nations on how they should conduct foreign policy. It aims for something more personal, more intimate, and less verbal. It is a place of meditation, ceremony, and art, a place where visitors are welcome to bring their own emotions – whether grief, or anger, or longing – into an atmosphere of love and acceptance.

The Peace Site Care Group prunes and waters and rakes so that the many visitors, young and old, feel welcomed into a beautiful, well-tended environment. Then the visitors themselves, by augmenting the earth energies gathered there continue the process of sanctifying their own landscape.


About the Author

Stephen Fowler is a retired landscape designer who, when his wife died in 1987, set out to do something worthy in her memory. He joined the Peace Site Care Group in 1987. He has been the Volunteer Coordinator since 1992.


 The author with Masayuki Nagase’s granite “Prayer for Peace.” The sculptor has written that it “...symbolizes the source of the human spirit and our consciousness for peace.” - Photo by Kate Broderson

The author with Masayuki Nagase’s granite “Prayer for Peace.” The sculptor has written that it “…symbolizes the source of the human spirit and our consciousness for peace.”
– Photo by Kate Broderson

Antequera Dolmens & El Torcal Mountains of Andulusia, Spain


Antequera Dolmens & El Torcal Mountains of Andulusia, Spain

Added to UNESCO World Heritage List in 2017

About the Site:

The site comprised three megalithic monuments: the Menga and vVera dolmens and the Tholos of El Romeral. Pictured above, is the entrance to the Menga Dolmen and below the interior.

These monumental stone tombs were constructed in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The Structures contain chambers with lintelled roofs or cupolas and are buried beneath their original earth tumuli. They comprise some of the best examples of their kind.

The site, in addition, includes two mountains: The mountains known as El Torcal, below:

and La Peña, de los Enamorados, a mountain known as “Lover’s Leap,” below:



Libya Remains on UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Danger

All five of Libya’s World Heritage Sites were put on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 2016 and they remain there. The reason is the high level of instability in Libya and damage due to looting and armed conflucts in and around the sites. These include: the Rock Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus, the archaological sites of Leptis Magna, Cyrene and Sabratha and the Old Town of Ghadamès.

The Rock Art of Tadrart Acacus

These sites are found in the Acacus Mountains, a rocky compact mountain range that is part of the Sahara Desert. The rock art found here exhibits a variety of styles dating from 12,000 BCE to 100 C.E. (See photo below by Roberto D’Angelo). The various rock art within the site suffered under Muammar Gaddafi and the endangered status of the site encompassed this era of neglect and included past looting along with vandalism that continues.

Picture of a cave painting

The Archaeological Site of Sabratha

Sabratha was a Phoenician trading post eventually rebuilt by the Romans during the 2nd and 3rd C.E. It is notable for its numerous temples, including one dedicated to the goddess Isis, who was considered to be the protector of ships and sailors. The Mausoleum of Bes is another notable sacred site within the ancient city. There is an excellent gallery of phots on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Archeaological Site of Cyrene

picture of Cyrene and a crumbling edifice

Cyrene, founded in the 7th C BCE, was one of the prominent Greek cities of the Hellenic world. Later, it became Romanized until a large earthquake destroyed it in 365 c BCE. O

ver a thousand years of history can be found at this site (Photo above, The Temple of Zeus, by Giovanni Boccardi). The Temple of Zeu is almost as large as the Parthenon in Athens.



The Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna

picture of Leptis Magna and crumbling edifices

Leptus Magna, founded by Septimius Severus, the first Emperor from Libya, was an important city in the Roman Republic from about 111 BCE. The emperor used his wealth to erect elegant buildings, including temples (See photo below of the Severan Basilica by Sasha Coachman), throughout the city. Statues of Medusa, a fertility goddess, were found in public squares all over the city.



Burro Flats

The Site:

Burro Flats Rock Shelter and Cave Paintingspicture of a cave painting

The Location:

Undisclosed Location, Ventura County, California, U.S.A.

The Site’s Status:

National Register of Historic Places, 1979

Who considers it sacred?

The ancestors of the Chumas and the Gabrielino Tribes, and the Fernandeno Tatavian Band of Mission Indians.

Why is it sacred?

The Burros Flat is a calendric site that marks the Winter Solstice


It is on 2,849 acres of land that once was owned by Boeing for what was known as the Santa Susana Field Lab; leased to Rocketdyne aerospeace company, along with another tenant, the U.S. Department of Energy. The site was used as a nuclear research facility and for testing rocket engines. The Chumas sacred site was closely guarded and even employees did not know its location, making it one of the best-preserved rock paintings in the country.

The U.S. Department of Energy & NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) had to do extensive cleanup to rid the site of nuclear waste from nuclear meltdowns, carcinogenic dioxins, and heavy metals. The cleanup by the North American Land Trust and is protected as open space. The 2300 acres of land is restricted from farming, hunting, housing along with ranching and any other kind of development.

The Santa Ynez Chumash tribe manages the site and its location; they strictly control who may visit this sacred site. It is a ceremonial site and is only visited by Chumash head holy healers and tribal leaders.


Standing Rock Sioux Indian Burial Grounds

The Site:

Standing Rock Sioux Indian Burial Grounds, Stone Prayer Rings and Ancient Cairns

The Location:

North Dakota, U.S.A.

The Threat:

The 1,200 mile long Dakota Access Oil Pipeline traverses part of Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands located in North Dakota. Lawyers for the Standing Rock Sioux filed a request to stop the project, when it became apparent that the pipeline would destroy a recently identified burial ground, along with stone prayer rings and ancient rock cairns. In addition, the pipeline travels beneath the Missouri River, a primary source of drinking water for the tribe and other people downstream. Any leak in the pipeline would contaminate the drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux.Banner reads: Defend the Sacred - picture of a protest against the pipeline


See the Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Story: Did the Dakota Access Pipeline Company Deliberately Destroy Sacred Sioux Burial Sites?

A large camp was established on the pipeline site, the Oceti Sakowin Camp. It was a historic gathering of tribes and allies who were expressing solidarity in stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline, Calling themselves, The Water Protectors’. The Oceti Sakowin Camp will be a place for future indigenous meetings.

To learn how the encampment began, read the New York Times Magazine article about the young people who first camped out at the site: “The Youth Group that Launched a Movement at Standing Rock.”

Also, read this article from the New Yorker, “Holy Rage: Lessons from Standing Rock,” by the American novelist, Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountin Band of Chippewa Indians. Ms. Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Who Considers the Site Sacred?

Standing Rock Sioux and other Sioux Tribes including other Indians throughout the U.S.

The Site’s Status:

The Standing Rock Sioux have sued the Army Corps of Engineers saying they violated the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA). NHPA requires the agency to consider the cultural significance of federally permitted sites and NEPA to consider the possible consequences associated with waterways – putting a pipeline under the Missouri River. The litigation is ongoing and a court has rejected arguments that the construction be halted while the case is in litigation.

Oil started flowing through the pipeline in the spring of 2017.

McDonnell Hall

The Site:

McDonnell Hall

The Location:

Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, San Jose, California, U.S.A.

The Site’s Status:

National Historic Landmark, 2017

Who considers it sacred?

The Mexican American Community, the United Farm Workers Union and civil rights communities, and Catholic Diocese of San Jose.

Why is it sacred?

McDonnell Hall is where Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers Union and civil rights pioneer, began his lifelong efforts in community organization.


The modest one-story, stucco clad building, was moved to the outskirts of San Jose in 1953, and first served as a parish church for the growing Spanish-speaking Catholic community in the area. It was a place of worship as well as a social hall used by the community for meetings, celebrations, and education classes.

It was in this capacity that a young Cesar Chavez met Father Donald McDonnell and community organizer, Fred Ross. McDonnell befriended Chavez, bringing to him exposure to the teachings of Ghandi, the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the growing awareness of non-violent protest to bring out social change. Ross mentored Chavez and he began to apply these strategies to improve the plight of his friends, family, and neighbors.

It was in McDonnell Hall that Chavez began to involve himself more fully in the organization of the primarily poor and migrant community around him toward improving their treatment and status. This is where his rallying cry, ¡Si, Se Puede! (Yes! We Can!) was developed. Throughout his career, he returned to this building, to his original community, to find strength and solace.

As the parish and the population of the community expanded, the building was moved to another portion of the original site in the 1970s, when it became a parish hall to support the activities and efforts of the newly constructed Lady of Guadalupe Parish Church. The original building was re-stuccoes and modified at that time to better serve its new purpose. Plans are currently underway to restore the building to its appearance in 1953, when Chavez first began his connections to structure.

The recognition of this simple, imperfect building with the Unites States Secretary of the Interior’s highest honor emphasizes the growing the growing awareness of the National Park Service of minority and marginalized community contributions to the cultural significance of the country. The McDonnell Hall National Historic Landmark joins the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene, California and the Forty Acres National Historic Landmark Site in Delano, California in celebrating and continuing the work that Cesar Chavez started in 1953 in this humble former-church building in San Jose.

Nan Madol: Sacred City of Micronesia by Carol Nervig

Nan Madol rises dramatically and unexpectedly out of the Pacific Ocean. This majestic ancient city filled with sacred centers is located off the island of Pohnpei in the U.S. Micronesia. It is the largest archaeological site in the Pacific region. Nan Madol is comprised of an intricate system of waterways that crisscross 92 human constructed islets and structures. The black stone buildings are completely unique in their construction. There is no other architecture of this kind known in the world. The building of Nan Madol was an impressive engineering feat that withstood strong waves and ocean currents. The city’s construction also required divine assistance and spiritual intent when heavy megalithic stones were moved into place. Now, after standing for over 1500 years, the survival of this sacred city is threatened by deterioration.

The site was constructed on an area called, “The Reef of Heaven.” The building took place over a period of one thousand years, between 500 and 1500 A.D. Many of the islets are dominated by megalithic structures comprised of long, naturally prismatic, log-like basalt stones. Some of these rocks weigh 50 to 60 tons. Evidence suggests that some of the islets played an important roles in the religion of a thriving Pacific Ocean culture. Upper Madol, “Madol Powe,” was the priests’ town and Lower Madol, “Madol Pah,” was occupied by high-ranking rulers. Both sections included important sacred sites.

According to Pohnpeian oral history, initial construction of Nan Madol was begun by two brothers, Ohlosohpa and Olosihpa.

These holy men sailed from a land in the west searching for a place to build a sacred center where they could worship a presence called the “honored spirit of the land.” After several attempts they found a suitable location. With the assistance of gods and their companions, they first erected a rock on the reef to serve as a transit for laying the islets’ foundations. Strong waves made building nearly impossible. Finally an important man arrived on a magical rock to assist with the project. He cast a spell and the rock turned into an outer foundation wall that protected the islet structures from ocean forces. This wall has the only gate providing entrance to Nan Madol from the ocean. It is believed that this gate leads to an honored underground city, Kahnimweiso.


Just beyond the entry gate stands the most impressive of the site’s structures. The islet is called Nan Douwas, which means “in the mouth of the high chief.” It was a place to pray to “the honored spirit of the land,” as well as a refuge and meeting place for tribal chiefs. This islet consists of an immense double-walled stone burial vault that housed the remains of ancient rulers. Its impressive construction contains 13,500 cubic meters of coral fill, 4,500 cubic meters of basalt and has twenty-five-foot high walls. Because of its spectacular appearance, Nan Douwas is the most frequently visited islet.

The main religious center of Nan Madol was the islet of Idehd. Every year, at a time determined by divination and change in the agricultural seasons, the high priests performed extended rituals of homage, supplication and atonement. The rituals ended with the offering of a turtle to the great saltwater eel that acted as a medium between the people and the ruler’s god. The eel’s acceptance of the turtle indicated that, “the honored spirit of the land,” was pleased with human conduct on Pohnpei.

Other islets had important sacred ceremonial sites. Darong was symmetrically constructed around a natural reef pool. Eleven tunnel-like channels ran through the coral fill. These were constructed with carefully cut coral bricks set between rows of basalt columns. It is believe that these channels were used to keep sacred eels, Legends indicate that the pool was also used for seasonal ritualistic clam fishing. A remarkable two-ton pounding stone found on this islet suggests a ceremonial structure of priest’s house.

The islet of Peikapw had two sacred pools. One probably held the turtles used on Idehd. The other was a magical pool where rulers could see all events taking place on neigh boring islands. IN addition, there are two sacred trees and stones said to have once been women who neglected a famous giant god.

Kohnderek was the most important islet for burial rituals. When a person dies their body was perfumed with coconut oil and wrapped in a mat along with flowers, fish bones, and some of their belongings. They were taken to visit all the islets, finally stopping at Kohnderek. The most important funeral dancing and drinking occurred on this islet before the burial on one of the other islets.


As the end of the 20th century grows closer, Nan Madol is in danger of destruction from the ravaged of tie and from increased tourism. Immediate preservation needs are the stabilization of the islets’ retaining walls and the walls of the structures, vegetation removal and maintenance and proper management of eco-tourism.

The protection and preservation of Nan Madol was provided for in 2986 in its proclamation as a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The site is being nominated to the World Heritage List of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO because of its “outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic and anthropological points of view.” (See Site Saver, Vol. II, No. 3 on UNESCO World Heritage Sites.)

The state of Pohnpei is passing its own preservation legislation, which will further protect the site’s integrity and aesthetic qualities.

The importance of the site has also attracted a group of private individuals who have formed the Nan Madol Foundation. This non-profit group is dedicated to researching, preserving, and protecting the area. They are developing a master plan for education and economic development.

Tourists are increasing at this unique site. Their numbers are expected to increase exponentially when the National Geographic Society releases its new book Mysteries of Mankind  later this year. Approximately 600,000 copies will be produced, featuring such sacred sites as the Pyramids, Stonehenge, Easter Island, and Nan Madol.

In anticipation of more visitors, the Nan Madol Foundation is working to preserve the site and its culture by building small family-owned traditional-style hotels. They envision a strong educational component for visitors, which will emphasize traditional island arts, crafts, dances, and story telling. By such forward thinking it is hoped that this site can be preserved for future generations before overdevelopment and overuse destroy its integrity.


Carol Nervig is a former Peace Corps volunteer who served on the island of Pohnpei. Sacred Sites International first published this story in 1992. It took over 25 years for Nan Madol to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.