The Grammarphobia Blog

Religious orientation

Q: Your recent “orientation” post got me to wondering. Jews of Europe (and America) pray to the east, the direction of Jerusalem (roughly), as do Christians of Europe, where the standard church orientation is with the chancel facing east and the faithful facing east toward the altar. Muslims originally prayed toward Jerusalem, before changing to Mecca. Does the need to orient oneself come from these religious practices?

A: There is indeed a religious dimension to the noun and verb “orient,” but let’s begin with some geography.

In classical Latin, oriens meant “the eastern part of the world, the part of the sky in which the sun rises, the east, the rising sun, daybreak, dawn,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary.

And when the noun “orient” entered English in the 14th century, it was “originally used with reference to countries lying immediately to the east of the Mediterranean or Southern Europe (i.e. east of the Roman Empire); now usually understood to mean East Asia, or occas. Europe or the Eastern hemisphere, as opposed to North America.”

Now for the religious significance. When the verb “orient” came along in the 18th century, it had as one of its meanings “to place or arrange (a thing or a person) so as to face the east; spec. (a) to build (a church) with the longer axis running due east and west, and the chancel or chief altar at the eastern end; (b) to bury (a person) with the feet towards the east.”

Here are the OED’s citations for this sense of the word:

1728, in Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopædia: “In most Religions, particular Care has been taken to have their Temples oriented. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus is said to have made a Mountain give way, because it prevented the orienting of a Church he was building.”

1884, in an issue of the journal Science: “The coffins were of plank or stone, and were not oriented.”

1896, in The Classical Review: “The primitive Aryan in taking his bearings literally oriented himself and turned to the east.”

1993, in Joan E. Taylor’s book Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins: “The basilica is, like other Byzantine churches, oriented to the east.”

These practices, however, predated the use of the word “orient” in reference to them. Here’s an explanation we found in a 1907 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia (we’re adding paragraph breaks for readability):

“The custom of praying with faces turned towards the East is probably as old as Christianity. The earliest allusion to it in Christian literature is in the second book of the Apostolic Constitutions (200-250, probably) which prescribes that a church should be oblong ‘with its head to the East.’ Tertullian also speaks of churches as erected in ‘high and open places, and facing the light.’ ”

Why did the custom develop? The encyclopedia goes on to explain: “The reason for this practice, which did not originate with Christianity, as given by St. Gregory of Nyssa … is that the Orient is the first home of the human race, the seat of the earthly paradise. In the Middle Ages additional reasons for orientation were given, namely, that Our Lord from the Cross looked towards the West, and from the East He shall come for the Last Judgment.”

The writer goes on to say that “the existence of the custom among the pagans is referred to by Clement of Alexandria, who states that their ‘most ancient temples looked towards the West, that people might be taught to turn to the East when facing the images.’”

In discussing church construction, the encyclopedia adds: “The form of orientation which in the Middle Ages was generally adopted consisted in placing the apse and altar in the Eastern end of the basilica. A system of orientation exactly the opposite of this was adopted in the basilicas of the age of Constantine. … Thus, in these cases the bishop from his throne in the apse looked towards the East.”

In practice, however, ecclesiastical architects found that prior construction, street arrangements, and terrain often interfered with strict adherence to the rules of orientation. Not everybody could move a mountain!

As for Jews, rabbinical opinion has generally held that those living outside the Land of Israel should pray toward the Holy Land, and those living in Israel should pray toward Jerusalem.

Most Jews of the Diaspora live to the west of Israel and thus pray to the east. From what we’ve read, ancient synagogues usually conformed to this tradition and may have influenced the orientation of Christian churches.

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