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RGOD2: The presence of absence, a reflection on 9/11 and lessons in shared heritage

(Editor's note: RGOD2 traditionally runs on Fridays, but this week's column is being published on 9/11.)

Sometimes when something is taken away from us or removed without our consent or approval, what is taken away takes on a more important function in our internal navigation. This came home to me several years ago while doing some research in Ohrid in Macedonia.

This ancient city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in a city of 50,000 people on the edge of a spectacular lake, (also a Natural UNESCO World Heritage Site) and it once had 365 churches, one for each day in the year.

Half the original churches are in ruins or built over, but there is still many spectacular byzantine jewels throughout Ohrid’s magical winding streets.

You might wonder, with all these churches, why the Macedonian government recently spent 25 million euros on building a spectacular cathedral to house the remains of Saint Clement?

His relics had been removed when the invading armies of the Islamic Ottoman Empire desecrated the church and build a mosque on top of the Christian site. For centuries, the mosque was a symbol of Turkish dominance in this region, and eventually, after gaining independence from Turkey and establishing an Orthodox Christian culture, the ruins of the mosque was all that remained of the former resting place of Macedonia’s most venerated saint.

The current Macedonian government has invested millions of euros in epic public building projects, especially in Skopje, its capitol. When the opportunity arose to rebuild the Ohrid sanctuary, no expense was spared. The ruins of the mosque were simply removed. A contemporary opportunity to express shared religious and cultural heritage in a very complicated region of Europe where Muslims and Christians have not always co-existed well together, was tragically missed. By removing the ruins of the mosque, the Macedonian government actually made its presence more important by removing them. The opportunity to create a shared space where religious diversity is an important value was not only missed, but older conflicts between Muslims and Christians were heightened because of this decision. Sometimes when things are removed, they can take on a whole new meaning and power that was never anticipated by the original decision makers.

Returning to places of wounded memory

I experienced the same twist of fate at the site of the World Trade Center last month when I was visiting New York. When I was trying to come up for a name for my thesis at Trinity College, Dublin seven years ago using the Macedonian example of how heritage can assist or defer reconciliation, the title ended up being “Returning to places of wounded memory – the role of UNESCO’s World Heritage in Reconciliation.” The thesis was presented at a UNESCO conference and later published.

The site of the 9/11 disaster is, for many people, still a place of wounded memory. I watched carefully how the competing forces at work would transform this site from a disaster zone to a place of shared grief and hope. It is a miracle in itself that anything was actually constructed here in such a short time. There is an excellent PBS documentary about the challenging roles played by all the competing forces and the sheer professional brilliance of the architect of Liberty Tower, David Childs.

Overcoming challenges and opportunities for greater building security

Childs, collaborating the overall design coordination of the larger site with Daniel Libeskind, had many challenges to overcome including making the building secure from any future terrorist attack. Childs also wanted the building to feel open and easily accessible and not a fortress. He had the challenge of designing the first of several futuristic buildings that will renew this important commercial and highly symbolic site in the next couple of years.

The decision-makers agreed to retain the footprint of the twin towers and to use these two enormous rectangles to create a deep well of water surrounded by balustrade of the names of victims, all cut out from the metal surround. People approach the water and steel in awe and silence. People instinctively touch the metal while reading names and reflect on what they are seeing. It is hard to imagine the suffering that took place right here. A white rose is placed here and there. It really is a living memorial and a tribute to the army of people who imagined and created a beautiful oasis of tranquility in the heart of the world’s financial center. The attack was not only an American tragedy, but we need to remember 90 countries lost citizens and it was an international disaster. Over 1,400 rescue workers have since died from the effects of the 9/11 disaster

I visited the site twice in the past year. The first was to witness the opening of the two huge waterfalls and to see the rising of the majestic Liberty Tower. It was a very gusty day and the water spray created rainbows and occasionally would soak the visiting pilgrims. A huge American flag that covered the first five stories of the building had been caught by the wind and was ripping. I remember taking photo after photo of the tearing. It was a kind of metaphor for the heart of the nation, but at one point the tearing flag turned into a dove with wings. It was another magical example of what the place does to its visitors.

This latest visit was an attempt to visit the recently completed 9/11 Museum, but the lines were too long and we just decided to contemplate the outside areas and the completed Liberty Tower. It is an awesome project. I was fascinated by a tree that has been carefully placed in a dramatic grove of other trees that came from the area where one of the ill-fated planes went down in Pennsylvania. The tree was originally part of the World Trade Center landscaping and it is a remarkable example of nature surviving even the collapse of two major skyscrapers around it. Nature and buildings create a beautiful dialogue here.

The indomitable human spirit

The presence of absence is tangible here. The secret of surviving major loss or grief is to learn to live into the questions, protect the questions and even to love the questions themselves. The complex of buildings, the memorial museum and fountains all create a secure space where deeper contemplation is invited and protected. It is not only a place of wounded memory, but it is a tribute to all that is positive about being human. This is clearly not what the terrorists had in mind 13 years ago, on a day we cannot forget.

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RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE. RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.