Sacred Spaces, Sacred Realms: Religious Centers and Pilgrimage Routes

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Differentiate between various types of religious structures and how they function as sacred locations of pilgrimage and worship.

Looking Forward

What comes to mind when you think of a sacred space? What do you imagine doing in that space? What is its purpose? The notion of “sacred space” will take on a different meaning for each person. Some might think of religious spaces, but others may think of a natural landscape, a library, civic monument, or simply a relaxing place.

Every civilization has its share of sacred spaces, that is, geographical locations, buildings, monuments, or environmental features, such as mountains, lakes, rocks, waterfalls, and so on, that are believed to be endowed with intense spiritual qualities. Indeed, such places are frequently thought to possess a variety of supernatural powers that can heal, rejuvenate, or otherwise affect the human beings who visit them, often as devout pilgrims within larger rites and rituals of religious pilgrimage. They are also sometimes thought to be the focal points of creation, the places where deities first manifested themselves or performed some fundamental actions and are thus typically steeped in mythology and theological dogmas.

Sacred Spaces, Sacred Realms

A sacred place is first of all a defined place, distinguished from other spaces. The rituals that a people either practice at a place or direct toward it mark its sacredness and differentiate it from other defined spaces. To understand the character of such places, think of sacred spaces as a “focusing lens.” A sacred place focuses attention on the forms, objects, and actions in it and reveals them as bearers of religious meaning. These symbols describe the fundamental constituents of reality as a religious community perceives them, defines a life in accordance with that view, and provides a means of access between the human world and divine realities.

As meaningful space, sacred space encompasses a wide variety of very different kinds of places. It includes places that are constructed for religious purposes, such as temples or temenoi, and places that are religiously interpreted, such as mountains or rivers. It includes spaces that can be entered physically, as the outer geography of a holy land, imaginatively, as the inner geography of the body in Tantric yoga, or visually, as the space of a maṇḍala.

This view of sacred space as a lens for meaning implies that places are sacred because they perform a religious function, not because they have peculiar physical or aesthetic qualities. While many spaces link the perception of holiness to religious emotion – such as the sacred mountains of China, the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, and the sources and the estuaries of India’s holy rivers – such qualities of place are not inevitable. Many sacred places, even places that are central in the religious life of the community, are unimpressive to someone outside the tradition. The place does not need to be aesthetically profound, only religiously powerful.

Establishment of Sacred Spaces

Both the distinctiveness of sacred space and its reference to the ultimate context of a culture are often expressed in the conviction that sacred space is not arbitrary. A sacred place is different from the surrounding area, for it is not a place of wholly human creation or choice. Rather, its significance is grounded in its unique character, a character that no purely human action can confer on it.

In traditional societies, the whole land of a culture is normally sacred, and this sacredness is often communicated in the narratives of its foundation. Sometimes the land is uniquely created. Similarly, a sacred structure or place within a holy land may possesses something — a character, a significance, or an object — that sets it apart.

Glyph of Tenochtitlan
Nahuatl hieroglyph of Tenochtitlan, from Codex Mendoza

The gods may also communicate the special sanctity of a place through signs. Animals often serve as messengers of divine choice. The Aztec city of Tenochtitlán was founded at the place where an eagle landed on a blooming cactus, and Aeneas followed a pregnant sow to the place where it farrowed and there founded Roman city of Alba Longa. The search for such signs could develop into a science of divination. Chinese geomancy is just such an attempt to sort out the objective qualities of a place by studying the contours of the land and the balance of waters, winds, and other elements.

In other cases, a location becomes holy because of religiously significant events that have occurred there. From the time of Muhammad, Jerusalem has been a holy place for Islam. Although various traditions were attached to the city, it was above all the Prophet’s journey there that established its sanctity. Muhammad was brought to Jerusalem and to the rock on the Temple Mount, and from there he ascended through the heavens to the very presence of God. The mosque of the Dome of the Rock and the establishment of Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage both expressed and intensified the sanctity of the city. That sanctity was heightened by the discovery of tokens of Muhammad’s journey: his footprints on the rock, the imprint made by his saddle, and even the place where the angel Gabriel flattened the rock before the Prophet’s ascent. And it was further intensified by bringing other religiously significant events into connection with it. The stories of Abraham and Isaac, of Melchizedek, king of Salem, and of Jacob’s ladder were among the other biblical and nonbiblical narratives set there. As this example illustrates, a sacred place can draw a variety of traditions to itself and thereby become even more powerfully sacred.

Aerial views of the Temple Mount and parts of the Old City of Jerusalem
Aerial views of the Temple Mount and parts of the Old City of Jerusalem

Places may also be made sacred through the relics of holy beings. A grave may sanctify a place, for the tomb marks not only the separation of the living from the dead but also the point of contact between them. In early Christianity, tombs of martyrs became places of communion with the holiness of the deceased. Later, beginning about the sixth century, the deposition of relics became the center of rites for the consecration of a church. These sanctified the church the sanctuary where they were installed.

Finally, the form of a place may give it meaning and holiness. In different cultures, various kinds of places suggest the presence of deities. The land of Japan is holy because it is created and protected by the kami. Within Japan there are particular places where the kami are manifestly present: Mountains, from Mount Fuji to the hills of local shrines, may be tokens of the presence of the kami. In India, rivers and confluences are sacred, for purifying waters and meeting streams suggest places where gods are present and approachable. In these cases, the shape of the land suggests meanings to which the sacredness of the place draws attention.

Places of Communication

The symbols that give a place meaning typically create interaction between the divine and human worlds. Three roles of sacred space are especially significant, for they are widely attested in religious systems and fundamental to their purposes. First, sacred space is a means of communication with the gods and about the gods. Second, it is a place of divine power. And third, it serves as a visible icon of the world and thereby imparts a form to it and an organization to its inhabitants.

Iconostasis at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago, Illinois
Iconostasis at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago, Illinois

Sacred spaces are places of communication with divinity, places where people go to meet the gods. This function is often indicated by symbols that represent a link between the world of humans and transcendent realms. Such symbols might be vertical objects that reach from earth toward heaven, such as mountains, trees, ropes, pillars, and poles. But symbols that express the intersection of realms can be of other forms as well. In Byzantine churches, to walk from the entrance toward the altar is to move from the world of humans toward that of divinity. The doorway between these realms is the iconostasis, the screen between the chancel and sanctuary. As they pass through the doors of the iconostasis, priests become angels moving between realms. The icons themselves provide visual access to heaven. In general, the iconostasis is not a ‘symbol’ or an ‘object of devotion’; it is the gate through which this world is bound to the other.

Another way of joining gods and humans is through symbols of the gods. A sacred place may include images of the gods or other tokens that make their presence manifest. A Hindu temple is a place of meeting because it contains a form in which the god has graciously consented to dwell. The Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem was the throne of Yahweh, a visible sign of his presence of the presence of his name. Shintō shrines are dwelling places for the kami, whose material form is a sacred object called a “divine body.”

Even without explicit symbols of communication or tokens of the gods, a place may be understood as a point of contact between gods and humans. While the Kaaba is the center toward which worship is directed, it does not house an image of God, nor is it the dwelling place of God. Nonetheless, Islamic interpretation occasionally characterizes it as a place of particular access to divinity. The deity is not exactly present, yet the Kaaba does become the point of communication between God and humanity.

As a place of communication with divinity, a sacred space is typically a place of purity because purity enables people to come in contact with the gods. There, the imperfections and deficiencies, the “messiness” of normal life, are reduced. The sacred place reveals the ideal order of things, which is associated with the perfect realm of divinity, with life and vitality among humans, or with the values to which people should aspire. Other sacred places mark the movement from a zone of impurity to one of purity by defining an intermediate space for rites of purification. Some churches, synagogues, and mosques have such an area at the entrance to the principal space of the sacred precincts.

Places of Divine Power

Because it is a place of communication with divine beings, the sacred place is also a locus for divine power, which can transform human life. The nature of this transformation varies according to the religious tradition and reputation of the sacred space. In medieval Christianity, for example, many pilgrimages were inspired by a desire to witness or to experience miraculous cures.  Lourdes remains a place of pilgrimage for millions seeking miraculous cures, though the Catholic church has certified few healings as true miracles.

A place may even specialize in its cures. As the location of a manifestation of the god Shiva, the mountain Arunācala heals especially lung disease and barrenness, and two Ṣūfī shrines in the Punjab help leprosy and leukoderma. The power of divinity encountered at sacred places may also secure more general goals of physical and material well-being. Success in business or in school, the birth of children, or simply the blessing of the deity may all be reasons to visit a sacred place.

Manikarnika Ghat is one of the holiest cremation grounds.
In Benares (Varanasi), some 40,000 cremations are performed each year,. Along with the remains of these traditional funerals, there are thousands more who cannot afford cremation and whose bodies are simply placed into the Ganges. The Manikarnika Cremation Ghat, is the most auspicious place to be cremated in Varanasi.

Salvation can also be attained at sacred places. According to various Hindu traditions, to die at Banares, to be cremated there, or to disperse the ashes of the dead in the Ganges at Banaras assures salvation for the deceased. Often salvation is directly related to the purity of a sacred place and its ability to purify those within it. An English reformer, Hugh Latimer, lamented that the sight of the blood of Christ at Hailes was convincing pilgrims that “they be in clean life and in state of salvation without spot of sin.” The sacred place as an access to divinity thus also becomes a way to the perfection of human life.

Places as Icons of the World

Sacred space is often a visual metaphor for a religious world. The connection between the ordering of space and the ordering of human life is a natural one. A life without purpose or meaning is often expressed in spatial metaphors: It is to be “lost,” “disoriented,” and “without direction.” Because they are defined spaces, sacred places are natural maps that provide direction to life and a shape to the world. They order space—often geographic space, always existential space—and by doing so, they order all that exists within it.

Photo of a sweat lodge
A sweat lodge is a low profile hut, typically dome-shaped or oblong, and made with natural materials

The Lakota sweat lodge provides a good example of the ordering of space in the image of a sacred place. The outer perimeter of the lodge is a circle. Its frame is created by bending twelve to sixteen young willows from one quadrant of the circle across to the opposite quadrant. According to Black Elk, “the willows are set up in such a way that they mark the four quarters of the universe; thus the whole lodge is the universe in an image, and the two-legged, four-legged, and winged peoples, and all the things of the world are contained in it.” The sweat lodge, therefore, encompasses physical space and draws the other realities of the Lakota world into its form. Its center becomes an ultimate point of reference in which space, all beings, and all powers finally converge.

Another spatial metaphor closely connected with sacred places is orientation. The sacred place focuses attention on a symbolically significant region by being itself turned, or turning those within it, toward that region. Sacred places show a variety of orientations and values of direction. First Coptic and Eastern churches, and later Western churches, were oriented toward the rising sun, which was the symbol of the resurrected Christ. In other traditions, the cardinal directions are not the basis for orientation: Synagogues traditionally are oriented toward Jerusalem, and mosques toward Mecca. These places are similar not because they express similar systems of orientation but because they all make direction meaningful.

Boundaries created by sacred spaces can also define the limits of the visible world or create distinctive spaces within it. In South Asia the traditional pattern of city planning created a series of concentric spaces around a central temple in the urban heart of a region. This pattern occurs, for example, in Kathmandu. The city is surrounded by twenty-four shrines of the Mātṛkās, the eight mother goddesses. A ritual of sequential worship at these shrines arranges them into three sets of eight, which form three concentric circles around Kathmandu. The geometric clarity of the city distinguished it from the surrounding areas and marked it as the most sacred area in which the realization of divine order was most perfectly articulated. In this way, the shrines define different levels of sanctity extending from the sacred center of the city to the entire kingdom.

Encoding of Sacred Space

The functions of sacred space are, in their different ways, aspects of its essential function: to identify the fundamental symbols that create the patterns of life in a culture. A space can encompass, among many other things, the human body, the cosmos, the stages in the creation of the cosmos, the divisions of time, the sacred narratives of a tradition, and the various spheres of human life. The more central a place is in the religious life of a culture, the more numerous the systems to which it refers.

The human body is a primary system — if not the primary system — through which people order and interpret the world. In many instances that correlation between body and place is explicit. Indian architectural manuals explicitly liken the temple to the body: The door is the mouth; the dome above the spire is the head. Just as the human skull has a suture, from which the soul at death departs to heaven, so also the dome is pierced with a finial; and the inner sanctum of the temple is the place of the soul within the human body. Contact with the image of divinity in the heart of the temple is the symbolic replication of the meeting of divinity within the center of one’s being. Thus, while the shape of the body generally imparts meaning to space, the specific meaning is developed in the context of individual religious traditions.

Sacred space often imparts form to the world by taking the form of the world. At the founding of cities within the Roman world, an augur drew a circle quartered by lines running east-west and north-south, replicating the heavenly order and establishing it on earth. Through ritual formulas, the diagram was then projected onto the whole tract of land to be encompassed by the city, so that the periphery of the city reproduced the boundary of the universe. The east-west line represented the course of the sun; the north-south line, the axis of the sky. The augur and the city thus stood at the crossing point of these two lines and hence immovably and harmoniously at the center of the universe.

The Kaaba and the Masjid Al-Haram during Hajj
The Kaaba and the Masjid Al-Haram during Hajj

Sacred space may not only bear the imprint of the natural world but also of sacred narratives. A particular place may be a reminder of events said to have occurred there, or it may contain tokens or depictions of sacred narratives which recall them to memory and reflection. In Islam, the rites of the ḥājj move within a space that reminds the pilgrim of two critical moments in Islamic sacred history: the time of Abraham, who built the Kaaba and established monotheistic worship there; and the time of the Prophet, whose final pilgrimage is recalled in rites at the plain of Arafat. In this last instance, the sacred place not only recalls an event but is also the location of the event, for the Prophet gave his last sermon during his farewell pilgrimage at Arafat. The place removes the physical distance between the worshiper and the event, and in doing so, it also mitigates the temporal distance between the time of the Prophet and the present. By thus collapsing space and time, it endows the event with an imposing reality.

In one way or another, sacred space orders space in a socially meaningful way. Because a sacred place is both visible and comprehensible, it lends concreteness to the less visible systems of human relationships and creates an identifiable center of social and political organization.

Sacred Sites around the World

The sacredness of a natural feature may accrue through tradition or be granted through a blessing, and one or more religions may consider sacred locations to be of special significance. Regardless of construction or use, these areas often have a variety of ritual or taboo associations – including limitations on the type or number of visitors or on allowed actions within the space.

Let us consider eight well-known sacred places in several parts of the world, all of which have not only had a profound impact on the civilizations that venerate them. They are England’s Stonehenge, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán, the Shinto shrine of Ise-Jingu in Japan, the Great Stupa at Sanchi, the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and the great Islamic pilgrimage site of Mecca. While they are very different from one another in a great many respects, all share at least one common quality: an intense spirituality that makes them special.


Stonehenge, Prehistoric, England, 3000-2000 BCE

We begin with one of the oldest—and best-known—sacred places on the planet, the great megalithic stone circle known as Stonehenge, the ruins of which still loom majestically above Salisbury Plain in southwestern England. Like Rome, Stonehenge was not built in a day, but rather over a span of about fifteen hundred years, from about 2900 to 1500 B.C.E.  It is the ruins of the final phase in Stonehenge’s evolution that impress visitors today. Although there are over one thousand stone circles in Britain, the massive remains on Salisbury Plain are by far the most impressive, despite the collapse of most of the lintels and over half of the original stones.

While much about the prehistoric site Stonehenge is still a mystery, it is clear that it was a sacred site designed with agricultural concerns in mind. The monoliths used to create Stonehenge, each weighing up to twenty-five tons, were transported from at least twenty miles away and then placed at specific angles in precise spots to create a timepiece that calculates both hours and the planting season. Stonehenge was designed as circle of monoliths, with additional monoliths laid on top (trilithons) to create a connected stone circle. Within the circle was a similar design of monoliths created in the shape of a horseshoe, opened towards the northeast. A single monolith called the Heel Stone lies directly northeast of the circle.

During the summer solstice, when one stands inside the stone horseshoe and faces northeast, one will see the sun rise over the Heel Stone. It is unknown what type of rituals took place in prehistoric times, but today visitors flock to witness the sunrise on the summer solstice. Many human remains have been found at Stonehenge, suggesting that the site was a burial ground with significant meaning in prehistoric times.

The enduring sacredness of Stonehenge is underscored by the fact that, unlike the other megalithic monuments of Britain, such as the great stone circle at Avebury, some thirty miles to the north, it has never been intruded upon by a town or village.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The temple of Apollo (the centre of the Delphi oracle and Pythia) dated to the 4th century BC.
The temple of Apollo (the centre of the Delphi oracle and Pythia) dated to the 4th century BC

Some 1,400 miles southeast of the Salisbury plain, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, which looms above the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth in northwestern Greece, is another extremely sacred place: Delphi, site of the famous Oracle of Apollo. Like Stonehenge, the origins of Delphi are lost in the mists of mythology and prehistory; however, we do know that very early on the ancient Greeks came to consider it to be the center of the universe.

The central feature of Delphi is the Temple of Apollo, which commemorates the god’s slaying of Python, a terrible she-dragon that lived on the slopes of Parnassus. When he wandered onto the slopes of Parnassus, he encountered Python, who immediately attempted to kill him, just as she had his mother. Apollo loosed one of the magical arrows the smith-god Hephaestus had forged for him and mortally wounded the monstrous reptile. However, one of Python’s tasks had been to guard the region, which had been sacred to her mother, the primordial earth-goddess Gaia, and so Apollo needed to purify himself and placate the slain monster’s spirit. He exiled himself to Thessaly, did his penance, and when he returned to what was to become Delphi, he established the oracle that bears his name. In memory of Python, he named the woman who spoke with his voice the Pythia.

From the earliest period in Greek history, Delphi was an extremely sacred place. Both individuals and cities came to Delphi to hear Apollo’s oracles. The mantic, or divinatory ritual, took place in a chamber deep within the temple called the manteion. The Pythia, who, in anthropological terms, was a shaman, chewed a laurel leaf and then mounted a tripod that stood on top of the Omphalos Stone, which was believed to be the world’s navel. According to several ancient eyewitnesses, including the second-century B.C.E historian Plutarch, “noxious fumes” issued from a hole, about nine inches in diameter, directly beneath the tripod and surrounded the Pythia. Some modern scholars have suggested that the chewed laurel leaves might have been responsible for her altered state of consciousness, and that the fumes came from a natural source beneath the ground. However, we now know that no such source exists, and that laurel is not a hallucinogen[1].

In any case, after the petitioner posed his question, the Pythia babbled incoherently. Her random utterances were then reshaped by the Delphic priests into coherent, albeit cryptic “responses,” which frequently reflected current political realities or the size of the gift the petitioner or his city had made to the oracle. Although it declined steadily during the Roman period (after 150 B.C.E.), and especially after the spread of Christianity in the fourth century, the oracle remained a sacred place in the eyes of both the Romans and the Greeks, and it survived until 390, when the Temple of Apollo was finally closed by the Roman emperor Theodosius I (347–395), along with other pagan sites in Greece, including the Parthenon.

Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan
Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan Culture, Mexico, 150–225 AD

The Pyramid of the Sun at the great pre-Columbian site of Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico is an awe-inspiring sight. One of the largest man-made constructions in the Americas, the Sun Pyramid stands at 489 feet by 551 feet at it base, and 148 feet in height. Its graceful volumetric construction echoes the shape of the mountain behind it, encouraging viewers to perceive the man-made shape as a metaphorical echo of the enormous natural form that dominates the valley. The conquering Spanish learned of the site from the Aztec ruler Montezuma, who regularly visited there, considering it a holy place. Tourists, both Mexican and international, continue to be moved by its grandeur.

Like Stonehenge, only a small portion of the site has been excavated thus far and there is still much to be understood about this site, but there appears to be an emphasis on the solstices with rituals take place on the Spring equinox that include dance, song, burning of incense, and the climbing of the Pyramid of the Sun. The full significance of the Pyramid of the Sun only began to become clear to archaeologists in the early 1970s, when a tunnel was accidentally discovered at the foot of the main staircase. This tunnel leads directly toward the center of the pyramid’s base, where six chambers or caves were discovered. Originally believed to be natural springs, these “caves” are now thought to be completely man-made, and to date back to the earliest date of the pyramid’s construction.

The Pyramid of the Sun lies to the east of a street called the Avenue of the Dead, which runs from north to south. The pyramid is stepped on four sides—each aligned closely to the cardinal directions. The temple faces west, toward the direction of the setting sun and the Avenue of the Dead and was built on top of a cave and a spring, both of which the people of Mesoamerica believed to be linked to the gods, the underworld, creation, and the afterlife.

In the religions of the ancient Americas, perhaps more so than in the other great religious traditions described here, sacred places loomed especially large in the spiritual imagination. Features of the natural landscape, such as springs, caves, and mountain peaks, were likewise invested with great sacral significance, and were often believed to be original places from which the very first ancestors emerged. In Mesoamerica in particular, the idea of a hidden source of water inside a cave was closely associated with the birth of ancestors and with the control of rainfall, the circulation of water, the origins of time, and the source of life. This complex of ideas was one of the oldest and the most pervasive religious concepts, traceable far back in time, and shared across the many language and cultural groups of the region. The six secret caves under the Pyramid of the Sun may make specific reference to the origin myth of ruling lineages, but more importantly, in constructing their largest and most impressive temple-pyramid around a circle of secret caves containing canalized water, the builders of the Pyramid of the Sun tapped into this most primordial of ancient American ideas about sacred space.


Great Stupa at Sanchi

Great Stupa, Sanchi, India
Great Stupa, Sanchi, India, third century BCE

Can a mound of dirt represent the Buddha, the path to Enlightenment, a mountain and the universe all at the same time? It can if it’s a stupa. At its simplest, a stupa is a dirt burial mound faced with stone. In Buddhism, the earliest stupas contained portions of the Buddha’s ashes, and as a result, began to be associated with the body of the Buddha. Adding the Buddha’s ashes to the mound of dirt activated it with the energy of the Buddha himself. The ashes of the Buddha were buried in stupas built at locations associated with important events in the Buddha’s life including Lumbini (where he was born), Bodh Gaya (where he achieved Enlightenment), Deer Park at Sarnath (where he preached his first sermon sharing the Four Noble Truths (also called the dharma), and Kushingara (where he died).

Before Buddhism, great teachers were buried in mounds. Some were cremated, but sometimes they were buried in a seated, meditative position. The mound of earth covered them up. Thus, the domed shape of the stupa came to represent a person seated in meditation much as the Buddha was when he achieved Enlightenment and knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. The base of the stupa represents his crossed legs as he sat in a meditative pose. The middle portion is the Buddha’s body and the top of the mound, where a pole rises from the apex surrounded by a small fence, representing his head.

According to legend, King Ashoka, who was the first king to embrace Buddhism, created 84,000 stupas and divided the Buddha’s ashes among them all. While this is an exaggeration (and the stupas were built by Ashoka some 250 years after the Buddha’s death), it is clear that Ashoka was responsible for building many stupas all over northern India and the other territories under the Mauryan Dynasty in areas now known as Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

One of Ashoka’s goals was to provide new converts with the tools to help with their new faith. In this, Ashoka was following the directions of the Buddha who, prior to his death, directed that stupa should be erected in places other than those associated with key moments of his life so that “the hearts of many shall be made calm and glad.” Ashoka also built stupas in regions where the people might have difficulty reaching the stupas that contained the Buddha’s ashes.

Buddhists visit stupas to perform rituals that help them to achieve one of the most important goals of Buddhism: to understand the Buddha’s teachings, known as the Four Noble Truths[2] so when they die they cease to be caught up in samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death.

Once individuals come to fully understand The Four Noble Truths, they are able to achieve Enlightenment, or the complete knowledge of the dharma. In fact, Buddha means “the Enlightened One” and it is the knowledge that the Buddha gained on his way to achieving Enlightenment that Buddhist practitioners seek on their own journey toward Enlightenment.

One of the early sutras (a collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha forming a religious text) records that the Buddha gave specific directions regarding the appropriate method of honoring his remains: his ashes were to be buried in a stupa at the crossing of the mythical four great roads (the four directions of space), the unmoving hub of the wheel, the place of Enlightenment.

Torana from the Great Stupa, Sanchi
Torana from the Great Stupa, Sanchi, India, third century BCE

If one thinks of the stupa as a circle or wheel, the unmoving center symbolizes Enlightenment. Likewise, the practitioner achieves stillness and peace when the Buddhist dharma is fully understood. Many stupas are placed on a square base, and the four sides represent the four directions, north, south, east and west. Each side often has a gate, called a torana, in the center, which allows the practitioner to enter from any side and represents the four great life events of the Buddha: East (Buddha’s birth), South (Enlightenment), West (First Sermon where he preached his teachings), and North (Nirvana). The gates are turned at right angles to the axis mundi to indicate movement in the manner of the arms of a svastika. The torana function as directional gates that guiding the practitioner in the correct direction on the correct path to Enlightenment.

The stupa makes visible something that is so large as to be unimaginable. This central axis, the axis mundi, is echoed in the same axis that bisects the human body. In this manner, the human body also functions as a microcosm of the universe. The spinal column is the axis that bisects Mt. Meru (the sacred mountain at the center of the Buddhist world) and around which the world pivots. The aim of the practitioner is to climb the mountain of one’s own mind, ascending stage by stage through the planes of increasing levels of Enlightenment.

The practitioner does not enter the stupa, it is a solid object. Instead, the practitioner circumambulates it as a meditational practice focusing on the Buddha’s teachings[3]. This movement suggests the endless cycle of rebirth and the spokes of the Eightfold Path that leads to knowledge of the Four Noble Truths and into the center of the unmoving hub of the wheel, Enlightenment.

The practitioner can walk to circumambulate the stupa or move around it through a series of prostrations. An energetic and circular movement around the stupa raises the body’s temperature. Practitioners do this to mimic the heat of the fire that cremated the Buddha’s body, a process that burned away the bonds of self-hood and attachment to the mundane or ordinary world. Attachments to the earthly realm are considered obstacles in the path toward Enlightenment. Circumambulation is not veneration for the relics themselves—a distinction sometime lost on novice practitioners. The Buddha did not want to be revered as a god but wanted his ashes in the stupas to serve as a reminder of the Four Noble Truths.

Shinto Shrine of Ise-Jingu

Wooden Shinto temple at Ise Jingū (Temple of Ise)
Wooden Shinto temple at Ise Jingū (Temple of Ise), Japan

The Ise-Jingu is the most sacred shrine in Shinto, the indigenous belief system of Japan. Located in the city of Ise in Mie prefecture, about an hour’s train ride south of Nagoya, it is dedicated to the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, from whom the imperial family is traditionally believed to descend through her grandson, Honinigi, who descended to Earth and extended his grandmother’s sovereignty to the mortal realm. There are two major shrines at Ise – the Outer Shine is dedicated to Toyouke, the kami of harvests and goods – but it is the Inner Shrine, or Naiku, that is most important to the Japanese people, as it is there that Amaterasu is enshrined. The goddess’s Yata no Kagami (Sacred Mirror) is also housed within the Shrine of Naiku, which is one of the greatest treasures of Japan and represents divine support of the royal family. Mirrors symbolized truth in ancient Japan and the Yata no Kagami also signifies wisdom. The chief priest or priestess who has guarded and cared for the site over the centuries has always been a member of the imperial family.

Traditionally, the Naiku is said to date from the third century C.E., and the extremely simple architecture reflects the wooden thatched-roof storehouses of the late prehistoric period. However, what sets the Ise complex apart not only from all other Shinto shrines, but from sacred places elsewhere in the world, is that all of the shrine buildings are torn down and rebuilt exactly as they were every twenty years (the most recent rebuilding was in 2013). Thus, the Ise shrines are at once extremely old—the rebuilding cycle began in the eighth century—and very new. The same holds for Amaterasu and Toyouke, who are ritually rejuvenated with each rebuilding.

Two equally sized adjacent plots, one to the east and one to the west, are used alternately to rebuild the primary shrine of Naiku. Japanese cypress trees that grow in the region are used to build a new shrine adjacent to the previous shrine while the old shrine is taken apart; the process signifying the destruction and regeneration of nature. When the old shrine is completely taken down, a “heart pillar” is buried to mark the central spot where the next shrine will be built, and the plot of land is covered with white rocks. The new shrine is built almost identically to the one that began the ritual of rebuilding in 690 AD.

Depiction of the Relocation of the Grand Shrine of Ise, Japan
Depiction of the Relocation of the Grand Shrine of Ise, Japan

Each year, the emperor is expected to make a pilgrimage to Ise to honor his ancestor and report to her about what has happened to him and the realm since his last visit. But he is not the only pilgrim. A many Japanese people from all walks of life visit Ise annually to worship at its shrines and do honor to the Sun Goddess. Indeed, in the mid-nineteenth century, as Japan began to open up to the outside world, several Ise-related cults swept across the country and impelled thousands of Japanese peasants to leave their villages and head for the Ise-Jingu. Festivals are held throughout the year at the shrine to pray for and celebrate rain and harvests, but only a member of the imperial family may enter the shrine. While the current Ise pilgrimages are far less frenzied, the shrine remains central not only to Shinto, but to Japanese culture.

Temple Mount

Our next two sacred places, which still possess a profound spiritual aura, are in the city of Jerusalem, a city sacred to three world religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; which command the devotion of well over two-thirds of the world’s population. The history of Jerusalem as we know it begins with the Hebrew conquest of the region around 1250 B.C.E. Around 1000 King David managed to capture the city from the Jebusites, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Qiryat Ye’crim, where it had been kept, and installed it in a tabernacle. He also began construction of a modest temple, which was vastly enlarged and completed by his son and successor, King Solomon.

Aerial views of the Temple Mount and parts of the Old City of Jerusalem
Aerial views of the Temple Mount and parts of the Old City of Jerusalem

Although Jerusalem is studded with monuments sacred to the three religious traditions that venerate the city, two locations loom above the rest: the first is the Temple Mount, which today includes the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Western Wall or “Wailing Wall,” the last remnant of the Second Temple.

The Temple Mount, also known as Mount Moriah and Haram-esh-Sherif, was initially the site of Solomon’s Temple, completed in the early tenth century B.C.E and destroyed by the invading Babylonians in 586. The Second Temple was begun on the same site shortly after 539, when the Persians liberated the Jews from captivity. It was ravaged several times in the ensuing centuries and destroyed permanently by the Romans in 70 C.E. in the wake of the great Jewish Revolt of 69–70.

The dimensions and appearance of both temples were roughly similar. The First Temple reached the zenith of its development under King Hezekiah (c. 715–687 B.C.E.). By that time, it had become a prime place of pilgrimage for Jews from both Israel and Judah. The most sacred part of the temple was the “Holy of Holies,” where the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Tablets of the Law (the Ten Commandments) Moses had received atop Mount Sinai, was kept. The Holy of Holies was located deep inside the principal building and could only be approached by the hereditary priests, that is, the descendants of Aaron, the first Jewish high priest and traditional founder of the Hebrew priesthood.

The Second Temple, especially as restored and enlarged by Herod the Great, was even larger and more impressive than Solomon’s Temple, although it still served fundamentally to house the Ark and the Tablets of the Law. It was in the Second Temple that Jesus disputed with the Pharisees and later kicked over the tables of the money changers in the courtyard. However, save for a handful of artifacts looted by the Romans, most of the Second Temple’s furnishings, including the Ark and its sacred contents, were lost forever when the building was razed in 70 C.E.

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel, 691 AD

However, the Temple Mount remained, as did the Western Wall, where Jews still come to pray and lament the temple’s loss. Temple Mount also came to occupy an extremely important position in Islam as well. It is the third most important pilgrimage site, outranked only by Mecca and Medina, where devout Muslims believe that the imprint of one of Muhammad’s horse’s hooves can still be seen on this rock. A sanctuary, called the Dome of the Rock, was built between 691 and 692 C.E. by the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik to mark this sacred spot.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Church of the Holy Sepulchre cropped to approximately the area of the original church
Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The second sacred site in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to have been constructed on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and interment. In some respects, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the original version of which was built by Helen, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, in 330 – can be regarded as the successor to the Second Temple. It immediately became the single most important Christian pilgrimage site of the Late Roman world and thus carried on the tradition that Jerusalem was a supremely sacred place among adherents of the new Christian religion.

The original church, built in the Byzantine style, was destroyed by the Persians in 614 and was rebuilt in the same style shortly thereafter. Although severely damaged by an earthquake in 808, it managed to survive until the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim destroyed the building again in 1009 and along with it the cave that was the presumed tomb of Jesus. In 1244 the Crusaders rebuilt the church, in the Romanesque style, and it has remained essentially intact ever since, despite several attempts at restoration.

The Altar of the Crucifixion, where the alleged rock of Calvary (bottom) is encased in glass
The Altar of the Crucifixion, where the alleged rock of Calvary (bottom) is encased in glass

In the interior, the site of Golgotha, the traditional location of Jesus’ crucifixion is marked by a Greek Orthodox chapel, and his tomb, or Sepulcher, called in Greek the Anastasis, or “Place of Resurrection,” is located beneath a rotunda surrounded by columns supporting an ornamented, domed roof. The Sepulcher itself is marked by a structure known as the Edicule, which is believed to be directly above the cave destroyed in 1009.

A unique—yet not always happy—feature of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is that it is jointly owned by three major Christian denominations: the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic Churches. Other communities—the Egyptian Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox, and the Syrian Orthodox Churches—also possess certain rights and small properties in or near the building. For example, the Copts share a small area on the roof. The rights and privileges of all of these communities are protected by the Status Quo of the Holy Places (1852), as guaranteed in the Treaty of Berlin (1878), although the several communities jealously guard their spaces and rarely agree on even the smallest matters of basic maintenance. At  various times the secular authority, as of the early 2000’s the State of Israel, has been forced to intervene in these disputes and subsidize needed repairs and renovations.

Nevertheless, despite the recent political upheavals in the region and the ongoing squabbles among its owners, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher remains the foremost Christian pilgrimage site in the world and is indeed a worthy successor to its vanished neighbor, the ancient Hebrew Temple.


The Kaaba and the Masjid Al-Haram during Hajj
The Kaaba and the Masjid Al-Haram during Hajj

Our final example of an important sacred place is the most sacred place in Islam, the city of Mecca. Although it was clearly a sacred place for centuries before the time of Muhammad (c. 570–632 C.E.), and includes the famous Kaaba, the city’s sacredness in Islam derives primarily from the fact that it was the Prophet’s birthplace.

Muhammad lived peacefully in Mecca, managing his wife’s business affairs, until he was about forty years of age, when he began receiving revelations from God via the Angel Gabriel. He soon began to preach his new faith, supported by his devoted wife Khadijah and a growing number of followers. But after his wife died, he began to struggle against opposition from several quarters and, in the year 622, he was forced to flee to the nearby city of Medina one step ahead of a plot to assassinate him. This retreat, called in Arabic the Hijra, or “flight,” later became the base-year for the Muslim calendar.

Eventually Muhammad returned to Mecca in triumph, and after his death in 632, his revelations were gathered together into the Muslim holy book, the Koran. These revelations included the “Five Pillars of Islam,” one of which asserts that every Muslim should make a pilgrimage, called the hajj, to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. Thus, the city annually plays host to two million Muslims from all over the world. Wearing a white robe called an ihram, the pilgrims are expected to circle the Ka’ba seven times, to run another seven times between two hills, Safa and Marwa, to spend from noon until sunset on a hill in the valley of Arafat, to throw stones at the devil in the valley of Mina, and to sacrifice sheep and goats. The hajj occurs only in the first two weeks of Dhu al-Hijja, the last month of the Muslim lunar year, and during the time they are in Mecca and its environs the pilgrims are expected to observe some strict taboos, including abstinence from sexual activity.

Thus, like Jerusalem, Mecca has become a worldwide place of pilgrimage. It is clearly a place apart, a place brimming with spirituality and sacredness, despite the fact that only Muslims are permitted to visit it.

The Path of the Pilgrim in the Christian World

Pilgrimage is a fundamental part of human experience. Like other religious traditions, these journeys often involve distinctive rituals, narratives, and communities. The relationship between liturgy and architecture—between worship and the space in which it occurs—has a rich history in the Christian tradition. Its roots go back well before the emergence of Christianity to origins in Jewish worship.

Images and relics also influenced religious activity on a much larger scale beyond the walls of the church. Religious pilgrimage had been an important part of Christian devotion since the time of Constantine and his building campaign in the Holy Land and Constantinople (a pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place). Of course, not everyone was financially or physically able to make such a trek and in response, church architecture and religious objects (such as reliquaries) began to invoke elements of particular pilgrimage sites or recreate pilgrimages on a smaller scale. For example, architectural elements of Holy Land buildings such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were often referenced in the churches of Western Europe, or even explicitly invoked, as in the name of the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (the basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem) in Rome.

Relics of important saints were also used to refocus attention. For instance, the founding of a new political center (say, Charlemagne’s palace and chapel at Aachen) often entailed the relocation of relics to embody divine approval and authority and/or entice pilgrims and visitors.

Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe

The fundamental teachings of Christianity count no place more holy than any other: Jesus himself says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20, KJV). Throughout the Middle Ages, however, Christians sought to close the distance between themselves and God by engaging in physical travel toward a spiritual goal. Such journeys served a variety of functions: a pilgrim might set out to fulfill a vow, to expiate a crime, to seek a miraculous cure, or simply to deepen his or her faith. None of these purposes is specific to Christian pilgrimage—the idea of the sacred journey is a feature of many religions—yet by the fourth century A.D., pilgrimage had become a recognized expression of Christian piety. Persons from all walks of life made religious journeys, with far-reaching consequences for society and culture as a whole.

The earliest Christian pilgrims wished to see the places where Jesus and the apostles had lived on earth. This meant journeying to the Holy Land, a relatively easy feat in the fourth century, when the Roman empire still unified the Mediterranean world. Major theologians of the period, including Saints Jerome and Augustine, endorsed spiritual travel as a retreat from worldly concerns. In this sense, they equated pilgrimage with the monastic way of life, which pilgrims sometimes embraced after completing their journeys. The best-documented early travelers to the Holy Land worked to achieve individual spiritual enrichment by reading and living the Bible on location.

Sacred architecture complemented the interior meditations of visitors to the sites of Christ’s mission on earth. In the 320s and 330s, Constantine, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, constructed sumptuous buildings on several locations that had already become popular destinations for pilgrims. These churches often incorporated a round or centrally planned element, a form associated with tombs and the shrines of martyrs. In Jerusalem, Constantine built a basilica at the place where Christ was crucified and a rotunda around the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection.

Church of the Nativity
Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

In Bethlehem, Constantine commissioned another church over the cave revered as Jesus’ birthplace. The distinctive features of these buildings were widely copied in churches, tombs, and baptisteries throughout Europe, sometimes with specific references to the Holy Land. Octagonal glass bottles made as souvenirs for pilgrims also replicate the forms of Constantine’s buildings in the Holy Land and demonstrate the market for such things among religious tourists of Jewish as well as Christian faith.

The city of Rome became another major destination for pilgrims. Easier to access for European pilgrims than the Holy Land, Rome had also been the home of many saintly martyrs, including the apostles Peter and Paul, and the places where they were buried attracted pious travelers from a very early date. Constantine erected great basilicas over the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, and pilgrims visited these as well as other churches associated with miraculous events. A distinction of these sites was the presence of holy relics, material objects like the bones or clothes of the saints, the sight or touch of which was supposed to draw the faithful nearer to saintliness.

Santiago de Compostela

For the average European in the 12th Century, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Jerusalem was out of the question—travel to the Middle East was too far, too dangerous, and too expensive. Santiago de Compostela in Spain offered a much more convenient option.

Map of pilgrimage routes in Europe
Map of pilgrimage routes

To this day, hundreds of thousands of faithful travel the “Way of Saint James” to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. They go on foot across Europe to a holy shrine where bones, believed to belong to Saint James, were unearthed. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela now stands on this site.

The pious of the Middle Ages wanted to pay homage to holy relics, and pilgrimage churches sprang up along the route to Spain. In France alone there were four main routes toward Spain. Le Puy, Arles, Paris, and Vézelay are the cities on these roads and each contains a church that was an important pilgrimage site in its own right. Monasteries located along the pilgrimage roads provided food and lodging and also offered masses and prayers. Some monastic churches also housed relics of their own, and these often incorporated an interior passageway called an ambulatory, which allowed pilgrims to circulate and venerate the relics without interrupting the monks in their regular orders of prayer. The need to accommodate larger numbers of pilgrims caused many churches to undertake major renovations, for example, Saint-Denis, which was dramatically altered under Abbott Suger in the early twelfth century.

Pilgrims from the tympanum of Cahedral of St. Lazare, Autun
Pilgrims from the tympanum of Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun

Before departing, the pilgrim normally received a blessing from the local bishop and made a full confession if the pilgrimage was to serve as a penance. To signal his special vocation, the pilgrim put on a long, coarse garment and carried a staff and small purse—Saint James is often depicted with this distinctive gear, as well as a broad-brimmed hat and the shell-shaped badge awarded to those who reached his shrine at Compostela[4]. Serious-minded pilgrims engaged in constant devotions while en route, and some carried prayer books or portable altars to assist them.

The concept and experience of pilgrimage was so strong in medieval Europe that it fired the imagination of the age and set the tone for travel of all kinds. The Crusades, armed campaigns mounted to win control of the Holy Land, were understood as a particular kind of pilgrimage, and so were many of the quests pursued by knights in life and legend. In literature, the idea of pilgrimage lies at the heart of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which features a diverse band of pilgrims telling lively popular stories. The concept of the sacred journey also structures Dante’s Divine Comedy, which recounts the author’s own transformative course through the realms of hell and purgatory to the heights of heaven.

A pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was an expression of Christian devotion and it was believed that it could purify the soul and perhaps even produce miraculous healing benefits. A criminal could travel the “Way of Saint James” as an act penance. For the everyday person, a pilgrimage was also one of the only opportunities to travel and see some of the world. It was a chance to meet people, perhaps even those outside one’s own class. The purpose of pilgrimage may not have been entirely devotional. Pilgrimage churches can be seen in part as popular destinations, a spiritual tourism of sorts for medieval travelers. Guidebooks, badges and various souvenirs were sold. Pilgrims, though traveling light, would spend money in the towns that possessed important sacred relics.

In the later Middle Ages, pilgrims often traveled in order to win indulgences, that is, the Church’s promise to intercede with God for the remission of the temporal punishment for sins confessed and forgiven, a prayer that will be heard because of the holiness of the Church. Pope Boniface VIII declared 1300 a jubilee year, when pilgrims to Rome might gain a plenary indulgence. To purists and reformers, such attractions seemed less laudable than the heartfelt goals of earlier pilgrims, and preaching friars like the Franciscans and Dominicans urged a return to devotional exercises: whether in a place sanctified by a sacred event—and the preaching orders came to control the holy places at Bethlehem and Jerusalem—or in the quiet of one’s own home, the individual was exhorted to imagine sacred events as though witnessing them in real life, in the most vivid manner possible.

  1. Some scholars have suggested that the "noxious fumes" possibly came from Cannabis sativa leaves burning in a secret furnace directly beneath the manteion, and that it was their hallucinogenic effect that put the Pythia into a trance. Unfortunately, all evidence of such a furnace has long since disappeared, and, until further research is done on the charring in the interior of the hole, this must remain a tentative hypothesis.
  2. life is suffering (suffering=rebirth), the cause of suffering is desire, the cause of desire must be overcome, when desire is overcome there is no more suffering
  3. Circumambulation is also a part of other faiths. For example, Muslims circle the Kaaba in Mecca and cathedrals in the West such at Notre Dame in Paris include a semicircular ambulatory (a hall that wraps around the back of the choir, around the altar).
  4. the shell's grooves symbolize the many roads of the pilgrimage.


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