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Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations[1]

Jörg Rüpke and Susanne Rau
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Religion and Urbanity Online (R&U) will present important research contributions on the subject of the interplay between religious change, on the one hand, and, on the other, changes in urban spaces and urban forms of life, as well as on practices of and discourses on urbanness in Europe, the circum-Mediterranean region, and South Asia. It will provide historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of cities and of religion with research articles as well as overviews. Case studies focusing on particular cities or urban networks, or on specific phenomena and processes, will help to build a reservoir of knowledge relevant to two overarching questions: What role did religious actors, practices, and ideas play in the emergence and ongoing development of cities and ‘urbanity’? What role did urban actors, spaces, and practices, and the discourse on urbanity, play in the emergence and ongoing development of religious groups and ‘religion’?

Why do we think that such an enterprise is timely? Problems of urbanity and urban religion are not just phenomena and problems of the present. On the contrary, these issues have recurred time and again throughout history. What do cities such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople, Wittenberg, Geneva, Mecca, Medina,

Varanasi, Sarnath or Pataliputra/Patna have in common with each other? They are all cities that have been the locus for decisive changes in the history of religion – namely the formations negotiated as Judaism and Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and the many strands summarised as Hinduism. At the same time, these places and other pilgrimage cities – but also port cities such as Surat and Hamburg or trading centres such as Lyon and Amritsar – owe their cityscapes and the ways of life cultivated and constantly changing within them to religious actors, practices and ideas. This relationship was reciprocal, for development of new forms of urban publicity also changed religious practices or caused new practices to come into being, as we can see with the construction of theatres in antiquity, the transformation of churchyards into squares in the sixteenth century, or the transformation of cinemas into Pentecostal churches in the twenty-first century. Spaces such as places of worship or cemeteries change the topography of urban areas and the streams of people that flow through them, from short-term city visitors to residents with generations of family history to only occasionally present rulers. These effects can be caused by such diverse phenomena as the erection of central sanctuaries, the closure of neighbourhoods through the creation of dead ends in the streets of ancient Greco-Roman or Islamic cities, or the demands on rulers to be present in centrally located temples or cathedrals. And such spatial changes did not remain without consequences for rituals such as religious ideas and institutionalisations. These in turn changed urban practices, urban orders, and reflections on what constitutes the urban. In Religion & Urbanity, we propose to investigate these interactions in a comparative historical context by first bringing together previous research and then identifying and developing research tasks from a comparative perspective. We conceptualise the two different clusters of factors as ‘religion’ and ‘urbanity’. It is the interaction of both which is the object of this online resource.

Looking at the terminology

Before continuing, it will be necessary to contour the terms ‘urbanity’ and ‘religion’, and consequently the concepts to which they refer. Like Max Weber (Weber [1922] 19855), we focus our attention on actors and groups of actors (Rau 2013, 2014; Rüpke 2015, 2018). In doing so, we also take into account the stimulating and limiting­ effects of objects, which some scholars have described as the ‘agency of objects’ (Latour 2005; Gosden 2005). Finally, in line with recent developments in social geography and the sociology of space (Lefebvre 1974, 1991; Soja 1996), we see urbanity as characterised precisely by spatiality, spatial practices, concepts of space, and spatial atmospheres­, and also by temporal practices (Rau 2013).


Our starting point is the concept of ‘city’, by which we mean a condensed spatial configuration that is in constant­ transformation. This spatial structure is, at the same time, necessarily also a socially condensed configuration: without human actors who build, use, and perceive this space, there is no city, which is to say that urban space can also be analysed in terms of Henri Lefebvre’s distinction between espace perçu, conçu, and vécu. To be more precise, cities are to be understood as the juxtaposition, overlapping, and densification of a multitude of spaces that­ interact through their spatial connectedness or overlapping and thus form complexes of interlaced spaces (Lévy 2008). These individual spaces can be real spaces within the city (houses in neighbourhoods­) or­ outside the city (cemeteries, villas), interacting­ with networks­ such as aristocratic alliances, commercial networks, or schools of philosophy. They can also be imagined spaces, either without any connections to each other or hierarchised through power relations.

Accordingly, the concept of ‘city’ cannot be concerned with just the city, but must comprehend cities in the broadest sense, considering all the different forms of urbanity – temporally specific, regionally specific, and according to size and density – as the mode of life that is characteristic of cities (since Wirth 1938, 1964) yet­ can also­ be admired or practiced beyond them (see Rau 2011). The idea of the city can also affect the attractiveness of­ specific cities, which can grow or undergo demographic changes as a result of immigration. Similarly, the way how people living beyond cities perceive the urban configurations can have significant effects on their orientations to urban markets of producers or traders, even at significant distances. We aim, then, to treat urbanity not only as a historical concept but also as an analytical instrument for understanding and describing the temporally and regionally distinct characteristics of the urban. Religion is as much a part of urban ways of life as it is a resource in the appropriation of urbanity.

We have defined cities above as dynamic, undergoing constant transformations, but it must be added that these changes are usually part of transformation processes that take place at the regional level. These can occur either as urbanisation processes or as deurbanisation processes. As a result of such processes, tighter or looser networks of cities emerge, featuring cities as competitors or in hierarchical relationships with one another. And this, of course, also has consequences for religion.


In addressing the question of the mutually entangled formations of urbanity and religion, we understand religious practices and the conceptions implied or explicitly set forth and elaborated within them as­ communication with, or experiences, interpretations, and institutionalisations of, the ‘special’ (the non-ordinary) or the ‘transcendent’ (that which is beyond the situation, in which such communication is initiated). Communication of this sort is initiated in certain situations and spaces of action, which is to say that religious practices are also spatial practices in a peculiar and intensified way. The immanent or transcendent addressees, often­ conceived of as gods or goddesses, but also ambivalently­ or negatively as demons or ancestral spirits, are ­attributed a power of action­, although the assertion that they are relevant or present can at the same time be denied. Thus, forms of communication about or with these addressees are laden with risk but also potentially momentous. They can­ strengthen or thwart­ existing interpersonal­ power relations by­ strengthening or restricting­ the possibilities for human action­ (sometimes even completely negating this possibility, as when a person is conceived of as ‘slave of the Lord’ or ‘plaything of fate’). Religious practices can thus open up room for manoeuvre for individual religious functionaries or their followers. This is particularly the case in the context of the city, a social formation typified by the overlapping of­ the most diverse power structures, communities, and networks, and by their constant change and exchange.

Religious actions, and their parallel religious experiences, are spatial actions in two senses.

(a) On the one hand, space is religiously appropriated for the action, or at least­ temporarily occupied. The attribution of a power of action to superhuman actors, whether they are defined as gods or deceased or amorphous powers,­ is secured by the short- or long-term sacralisation of objects or spaces and is, thus, materially present in everyday life (material religion; Garbin 2012; Droogan 2013; Raja and Rüpke 2015). In the often overlapping­ – and thus also controversial – urban spaces (space) in particular, this sacralisation transcends or intensifies individual places (place) and creates new spatial conditions in the production of new spaces or in the appropriation of­ previously, or still, non-religious spaces (Rau and Schwerhoff 2008). Within a city, such spaces can stand next to each other yet unconnected or in hierarchical relationships with each other. This can be seen, for example, in the relationship between the Friday mosque and other mosques or the relationship between parish churches and the cathedral as the bishop’s church. The marking and establishment of such religious ‘places’ connects the actors with the space, appropriating and changing it.

This appropriation is cultivated by immigrants or ordinary residents as well as by administrators and those who seek to enforce or legitimise their rule over the city. Religious practices can increase existing conflicts and lead to the exclusion or annihilation of the competitor. Such appropriation need not be permanent or exclusive. The spectrum begins with the temporary occupation of space by dances or processions­, with cult images embedded in walls, graffiti painted onto them, and candles placed at various locations. These means of appropriating space only minimally restrict the other ways in which that space might be used. These forms of occupation can be contrasted with the permanent closure of squares by walls, the building of structures, and the erection of cult objects or monuments. Continuously repeated use of space also makes for permanency. Time, in terms of both duration and frequency, thus plays an important role.

Beyond the concrete ritual, the traces of use shape the urban space and create tenacious memories, which can bind particular actors to places in the long term. Not infrequently, these memories lead to squares and buildings being isolated and musealised. This process is reinforced by another development that is for the most part restricted to cities: under the conditions of diversity and a high ­density of encounters (Berking 2008), urban religious action in competitive situations strives either for invisibility (conflict avoidance­) or for increased aesthetics and visibility (visible religion). All this makes it clear just how momentous are the processes under investigation: if necessary, such spaces can be, and have been, transferred to a ‘touristic’ use, in line with which they are treated as ‘cultural heritage’. This approach to significant spaces has been promoted worldwide since the 1980s, often resulting in the exclusion of many of the original users (Narayanan 2015).

(b) On the other hand, religious action is action that transcends space in a specific way, crossing in addition to dwelling (Tweed 2006). The alterity of the divine is expressed (historically even before the development of formal notions of transcendence) in spatial metaphors reflecting ‘the (from) elsewhere’. Religious action creates a reference structure beyond the non-religious situation. It is precisely this second spatial dimension of religious action that seems to be­ connected with urbanity – possibly as a strategy of religious actors in view of the­ precarious urban space­ characterised by diversity and complexity. ­It also permits forms of religious communication that are no longer bound to­ specific, or even permanently marked, spaces: namely­ religious discourses as philosophical-theological reflection, ritual commentary, or systematised­ mythology and myth criticism. In short, intellectualisation. Here, performance is no longer a ritual repetition in predefined places but a dispute and debate (Hüsken and Brosius 2010); through the written form developed for the most part in cities, even the debate can be made independent of the place of production. The historical development of writing has its roots in the performance of stately and administrative functions and writing was often appropriated and developed further in religious contexts and passed on by specialists. In this developed form, and making use of the techniques of storage and dissemination developed for it, writing was able to create new forms of communication and practices in the ancient world, as well as in the medieval and early modern periods.

The interdependence of urbanity and religion

In view of the large number of recognisable interdependencies between urbanisation processes and­ religious change that have so far come to light, contributions to Religion & Urbanity online take a broad approach in terms of methodology as well as objects of study. Both religion and the processes of urban formation (in the double sense of urban forms and ways of life) are here understood as cultural orders and individual spaces of action, which are characterised by a tension between stability and­ dynamics, between conscious and unintended changes. At the level of materiality, religion is commodified, especially in urban areas, due to the increased demand for visibility and communication, and becomes ‘material religion.’ At the level of practice, religious practices are, like house building and infrastructure projects, an excellent means of constituting both space and city. On the reflexive level, the connection between city, on the one hand, and historiography­ or culture of remembrance, on the other, is characteristic in the course of Reformation and confessionalisation (Rau 2002). Cities were particularly vibrant sites for the development of a plurality of organised religious discourses. A religious historiography emerged (above all but not only) in cities (Otto, Rau, and Rüpke 2015) that thematised their urban spaces and topographies ( Rau and Hochmuth 2006; Rau and Schwerhoff 2008a, 2008b). Together, these development led to a demand for a specifically urban perspective on religion (Urciuoli and Rüpke 2018; Rüpke 2020).

Two hypotheses underlie the programme of Religion & Urbanity. Their combination emphatically underlines the reciprocity of the relationship:

1) Religious practices, ideas, and their expression in institutions, texts (narratives), and­ objects have been of far-reaching importance in the formation of urbanity. The dynamics of religious and urban development in the­ modern age are situated upon this continuum that stretches back to the ancient world. For a life lived in a densely packed urban environment, religion produced specific practices, concepts, and institutions to connect individuals and spaces, to structure space, and to enable its appropriation. The complexity of overlapping spaces and networks that characterise cities was countered, for example, by temporal orders that became present in rituals or in the circulation of objects that created new connections. If the recourse to religious communication­ could thus­ lead to the development of centralising and homogenising­ strategies and topographies, it could also serve to stabilise social or ethnic differences and favour the formation of segmented quarters (Gruber 2016; Urciuoli and Maier 2020).

Reference to a (divine) power exceeding a particular space attribute a higher dignity to the spatial and temporal practices thus created. This could­ increase claims to power­, but it could also­ require the­ presence of­ rulers. ­Repeated­ rituals or architectural signs sacralised places either temporarily or permanently. Such persistent topographical elements were then used to­ establish historical­ identity (Sharp and Brown 2012). In the long run, this stimulated tourism and notions of­ cultural ‘heritage’ (with its high selectivity towards lived religion and­ the practices of residents and neighbours­). Above all, however, the image of one’s own city and urban life (and thus the urban ‘atmosphere’, Anderson 2009, 2014) articulated by various actors was decisively influenced by religious practices, ideas and institutions­. As such, the staging and legitimation of city foundations and the interpretation of inner-city conflicts often have clear religious components.

2) Localisation in the city, the communicative and ritual production of the city, and the appropriation of urban hopes (aspirations) and forms of life have had an enormous influence on religious practices and ideas, and on the formation of religious traditions. A striking example is the emergence of theatre from religious practices, which then developed into a specifically urban cultural form with long-lasting religious use (Gödde 2015). The same process can be identified in the case of many musical practices. The preference of urban initiators for mass rituals such as processions or rituals that emphasise the role of the spectator, which makes self-representation possible, leads to enduring changes in religious practices. Religious actors participate in and co-design urban knowledge production and techniques. Writing stands out first and foremost as facilitating a long-term process that can be described as ‘intellectualisation’ (Rüpke 2018). The combination of diversity and concentrated communication that is typical of cities could lead to the increased visibility of religious practices or, conversely, to their concealment (Knott, Krech, and Meyer 2016). The formation of religious groups with sharp external borders to the point of densification into ‘religions’ was probably a consequence of that. Such processes historically included attempts at homogenisation and exclusion (see AlSayyad and Massoumi 2011) as well as the development of­ techniques of multi-religious coexistence (for Antiquity, Belayche and Dubois 2011; for Early Modern Europe, Do Paco, Monge, and Tatarenko 2010).

Small-scale spatialisation of communication with deities, demons, or saints, that is the setting up of many different locations for their veneration, could­ favour the division of labour into concepts of God­ or monotheistic hierarchies. The manifold demands of urban life produced specific multifunctional­ architectures. Even ideas of the afterlife – the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ is an important example of this – could be ­taken up by urban imaginaires far beyond West Asia and Europe (Lindner 2008; Meyer 2015). Our analytical separation of city and religion does not obscure the reciprocal formation of the two concepts but, rather, uncovers it.

Urbanity, as the term has been used so far, is not inherently bound to urban soil. The diffusion, or even the conscious export, of urban lifestyles beyond the city also had consequences for the history of religion. For very different groups of people, such as landowners and agricultural workers, the occasional or even daily change of urban and extra-urban location was typical in certain epochs and urban forms (e.g. the Greek polis); urban behaviour patterns came to serve as models. In the form of a large and complex monastery, for example, the ‘non-urban’ could gain features of urbanity and consciously engage in an exchange with urban actors. Urbanity is not a binary take-it-or-leave-it characteristic but could develop in very different degrees in different times and places. Such variability attains to religion, too. In the urban context, in particular, the boundary of ‘religion’ dissolves and religious practices and ideas are consciously transferred to ‘non-religion’.

The logic of Religion & Urbanity is based – as far as the evolving field of research allows – on a heuristic that invites implicit and explicit comparisons across periods and areas, with a focus on the period between the first millennium BCE and the recent past, and on the regions from South Asia to the circum-Mediterranean and European areas. Evidently, the obvious diversity of processes of urbanisation ­and deurbanisation in different regions and epochs must­ be examined in the light of the correspondingly­ diverse forms of urbanity and religious changes. In order to carry out this programme of study it will be necessary to reconstruct constellations of urbanity and religion ­ and provide differentiated descriptions of often incremental­ changes in practices, ideas, architectures, and institutions.


The processes, some­ short-term, some long-term, differ­ significantly depending on the actors involved. Generally speaking, very­ different­ actors and stakeholder interests must be taken into account. These include rulers and members of political elites; traders and producers, whose primary interests are in the economy of the city; ‘small religious entrepreneurs’ and religious functionaries; urban planners, architects and interior designers; and observers, painters, and writers. The very concrete­ connections (‘assemblages’) of spaces, markings, and memories that make up the respective cities must always be taken ­into account. The question is not only what role do religious actors, practices, and ideas play in the emergence and ongoing development of cities and ‘urbanity’, but also what role do non-religious actors – not least those who set the urban regulatory framework – play in the emergence and ongoing development of religious groups and ‘religion’.

Urbanity and religion are not simply subject areas but are themselves discursive products of the processes of urbanisation and deurbanisation, of cultural ordering and of norms which seem to answer a range of very different needs of the inhabitants of urban settlements. In their semantic difference and apparently distinct concerns, discourses of and about urbanity and religion often fail to recognise their close­ interdependence. There is no doubt that the development of numerous practices of religious­ communication preceded the historical emergence of cities, but the systematisation of a separate area of ‘religion’ and the institutional differentiation between religious groups and ‘religions­’ may well, themselves, be urban phenomena.

The initial theses thus lead to questions that analytically separate urbanity and religion, but do so without denying the manifold interferences between the two complex forms of urban life. It is precisely in this way that such questions contribute to the illumination of the mutual formation of the two phenomena, i.e. changes in and new constitutions of urbanity and religion in different epochs and spaces, especially with regard to the diversity and perceived plurality of urbanities and religious practices. The broad access that is thus indicated demands that religious practices and­ ideas are related ­to the actors’ goal of living in the complex spatial structure of the city, with its growing number of contact surfaces, and thus realising urbanity as a long-term coexistence or coexistence within the framework of ‘city’.

As a starting point, we present a grid of questions that­ operationalises the consistent and sustained combination of an­ approach to the history of urbanity­ and an approach to religious studies. The grid is intended to make it possible to relate to one another contributions that are widely divergent in both chronological and spatial dimensions, and thus to pursue certain themes and constellations trans-epochally and trans-regionally throughout.

1. Religion changes urbanity

  • City (re)foundation or city development: How is religious legitimacy­ created by a divinatory­ choice of location, founding rituals, or cult transfers? How do shrines become­ cities?

  • Enlargement of a city: Are there religious reasons for migration (push and pull factors)? How is diversity dealt with religiously (segmentation/ghettoisation,­ exaggeration, intensification of conflict)? How is the environment as seen by the actors involved by way of assignment to or functionalisation by sanctuaries? How do regional and supra-regional religious networks between cities develop?

  • Education of urbanity: What are the religious practices and conceptions associated with the appropriation of immediate living space? How are neighbourhoods or quarters formed? How does religious centralisation or hierarchisation of urban space take place? How are urban spaces temporarily, permanently, or exclusively developed as religious spaces? How is urban complexity­ formed by religious orders of time­ (of night, of holidays)? How are power structures changed as a result? To what extent do religious practices and ideas contribute to the spread of urbanity, possibly beyond city boundaries?

  • Changes in urban topography: Will new architectural forms be developed? Under what conditions and where are shrines, churches and cathedrals, monasteries, hospitals, meeting rooms, theatres, libraries, memorials, etc. functionally and architecturally differentiated and erected? Is there a change in uses?

  • Changes in discourses on ideas of cities: How do religious-ethical evaluations and changes in urbanity affect hospitality or contact density? Are there any condemnations of urban life (asceticism, urban exodus)? How do religious concepts contribute to the formulation of urban orders? How do they influence their media form or implementation?

  • City crises: Do religious resilience factors or religious anti-urbanism (Thompson 2009) exist? Are there any religious factors that might lead to the abandonment of cities in the context of military or ecological disasters? How do religious practices contribute to the emergence and intensification of crises?

2. Urbanity changes religion

The second block reverses the direction of the questions and focuses on urbanity and the associated changes in religion:

  • Urban spatialisation of religion: Is there a spatial differentiation of­ the divine into individual deities or gods/ancestors in sanctuaries and cemeteries? Is there a differentiation between central and peripheral cult sites (Friday mosques, cathedrals)? Do (sub)urban social and­ religious milieus develop with resulting ­conflicts or overlaps? Are they ritually or discursively re-integrated and hierarchised?

  • Development of practices specific to urban space: How and when are more complex forms of appropriation of space (inner-city or­ trans-urban processions) developed? Is there a change to mass or rituals of display, such as mass animal sacrifices (hecatombs), spectacles, chariot races and competitions, and executions, but also an intensively choreographed clergy liturgy or the development of forms of addressing a broad audience, such as the sermon?

  • Forms of increasing the materiality and visibility of religion: Where are ephemeral practices and oral performances replaced by architectural forms or images?

  • Adoption of urban technologies: Where is writing transferred to religious practices, such as consecration inscriptions/ex-votos or supplications, and where does it contribute to the institutionalisation of religion, for example in the form of membership lists? How and where in the city does the creation of religious literature occur and where is specifically religious­ ‘knowledge’ developed? How do religious institutions become places of training in scriptural competence? Under what conditions are complex or site-specific musical instruments, such as organs, differentiated orchestras, and professional singing, introduced into rituals?

  • Organisational development in urban density: Where does religious group formation take place? How do processes of professionalisation of religious specialist roles come about in the city? Which forms of financing allow or require cities (begging, welfare of the poor, foundations)?

  • Changes of religious imaginaires: Does a sacralisation of ‘city’ or of the concrete city take place in religious rituals or narratives (Babel)? ­Are religious city utopias developed (heavenly or end-time Jerusalem­), with cities formulated as the final goal of a religious life?

  • Replacement of the religious: Where does the secularisation of rituals take place? Where are the functions of religious organisations (welfare,­ administration) taken over­? When does religious architecture become a museum (with consequences for access, forms of use)? Where do religious re-appropriations of former religious spaces (places of worship, cemeteries) take place?


  1. 1

    We are grateful to the core-team and the fellow at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt and the German Science Foundation financing of this publication as much as the whole research project ‘Religion and Urbanity: Mutual Formations’ (FOR 2779).


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