Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Mecca is the holiest of cities in Islam. In 2008, the yearly Hajj pilgrimage attracted two to three million people to the city. This pilgrimage is part of the Five Pillars of Islam, and is required of any capable Muslim at least once in their life. Saudi law forbids non-Muslims to enter Mecca.
The history of Mecca is old, old, old, with the first story coming from a pre-Islamic legend. The tale tells of Adam and Eve being cast out of Paradise, with Adam landing in what is now Sri Lanka and Eve landing in Arabia. They wandered for 200 years before finally reuniting on Mt. Arafat near Mecca. God eventually allowed Adam to build a shrine, and the legend states that he was buried in what is now Mecca.
Perhaps a more accurate historical account begins in 2,000 BC when Abraham and his son Ishmael built the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building in Mecca and now the most sacred of all sites in Islam. The Kaaba is the place that all Muslims face during their prayers, no matter where they are in the world.
The prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570. In 630 he took control of the city, destroyed 360 pagan idols, declared the city a place of Muslim pilgrimage and dedicated it to the worship of only Allah, thus forming the Islam faith.
Lhasa literally translates to “place of the gods.” The city was the home of the Dalai Lamas, political leaders of Tibet and religious leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, from the 1600’s until the Chinese invaded and the 14th Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959. Today you’ll find the Tibetans a minority of the population compared to the Chinese.
Lhasa has many sites that are of historical significance including Jokhang Temple, Norbulingka and the Potala Palace, which are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites; and Sera and Drepung Monasteries, and Zhefeng Temple.
Over one million people go to Tibet each year. You’ll often see the devout pilgrims in Lhasa kneeling or lying prone with their foreheads on the ground. These pilgrims will be trying to gain spiritual merit by following one of the three concentric pathways that go inside or around Johkhang Temple.
This small town of 30,000 people is located six miles outside of Jerusalem and is thought to be the birthplace of Jesus by most Christians. It is home to one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities, even though it is primarily a Muslim city.
History abounds in this almost 2,000-year-old city. It is the birthplace of David and the location where he was crowned king of Israel. Records show that over the centuries it has been attacked and conquered many times by many people - the Romans, Samaritans, Muslim armies, Crusaders, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Ottomans, and the British 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. Two different accounts in the New Testament mention Bethlehem as the place of his birth, but modern day scholars question the accuracy of this. Regardless, Christian pilgrims flock to the city especially at Christmas and Easter, to see the Church of the Nativity, which is thought to mark the place of Christ’s birth, and to be one of the oldest 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 the Hindu deity Lord Shiva and is the most sacred place of all of the seven sacred cities of Hindu. But, if you look at historical records Varanasi was probably founded about 3,000 years ago as an industrial center for muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes and ivory.
Over one million pilgrims visit the city each year. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges River forgives sin and that dying in this area ensures the release of a person’s soul. There are about 100 ghats (a series of steps leading down to the river) in the city. Many are privately owned and most are used for bathing, cremation or disposal of partially burned corpses. Friends from India report that the water is pretty dirty, so you might want to think twice before you attempt a bathing experience.
Varanasi is also one of four important Buddhist pilgrimage sites appointed by Guatama Buddha. He is said to have given his first sermon on the basic principles of Buddhism here.
The main attraction in the city is the ghats, but there are also many temples to see. Over the centuries the temples in the city have been destroyed numerous times by invading Muslims, who then used the materials to build mosques. There is still some racial tension in the city today.
Tucked in the center of Rome, Italy, this small country is only 110 acres and has a population of just 900 people, but as far as being a religious location, it is huge. It is home to the central authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the residence of all Popes since 1377.
Once upon a time (37-41 AD), the area was the site of the Circus of Nero, and the tall obelisk you see standing outside of St. Peter’s Basilica is a remnant from those days. Legend has it that it was in this circus that Saint Peter was crucified upside down. Many other Christians were also martyred here. Up until the 4th century, when the Basilica was constructed, the area was a prominent place for funeral monuments, 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 new kingdom of Italy. A bit of unrest ensued between Italy and the church, but finally in the 1900’s Mussolini signed a treaty between Italy and the 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, which house incredible works of art by Michelangelo, Bernini, Botticelli and Raphael.
Haifa is built on the slopes of Mount Carmel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, about 56 miles from Tel Aviv. It’s got wonderful beaches that tourists still seem unaware of and some important religious sites. Religiously it’s a very diverse city and a major pilgrimage site for people of the Bahá’í faith.
Your first question may be what is Bahá’í? It’s an independent world religion that was founded in the mid-1800’s in Iran by Bahá’u’lláh. The followers believe Bahá’u’lláh is the most recent prophet, following in the footsteps of Krishna, Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus. The goal of Bahá’í is to unite all races and people in one cause and one common faith centered on unity, love and divine knowledge.
Bahá’í is more of a lifestyle than a religion, but when it all started in Iran the Muslim authorities were not very happy about it. Thousands and thousands of Bahá’ís have been killed because of their beliefs over the years. Regardless, Bahá’í continues to grow and flourish and this non-violent group that believes in honesty, trust, truth, service to humanity, and fellowship with all other religions has built an incredible site In Haifa. The Bahá’í World Center and its golden-domed shrine 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 by their prophet Brigham Young. The group fled from the Midwest to escape hostility against their practice of polygamy. Disputes occurred between the Mormon settlers and the federal government over the practice, and finally in 1890 the church released a manifesto which suggested its members obey the law forbidding polygamy.
The city is very diverse, both religiously and culturally. It hosts portions of the Sundance Film Festival, attracts many Broadway and off-Broadway plays, has a large Greek Festival, holds the international Salt Lake City Marathon, has a very diverse music scene, and has a large 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 enormous six-spire granite building sits in the heart of the city and took 40 years to build. Only members of LDS are permitted to enter the building. You’ll also find the Family History Library, which is the largest genealogical library in the world and open to the public.
Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back to about 4000 BC. It has been the spiritual center and the holiest city for the Jewish people since the 10th century BC. It also contains many important old Christian sites and is the third-holiest city in Islam. Over the centuries it has been destroyed twice, attacked 52 times and besieged 23 times. Today the city is at the center of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Although Jerusalem is primarily known for religious reasons, it is also an incredible cultural city. The Israel Museum, which features many ancient collections, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, attracts about a million visitors a year. There is also the Palestinian National Theatre, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Yad Vashem (a memorial to the 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 several important religious sites like Temple Mount, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Western Wall and al-Aqsa Mosque. The walls to the Old City contain 11 ancient gates, but only seven are open. Until 1887 the gates were always closed at sunset and opened again at sunrise.
This is one of the oldest cities in India. Legend associates its creation with Lord Brahma (the Hindu god of creation.) Part of the myth says that the gods let loose a swan with a lotus in its beak. The lotus fell to earth and the place where it landed is Pushkar.
Pushkar is located in the center of India near Ajmer. It is considered one of the five sacred pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Pushkar Lake is a divine spot and pilgrims come to the lake during the months of October and November to bath at one of the 52 ghats.
Other reasons to visit are to see the Brahma Temple, one of few existing temples dedicated to Lord Brahma, or for the Pushkar Fair which is one of the world’s largest camel fairs and attracts thousands of tourists.
Medina, Saudi Arabia
Medina is the city that the Prophet Muhammad fled to when he was driven out of Mecca. It is considered the second holiest city in Islam and is located about 120 miles from the Red Sea in a very fertile area of the Hejaz Territory. Like Mecca, only Muslims are allowed to enter Medina.
Al Masjid al-Nabawi (the Prophet’s Mosque) was built on the site of Muhammad’s home and is where he is buried. Muhammad actually helped to build the original mosque in 622 AD. The mosque has burned down and been rebuilt twice, most recently by King Fahd. At that time 27 moving domes were added to the roofline, it was expanded so it could hold a larger number of people, and comforts like air conditioning were added.
Many Muslims on the Hajj pilgrimage visit Medina before or after visiting Mecca. Muslims believe that praying once in the Prophet’s Mosque is the equivalent to praying 1,000 times in any other mosque.