Smithsonian Channel's Sacred Sites Explores Humankind's Most Transcendent Locales

TV Reviews Sacred Sites
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Smithsonian Channel's <i>Sacred Sites</i> Explores Humankind's Most Transcendent Locales

People have a truly miserable and potentially dangerous tendency to be oblivious to their own history. This is why—well, one reason why—shows like Sacred Sites can be so crucially important to “the cultural conversation.” Docuseries that illuminate history, trace traditions, get at the root of why something is happening now: These kinds of programs have immense potential power to deepen our cultural literacy, improve understanding, and even make a dent in pandemic bigotry, xenophobia and general ignorance of the procession of human society on this strange little planet.

Sadly, there often seem to be trust issues in play.

Have you ever watched those “Yes, but could this really be proof that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, actual, historical person?”- or “Is it possible we are on the brink of learning why the Maya disappeared from Chichen Itza?”-type programs with which the History Channel is so liberally peppered? You know the style: re-enactment spliced with commentary from anthropologists, archaeologists and scholars, punctuated with suggestive voiceover that gets you all ready in Act I for the Big Revealed Truth but in the end can’t really deliver it. That’s when it occurs to you that if they had actually made a positive ID on “the Behemoth” referenced in the Book of Job you would totally have heard about it on NPR by now.

Folks, of Sacred Sites I regret to note that you’re going to get actors playing Guinevere and Merlin, Ramses II and Hatshepsut, St. James, and certain German persons who committed certain atrocities in the 1930s and 1940s. And you’re going to have your attention drawn to some super awesome places with serious mythical reverb. Some theories will be posited, but mostly they will remain theories. There will be a frustrating amount of repetition, both of narrative and of actual footage, which reappears like your neighbor’s cat that thinks it’s successfully tricking you into believing it doesn’t have a home and three squares across the street. Oh: I think there is, at one point, a voiceover by Liam Neeson? He does not say “Marco from Tropoja,” but nonetheless I am pretty sure I made a positive ID on that, if not the Behemoth of Old Testament fame. (If the Behemoth were a dinosaur, wouldn’t that be awkward? Am I digressing? See, this is my point. I’m not exactly riveted here, and I should be.)

The series is glossy. It does not look like it was cheap to produce. The photography is very pretty and in some cases very very pretty. The six episodes on offer cover El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a Christian pilgrim path across northern Spain to the (maybe) tomb of the Apostle James in Galicia; the stunningly sophisticated burial chambers of a disappeared ancient people on the island of Malta; a series of castles and woods and stone circles associated with the (possibly not) mythical King Arthur; certain Mayan high places from which these people honed their legendarily acute sense of astronomy; the interesting rites of the Temple of Amun at Karnak; and the Nazi monomania with proving Germans were the descendants of the people of Atlantis. As with many re-enactment-driven documentaries, these episodes tend to be at their best when focused on the actual places and at their most repetitive and vague when assuming you lack the imagination to picture the Godswife of Amun and have to show a woman in wicked-flamboyant eyeliner and a vulture hat venerating a statue in a clip that plays easily eight times in an hour. In some cases, there is an investigation into a mystery: Is it possible King Arthur existed? Who were the Maltese “temple people”? In others, it’s more of an explanation of what we actually do know: Here’s roughly what went down when Hatshepsut decided to become the first female Pharaoh” There’s a certain level of accrued interest created by the through line of conquest and subjugation: We see how you can take literally any culture’s sacred places and understand how they remain sacred places but might be sacred to a succession of peoples, for related but different reasons. Many Christian sacred sites were… uh, repurposed pagan sites, for example.

I do want to note that of these six episodes, one is an almost bizarre standout from the others, and by bizarre I mean good. The episode on Nazi mythology is laser-focused, thorough, narratively intact, linear, has the explicit connective tissue to say “Yo, look what can happen when outlandish lies enter the zeitgeist and become accepted as truth!” and is generally fascinating. It is clear-sighted, and introduces the audience to various wackadoo superstitious quests given bullshit hoax-scientific gravitas by the SS. (MCU fans who slept through world history: All that Hydra stuff? Not made up. Pretty much ripped from the headlines, except to my current awareness Heinrich Himmler is not floating in a Grim Reaper cloak on a bleak alien planet morosely guarding the Soul Stone.) Sacred Sites’ Nazi episode, and it is the only one that really does it, as far as I could see, connects dots. It says, “The SS wanted people to believe X,Y, and Z. They set out to prove X, Y, and Z. They conclusively proved X, Y, and Z to be false, but they doctored reports for propaganda purposes. This ‘fake news’ helped to jumpstart the Holocaust. This is a really clear, in-living-memory example of how gruesome things can get when a terrified mob unifies around a bad idea and phony data.” If the other episodes had half as much focus and clarity as this one, I’d be writing a substantially different review. If you do nothing else, watch the Nazi episode.

And I’m bummed about that, because I would have loved to hear some of the words of Geoffrey of Monmouth on the subject of King Arthur, rather than watch an actor in a monk’s habit scribing the same sentence over and over on a parchment. I mean, that’s deep water. And honestly, the themes of that legend (nobility as something cultivated versus inherited; self-sacrifice as part of good leadership; cherishing equality; accepting human folly; focusing on something bigger than ourselves) are every bit as relevant to our current moment as a warning note about fascism.

There are places on the planet that, throughout recorded history, seem to have magnetized people, inspired them, imbued them with a sense of transcendence or power or mystical clarity. These places continue to magnetize and fascinate through centuries of cultural shift, industrialization, environmental decline. You don’t have to be that much of a hippie to get the feeling that certain locations are inherently powerful, for whatever reason, and whether you choose to use science language, poet language, magic language or mythographer language to try and explain it. (Maybe “geopathic stress” is a myth, but my cat doesn’t think so.) What makes something or someplace “sacred” is, at the basest level, cultural consensus. But the consensus comes from something, doesn’t it? One of the meanings of “sacred” is “set apart,” and I think it’s worth contemplating our need for places that make us feel lifted out of normal experience and elevated into something transcendent. It’s a pretty universal human craving that has given rise to some pretty fascinating stories, traditions and conflicts. It would have been amazing if this series had a tiny bit more of an attention span, and assumed the audience did as well. That said, if you’re a surface-scratch enthusiast, you’ll get that for sure.

Season Two of Sacred Sites premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on Smithsonian Channel.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.