This project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

About the project

  • Awarded to: Professor Michael Dumper
  • Funding Awarded to Exeter: £139,927
  • Dates: 1 September 2015 - 31 August 2018
  • Sponsor(s): Leverhulme Trust

Project outline

All cities are arenas of contestation and their conflicts are the subject of much recent study. However, as struggles over holy sites indicate, some cities exhibit specific forms of conflict arising from the salience of religious activity within them and these have received much less academic attention. This project proposes to explore the causes and impacts of these conflicts.

It will seek to ascertain whether these conflicts emanate from forms of community identity, forms of organisation, spatial arrangements and physical structures related to the practice of religion. During the course of previous research on conflict in the Middle East and, more specifically, on conflict in cities, I noted how features such as semi-autonomous religious hierarchies, the generation of revenues from religious endowments, the presence of holy sites and the enactment of ritualistic activities together create forms of conflict which are, arguably, more intense and more intractable than other forms of conflicts in cities.

The project will draw on empirical research previously carried out in Belfast, Mostar, Nicosia, Beirut and Jerusalem, but the focus of that earlier research was on other forms of conflict and other impacts and was intended for other purposes. The project will focus on the “holiness” of a city in order to explore the relationship between those religious features of a city and the conflict they engender.

It will comprise three related aspects:

a) a re-evaluation of existing empirical material and other secondary sources with a view to

b) extracting and developing a hypothesis that tries to explain the relationship between holy cities and certain kinds of conflict and

c) supplementary fieldwork on selected holy cities, such as Kyoto, Varanasi, Lhasa, Bursa and Kairouan, in order to test out that hypothesis on a broader scale.

The outputs of this detailed analysis will be one monograph, one peer-reviewed article and one edited volume.

Read out about our goals below.


The project is much more than a journey into the maelstrom of elusive definitions.  It also seeks to provide empirical answers two critical questions:

  • why does the holiness of a city matter in contemporary political and policy analysis?
  • how does that designation further our understanding of conflict and, more specifically, of conflict in cities divided by religion and sectarianism? 

It is in answering these questions that the project’s urgency and relevance can be seen.

It is clear that a city dominated by holy sites will produce a religious hierarchy which will have both status and a degree of political leverage in the governance of the city. The financial and administrative autonomy conferred upon this hierarchy from independent sources of revenue - donations, endowments, site entry fees, and pilgrimage profits - allow it to be a significant contributor to the economy of the city. Thus in holy cities, powerful vested interests are created which, in the contemporary scenario of neo-liberal privatisation policies and budgetary reductions, point to religious hierarchies in holy cities evolving into alternative centres of power to the modern state. 

This project will seek to delineate ways in which the relations between this sub-set of cities and the state can exacerbate state fragility through constraints on state sovereignty and through urban fragmentation. While the causes of state and city fragility have been widely covered in the literature, the religious dimension is largely overlooked.

A similar lacuna can be seen in the limited understanding we have of how holy cities play a part in international conflicts. Through its locus for regional festivities and pilgrimages, a network of organisers, adherents and other forms of solidarities are created in a city which confers upon its religious leaders significant powers. Quotas, which regulate both excessive flows of pilgrims, are used to exclude and deny legitimacy to opposition sects, which in turn have an impact upon relations with the sending and neighbouring states. For example, Sunni-Iranian Shi’a conflicts in the Middle East are frequently exacerbated as a consequence of Saudi Arabian control over the haj to Mecca.

Such religious conflicts in cities have led to the greater involvement of the international community in the protection of religious monuments and their access to them. The growing role of UNESCO in setting recognised benchmarks over acceptable activity regarding contested holy places is significant but not without its problems. 

Yet academic analysis of the implications of applying universal principles to confessional-based conflicts is limited. [1] By focusing on holy cities, this project will examine the response of the international community to the religious dimensions of urban conflict in a more systematic way. 

A closely related area which is also in urgent need of further study is the special forms of policing and the activities of security forces responsible for holy sites.[2] The impact of such forces on the nature of arrangements for the use and the access to religious property in cities is profound and has implications for the role of the international community in training, monitoring and guaranteeing political agreements in these cities.  At the same time there is very little academic consideration of their far-reaching consequences.

This project will bring together these neglected strands of research in order to provide a deeper analysis of the interactions between the international community, the state and the city with regard to such issues of control over and access to religious sites and activities.

[1] Exceptions include: R. Shepherd, ‘Unesco and the Politics of Cultural Heritage in Tibet’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 36:2 (2006); J. Pendlebury, M. Short et al., ‘Urban World Heritage Sites and the problem of authenticity’, Cities, 26:6 (2009), pp. 349–58; G. Evans, ‘Living in a World Heritage City: stakeholders in the dialectic of the universal and particular’, International Journal for Heritage Studies, 8:2 (2002), pp. 117–35.

[2] A. Leask, Managing World Heritage Sites (Oxford: Elsevier Ltd., 2006); pp. 243–57; Joris D. Kila, Heritage Under Siege: Military Implementation of Cultural Property Protection Following 1954 Hague Convention, (Boston, Leiden: Brill, 2012)

Cities are places where proximity, density and competition over finite resources are triggers for conflict.  As a result, residents are mobilised along class, linguistic, sectarian and ethnic lines to provide mutual security and to offer the prospect of improved conditions for their members. Most cities reconcile the competing interests of these groups through informal or institutionalised checks and balances leading to an uneasy equilibrium which is, nevertheless, ever-changing since the availability of resources or the demographic composition of the city are constantly being reconfigured. Some changes are so great that they cannot be absorbed by such checks and balance sand this dynamic equilibrium starts to falter and to unravel, ultimately resulting in violent conflict or division.[1]

Clearly the question of what constitutes a “holy city” and what that designation can tell us about its role in these conflictual processes is therefore central to the project. With some recent notable exceptions there is a clear gap in both the literature and the conceptualisation of this relationship. [2]

While there is little dispute amongst scholars that holy cities exist as a separate category of city and have their specific dynamics and problems, there is a lack of clarity on the attributes that they may have in common. Nevertheless, in cities such as Varanasi, Lourdes, Mecca, Jerusalem and Kyoto we can see examples where religion plays a dominant role in urban development: in particular forms of land use and property ownership, in the preponderance of ritualistic activity, in certain types of employment and in monumental construction in the form of holy sites.  

However, can one define a city’s holiness simply by the number of holy sites located within its limits?  Is it the proportion of holy sites to land area or to population that defines its holiness, or something else? 

One of the tasks of this project, therefore, is to develop a working definition of a holy city so that the kinds of conflict they exhibit can be contextualised and studied in a more targeted manner.

Similarly, holy cities are arenas for contestation over identity due to the embeddedness of holy sites in their history, fabric and topography.  As such, conflicts in and over holy sites are of a different and more profound nature than those over other kinds of land and resources. The presence of these sites has resonance beyond the sphere of personal piety and, as a consequence, a population will go to much greater length to protect them.

Hassner has pointed to their indivisibility and their “non-fungibility” which make the presence of holy sites in cities politically problematic. Unlike other territorial assets in an armed conflict, holy places cannot be divided or partitioned without their integrity being impaired and a desecration incurring. Neither can holy places be exchanged for other goods or assets. Fungibility is a critical part of success in all negotiations and with holy places, there is no alternative site and no substitution for them, and so less to negotiate.  As a result of this indivisibility and this non-fungibility, disputes over holy sites in cities are usually intractable and protracted.[3]

These insights require further development both conceptually and comparatively, and another key task of this project will be to explore their impact on holy cities.


[1]These issues are explored from different angles in Bollens S. A. On Narrow Ground: Urban policy and ethnic conflict in Jerusalem and Belfast. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000)  Sassen, S. ‘On concentration and centrality in the global city’, in World Cities in a World System, eds., P. Knox and P. Taylor. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Sennett, R. The Uses of Disorder. Personal Identity and City Life (New York: Norton, 1970).

[2] See, for example, the special issue of Space and Polity, entitled “Religion, violence and cities”, 17.3 (2013). (Guest Editors: Liam O’Dowd and Martina McKnight’s); Another recent publication by Nezar AlSayyad, Mejgan Massoumi (Eds) The Fundamentalist City? Religiosity and the Remaking of Urban Space (London: Routledge, 2011) similarly deals with the role of religion in cities but not the particular subset of cities in this project - holy cities.

[3] Ron E. Hassner, “’To Halve and to Hold’: Conflicts over Sacred Space and the Problem of Indivisibility”, Security Studies 12, no.4 (Summer 2003): pp. 1-33; Isak Svensson, “Fighting with Faith: Religion and Conflict Resolution in Civil Wars”, Journal of Conflict Resolution 51, no. 6 (2007): pp. 930-949.