"State authorities try to either appropriate and control or abolish hybrid sacred places."

17 July 2018

Together with Florian Mühlfried (FSU Jena) and Kevin Tuite (University of Montreal), Tsypylma Darieva is the editor of "Sacred Places—Emerging Spaces: Religious Pluralism in the post-Soviet Caucasus" (Berghahn, 2018). In the book, they map the current state of religious affairs in the Caucasus. By looking at sacred places and their special role in the context of de-secularisation and examining the relationship between institutionalised religion, community-based rituals and the state, the authors paint a picture of religious pluralism in the Caucasus that is much more complex than often assumed.

Tsypylma Darieva © ZOiS

What kind of sacred places have you and your colleagues studied, and what interested you about them?

In our book we touch on less-observed consequences of the de-secularisation of post-Soviet Caucasus in the area of sacred folk sites, non-canonical informal shrines, fluid and hybrid rituals, and discourses commonly labelled ‘folk religion’. Going by various names, local sacred places in the North and South Caucasus share certain features. They are often linked to identifiable locations such as natural landmarks, shrines, graves, or ruins and are typically associated with narratives that link the site to a manifestation of supernatural power, healing, or an individual regarded as a saint. These places are crucial for maintaining local social life and everyday interactions, and can be jointly used by Christians and Muslims. In this way they can be viewed as shared sacred places that provide a local sense of belonging and cohabitation with fuzzy religious frontiers. This phenomenon is often overlooked in studies of the region, which is dominated by nationalism, ethnic competition, and conflict.

You depict sacred places as an intersection of major and minor traditions. What do you mean by that?

In contrast to orthodox institutionalised faiths, scholars have portrayed sacred sites as a part of the ‘minor tradition’—one that is non-canonical, small, rural, informal, and female. Sunni Islamic institutions are interpreted as part of the institutional ‘major tradition’ that reflects the dominant male, pious religious lifestyle. The shrine stood for various manifestations of a popular Islam practised by rural believers with little knowledge of scriptural Islam. We identified significant shortcomings in this division. It obscures interactions and neglects change, complexity, and the variety of practices around pilgrimage sites in the modern Caucasus. I have reflected on that in my own study of Shia saints’ veneration in Azerbaijan: so-called folk religious practices are by no means static, but rather continually changing and adapting to modern circumstances created in large part by institutional state and religious authorities.

The Caucasus has seen a de-secularisation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. How did this affect sacred places?

The field studies presented by our contributors were carried out in all three South Caucasus countries, including in the non-recognised republic of Abkhazia, and in the Russian North Caucasus. Examples demonstrate that sacred sites become venues for contestation between institutionally supported and informal actors.

There are different forms of contestation. State authorities try to either appropriate and control or abolish hybrid sacred places. Former shared sacred sites are declared as deviant and impure. For instance, state institutions and state-sponsored clerics produce narrative claims on proper practices, purification rites, and performative practices to take control of informal and alternative sites. The criticism of deviant rituals and unacceptable local customs at sacred sites is also expressed by new religious purists such as Salafi Muslims. 

What is the role of the states in this process, and how does it differ within the region?

Given the tight interconnection between institutionalised national religion and the state in the post-Soviet Caucasus, de-secularisation projects are simultaneously state-making projects. This is apparent in Georgia and Armenia and, to a lesser extent, in the North Caucasus and Azerbaijan. At the same time, other countries strive to preserve their secular heritage, most of them in the name of fighting religious extremism.

In the northwestern Caucasus, purification and eradication of hybrid sacred sites are not part of de-secularisation processes. For instance, in Abkhazia, folk shrines are at the centre of state attention. The flag of Abkhazia features seven stars in reference to its seven main pagan shrines, and one of these shrines is a venue for state performances.

The transformation of sacred places, competition, and contestation with respect to the proper way to worship and behave are by no means specific to the post-Soviet Caucasus. Similar processes can be observed in Central Asia and the Balkans.

What does the cover photo depict, and why did you choose it?

The photo depicts a mark found on small flat stones in the mountains on the way to sacred places, to prevent women from occasionally entering the holy zone. The core of the sacred sites should not be approached by women, except girls and women after their menopause. This mark is not contested, but whereas regional authorities insist on this signpost as a part of the local tradition, local young women see it as a representation of a patriarchal tradition that needs to be overcome. As Florian Mühlfried explains, the striking moment of this example is the way the postmodern defenders of tradition have appropriated the regulatory tools of church and state. This is one of the important elements of the process we discuss in our book.


Tsypylma Darieva is a senior researcher at ZOiS. She coordinates the project Transformation of urban spaces and religious pluralisation in the Caucasus.

2018. Sacred Places-Emergent Spaces. Religious Pluralism in the post-Soviet Caucasus, co-edited with Florian Mühlfried and Kevin Tuite, New York: Berghahn Books.