Have you ever wondered where the center of the world might be? That may seem an odd question, yet for millennia people have believed that the world has a center, and by “center” they don’t mean in the dead center like the pit in a peach. They mean something very different. The Greeks called it omphalos, which means “navel.” The ancient Hebrews had a similar concept. Ezekiel speaks of people “who live at the center [Hebrew “navel”] of the earth” (38:12). This is the most important spot on the globe, the place where God, or the gods, and humans commune.
Recently I visited the ruins of Delphi in Greece, that ancient archeological home to the famous oracle, the temple of Apollo, and the quadrennial panhellenic games. Of the many strange sights at Delphi one of the oddest is a beehive-shaped stone called the omphalos, or navel, of the world. Here the ancient Greeks communed with the gods through the Pythian prophetess, the Sybil.
Delphi and its artifacts seemed pretty amazing until I recalled that years before I had stood at another ancient site that also claims to be the world’s navel. In Jerusalem you find the Temple Mount, the site of the demolished Jewish temple, now the site of the Dome of the Rock mosque. Beneath that structure lies the alleged “foundation stone” of the temple, the place where the Holy of Holies stood. Surely this is the center of all things spiritual.
But wait. There’s more! Another navel of the world can be found just 700 meters away in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. According to tradition this church is situated on Mount Calvary, resting on the very spot where Christ was crucified. In the middle of the basilica, you will find the true omphalos, the navel of the earth!
Finding the true navel is a bit tricky, it turns out. Other candidates include the Great Pyramid of Giza, the holy city of Mecca, and Cuzco, the ancient capital of Peru. There are a few whimsical ones. The tiny “town” of Felicity, California (population 2) is the real navel of the world. Then there’s the claim that the true geographic (as opposed to spiritual) center is 180 kilometers northwest of Ankara, Turkey. Laugh if you like, but consider how many people think the real (cultural or political) center of the world is New York City, Hollywood, or Washington, D.C. Of course some Texans know where the real center is too, but they may dispute particulars (Houston? Dallas? Austin?).
As a child I thought I knew the center because I lived at it. I had the good fortune to be born and raised on “the Main Street of America,” also known as “the Mother Road.” Growing up on Route 66, I marveled that Nat King Cole would croon on the radio about my ribbon of highway:
If you ever plan to motor west,
Travel my way, take the highway that is the best.
Get your kicks on Route Sixty-six.
And Martin Milner and George Maharis would dramatize every week just how important my part of the world was through their Route 66 TV series. Today my youthful ethnocentrism embarrasses me, but who among us isn’t a bit partial to one particular spot on the globe?
Of course, there’s a problem with this “navel of the world” business—whether in its sublime or absurd manifestations. It’s arrogant, provincial, and worse, as Jesus explained to the woman at the well, it’s just not true. The woman who encountered Jesus had wondered: Is the “center” to be found on Mount Gerizim where her people had worshiped for generations, or is it to be found at the Temple in Jerusalem? (John 4:20).
Jesus replies it is “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (v. 21). He goes on to explain that there is a center where you meet God, but you can’t find it on a map because it is inside a person. It requires spirit and truth, not latitude and longitude (4:23). Geographic coordinates, tourist guidebooks, and stone structures are of little use. The ancients felt tremendous mystery and awe as they approached what they thought was the navel of the world. Hunger for mystery and awe is profoundly human, but it is only authentic when you encounter Christ, says the Apostle Paul: “Christ in you” is “the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).
The longing for the omphalos, the navel of the world, seems universal. Material places like Delphi and Jerusalem are culturally interesting to be sure (and worth a visit!), but they are merely symbols or representations of the place God truly meets people. The Almighty meets people in humble, repentant hearts (see 1 Pet 3:15). “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Rev 21:3).
Tippens, Anne and Darryl. Temple of Apollo, Delphi. 2015. Retrieved from Tippens’ personal archives. Tone adjusted by Karissa Herchenroeder for use on the CHARIS site.
Salt, Alun. The Omphalos – Delphi. September 18, 2005. Delphi, Greece. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved. Photo cropped and tone and contrast adjusted by Karissa Herchenroeder for use on the CHARIS site.
blues_brother. Gerusalemme, Santo Sepolcro. L’omphalos (ombelico. June 14, 2015. Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved. Photo cropped and tone adjusted by Karissa Herchenroeder for use on the CHARIS site.
Darryl Tippens (Ph.D., Louisiana State University) is University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University, where he teaches English, researches, and serves in the Provost office. He is Provost Emeritus of Pepperdine University. Dr. Tippens enjoys writing on a variety of topics including Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible as literature, Christian spirituality, and higher education. He is the author or co-author of several books including “Pilgrim Heart: The Way of Jesus in Everyday Life” and “Shadow & Light: Literature and the Life of Faith.”