Religion plays a large important role in the lives of many people inthe world. It can unite and bring peace and harmony to large groups,but it can also cause anger, strife, and long-lasting, deadly wars.Throughout history these ten cities have been significant spots formajor religious events. They continue to be pilgrimage sites formillions. If you get the opportunity to visit any of them it’s sure tobe an unbelievable experience.
Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Mecca is the holiest of cities in Islam. In 2008, the yearly Hajjpilgrimage attracted two to three million people to the city. Thispilgrimage is part of the Five Pillars of Islam, and is required of anycapable Muslim at least once in their life. Saudi law forbidsnon-Muslims to enter Mecca.
The history of Mecca is old, old, old, with the first story coming froma pre-Islamic legend. The tale tells of Adam and Eve being cast out ofParadise, with Adam landing in what is now Sri Lanka and Eve landing inArabia. They wandered for 200 years before finally reuniting on Mt.Arafat near Mecca. God eventually allowed Adam to build a shrine, andthe legend states that he was buried in what is now Mecca.
Perhaps a more accurate historical account begins in 2,000 BC whenAbraham and his son Ishmael built the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building inMecca and now the most sacred of all sites in Islam. The Kaaba is theplace that all Muslims face during their prayers, no matter where theyare in the world.
The prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570. In 630 he took controlof the city, destroyed 360 pagan idols, declared the city a place ofMuslim pilgrimage and dedicated it to the worship of only Allah, thusforming the Islam faith.
Lhasa literally translates to “place of the gods.” The city was thehome of the Dalai Lamas, political leaders of Tibet and religiousleaders of Tibetan Buddhism, from the 1600’s until the Chinese invadedand the 14th Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959. Today you’ll find theTibetans a minority of the population compared to the Chinese.
Lhasa has many sites that are of historical significance includingJokhang Temple, Norbulingka and the Potala Palace, which are all UNESCOWorld Heritage Sites; and Sera and Drepung Monasteries, and ZhefengTemple.
Over one million people go to Tibet each year. You’ll often see thedevout pilgrims in Lhasa kneeling or lying prone with their foreheadson the ground. These pilgrims will be trying to gain spiritual merit byfollowing one of the three concentric pathways that go inside or aroundJohkhang Temple.
This small town of 30,000 people is located six miles outside ofJerusalem and is thought to be the birthplace of Jesus by mostChristians. It is home to one of the largest Palestinian Christiancommunities, even though it is primarily a Muslim city.
History abounds in this almost 2,000-year-old city. It is thebirthplace of David and the location where he was crowned king ofIsrael. Records show that over the centuries it has been attacked andconquered many times by many people - the Romans, Samaritans, Muslimarmies, Crusaders, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Ottomans, and theBritish during WWI. Most recently it was occupied by Israeli troops.Currently, it is controlled by the Palestinian National Authority.
The city is most renowned for the biblical story surrounding Jesus. Twodifferent accounts in the New Testament mention Bethlehem as the placeof his birth, but modern day scholars question the accuracy of this.Regardless, Christian pilgrims flock to the city especially atChristmas and Easter, to see the Church of the Nativity, which isthought to mark the place of Christ’s birth, and to be one of theoldest churches in the world.
Located in northern India, Varanasi is a holy place for Hindus,Buddhists and Jains. According to legend the city was started by theHindu deity Lord Shiva and is the most sacred place of all of the sevensacred cities of Hindu. But, if you look at historical records Varanasiwas probably founded about 3,000 years ago as an industrial center formuslin and silk fabrics, perfumes and ivory.
Over one million pilgrims visit the city each year. Hindus believe thatbathing in the Ganges River forgives sin and that dying in this areaensures the release of a person’s soul. There are about 100 ghats (aseries of steps leading down to the river) in the city. Many areprivately owned and most are used for bathing, cremation or disposal ofpartially burned corpses. Friends from India report that the water ispretty dirty, so you might want to think twice before you attempt abathing experience.
Varanasi is also one of four important Buddhist pilgrimage sitesappointed by Guatama Buddha. He is said to have given his first sermonon the basic principles of Buddhism here.
The main attraction in the city is the ghats, but there are also manytemples to see. Over the centuries the temples in the city have beendestroyed numerous times by invading Muslims, who then used thematerials to build mosques. There is still some racial tension in thecity today.
Tucked in the center of Rome, Italy,this small country is only 110 acres and has a population of just 900people, but as far as being a religious location, it is huge. It ishome to the central authority of the Roman Catholic Church and theresidence of all Popes since 1377.
Once upon a time (37-41 AD), the area was the site of the Circus ofNero, and the tall obelisk you see standing outside of St. Peter’sBasilica is a remnant from those days. Legend has it that it was inthis circus that Saint Peter was crucified upside down. Many otherChristians were also martyred here. Up until the 4th century, when theBasilica was constructed, the area was a prominent place for funeralmonuments, mausoleums and altars of pagan gods.
At one time the church ruled a large portion of the Italian peninsula,but in the mid-19th century the Papal States were seized by the newkingdom of Italy. A bit of unrest ensued between Italy and the church,but finally in the 1900’s Mussolini signed a treaty between Italy andthe Holy See allowing Vatican City to exist in the way you see today.
There is a lot to see in Vatican City, including St. Peter’s Basilica,the Vatican Library, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum, whichhouse incredible works of art by Michelangelo, Bernini, Botticelli andRaphael.
Haifa is built on the slopes of Mount Carmel overlooking theMediterranean Sea, about 56 miles from Tel Aviv. It’s got wonderfulbeaches that tourists still seem unaware of and some importantreligious sites. Religiously it’s a very diverse city and a majorpilgrimage site for people of the Bahá’í faith.
Your first question may be what is Bahá’í? It’s an independent worldreligion that was founded in the mid-1800’s in Iran by Bahá’u’lláh. Thefollowers believe Bahá’u’lláh is the most recent prophet, following inthe footsteps of Krishna, Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus.The goal of Bahá’í is to unite all races and people in one cause andone common faith centered on unity, love and divine knowledge.
Bahá’í is more of a lifestyle than a religion, but when it all startedin Iran the Muslim authorities were not very happy about it. Thousandsand thousands of Bahá’ís have been killed because of their beliefs overthe years. Regardless, Bahá’í continues to grow and flourish and thisnon-violent group that believes in honesty, trust, truth, service tohumanity, and fellowship with all other religions has built anincredible site In Haifa. The Bahá’í World Center and its golden-domedshrine were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year.
Salt Lake City, Utah
This city was founded in 1847 by a group of Mormon pioneers led bytheir prophet Brigham Young. The group fled from the Midwest to escapehostility against their practice of polygamy. Disputes occurred betweenthe Mormon settlers and the federal government over the practice, andfinally in 1890 the church released a manifesto which suggested itsmembers obey the law forbidding polygamy.
The city is very diverse, both religiously and culturally. It hostsportions of the Sundance Film Festival, attracts many Broadway andoff-Broadway plays, has a large Greek Festival, holds the internationalSalt Lake City Marathon, has a very diverse music scene, and has alarge gay population which holds a gay pride parade each June.
The city is the headquarters of The Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS)and the Salt Lake Temple is a main tourist attraction. This enormoussix-spire granite building sits in the heart of the city and took 40years to build. Only members of LDS are permitted to enter thebuilding. You’ll also find the Family History Library, which is thelargest genealogical library in the world and open to the public.
Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back toabout 4000 BC. It has been the spiritual center and the holiest cityfor the Jewish people since the 10th century BC. It also contains manyimportant old Christian sites and is the third-holiest city in Islam.Over the centuries it has been destroyed twice, attacked 52 times andbesieged 23 times. Today the city is at the center of the conflictbetween Israel and Palestine.
Although Jerusalem is primarily known for religious reasons, it is alsoan incredible cultural city. The Israel Museum, which features manyancient collections, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, attracts about amillion visitors a year. There is also the Palestinian NationalTheatre, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Yad Vashem (a memorial tothe victims of the Holocaust.)
The Old City of Jerusalem became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.It is a small section inside of the large modern city and holds severalimportant religious sites like Temple Mount, Church of the HolySepulchre, Western Wall and al-Aqsa Mosque. The walls to the Old Citycontain 11 ancient gates, but only seven are open. Until 1887 the gateswere always closed at sunset and opened again at sunrise.
This is one of the oldest cities in India. Legend associates itscreation with Lord Brahma (the Hindu god of creation.) Part of the mythsays that the gods let loose a swan with a lotus in its beak. The lotusfell to earth and the place where it landed is Pushkar.
Pushkar is located in the center of India near Ajmer. It is consideredone of the five sacred pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Pushkar Lake is adivine spot and pilgrims come to the lake during the months of Octoberand November to bath at one of the 52 ghats.
Other reasons to visit are to see the Brahma Temple, one of fewexisting temples dedicated to Lord Brahma, or for the Pushkar Fairwhich is one of the world’s largest camel fairs and attracts thousandsof tourists.
Medina, Saudi Arabia
Medina is the city that the Prophet Muhammad fled to when he was drivenout of Mecca. It is considered the second holiest city in Islam and islocated about 120 miles from the Red Sea in a very fertile area of theHejaz Territory. Like Mecca, only Muslims are allowed to enter Medina.
Al Masjid al-Nabawi (the Prophet’s Mosque) was built on the site ofMuhammad’s home and is where he is buried. Muhammad actually helped tobuild the original mosque in 622 AD. The mosque has burned down andbeen rebuilt twice, most recently by King Fahd. At that time 27 movingdomes were added to the roofline, it was expanded so it could hold alarger number of people, and comforts like air conditioning were added.
Many Muslims on the Hajj pilgrimage visit Medina before or aftervisiting Mecca. Muslims believe that praying once in the Prophet’sMosque is the equivalent to praying 1,000 times in any other mosque.