Eighth Grade Visits Islamic Cultural Center and St. John the Divine

cathedral On February 5, Ross School eighth graders traveled to Manhattan to visit two religious landmarks as part of their studies of medieval culture and civilizations. The annual trip to the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine provides a unique opportunity to discuss pivotal events, faiths, and customs with religious leaders and guides and to see firsthand historical works of the time period.

Eighth grade teacher Mark Tompkins has organized this trip for his students for several years, and he says talking with the experts helps convey the enormous impact the Middle Ages had on the evolution of culture, art, and religion.

At the Islamic Center, the first official mosque in New York City, the students met with an imam from Sierra Leone and learned that the building is oriented toward Mecca at a 58° angle. Consequently, the building is rotated 29° from Manhattan's north-south street grid, which which in turn is rotated 29° from due north-south. The calculation of the direction from New York to Mecca was based on the great circle that produces the shortest distance between the two cities. Students also took the opportunity to ask questions about the tenets of the Islamic faith such as fasting during the month of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The class then discussed the significance of the mosque’s beautiful architecture, noting carvings and calligraphy on walls, and the mihrab, a niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, and the point Muslims face when praying.

Next, the class visited Saint John the Divine, where they enjoyed the Signs and Symbols tour with a guide who compared the cathedral’s structure to that of a medieval cathedral and identified stories and symbols depicted by the stained glass windows, sculptures, tapestries, and brasses throughout the building. Students also learned that the structure is one of the largest cathedrals in the world.

A major highlight of the visit was the recently completed Phoenix installation. The piece, created by pioneering contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing, was constructed with glass, lights, and items culled from building sites in urban Beijing. Phoenix is composed of two birds, a male called Feng and a female called Huang. Together, they hang suspended in the nave of the cathedral, weigh 12 tons, and measure 90 and 100 feet long, respectively.

“The trip brings new understanding to religious history and culture, and the impact the medieval period continues to have on the modern world,” Mark said.