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Cool Places by Satellite: Say Amen, Somebody
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4. Say amen, somebody

Some religious structures and compounds look very interesting from above, while others don’t but are still fascinating to spy on because of the stories behind them.

Satellite view
Of the many purported locations of the Ark of the Covenant — assuming such a furnishing truly existed and still does — the most creditable and celebrated is probably the MOSES TABLET CHAPEL adjacent to the older Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia. In the view you’re looking at, the Chapel is the square structure at the very center, about 9 meters (30 feet) on a side.

According to a scripture known as the Kebra Nagast, Menelek I, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and founder of the Ethiopian dynasty that ended only in 1974, brought the Ark here coming home from a visit to his father in Jerusalem. Now Solomon had originally meant to dispatch a replica of the Ark, but through some chicanery on the part of the son of Zadok, the High Priest (not to be confused with Zardoz), the real one got substituted.

No one may enter this chapel but the Guardian of the Ark, who takes a vow of chastity and for all practical purposes confines himself there for life. (Though only he knows for sure, chances are the Ark looks a lot like this, minus the dog.) I’m in no position to judge the evidence either pro or con for this story, but one might wonder why from one generation to the next an Ethiopian Orthodox priest would make such a sacrifice unless there was an awfully good reason for it. Or then again, maybe he cheats and sneaks home every night.

Satellite view
Notorious for its stadium-filling mass weddings, myriad front organizations (International Family Association, World Freedom Insitute, Washington Golf Monthly, etc.), and unbounded largess to the Republican Party and the Bush family in particular, the UNIFICATION CHURCH operates from its US headquarters in Manhattan adjacent to the New York Public Library. Their late founder Sun Myung “I am your brain!” Moon himself occupied a cozy litte homestead in nearby East Irvington.

The many conceits, subterfuges, and controversies of Moon and his cult literally fill books, but here’s one of the more crazed. In the early 1980s Moon and two Japanese newspaper publishers produced and bankrolled an epic film saga entitled Oh, Inchon. They signed up Laurence Olivier to play General Douglas MacArthur and plowed somewhere between $40 and $140 million into the project. Virtually from Day One it ran way over schedule and way over budget. Actors and crew reported total chaos on the set and being paid out of hundred-dollar-bill-stuffed suitcases. A few theaters screened Inchon (without the Oh) briefly to get Moon and the publishers off their backs. It took in $5 million and vanished without a trace.

Speaking of New York, in this case Brooklyn, here’s the headquarters of the WATCH TOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY, better known as the Jehova’s Witnesses. A far less rigorous Millerite offshoot is the Seventh Day Adventist Church HEADQUARTERED HERE in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The term “Gothic” used to describe those many pointed-arched churches built in Europe during the 12th through 15th centuries was originally one of disparagement. A synonym for “barbaric,” basically, from the viewpoint of 16th and 17th century art critics who felt oh-so-modern.

Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, whose walls literally contain more stained glass than stone, is perhaps the most elegant and best-restored Gothic church I can think of. But by satellite you see little more than a simple rectangle with a rounded end. Here are six that do not disappoint from that perspective, though, in approximate chronological order of their inceptions:

Satellite view
1. NORWICH (Norman/early Gothic, Restored by Charles II. Maze celebrates Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee.)

2. NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS (of Hunchback fame, rioters tried to burn it down during the Paris Commune anarchy of 1871)
3. ROUEN (reigned as the world’s tallest building between 1876 and 1880, painted frequently by Monet)

4. NOTRE-DAME DE REIMS (with that forest of gracefully writhing statues encompassing the exterior)
5. AMIENS (spellbinding stained glass, plus the head of John the Baptist — no, really)

6. COLOGNE (succeeded Rouen as world’s tallest building until topped by Washington Monument in 1884)

Rouen Cathedral is not to be confused with its close neighbor in the same town, the Church of Saint Ouen, similarly designed and also pretty neat-looking here. And if that’s not enough, you also have in Rouen the Late/Flamboyant Gothic Church of Saint Maclou. I first learned of that last one on the list and also in the thumbnail above, Cologne, from a dizzying 3D View-Master image looking down on its many needle-sharp pinnacles. The ultimate skydiver’s misery, I imagined.

Satellite view
In 1983 president-for-life Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) decided to move the capital of his country from the relatively cosmopolitan Abidjan to his hardscrabble home village of Yamoussoukro. The centerpiece of this transition was the construction of what is now the world’s largest Christian church building, the BASILICA OF OUR LADY OF PEACE. Houphouët-Boigny and his architect Pierre Fakhoury based it on St. Peter’s in Rome, but made it 30 percent larger overall.

Our Lady of Peace Yamoussoukro
Altar and baldachin inside the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro
With a devoted crew of 1500 it took only three years to build, though at a cost of $300 million which at the time doubled the country’s national debt. Pope John Paul II agreed to fly out to Côte d’Ivoire to consecrate it, but only on two conditions: (1) BOOLOP’s dome may NOT be higher than St. Peter’s in Rome, and (2) the diocese must also construct a hospital nearby. No problem, said Houphouët-Boigny. Yes, the dome is larger, but as you see it begins lower to the ground and thereby manages to top out slightly under the 136.57 meters (448 feet) of St Peter’s. And sure, we’ll be perfectly glad to build that hospital.

The Pope showed up as promised on September 10, 1990 and did his thing for BOOLOP and for the hospital’s ground-breaking. After he left, though, Houphouët-Boigny added a cross to the top of his dome that DID make it taller than St. Peter’s after all — by 12.4 meters (41 feet). And the hospital? Its cornerstone is still sitting out there all by itself in a nearby field.

Satellite view
The temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as the LDS or the Mormons, are most attractive though in a mausoleum-like way with more than a touch of the surreal. Their slit-windowed motifs betoken the secrecy of what goes on inside: Freemasonry-inspired rituals involving passwords, covert handshakes, code names, scripted reenactments, and lots of fiendishly uncomfortable underwear.

By far the grandest and best known is the MAIN TEMPLE IN SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, built of gray quartz monzonite between 1852 and 1892. Its largest dressed blocks are the 36 forming the perimeter slightly above ground, at three tons each. The building is 57 meters (186.5 feet) by 36 meters (118.5 feet), the sides are 33 meters (107.5 feet) high, and the tallest spire is 68 meters (222.5 feet) including its gilded statue of Angel Moroni blowing his trumpet. Only the properly vetted are allowed inside this or any such temple post-dedication — 1 Mormon out of every 4, on average — but at least here’s how its interior appeared in 1912.

Like most creeds the Mormons have split into a number of factions. Of those still in existence, the next largest is the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of LDS, known since 2001 as the Community of Christ. Its main INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI TEMPLE designed by Japanese-American architect Gyo Obata features a helical 90-meter (300-foot) tower. These people do invite the general public into their temples and this one in particular draws 60,000 visitors annually.

Satellite view
At its peak in the mid 19th century some 6000 people counted themselves as Shakers, officially The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Their forebears had come to North America from England in 1744 and established communes in which they espoused a joyful, if punctilious and celibate, lifestyle. Shaker furniture and other crafts became world famous — austere, elegant, and highly practical though in the long run not economically competitive with the mass-produced article.

Another inherent problem with being a Shaker was that, well, with a zero birth rate they had to rely on adoptions and conversions to sustain their numbers. It’s almost the end of the line for them now. As of this writing fewer than half a dozen remain to inhabit a 200-plus-year-old community at SABBATHDAY LAKE, MAINE, which features a library and museum complex. Shaker music, though every bit as spare as their woodwork, has also enjoyed wide appeal. Aaron Copeland made famous the Shaker song Simple Gifts through his ballet Appalachian Spring.

Koreshanity — rhymes with... ?
Quite likely the most fabled of those who at least nominally considered themselves Shaker was Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed (1839-1908). He grew up in upstate New York (he was a distant cousin of LDS founder Joseph Smith — small world), and suffered through a wrenching series of personal and professional hardships. But in the 1860s he received some rather shocking divine revelations: The earth is not solid but rather a hollow sphere within which we all dwell, and the sun a small ball in the center, half light and half dark to give us day and night.

Satellite view
Teed assumed the Hebrew version of his name, Koresh, built up a surprisingly large following among otherwise perfectly intelligent people, and established the KORESHAN UNITY COLONY in Florida just south of Fort Myers. During its heyday of 1903-1908 it was quite a going concern and figured heavily in local politics.

Much of the steam ran out when Teed died from pistol-whipping injuries courtesy of the local marshal, but the colony carried on until 1961 at which time its last remaining member deeded the land to Florida as the Koreshan State Historic Site. Tourists flock there for the fishing, picnicking, hiking, and to savor the metaphysical/historical novelty of it all. Teed is no longer buried there, though. His entire grave washed away into the ocean during a hurricane in 1921.

Finally: It’s not old, it’s Roman
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© 2008 Peter Blinn   


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