Places of Holiness and Places of Horror

In my research on Sacred Places, I agree with many scholars that only a few places are sacred for their own without human involvement, such as the Mount Temple in Jerusalem, the Great Mosque of Mecca, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, and apparition Marian pilgrimage sites. Indigenous people also venerate sacred sites that have no human intervention. Indigenous sacred sites worldwide are almost all associated with the natural environment’s features, and many have ties to ancestors or creation myths. They convey unique stories, rituals, and practices. There are also other places considered sacred because holy people visited or lived there. All of these categories are attached to something unique manifested there, which is corroborated by witnesses. The process of sacralization starts and continues through years and years of people visiting and venerating those places. Without that action, the site just disappears because it loses the human perception of its ontology. Memory, then, is not static, but an active pursuit carried about by the community.

  • Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the most important jewish religious site with al-Aqsa mosque (right) and Dome of the Rock (left) on the
  • Hajj is the annual pilgrimage made by Muslims to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, in the Middle East. It takes place during Dhu al-Hijjah, which is the final month of the Islamic calendar. Every year, millions of Muslims from across the world make the journey to Mecca from wherever they live.
  • Jews praying at the Western Wall Jerusalem
  • St Peter's Square. Rome
  • Celebration at the The Vishvanath Temple, devoted to Lord Shiva. India
  • Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. India
  • Pilgrims celebrating mass at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima
  • Pilgrims visiting the Sanctuary in 2018
  • Pilgrims visiting the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France
  • Pilgrims at the Sanctuary of Guadalupe in Mexico

Other revered places are considered sacred because they engage with the dead and killing of innocent victims.  These are Places of Horror— They are rich with symbolism and collective values. They can incite memories of holiness and memories of atrocity. That is why Nick Osbaldiston and Theresa Petray reflect and recommend on visiting sacred sites of horror saying, “approaching a sacred site requires a form of comprehension on behalf of the individual; if they know the history or the identity of the place intimately or even vaguely, their behaviour alters and their mood changes”(Osbaldiston and Petray, 2011). After almost 2000 years, the Maximum Circus Romanum still carries memories of horror and, for Christians, of beatitudes. The Monument to the Fallen for Spain (Valle de los Caídos), the Museum and Site of Memory (Ex-ESMA) in Argentina, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex, and the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center all bring memories of horror. These monuments acknowledge the long-term impacts on survivors, the effects on intergenerational survivors, and other injustices. They all remind us “Never Again”. 

  • The Monument to the Fallen for Spain (Valle de los Caídos)
  • Church interior. Monument to the Fallen for Spain (Valle de los Caídos)
  • Museum and Site of Memory (Ex-ESMA) in Argentina
  • Museum and Site of Memory (Ex-ESMA) in Argentina
  • Museum and Site of Memory (Ex-ESMA) in Argentina
  • Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Berlin
  • Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Berlin
  • Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex
  • Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex
  • Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex
  • The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center
  • The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center
  • The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center
  • The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center

Some Places of Horror bring a collective history where there is no dissent; there, the community joins in shared grief, as the Armenian community in Tsitsernakaberd and Jews in Yad Vashem. Other memorials do not carry collective memories so neatly. That is the case of the monument to the Fallen for Spain. A Committee of experts for the future of the Monument to the Fallen for Spain commissioned by the government of José Rodríguez Zapatero (2004-2011) concluded in its report that it was a site of “exclusive memory that has more to do with the intention of the author of the monument [General Franco] than with the significance of the victim.” According to this commission, all complex elements, from the coat of arms to the sculptures, denote that it was “thought as a symbolic place of Franco dictatorship.” The Valley of the Fallen is the largest ossuary of the Civil War. The records indicate that between 1959 and 1983, 33,847 bodies were transferred there, although the commission believes that this number could be higher. The Museum and Site of Memory ESMA (former Navy School of Mechanics) is a different case. During the last civil-military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983), it operated as a clandestine detention, torture, and extermination centre. The building of the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) was the operational core for these atrocities. Approximately 5,000 civilians, religious figures, and politicians were detained and tortured here. Today the Ex-ESMA represents a memory of state terrorism. 

Memory is a field of struggles in which different voices, stories, and discourses confront each other to impose their vision of the past hegemonically. In this way, they reconstruct it. Pierre Nora argues that history is written under the pressure of collective memories. Places of memory embody concrete places, but also abstract places and intellectual and symbolic constructions. As I said before, Places of Horror are another way of writing history on stones and bricks. 

Paul Ricoeur understands memory as the first instance in the fight against forgetting (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, 2004). However, this forgetting does not lead to a cultural vacuum but instead seeks to impose alternative visions for memory. Memory and forgetting are necessary for some individuals and societies. Several scholars believe in forgetting as an exercise in memory and as a rejection of what it is trying to transmit. Argentine society had to fight to preserve memory by fighting against the decision to demolish the ESMA building in the 1990s, thus preventing the most representative symbol from being erased from the collective memory as a paradigm of illegal actions. In June 2000, Buenos Aires’ Legislature unanimously approved the revocation of the property’s cession used by the Armed Forces. It also decided to allocate the buildings of the property for the installation of the “Museum and Site of Memory.” In March 2004, former President Néstor Kirchner restored the property to the city by evicting the military institutions, an eviction that ended on September 30, 2007. The government created an inter-jurisdictional entity in November 2007 with Human Rights organizations, an Advisory Council of former detainees from ESMA, the National Memory Archive and the Institute Space for Memory. At present, the “Museum and Site of Memory” buildings hold the operations for the “Space for Memory Institute,” the “Haroldo Conti Cultural Center,” the “National Archive of Memory and Our Children Cultural Center” of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Association.

The historical, political, and social complexity of Places of Horror requires multidisciplinary approaches. People in a society cannot consider the struggle for memory in a unidirectional way. Memorials of horror need a diversity of voices and actors which aim at the integral recovery of the memories that they tried to forget. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “Life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Living to tell, 2002). Places of Holiness and Places of Horror tell us a story. They are like books, and the builders are our writers carrying their wishes and hopes in the enterprise. Designing and building is an exercise or an act of storytelling. It is in the storytelling where I have learned that we have to be inclusive. The storytelling of building a memorial or a sacred place challenges us because of the holiness that we want to express or for its political message. It is a challenge when it becomes a political expression purely or when it disincarnates from reality.

Jerusalem, Lalibela, Mecca, Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe are holy places of worship and pilgrimage. Tsitsernakaberd, Yad Vashem, The Valley of the Fallen, the Ex-ESMA are memorials and sacred sites that say: Never Forget-Never Again. From here, we can explore through conversation the meaning of memory as a symbol, political message, and expression of empathy regarding both feelings and ideas. 


Black, Graham. Museums, Memory and History, (2011).

Crane A. Susan. “Memory, Distortion, and History in the Museum,” (1997).

International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

Apsel, Joyce and Amy Sodaro, Ed. Museums and Sites of Persuasion,  (2019).

Osbaldiston, Nick, and Theresa Petray. “The Role of Horror and Dread in the Sacred Experience.” Tourist Studies 11, no. 2 (August 2011): 175–90.

Ricœur, Paul. 2004. Memory, history, forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s