Humanity has had an obsession with what is above, as well as below, since the dawn of civilization. It may have begun as simple burial ceremonies three hundred thousand years ago, but within another two hundred thousand years, humans were beginning to really get into the idea of organized religion.
With the dawn of civilization, religion became a major motivating factor for humanity, both good and bad. Things haven’t changed too much, as one of the first things that people of faith do when entering a new area is build a place of worship. These places of worship weren’t just buildings though, they were the homes of gods and goddesses. They had to be magnificent.
Thanks to this almost inborn need to glorify deities, world travelers have been granted the opportunity to experience beautiful and inspiring sites across the globe. Whether looking for your own spiritual answers, or just to be amazed by humanity, the following ten holy sites are truly some of the greatest examples of humanity’s desire for the heavens.
Notre Dame de Paris, France
When it comes to building a religious structure, the Catholic Church has been the go to expert. The architecture for cathedrals has shifted quite a bit over the years, but one thing that has remained the same over the centuries is that they are built to inspire. Large and in charge, cathedrals draw the eyes forward toward the service at the front, and upward toward their god above.
One of the most famous cathedrals by far is that of Notre-Dame. The seat of the Archdiocese of Paris, Notre-Dame is one of the earliest examples of French Gothic architecture. Rejecting the more plain style of Romanesque cathedrals, Notre-Dame features flying buttresses, beautiful stained glass windows, heaven reaching spires and impressive sculptures. The huge building took two hundred years to build. Notre-Dame is perhaps most famed as the location of the story The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Who wouldn’t want to see where Quasimodo lived?
The Bahá’í Gardens, Israel
The Bahá’í Faith is a less known religion, though it is one of the fastest growing faiths with over five million adherents. Because of its lack of fame, the religious structures of the Bahá’í are often overlooked. Which is a shame, as the Bahá’í are amazing craftsmen when it comes to religious structures.
Bahá’í religious structures can be found throughout the world, but Israel seems to be the place to be for monotheistic faiths, with the two holiest Bahá’í sites being in northern Israel. Both the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh and the Shrine of the Báb house the remains of the early founders of their religion surrounded by the most gorgeous of gardens. The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, their holiest site, features gardens forming a circle around the mansion where their prophetic founder lived out the last years of his life. In Israel’s third largest city, Haifa, the enormous domed Shrine of the Báb sits atop nineteen garden terraces making their way down the side of a mountain. These gardens are reminiscent of the fabled Hanging Gardens, and true sight to see.
Harmandir Sahib, India
Built in the Seventeenth Century, the Harmandir Sahib, known as the Golden Temple, is the center of Sikh faith. The fifth Sikh Guru, the leader of the Sikh faith, built Harmandir Sahib as a place of spirituality for all monotheistic faiths, with a door opened on four different sides as a sign of welcome for anyone. In the Nineteenth Century, the upper section of the Temple was covered in gold giving it an added level of beauty, and bestowing upon it the nickname of the Golden Temple. Those who visit the Golden Temple will find that it houses the Guru Granth Sahib, the holiest text of Sikhism, on display at all times.
One of the earliest sites (that some believe to be religious) known to humanity, Stonehenge is surrounded by mystery. Stonehenge may have been built anywhere from four thousand to five thousand years ago. The establishment of a ring of enormous stones almost five thousand years ago amazes the world. Without modern technology, or even most early technologies, the movement and raising of the stones seems almost impossible. Could it have been built by aliens? Some believe so.
While aliens building the monument is highly unlikely, much of Stonehenge remains steeped in mystery and speculation. Usage of the site for spiritual purposes even predates the establishment of the stones, and ancient remains have been found that show it was used as a burial site at some point. While its religious meaning was lost for some time with the spread of Christianity to England, the revival of New Age Pagan and Druid beliefs have been lending the site a revived sense of holiness.
Hagia Sophia, Turkey
In the Sixth Century, the Hagia Sophia was built in Constantinople, the former capital of the Byzantine Empire, in order to serve as the seat of power for the Eastern Orthodox Church. For nearly a thousand years the Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in existence, famed for its dome.
Unfortunately for the Eastern Orthodox Church, and even more so for the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was conquered in the Fifteenth Century by the Ottoman Turks. The city became what it is known by today, Istanbul, and the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. The four minarets that are as much a part of the structure today as the dome were added later by the Turkish sultans.
The Hagia Sophia acted as a mosque for five hundred years, until it was established in 1935 as a secular museum that anyone can visit.
The Vatican City, Italy
The most widely spread faith in the world, with over 2 billion adherents, is Christianity, approximately half of which are members of the Catholic Church. With such massive numbers, one seventh of the world’s population, the Catholic Church has been infused with a large amount of power over the years. In the past, the Catholic Church was one of the most powerful entities in Europe, and while the effects of liberalism have lessened its control, it still retains an important place in the global stage.
In the middle of the Italian capital of Rome, stands the independent city state of the Vatican. This small enclave is the center of the Catholic Church’s power, home to the Pope, and several must see historical sites. To pick one place to see in the Vatican City is impossible. There is the Apostolic Palace, the home of the Pope, built in the Sixteenth Century. There is the famed Sistine Chapel, with frescoes created by the famed painter Michelangelo. There is also one of the holiest sites in Christianity, St. Peter’s Basilica, considered the burial place of the first Pope, Saint Peter.
Bodh Gaya, India
Sitting upon the banks of the river Neranjana rests Bodh Gaya, the home of an ancient tree known as Mahabodhi Tree and the Mahabodhi Temple. It was under this tree’s ancestor that Gautama Siddhartha sat and meditated until he reached Enlightenment, becoming the Buddha. Of the four Buddhist pilgrimages, Bodh Gaya is the holiest. Bodh Gaya is the holiest place on Earth according to Buddhism, and considered the navel of the world.
Visiting Bodh Gaya, one can see the ancient Mahabodhi Tree, and the amazing pyramidal architecture of the Mahabodhi Temple. It isn’t the first Mahabodhi Temple, associated with King Ashoka, the current pyramidal structure is still quite impressive, and will soon have an entire room plated with gold. There are several other Buddhist temples built at Bodh Gaya, each with their own unique personalities.
Built upon the banks of another river, the Ganges, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi. For Hindus and Jains, it is also the holiest city in the world. The spiritual capital of India, Varanasi is called the favored city of the Hindu chief deity, Shiva. It also closely associated with Buddhism, as it is here that Buddha gave his first sermon.
Buddha isn’t the only famed person associated with the city, as many great spiritual leaders have lived in Varanasi and written important holy texts there. One of Varanasi’s many titles is the City of Temples, as it is filled with many legendary temples. Visitors can find the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, a famous temple dedicated to Shiva. There is also a temple to Vishalakshi, the main female deity of Hinduism. The river on which the city is built, the Ganges, is a holy site itself, thought to be the Hindu god Ganga. While it is popular to bathe in it, it isn’t a good idea, being that it is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Every year, Muslims across the world gather in the holy city of Mecca at the end of a religious pilgrimage known as the Hajj. The Hajj recreates a pilgrimage undertaken by both Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, and the Muslim prophet, Muhammad. At the end of the journey, the pilgrims arrive at the holiest city of Islam, the place where they all face when praying, Mecca. Every Muslim physically and financially able is required to go on this pilgrimage.
The focal point of Islam, and Mecca, is the Ka’aba, a cube shaped building within Islam’s holiest mosque, Al-Masjid Al-Haram. Muslims believe that the Ka’aba was built by Ibrahim (Abraham) as the first site in the world built to worship Allah (God).
Unfortunately, unless you’re Muslim, visiting Mecca is not going to happen. The city is completely off-limits for non-Muslims, so getting in requires being either Muslim or somehow sneaking in.
Ancient maps used to show Jerusalem as the center of the world, showing how important the city was. The ancient city of Jerusalem is holy to all three of the world’s major monotheistic religions. It was there that Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac, Solomon built the Jewish Temple, Muhammad flew to Mecca before going up to Heaven, Jesus preached and was crucified.
Visitors to Jerusalem can visit several holy sites. For Jews, Jerusalem is the city of King David. There they can visit the Western Wall, the last remains of the Temple of Solomon after the Romans destroyed it two thousand years ago. Built on top of the holiest site in Judaism is the Muslim Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, associated with the Night Flight of Muhammed. Just a few blocks away from these holy sites, Christian pilgrims can visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in the spot Jesus was believed to be crucified.
These three holy sites are not the only holy sites in Jerusalem, either, as the city is filled with ancient, famous churches, monasteries, synagogues, and mosques. Tourists can visit almost any of these, making Jerusalem an amazing place for anyone looking for a spiritual and/or historical experience.