A Towering Prayer House in the Hills

By : Jakarta Globe | on 4:01 PM May 07, 2014
Category : Life & Style, Community

Daniel Alamsjah_1 Gereja ayam builder Daniel Alamsjah. (JG Photo/Julianne Greco and M. Arifin)

A giant bird structure nests quietly in the hills of Magelang, Central Java. Known locally as gereja ayam , or chicken church, this building attracts curious tourists and explorers and is the subject of many rumors and myths.

At a glance, it is no surprise as to how this building earned its name. With its red beak raised to the sky as if in mid-cluck, it looks like a giant chicken will come to life at any moment. The building’s length, vaulted ceiling and steeple-like head suggest the body of a church.

Long abandoned and unfinished, the building has an eerie feel to it, like it could belong on the set of some science fiction film or if it were once a place of cult worship. The truth is not so far off; the story behind the massive bird structure takes root in one man’s spiritual visions.

“I suddenly got a vision of a place on a hill, built to worship God,” said Daniel Alamsjah, 67, the enigmatic building’s creator.

When talking to Alamsjah, it is unclear how much of what he says is based on reality or figments of his imagination, as his words seem to come from a dreamlike trance. According to him, the chicken church is neither chicken nor church. The building was actually constructed as a prayer house in the form of a dove.

Gereja ayam_front_1 Gereja ayam's steeple. (JG Photo/Julianne Greco and M. Arifin)

Alamsjah says he was working in Jakarta in 1989 when his vision from the divine of a giant prayer house on a hill first came to him. During Idul Fitri that year, Alamsjah was walking around Magelang where his wife’s family lived when he came across some land that had exactly the same view as in his vision.

“I prayed all night there and I got a revelation that I must build the prayer house in that spot.”

Despite this sense of spiritual obligation, Alamsjah struggled with the decision to actually act on the vision.

“‘God, I’m no priest, this is not my place. I’m not a fundamentalist. I’m just a devout practicing Christian,’ I thought to myself at the time. Another reason for my hesitation was financial—I didn’t have a lot of money,” he says.

After conversations with local landowners, Alamsjah decided to move forward with it when the price was right.

Gereja ayam_back_1 Gereja ayam: a rear view. (JG Photo/Julianne Greco and M. Arifin)

In early 1990 he got an offer to buy 3,000 square meters of land on Rhema Hill, located between two villages, Kembang Limus and Karangrejo in Magelang for just Rp 2 million ($170). He decided to take it, making the payments in installments and in the course of four years he eventually owned one hectare, Alamsjah says.

“Perhaps because of my Christian faith, people thought I was building a church. But it’s not a church. I was building a prayer house, not a church, but a place for people who believe in God.”

Alamsjah says a diverse set of people visited his prayer house. “Seven nationalities were represented like countries including Japan and there were many people there, not just Christians. Muslims were praying there too.”

One of the local rumors surrounding Alamsjah’s prayer house is that the space was used for rehabilitation, because the building’s dark basement is made up of about 12 small unfinished rooms that could be cells. Alamsjah confirms that the building was used for rehabilitation, but those small rooms were designated as “private prayer rooms” and not holding areas like rumors insinuate.

“The rehabilitation that happened at this prayer house was for therapy for disabled children, drug addicts, crazy people and disturbed youth who wanted to fight,” he says.

Gereja ayam_side_1 The building has fallen into disrepair. (JG Photo/Julianne Greco and M. Arifin)

Alamsjah claims he has a background in therapy and is still working as a therapist, with 21 patients now living in his house. He is now based in a house nearby the prayer house in Magelang because the trek up the hill to the prayer house is too difficult for him in his old age.

The prayer house closed its doors until a little after 2000, says Alamsjah due to the construction costing too much, and the building remains unfinished to this day. Alamsjah says he is looking to sell the building and has already communicated with a Singaporean interested in turning his building into a villa for health therapy, but has yet to receive a down payment.

For Alamsjah, building the prayer house was an experience of self-discovery, but, it is no longer practical for him to continue with the project. “In the process I became more religious, but even if I wanted to continue building, I couldn’t because I just don’t have the financing. I’m old and retired.”

Wasno, the village head of Desa Gombong, corroborates Alamsjah’s story that Alamsjah received community support when he first started his project.

“Before Daniel built the prayer house, he asked surrounding community members if he could make a building for housing different types of youth. He had around 30 people working on the construction and I was one of them,” Wasno said. He confirms that construction ended because funding ran out, refuting rumors that the building stopped because the community did not want it.

Gereja ayam_side room_2 Gereja ayam's interieor. (JG Photo/Julianne Greco and M. Arifin)

Today, Wasno benefits from people’s curiosity of gereja ayam. Since his house is right at the base of the hill, he allows visitors to park in his lot for Rp 2,000. Because of his positioning, Wasno is used to answering questions from curious visitors about gereja ayam.

One visitor, Jessica Peng, an American teacher living in Jogja, got the sense that Wasno and family “are used to seeing people come and go.” Peng was struck by the likeness of the building to a chicken and insists it looks nothing like a dove.

“It’s no surprise that everyone locally calls it gereja ayam because this is a case where visual representation matters more than the actual motif.”

That gereja ayam was once used as some underground rehabilitation center was a rumor Peng heard from her friends. “There was definitely a vibe that it was a place where a cult could gather.” Another thing Peng found odd was that for such a big building there was only one entrance.

One of the best parts of visiting gereja ayam is how suddenly imposing the building is on the landscape, Peng says. “It’s kind of a hike to get up there, so I was just concentrating on the path, then out of nowhere it’s towering over me. It’s an all of a sudden thing.”

Gereja ayam_inside_1 Gereja ayam' cross-shaped skylight. (JG Photo/Julianne Greco and M. Arifin)

Peng says a lot of expats have been inspired to trek up to gereja ayam by the social media. She first learned of the building from her friend who posted on Facebook and after her own trip, her posts on the social netwotking site led more of her expat friends to explore it as well.

On the Internet, there are many posts from visitors of gereja ayam. In all its distinctiveness, it is fast becoming a popular site for exploring and photo shoots. No longer a place for rehabilitation and prayers, gereja ayam remains shrouded in mystery and is a source of intrigue for locals and visitors alike.

It also has another function Alamsjah never intended; the building often houses young couples in search of privacy, looking to get away from prying eyes, Wasno says.

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