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Five Most Sacred Religious Sites in the World

Dome of the Holy Sepulchre, taken in the 1860s by John Anthony (1823–1901)

Dome of the Holy Sepulchre, taken in the 1860s by John Anthony (1823–1901)

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Regardless of whether true divinity exists or not, religions have been one of the most powerful stimuli in the growth of the human species. Their influence extends to practically every facet of our existence, ranging from moral framework and nation-building to music, architecture and even taxation.

Religions have the power to tap into the deepest recesses of our psyche and inspire emotions at levels that nothing else could ever rival. Even a simple visit to a church, mosque, temple or synagogue could arouse a great sense of wonder and awe; none more so than the five most sacred religious sites listed below.

♦ Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is probably the most important and holiest site for the world’s largest religion. Located inside the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem (foundation of Shalem in Hebrew), the church is traditionally said to be the nexus of Jesus’ penultimate days on earth. This is the primary reason why the 1,800-year-old church, also known by its original Greek name, Church of the Anastasis (Church of the Resurrection), is held in such extreme veneration. Some of the notable structures inside the church and events associated with them include:

  • The five of the fourteen stations of Via Dolorosa, a Christian pilgrimage route which retraces the path Jesus was taken for his crucifixion
  • The Aedicula, which contains the tomb (Holy Sepulchre) of Jesus,
  • Fragments of the Angel’s Stone, the seal of Jesus’ tomb, which is said to have been removed by Jesus following His resurrection
  • Golgotha (a place of Skull) or Cavalry, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion
  • Stone of Anointing, the location where Jesus was anointed before burial
  • The Franciscan Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene, the location where Jesus met Mary Magdalene after His resurrection
  • The Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross, where the True Cross (the physical fragments of the wooden cross that Jesus was crucified) was once found
  • Prison of Christ, where Jesus was held while awaiting his trial
Orthodox crucifixion altar in Golgotha (Calvary), Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Image courtesy of Fr Maxim Massalitin
Orthodox crucifixion altar in Golgotha (Calvary), Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Image courtesy of Fr Maxim Massalitin

The church complex, which is actually managed by representatives of various Christian denominations, also houses

  • Chapel of Division of Robes
  • Chapel of Saint Helena
  • Chapel of Saint Vartan
  • Chapel of St. James the Just
  • Chapel of St. John the Baptist
  • Chapel of St. Longinus
  • Chapel of the Derision
  • Chapel of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste
  • Chapel of the Franks
  • Gethsemane Metoxion, an Orthodox Greek monastery

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not only a popular destination for Christian pilgrimages, but it is also an important historical site, with artifacts and writings that stretches back from Roman times. Its holiness in Christian convention is probably only rivaled by the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which is the spot where the Archangel Gabriel foretold the future birth of Jesus to His mother, the Virgin Mary.

♦ Ka’aba, Masjid al-Ḥarām, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

The Ka’aba (square house in Arabic) is the holiest site in the Islamic world and non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering it. In Islamic lore, the Ka’aba is believed to be originally built by Adam and Hawa (Eve) at the dawn of creation, and served as the place where humans and angels worshipped Allah.  After disappearing in the great flood during Prophet Noh’s (Noah) time, Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael), was commanded by Allah to rebuild the cube-shaped structure.

Theologically, the Ka’aba serves two important functions. The first, all Muslims must be facing in its direction (Qibla) during their five daily prayers (salat); the second, every able-bodied Muslims must perform a pilgrimage (Hajj) to the Ka’aba.

Measuring 50 feet high, 36 feet wide and 42 feet long, the Ka’aba is built using dark granite slabs and is shrouded by a black and white silk cloth called kiswah, which are replaced annually. The interior, lined with tiled marbles and limestone, is sparsely furnished, thought its walls are lined with several tablets. By far, the most interesting thing inside the Ka’aba is a black stone, said to be a meteorite, which is said to be a symbol of the covenant made between Allah and Abraham.

The Ka'aba, taken using a phone from the third floor of Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque). Technically, it is not permitted to take photos of the Ka'aba. Courtesy of Turki Al-Fassam.
The Ka’aba, taken using a phone from the third floor of Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque). Technically, it is not permitted to take photos of the Ka’aba. Courtesy of Turki Al-Fassam.

♦ Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Varanasi (the City of Light in Sanskrit), one of the seven holy cities of Hinduism (alongside Ayodhya, Avantika, Dwaravati, Gaya, Kanchi, and Mathura), is one of the most ancient cities in existence today. Hindu folklore attributes Shiva, one of the three aspects of the Divine Consciousness, as the founder of Varanasi. Located along the banks of Ganges River, the city used to be a center of enlightenment where liberated sages impart the wisdom of the Vedas to pilgrims.

While the city has lost much of its legendary ancient splendor, it is still considered as the most sacred in the land, and continues to be the most popular pilgrimage destination in India. Temples and ashram dot the landscape, and the aged from all around the world come to retire here. Many others request for their remains to be cremated in Varanasi, which is now acknowledged as the center of Shaivism (the worship of Shiva).

The Ahilya Ghat riverfront steps, named after the Philosopher Queen Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar, who served as queen and ruler of the Maratha Malwa kingdom between December 1, 1767 and August 13, 1795
The Ahilya Ghat riverfront steps, named after the Philosopher Queen Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar, who served as queen and ruler of the Maratha Malwa kingdom between December 1, 1767 and August 13, 1795. Image courtesy of Ken Wieland.

♦ Temple Mount, Jerusalem, Israel

Located in the southeast corner of Jerusalem’s Old City, Temple Mount (Haram esh-Sharif) is considered to be one of the holiest Jewish sites in existence today. Enclosed within a trapezoid wall, Temple Mount was constructed approximately 2,100 years ago on the site of several important structures and events noted in the Old Testament, namely

  • The Holy of Holies inside the Tabernacle, where God appeared briefly on the earthly plane and where Moses kept the Ark of the Covenant
  • Mount Moriah, the location where Isaac was offered as a sacrifice to God by his father Abraham
  • Mount Zion, the location of the city of Jebusite which was conquered by King David
  • The location where God gathered the dust to create Adam
  • The location where King Solomon built the First Temple of the Jews

Entry into Temple Mount is highly regulated, and aside from visits by the High Priest during Yom Kippur, all other entries are approved only on a case by case basis.

Temple Mount in Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock in the foreground. Image courtesy of Aleksander Miller.
Temple Mount in Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock in the foreground. Image courtesy of Aleksander Miller.

♦ Mahabodhi Tree, Bihar, India

The fourth largest religion in the world, Buddhism, is probably the only one which has incontrovertible historical evidence of the existence of its mortal founder. The teachings of the sage Gautama Buddha, who died during the fifth century B.C., was documented by many of his students and contemporaries. Prior to establishing his monastic order and spreading his ideas, Buddha spent many years studying and meditating on his own. Legend has it that he finally achieved enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree (sacred fig tree, Ficus religiosa). This is why Bodhi trees are usually planted outside most Buddhist temples and monasteries.

However, one particular tree stands above all else. The Bodhi tree inside the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India, is reported to have been planted in 288 B.C. using the branch of the original Bodhi tree that Buddha sat under. Small wonder then that the Mahabodhi Temple is the most popular pilgrimage destination in the Buddhist world, with millions making a pilgrimage here annually.

The Mahabodhi tree at the Mahabodhi Vihar (Great Awakening Temple), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Mahabodhi tree at the Mahabodhi Vihar (Great Awakening Temple), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

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