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Giant Burning Temple Stirs Hearts in Northern Ireland

Over the past week, more than 60,000 people have taken turns writing messages on a hand-carved wooden temple overlooking Londonderry.
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They came. They saw. They burned it down.

Over the past week, more than 60,000 people have taken turns writing messages — often to loved ones in the grave or still in the midst of suffering — on a hand-carved wooden temple overlooking Northern Ireland's second-largest city, Londonderry.

The 72-foot structure, built to resemble a cross between a Buddhist shrine and arabesque palace, was the brainchild of Californian artist David Best, who is famous for his temples built for the Burning Man festivals in Nevada.

He was invited to build one in Northern Ireland, where bonfires usually are a magnet for community division, and specifically in Londonderry, a city so divided that its residents cannot even agree on its name. While it's legally Londonderry, the name preferred on the predominantly Protestant east side, the Catholic majority insists on its pre-British version of Derry.

Best, 70, spent two months overseeing the Temple project supported by 40 apprentice carpenters drawn from both sides of the divide. It was erected on a hilltop on the Protestant east side overlooking the River Foyle and Catholic Derry beyond.

The result was so strikingly beautiful, many visitors expressed disbelief it was to be destroyed. But Best said that had to be the artwork's destiny.

"It's not a war memorial, or a mausoleum," Best said before his creation was set aflame Saturday night. "It's a place for celebration."

More than 15,000 people bought tickets to stand, from a roped-off distance, as a half-dozen torchbearers came forth at nightfall. Among them were relatives of the 13 killed on Londonderry's Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British soldiers opened fire on unarmed Catholic demonstrators.

Many cheered as the flames spread upward into the tower's steeple-like top. The fire's light revealed plenty of weeping faces, too, reflecting how thousands had inscribed hand-written memorials —sometimes accompanied with photos — to dead relatives on the structure.

Best said his biggest fear was that, in the typical Irish dampness, it wouldn't burn at all. But within two hours, the Temple was nothing more than air and ash.


— The Associated Press