Pilgrims with great or few resources cover vast distances, across mountains and deserts, to see the spiritual and physical embodiments of their own dedicated beliefs. Indeed, the passion and fervour of such religious belief has inspired some of the most impressive and moving architecture in the world. Regardless of your own views on life, the universe and everything, the stories, myths and emotions manifested in these ten buildings make them exceptionally powerful places to visit.
Among the world’s grandest Christian churches and the holiest of Catholic sites, St. Peter’s Basilica is a vast, ornate space laced with gold and raised on immense marble columns. Tradition holds that it is the burial place of St. Peter, one of the 12 apostles and, within Catholic tradition, the first Pope. Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to oversee the church’s reconstruction in 1547, and, with contributions from Michelangelo’s contemporaries Raphael, Brunelleschi and Bernini, it has become perhaps the most famous work of Renaissance architecture in Italy. Situated in the center of the Vatican, the Pope leads several sermons in St Peter’s a year, which certainly belie general trends of diminishing church attendance across the western world – crowds of up to 80,000 people pour into the Basilica and St. Peter’s Square to watch him preach.
In the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, flanking the west side of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall is the holiest place of worship for many Jews. It is the last surviving section of an ancient wall surrounding the courtyard of the Jewish Temple, begun by King Herod in 20 BCE and largely destroyed by the Romans 100 years later. Now, Jews travel from around the world to worship at the Wall, slipping notes to God between the stones. Whereas Christians and Muslims often proceed onto the Temple Mount itself, many Jews choose not to enter due its sacredness, selecting to stay and pray at the Wall instead.
Only the holiest of Orthodox Christian Monasteries were designated Lavras, clusters of cells or caves where monks sequestered themselves from the outside world. Of the handful in existence, Kiev Pechersk Lavra is one of the oldest, founded in 1051 by Saint Anthony of Kiev. It has changed a great deal in the centuries since, and today a panoply of grand buildings stand on the holy site. Among these are some fine examples of Ukrainian Baroque, such as the Great Lavra Belltower and All Saints Church, which dominate the Kiev skyline. But the Lavra’s most powerful experience undoubtedly remains walking from the back of hushed churches and into the caves themselves. You must purchase a taper candle to light your way down the narrow flickering tunnels, which house the mummified remains of monks and many other Orthodox icons and relics.
The elegant, flowing architecture of the Meiji Shrine was built 100 years ago to honor Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji ruled over a period which came to be known as the Meiji Restoration, 50 years during which Japan industrialized rapidly and changed from a predominantly feudal nation into the modern world power of today. In contrast to the technological revolution he helped trigger, the shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji is an oasis of tranquility amid the towering skyscrapers and bustling streets of central Tokyo. It is located in the heart of an evergreen forest composed of 120,000 trees of 365 species, dotted with fragrant gardens of azaleas and irises, and has become a general recreation area as well as a site of worship and reflection for the residents of Japan’s seething capital.
The vast plaza of the Masjid al-Haram mosque stands at the heart of the Islamic religion. At its center, a five-storey-tall black granite cube called the Kaaba enshrines Islam’s holiest relic, the Black Stone, laid at the foot of structure by Mohammed himself but later broken into fragments. It is towards the Kaaba that Muslims face when they pray five times a day. One of the Five Pillars of Islam requires that all able-bodied and sufficiently affluent Muslims perform the Hajj at least once in their lives, a pilgrimage to the mosque which culminates in each pilgrim circumambulating the Kaaba seven times. Each year, around three million Muslims perform the Hajj, journeying to Mecca from all around the world. Fortunately, the mosque is so large it can accommodate up to two million worshippers.
The glistening gold-cased upper storey of the Harmandir Sahib gleams on the water of the surrounding lake, called the Sarovar, in the Punjab city of Amritsar. Known as the Golden Temple in English, this is the world’s most famous Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship. Its opulent interior, with intricate gold and marble details added in the nineteenth century, contains a sacred version of the religion’s central text, the Guru Granth Sahib, handwritten by Guru Arjan in 1604. But the temple, in keeping with all Gurdwaras around the world, is open to anyone regardless of their religion, sex, colour or creed. There are four doors leading inside, symbolizing the importance of openness, tolerance and acceptance..
The Mount of Beatitudes is a rolling pastoral hillside, dotted with palm trees and topped with the Church of the Beatitudes, an elegant Catholic Church with panoramic views over the Sea of Galilee. This site has been commemorated for 1600 years as the place where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, the longest continuous piece of teaching in the New Testament held to contain many of the central tenets of Christianity. In the sermon, Jesus outlines eight virtues using the phrase, "Blessed are the…" These are held by Christian scholars to form the eight Beatitudes, and the Church is octagonal in shape to symbolize them. The hill’s cool, clear air and flowing green landscape make it an ideal spot for peaceful contemplation.
Temple Mount, holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews, is central to all three Abrahamic religions and has been a place of reverence in Jerusalem for thousands of years. According to Judaism, it is at the root of the world itself: Jewish tradition holds that it is the location of a Biblical Mountain, Mount Moriah, at whose peak God created both the world and Adam, and on whose slopes Abraham bound Isaac ready for sacrifice. It’s also said to be the original site of the Temple of Jerusalem, a key place of worship for ancient Israelites. Now, two structures crown the Mount – the silver-domed Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and the Dome of the Rock, built by Islamic architects in the 7th Century and containing the Foundation Stone, an ancient artifact of immense importance to both Jews and Muslims. As might be imagined, Temple Mount has been the site of some tension through the centuries.
This spike-roofed, mountaintop temple is the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism, and pilgrims from around the world brave Lhasa’s staggering 3400-meter altitude to visit it. It was built in the seventh century by the king Songtsen Gampo, to welcome his Chinese bride Wencheng to Tibet, following a marriage partly intended to preserve peace between the fractious dynasties of Tang China and Tubo Tibet. The temple is four stories high, and its interior is a dark, smoke-filled, atmospheric warren of rooms and passageways, with various chapels dedicated to different gods and bodhisattvas. Incense and yak butter votive candles scent the stairwells and corridors, and at the heart of this labyrinth you can find the bejewelled Buddha statue of Jowo Rinpoche.