• Notre dame de grace, Raffl © Mucem, Yves Inchierman
    Notre dame de grace, Raffl © Mucem, Yves Inchierman
  • Sourate de Marie © Abdallah Akar, Photo Nicolas Fussler
    Sourate de Marie © Abdallah Akar, Photo Nicolas Fussler
  • Tombe de Rachel Zeev Raban © Musée d'art et d'histoire du judaisme, Paris
    Tombe de Rachel Zeev Raban © Musée d'art et d'histoire du judaisme, Paris
  • Notre dame © Mucem, Idemec Manoel Penicaud
    Notre dame © Mucem, Idemec Manoel Penicaud
  • Musulmane en prière © Mucem, Idemec Manoel Penicaud
    Musulmane en prière © Mucem, Idemec Manoel Penicaud
  • Juives au cimetière Andre Sureda © Ville d'Autun, Musée Rolin, cliché S. Prost
    Juives au cimetière Andre Sureda © Ville d'Autun, Musée Rolin, cliché S. Prost

Shared Sacred Sites

Mucem, J4 niveau 2
| From Wednesday 29 April 2015 to Monday 31 August 2015

Religious identity is one of the most sensitive issues raised by “living together” in the Mediterranean. Seen in this light, this inland sea seems to be an area of separation and conflict.

To each their own God, their scriptures, their saints. At worst, exchanges result in religious wars and the clash of civilisations- at best, in scholarly debates, laborious and often sterile.

A religious phenomenon, little known to the general public, but very present in the Mediterranean, will be brought to the attention of MuCEM visitors: the sacred places shared by the followers of different religions.

The fruit of several years of scientific research conducted by CNRS and Aix-Marseille University, this exhibition takes a fresh look at the religious behaviour of Mediterranean populations and highlights some of the most interesting (and most overlooked) phenomena in the region, namely the sharing and exchange between religious communities.

The exhibition focuses its attention on contact situations where sites and figures of sanctity place distinct traditions in communication. Without falling into the hollow rhetoric of “a dialogue of cultures and religions”, it seems vital, amid debates about the clash of civilisations, to demonstrate that alienation and abhorrence of the other are not the required modalities of interaction between the religions of Mediterranean.

“Even if the dogmas of the three monotheistic religions seem incompatible, in reality they share biblical figures, saints and sites.”

The principal objective of the exhibition is to inform a wide audience about these surprising phenomena that concern, today as in the past, millions of people around the Mediterranean. By introducing the places, figures and practices, the exhibition is designed as an invitation to explore this little known Mediterranean.

In the face of rising fundamentalism and exclusivist theologies, new keys are needed for a deeper understanding of the complexity of exchanges between Mediterranean religions. This is precisely what the exhibition aims to offer its visitors.


  • Bande-annonce de l'exposition « Lieux saint partagés »—Du 29 avril au 31 août 2015.

Exhibition itinerary

Part 1: Prophets and Patriarchs

Abraham lavant les pieds aux trois anges, Emile Levy, Paris © Beaux-Arts de Paris, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais
Abraham, Mordechaï Perelman, XXe siècle, Photo Christophe Fouin © Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Paris
Tombe de Rachel Zeev Raban © Musée d'art et d'histoire du judaisme, Paris
Mont Sinaï, monastère de Sainte-Catherine, Elliott Erwitt, Égypte, 1958 © Elliott Erwitt, Magnum photos

Throughout history, veneration of the great prophets common to the three monotheisms generated interreligious junctions. In the first part of the exhibition, visitors explore the sacred sites associated with these prophets. Having become landmarks or pilgrimage destinations over the course of history, visitation of these sites is indicative of various attitudes: appropriation, claiming. Even if they are sometimes places of sharing, they can also crystalize antagonisms. In this section, visitors are closest to the symbolic and theological heart of the religions, more volatile and tending to incite antagonism. The three monotheistic religions have doctrinal differences, but also a series of correspondences, porosities, and overlaps. Thus, several biblical figures (kings, patriarchs or prophets) constitute references shared by all three monotheisms. Their traces materialize in the sanctuaries where the faithful of the different religions often converge.

Different religious authorities generally covet control of these sites, which have key symbolic value. This often generates situations of tension, more or less overt, the intensity of which depends a great deal on political issues. In the Near East, certain sanctuaries have become sites of confrontation in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others, more peripheral, still have communal visitation that is less structured and more peaceful.

Abraham, father of a multitude

Father of three religions and the first pilgrim, Abraham is an important figure. Sacred sites linked to the episodes of his life are equally recognised by the three monotheisms. A common ancestor, he generated numerous relationships among the “People of the book”, according to the Quranic expression. Works evoking Abraham’s life and exploring his roles as both patriarch and pilgrim will greet visitors. These works come from various cultural backgrounds, each marked by one of the three monotheistic religions. According to the Bible, Abraham long inhabited the Oak of Mamre, near Hebron. This is the setting where he extended hospitality to three strangers, commonly thought to be angels (Genesis 18; Qur’an XI, XV and LI).

The epicentre of Hebron (Al-Khalil, “The Friend of God” in Arabic) is the Tomb of the Patriarchs where Abraham, Sarah and their descendants are said to be buried. While the site of Mamre still carries the tradition of hospitality stemming from Abraham’s encounter with the three angels, the Tomb of the Patriarchs provides a contrasting example of division without exchange: today, the interior is physically divided, one space being reserved for Muslims, the other for Jews. This sacred site crystallises the sharpest tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rachel’s tomb, an exclusive appropriation

Located near Bethlehem, the shrine dedicated to the memory of Rachel, wife of the biblical patriarch Jacob was frequented from the Middle Ages by the followers of the three religions. The situation has changed in recent decades. After having been the scene of several violent confrontations, Rachel’s tomb was separated from the city of Bethlehem by a concrete wall built by the Israeli government. Access to the sanctuary is now controlled by a checkpoint and reserved for Jews.

Elijah at mount carmel, an example of peaceful sharing

In contrast to the previous cases, we present an example of peaceful joint visitation by followers of the three monotheisms: the Cave of Elijah at Mount Carmel.

Overlooking the Mediterranean and the city of Haifa, Mount Carmel is the place where, according to the Bible, the prophet Elijah fought the priests of the god Baal. At the foot of the promontory is a cave where the prophet is believed to have lived. Since the Middle Ages, this site has been shared by the three monotheisms, despite a succession of denominational appropriations.

Today, this sanctuary is Jewish, but one regularly encounters Christians, Druze and Muslims. Here, sharing is much more peaceful than in the volatile cases of Jerusalem or Hebron.

The sinai, in the footsteps of moses

Mount Sinai was the setting of two major events in the biblical tradition equally recognised by Muslims: the Burning Bush and the delivery of the Tablets of the Law to Moses. In addition, the prophet Muhammad is thought to have stayed there before the revelation of the Qur’an.

Thus, this region has become a place of pilgrimage as such, as well as a stopover on the route to Jerusalem or Mecca.

At the summit of Mount Moses (Sinai), where the prophet was to have received the law of God, a chapel co-exists with a mosque. At the base of the mountain, the Greek orthodox monastery of Saint Catherine has, since the twelfth century, housed another mosque. Today, access to the monastery is extremely limited due to security issues in this area.

An iconographic perspective of the monastery and its architecture encourages visualisation of this cohabitation and discovery of the pilgrim practice. Listening to stories of travellers from different centuries also highlights this cohabitation. Finally, contemporary photographs document the welcoming of pilgrims and the cohabitation of Bedouins and monks. In this section, the reading of pilgrimage stories accompanies visitors along their tour.

Part 2: Mary the Christian, Mary the Muslim

La Vierge visitée par les anges pendant la fuite en Égypte, Francesco Albani © RMN Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau), Gérard Blot
Sourate de Marie © Abdallah Akar, photo Nicolas Fussler
Notre dame de grace, Raffl © Mucem, Yves Inchierman

Mary is a bridge between Christianity and Islam. For Christians, she is the mother of the Son of God, for Muslims, the mother of the prophet Jesus. Mary is mentioned more often in the Qur’an than in the entire New Testament (34 mentions versus 19) and is the central figure of two suras.

Important signs of Marian devotion have become established in the practices of Muslims, who appeal to the Virgin while visiting Christian sanctuaries.

Certain sites are also visited by the faithful of both religions. Visitors are welcomed into this section by two sculptures that demonstrate recognition of this shared figure across different aesthetic codes, one in the Catholic context, the other in the Muslim context.

An Iranian television series on the Virgin’s life recalls the essential elements of her life and offers a contemporary vision of Mary in the Shiite Muslim world.

The sites of the virgin

As with the prophets, key places in Mary’s life have been the subjects of joint pilgrimages for several centuries. While some still endure, others have gradually faded. In this part of the exhibition, we will explore three sites. Following the site of the Annunciation in Nazareth, visitors will discover the Church of the Sepulchre of Mary at the gates of Jerusalem.

Then they will find themselves transported to Egypt in the footsteps of the Holy Family. Near Cairo, the site of Matarieh became an important pilgrimage centre. Over the centuries, the stories of travellers testify to the lush garden that attracted Christians and Muslims, many of whom were believed to have benefited from miraculous healing.

Today, transformed into a “museum” the site is surrounded by buildings, in contrast to the idyllic representations of the past.

Also in Cairo, at the end of the 1960s, a series of apparitions took place over the Coptic church of Zeitoun. Whether real or not, these phenomena subsequently attracted millions of pilgrims, including a significant number of Muslims. More recently, several apparitions have been recorded, for example in Asyut and Minya.

The universal mother

Mary embodies, across religious boundaries, the qualities of universal motherhood. As the mother of Jesus, Mary receives prayers related to fecundity and maternity. Contrary to the sites previously presented, here there is more focus on the expectations of devotees and their expression.

The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem can be considered a key Islamic site. Tradition has it that the Prophet Muhammad made a stopover there on his Night Journey, to pray where “his brother Jesus” was born.

The island of Lampedusa is a crossroads in the Mediterranean. Since the 16th century, the desert island has been home to a grotto dedicated to both Mary and a Muslim saint. Sailors of both religions leave offerings and provisions there for possible shipwreck survivors. On the heights of Ephesus in Turkey, Mary’s house is visited by hundreds of thousands of people annually, including many Muslims. Expectations of fecundity are predominant.

Through a variety of media (film clips and documentaries, classical and contemporary works of art, photos and everyday objects from collection surveys), these different facets of Mary will be unveiled to the public.


Given her importance to both Christianity and Islam, the figure of Mary may have been used to proselytise, as an instrument of conversion.

Western medieval literature is punctuated by rare miracles performed by the Virgin entailing the conversion of faithful Muslims to Christianity.

During the colonisation of the Maghreb, the French built Marian shrines, which were visited by Muslims who did not convert. This frequentation persisted like at Notre-Dame-dela- Garde in Marseille. Currently, in the context of tightening exclusivist theologies, fundamentalists of the “Islamic State” are violently rejecting the cult of Mary.

Part 3: Encounters with saints

Plaque de poitrine, Main de Fatima, Lawha, Casablanca © Musée du quai Branly , Scala, Florence
Femme juive déposant des oeufs votifs dans la crypte de la synagogue de la Ghriba, Manoël Pénicaud, Djerba © Mucem IDEMEC, Manoël Pénicaud
Gourde, saint Georges, Bulgarie, 1898 © Mucem, Yves Inchierman
Rituels votifs à l’extérieur du monastère de saint Georges © Mucem IDEMEC Manoël Pénicaud

In monotheistic religions, God, being distant and inaccessible, is sought paradoxically through intermediaries. Thus, a variety of intercessors have been solicited in Christianity, as well as in Judaism and Islam.

The worship of saints is officially established in the different denominations of Christianity, except among Protestants. However, recourse to these intermediaries is often condemned or disapproved of in Islam and Judaism, as it runs the risk of diverting the faithful from the worship of God alone. Despite the animosity of most religious authorities, this veneration is still widespread. Fully accepted among certain minorities, it is even exalted by a few mystical orders.

Sometimes, the faithful come to pray in a sanctuary linked to another religion. This is explained by the “power” attributed to the saint who “inhabits” the sanctuary, and is capable of responding to shared expectations: healing, fecundity, happiness, love, protection, exorcism…

Judeo-muslim sacred sites

In the Maghreb, the long-term coexistence of Jews and Muslims generated interdenominational intersections. It was not uncommon to visit the shrine of another to obtain a pardon or Baraka (divine grace). The Arabic term Ziyarat defines a visit to the tomb of a saint or a rabbi. In Islam, this type of devotion is completely different from the canonical pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj). Since the Jews departure from North Africa, these shared visits have almost disappeared, except in rare places like the El Ghriba Synagogue onthe island of Djerba in Tunisia.

Shared expectations

Behind the intertwined devotions are hidden common desires: to heal, marry, bear children, protect, prosper… It is not only places that are shared but also prayers and practices.

Once effectiveness is noted, the faithful do not hesitate to cross religious borders to benefit from the power of saints and the sites they inhabit. Jews, Christians and Muslims share a lexicon, a grammar and a common vocabulary, manifested in many ritual objects: candles, amulets, talismans, votives, incense, like so many common denominators.

The seven sleepers and the people of the cave

Known in Islam as the People of the Cave (Ahl al-Kahf, in Arabic), the Seven Sleepers miraculously slept in a cave for several centuries to escape persecution by the Roman Empire. Their awakening is a metaphor for the resurrection of the body, in Christianity and in Islam. The story of the Seven Sleepers became widespread through The Golden Legend and in the Qur’an (“The Cave” sura).

Many caves in the Mediterranean world are considered miraculous. The legend of the Seven Sleepers sometimes leads to common venerations among Christians and Muslims. These figures shared by Christianity and Islam inspired many artists (literature, poetry, cinema, theatre, contemporary art), sometimes going beyond the interreligious dimension, even to promote tourism. Paintings, panoramic photos, ancient books as well as a contemporary art installation will illustrate this section.

Saint-George, a common denominator

The figure of Saint Georges is among those responsible for the most frequent intersections between Christians and Muslims in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Here the exhibition presents iconography related to Saint George, and the pilgrimage of which he is the subject: off Istanbul, the Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint George stands on top of the island of Büyükada. The saint’s feast, celebrated the 23 April, draws up to 100 000 people, mostly Muslims. The majority come to make vows, which can take very different ritual forms.

Emphasis will also be placed on the identification made between Saint George and the Quranic figure of Al-Khidr (the Green One), also associated with Elijah. The celebration of spring, called Hidrellez (signifying the day of Elijah and Khidr), takes place on the day of Saint Georges. Other transformations will be discussed, particularly in the Balkans.

The works exhibited in this section are primarily the results of a collection survey conducted in 2014.

Cults in peril

The worship of saints is a phenomenon condemned and resisted by fundamentalists, especially in Islam where today shared practices and the bridging of religious divides are increasingly under threat.

In Syria, certain monasteries, like those of Our Lady of Saidnaya and Saint Thecla in Maaloula, have always had a strong spiritual influence. Pilgrimage sites, they were heavily frequented by Muslims.

In recent years, these sites have been affected by the Syrian civil war. The monastery of Saidnaya was hit by shellfire. That of Maaloula was directly attacked by the forces of the jihadists Front Al-Nosra, affiliated with Al-Qaida, seriously damaging its structure and holding 12 nuns hostage for several months.

Part 4: Witnessing and bridging boundaries

Miniature, Derviches tourneurs, Turquie, fin du XXe siècle © Mucem, Yves Inchierman
Dernier pèlerinage islamo-chrétien de Louis Massignon, France, Les Sept-Saints, Bretagne, 1962 © Louis-Claude Duchesne
Paolo Dall’Oglio, Ivo Saglietti, Mar Mûsa, Syrie, 2004 © Ivo Saglietti Zeitenspiegel Agentur

Pilgrims, travellers, mystics, poets, scholars and healers, a panoply of personages arising like figures in-between, both witnesses and actors in the interreligious sharing in the Mediterranean.

This transversal section is organised around portraits of several bridge builders who circulate between different worlds. Rich in audio-visual elements, it allows visitors to meet observers, healers and exorcists, poets and mystics, travellers and entrepreneurs of the interreligious dialogue, who implement mediation initiatives in a pragmatic way.

The Marseillais Laurent d’Arvieux

Laurent d’Arvieux (1635-1702) of Marseille spent a long time in the East. Speaking Turkish and Arabic, both merchant and pilgrim, his Mémoires deliver a captivating firsthand testimony of interreligious frequentation in the Holy Land. Making a point to seek out and understand the other, he lived for weeks in the midst of the Bedouins.

At Versailles, the chevalier d’Arvieux, at once merchant, pilgrim and adventurer, was Molière’s accomplice in designing the turqueries of the Bourgeois Gentleman. To amuse the king, he would speak Turkish, and to entertain the Dauphin, he dressed as a janissary.

Muslims poets at the monasteries

Despite the rapid Islamization of the Middle East, Christian monasteries continued to flourish. Certain even became sites of pilgrimage and or passage for Muslims. Some poets prized these places of hospitality for their tranquillity as well as for the delights of wine and occasionally of the flesh. During the Abbasside period, these poems were compiled into what might be called a monastery guide.

Jalal Al-Din Rumi

Despite the rapid Islamization of the Middle East, Christian monasteries continued to flourish. Certain even became sites of pilgrimage and or passage for Muslims. Some poets prized these places of hospitality for their tranquillity as well as for the delights of wine and occasionally of the flesh. During the Abbasside period, these poems were compiled into what might be called a monastery guide.

Louis Massignon

Louis Massignon (1883-1962) was one of the greatest French Islamic and Arab scholars of the 20th century. A fervent catholic, he devoted his life to the study of Islam. Professor at the Collège de France, he was also a predecessor of interreligious dialogue. In Brittany in 1954, he began observing the Islamic-Christian pilgrimage of the Seven Sleepers, to promote “a serene peace in Algeria”. At his death, it was said of him in Cairo that he was “the greatest Muslim among the Christians and the greatest Christian among the Muslims”.

Paolo Dall’Oglio

Born in Rome in 1954, this Italian Jesuit has devoted his life to understanding Islam in the wake of Louis Massignon. Declaring himself to be “in love with Islam and believing in Jesus”: he advocates for Abrahamic unity and the possibility of exceeding dogmatic boundaries. Expelled from Syria in June 2012, he secretly returned there in July 2013. He went to the headquarters of the “caliphate” proclaimed by the “Islamic State” (Daesh) trying to free Muslim hostages by offering himself in exchange as a voluntary “hostage”. To date he has not yet emerged.

Partners and sponsors

In partnership with : La Croix, Pélerin, France 3, France Médias Monde, TV5MONDE, France Bleu Provence, France Info