In a time of what seems to be ever-increasing religious and political conflict, Bartlett students Akarachai Padlom, Eleftherios Sergios, and Nasser Alamadi instead chose to focus on collaboration between religions in their thesis project entitled “Faith Estates,” which outlines a new method of mass religious tourism. In an area around the Dead Sea characterized by disputed boundaries and conflicting ownership claims, the group aims to reimagine the relationship between the world’s three monotheistic religions, but also to rethink the relationship between religion, tourism, and the landscape. The design consists of large-scale excavation sites which form tourist resorts along a pilgrimage route with the goal of forming a mutually beneficial relationship.
The proposed pilgrimage route runs from Machaerus, Jordan, down to the shore of the Dead Sea, and across to the West Bank, with sites spread along the way combining archaeological excavation with mass leisure tourism. The excavation sites employ forced sightlines to create a visual connection to either Machaerus or Jerusalem by facing the V-shaped excavation voids in the chosen direction. By literally disrupting the land, the project gives it life and animation, thereby breaking some of the restrictive bonds placed upon nature by politics and legal disputes.
In response to the region’s political strife, Faith Estates is not timid about staking a claim on the land, instead offering a “mechanism of using religious claims in order to construct tourism.” The design takes a tangible and literal approach to the ownership of “Holy Land” via cutting and carving the topography wherein religious groups manage and care for their respective excavation sites while migrant tourists make short visits along the proposed pilgrimage route. The aim of the pedagogy is for tourists to be exposed to the rituals and customs of the different religions while the excavation is seen as a way to liberate the oppressed territory and an opportunity to claim and protect the land in a productive way.
Acknowledging the importance of the excavation of religious artifacts and remains in land disputes, the project takes the satirical and almost irreverent approach that innumerable sacred artifacts may be lying in wait to be discovered via the proposed excavations, presenting the possibility that both a religion’s ownership claims and tourist interest at any given site could be suddenly strengthened with a new discovery. As Padlom, Sergios, and Alamadi state:
In a ‘Faith Estate’ the sacred and the profane are symbiotic (or maybe territorial expansion is just what religion does best). A faith estate describes the way that real estate markets animate religious sentiment, and especially the way that tourists and the pilgrims can be unwittingly appropriated within a larger political territorial project.
The juxtaposition of religious observance and the capitalism of leisure tourism is in large part what makes the project interesting; there’s an undercurrent that someone is being taken advantage of, but it’s unclear just who the victim may be, and who the perpetrator. Perhaps the exploitation is mutual–the arrangement is meant to be mutually beneficial as well–in that both parties need to give something in order to gain. The third party in the equation is the natural landscape; is there a benefit to the land being so violently utilized in this way or only loss? It could, at least, be preferable to the untouchable, unusable state in which it was rendered by political stalemates. At least in this design scenario, the land is productive, one way or another.
The design disputes the nature of the “sacred” and argues that something can be too precious, too well-guarded, that it crosses the line into obsolescence. While it may seem an idealistic vision at first glance, what Faith Estates truly captures is a facet of human nature, that of wanting to capitalize when presented with an opportunity for gain. The question remains who is complicit and who is unaware of the true nature of a given space. Ignorant bliss may play a part, as well as willful ignorance, or maybe even an unspoken understanding to undermine the powers that be. In the quote above, the design team implies that the tourists and pilgrims are the groups being exploited by an unspecified political force, but the project itself seems to give some power back to those groups with the way in which the land is reclaimed and made useful, even if for capital gain and leisure pursuits. If capital and leisure are what people are after, perhaps it lessens the hold of politics when they get what they want and reclaim the system as their own.