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A ‘New Mecca’ for today?

By Emma West, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Birmingham

In this post, Emma West explores how a chance archival discovery has enriched our understanding of Cardiff’s Temple of Peace, and how a new Being Human festival event seeks to recapture the building’s original purpose.

‘I can assure you, my friends, that this building is not intended to be a mausoleum, and because at the moment dark clouds overshadow Europe and the world, that is no reason why we should put up the shutters and draw the blinds. On the contrary, in a world of madmen let us display constancy and courage. Let us as individuals and as a nation, humbly dedicate ourselves anew to the great task still remaining before us.’ -- Lord David Davies

On a blustery and drizzly November day in 1938, hundreds gathered to watch the opening of the Welsh International Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff’s Cathays Park. It was the realization of a decades-long dream for its founder, the Welsh philanthropist Lord David Davies. Inspired by his experiences in the trenches, Lord Davies wanted to create not just a memorial for those fallen in the Great War, but a building that would actively promote peace, justice and health.

Reading his speech today, one cannot fail to be struck by the parallels between the world of 1938 and 2018. Political turmoil, financial insecurity and the rise of fascism loom large. As we near the 80th anniversary of the Temple of Peace, Lord Davies’s message of peace and international co-operation seems more vital than ever.

In our Being Human festival event, a new collaboration between the artist's organisation Gentle/Radical, the composer Helen Chadwick, and the Wales for Peace project, and with support from Arts Council of Wales, we aim to use the Temple’s history to ask pressing contemporary questions. What role can civic architecture play in peace-building? And how can communities work together for peace at home and abroad?

The project was initially inspired by a chance discovery. On a trip to the National Library of Wales to research the Temple of Peace, I stumbled across an original Order of Service for ceremonies held for visiting groups at the Temple. This extraordinary document included prayers for League of Nations and a call and response section, in which the congregation were asked to pledge themselves to the causes of peace, justice and health. We still don’t know too much about how often this service was performed, or for who, but what we do know is that thousands of people visited the Temple throughout the Second World War and beyond. When he opened the Temple, Lord Davies explained his desire for the Temple to become a place of pilgrimage, a ‘New Mecca’ to which men, women and children could march.

In our Being Human event, we seek to recapture the Temple’s original purpose as a site of pilgrimage. We have taken this Order of Service and the opening Service of Dedication as our source material, reworking each of the elements (hymns, readings, messages of goodwill) for a more secular or multi-faith audience. Throughout the project, we’ve been asking ‘What would a contemporary oath to peace sound and look like?’

Although it will be inspired by the past, we don’t want the event to simply be a re-enactment. The original opening ceremony was far from inclusive: it featured a procession by ‘Mothers of the World’ who had lost sons during the First World War, but these women were all white. Similarly, the invited guests and speakers were almost entirely white men. Our event seeks to open up the Temple for the whole community: after all, Lord Davies gave the Temple as a gift to the Welsh people, on land given to him by Cardiff Council. I hope that our event will be the start of a broader conversation about the role that the Temple can play in peace-building over the next 80 years. In the words of the Chief Justice of the USA, who sent a message to commemorate the building’s opening: ‘May this Temple be not only a memorial but a constant inspiration.’

Wales for Peace have recently digitised archival materials relating to the Temple of Peace and its history: follow the links to discover more about its architecture and construction, the foundation stone laying ceremony and the opening ceremony.