Still the subject of speculation as to its true reason for existing, Stonehenge, located at Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, is presumed, among other things, to be a sacred place, and is an utter marvel of engineering, given that it was built from solid stone between 3000BC and 2000BC, before humankind possessed any large vehicles for moving such huge monoliths.
The circle of standing stones at Stonehenge vary somewhat in size, and a few have lintels stretching between them, but most are freestanding and measure 4 metres (13 feet) high and 2.1 metres (7 feet) wide. They weigh about 22.7 tonnes (25 tons). How did the ancient people who built Stonehenge get the rocks to the location? This is one of the many mysteries of Stonehenge that continue to draw visitors and modern-day Pagans to this amazing sacred place.
Now designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stonehenge boasts a tourist centre, and has undergone some reconstruction and restoration work for the sake of preservation. At one time, crowds of tourists were so dense, they had to be restricted. People were trying to chip bits of the stones for souvenirs. The site is monitored carefully these days.
What is Stonehenge? Academics continue to speculate and postulate about the origins and purpose(s) of Stonehenge. It is both typical and atypical of a Neolithic monument, and yet bones have been found that prove people came from as far away as present-day Italy (then a major journey) to the site. Here are a few of the educated guesses as to the use of Stonehenge:
Given all those options, it is also possible that Stonehenge was built for one reason and then “repurposed” over its 5,000-year life. Indeed, it is the mystery of Stonehenge that keeps it at the forefront of amazing sacred places on earth.
While religion is in heated opposition to science in our times, back in the early 12th century, master builders for the Khmer Empire created the temple complex at Angor Wat, Cambodia, by combining the devotion of faith to the fusion of architecture and science. In order to honour and worship the Hindu god, Vishnu, this largest religious centre on earth was erected. But faith, like design styles, can be fickle and by the end of that century, Angor Wat had transformed to an amazing sacred place dedicated instead to Buddha.
Resplendent with attributes such as an outer enclosure, a wide moat, dozens of galleries an columned corridors, a library and temple, the site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. it is the seventh Wonder of the World, no surprise when you stand in awe of its design and structure, knowing how long ago it was built.
The temple is oriented to the west, unusual for religious places at that time, but the reason may be that it was originally intended as a funerary temple for a great leader or god. The site boasts five towers, believed to represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, regarded to be the residence of the gods.
Angor Wat has not been in active use as a religious centre since the late 15th century. It is thought that profound levels of monsoon rains damaged it beyond use and it was abandoned. Luckily, it did not fall to complete ruin.
Some damage was done to Angor Wat during the Viet Nam War in a shoot-out between the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge forces; bullet holes can be seen etched into the stone, damaging some of the precious reliefs that abound. Today, a preservation society helps to fund on-going restoration work at Angor Wat so that future generations may marvel at its size and beauty.
An enchanting four-day walk through orchids, low-sung clouds and mountain passes high in the Andes is a mystical, ancient place unheard of in western nations until 1911 and now one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Historians, archaeologists and theorists still do not know why Machu Picchu was erected or what its function was, but layperson, expert and traveler alike agree: it’s magic.
Tours to Machu Picchu may vary in style, luxury and cost, but all are designed to maximize the theatrical impact of viewing this awe-inspiring site as the mists rise off the Andes in the fragility of early morning.
Tours originate in Lima, and are gained by a one-hour flight inland (east) to the venerable city of Cuzco, an ancient historical site in its own right. Time in Cuzco is well spent acclimatizing to the high elevation and beginning an immersion into Incan culture; there is a range of excellent and affordable accommodation in the walled city. There are museums and ruins galore to enhance a stopover in Cuzco, the launch point for virtually all tours to Machu Picchu.
No one knows the purpose or function of the place that takes one’s breath away on first sight. Machu Picchu was not even mentioned in any journals that chronicled the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1600s, leading historians to believe it might not have been a place of significance. Anyone who has been there would beg to differ. Machu Picchu was “discovered” in 1911 and prior to that was unknown in the western world. Covered in overgrowth, it was finally cleared by 1915 and its significance in ancient Incan culture studied.
Getting from Cuzco to the ancient site can be done in three basic modes: a four-day hike with camping en route; by motorized vehicle, commonly in a van; and by train, followed by a quick bus ride from Aguas Calientes, where travelers may enjoy the thermal baths. The aim is always to arrive at Machu Picchu in time to stand at the renowned Sun Gate and witness sunrise as the mountain mists lift like a curtain and reveal the stunning view that is a recent addition to the wonders of the world. It is nearly as incredible at sunset.
Experienced Machu Picchu tourists recommend staying at the lodge at the foot of the mountain, although it is costly. The facilities are average and the restaurant adequate, but luxury is not the reason people go to Machu Picchu; it is a pilgrimage of different proportions, a glimpse of the distant past and a spiritual experience like few others. And there is not a monetary element to that.
Be ready for extreme weather changes, and don’t forget binoculars and a camera. Sturdy shoes are required whether the hike is taken or the train. US dollars are accepted everywhere.
Even accouterments like horseback riding among the ruins, the Inca Museum and local whitewater rafting cannot match the magic of seeing Machu Picchu, still a mystery, the seat of a civilization, emerge from the mists like an ancient memory not forgotten.
It’s no longer “Please Don’t Climb”, it is law as of October 2019 that Uluru, also called Ayer’s Rock, in the southern section of the Northern Territory in Australia. Regarded as a sacred site by indigenous Australian peoples, the sandstone monolith is in fact a natural formation, not a man-made tribute, that is believed to have begun existing about 550 million years ago.
The nearest town is Alice Springs, some 450 kilometres (279 miles) away across the arid landscape, and as such, a collection of accommodations (hotels and campgrounds) has been installed about 15 kilometres from the rock. Visitors will find comfort there, and organized tours heading out to Ulura daily.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Uluru/Ayer’s Rock rises starkly in its red colour above the flat plain of Uluru-Katu Tjuta National Park, its elevation at 863 metres. Why it necessarily became an indigenous sacred place is the subject of speculation, but when you bear witness to this terrain anomaly, there is a definite sense of otherworldliness to it, an amazing sacred place in its own right.
Those of you who have viewed the beautiful 2005 film, “Water”, directed by Deepa Mehta have already seen the Ghats of Varanasi. The film is largely shot there, and the dramatic climax scene takes place on the Ghats, as the tragic Kalyani, played by Lisa Ray, a widow confined to an ashram in Varanasi, makes her statement about life and love.
These Ghats are a series of 88 sets of steps that lead from the land to the shores of the River Ganges, or directly into the river itself. Made of stone, the riverfront stairs are mostly used for bathing, as locals descend into the water safely for a wash (which also occurs during the film), or for a puja ceremony (a Hindu prayer ritual); two Ghats are reserved for cremation services.
As Indian cities go, Varanasi is one of the safest, and is frequented by tourists from all over the world. This amazing sacred place tends to draw the devoted, serene and respectful visitor, and is widely regarded as a hallowed location (even though bathing can erupt into fun!). It is stunning at dawn, even more spectacular at sunset.
Arguably the most famous Ghat is Assi Ghat, where pilgrims are able to connect with the river waters believed to be the “lingam” (phallic symbol) of Lord Shiva. These venerable Ghats date from the 1700s when Varanasi was part of the Maratha Empire, so not only are they unique, they are bathed (pun intended!) in history.
More than just an amazing sacred place, Mount Sinai, Egypt, has deep significance for members if the Abrahamic religions (essentially the monotheistic sects that worship Abraham’s God; Jewish, Christian, Muslim); here it is believed is also the site of the ancient biblical Mount Sinai where God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses. For pious pilgrims that believe in God, this is indeed a revered place to visit, and to worship and pray.
The mountain itself, from a purely geographical standpoint, is a reddish colour, sitting at 2,285 metres (7,297 feet) above sea level. It is rounded, which suggests an older mountain within a range of similar topography on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and embraces a beauty of its own. Even if you’re not religious, Mount Sinai carries an air of venerable beauty to it.
Many major western cities have a hospital named Mount Sinai, and that underscores the importance of this mountain, one of the most sacred places in the world for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Mount Sinai appears extensively in the Bible and the Quran, with the Book of Exodus in the Bible featuring the mountain. How harmonious it would be for all three factions to be reminded of their common, and deep connection following a visit to Mount Sinai, Egypt.
Deep in a narrow desert valley in the Hejazi region of Saudi Arabia lies the sacred city of Mecca (also spelled Makkah), the annual destination of devoted Muslim pilgrims the world over. Mecca is not accessible to non-Muslims, and those violating that law may be deported if found in the city.
Mecca, to non-religious persons, has become synonymous with “pinnacle”, indicating the top of the top, the ultimate. But for Muslims it is Islam’s holiest location. It is believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, and from there, the location where Islam originated. It is a beautiful city, a truly amazing sacred place, a spot that non-Muslims can only see by way of photographs; even those dazzle.
Central to Mecca and the annual pilgrimage — the Hajj — that attracts millions of devoted followers, is the great mosque, Masjid al-Haram (sacred mosque), erected in the 7th century. Within the mosque rests the Kaaba, a large black stone shaped more or less like a box. Muslims believe that this was a meteorite, and is their most sacred shrine; it is covered with a protective cloth.
Since Mecca is off limits to most of us, we’ll have to rely on books and videos to get a personal glimpse of this sacred city and mosque.
A popular tourist destination for all religious orders, Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world, set in four quadrants (Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim; all of which lay claim to it in certain religious regards), and the centre if the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It remains a fairly safe place to travel as both factions, while claiming full ownership, recognize and accept the holy value of the city for many religions.
Situated on a plateau that rests between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, Jerusalem has a long and diverse history, riddled with conflicts, destruction and rebuilding, divisiveness and harmony. It is a highly cultural city, much of which has religion at its root.
There is much to see and do in this amazing sacred place, the destination of Christians, Muslims and Jews, as well as lovers of history and ancient culture. Attractions such as the Western Wall (Wailing Wall), Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock, and the Garden Tomb speak to different religions and cultures, whereas the Via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepulchre are icons of Christianity, the place where Jesus Christ died and was thought to be buried, and the path he walked toward his crucifixion, respectively.
The Garden of Gethsemane in the foothills of the Mount of Olives is said to be the last place Christ prayed before being arrested by the Romans. For believers, Jerusalem boasts a richness of spirituality. Even for non-religious persons, walking down a narrow spiral stone staircase at the Church of the Nativity in nearby Bethlehem to view the gleaming star embedded in the floor, the supposed location of Christ’s birth, is a moving experience, a humble tribute and very much worth a look.
It has been suggested that in order to establish permanent peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, Jerusalem be declared part of neither nation, but owned internationally. That it be proclaimed an international religious centre. If Jesus Christ was indeed a real person, then this would likely be his desired outcome in the land of his birth and death.
Unlike its famous Parisian counterpart, Notre Dame Cathedral, St. Peter’s Basilica in the sovereign state of Vatican City, within the confines of Rome, Italy, is a functioning place of worship. In fact, it is the largest church in the world. Notre Dame is owned by the Republic of France; St. Peter’s is owned by the Catholic Church. Both are open to the public, St. Peter’s depending upon papal use of the space.
Formally known as The Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, it derives its name from one of Jesus’ apostles who is said to be buried beneath the building under the high altar. The adjacent Pizza san Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) takes its name from the same person, and has hosted more than 80,000 people when the sitting pontiff has made a speech from the church.
Since admission is free (be sure to pre-book tickets or expect to wait in line for hours), this is an extremely popular attraction within Rome for people of all (or no) faiths. The Renaissance style structure (the church was built from 1506 to 1626) was designed by masters Donato Bramante, Carlo Maderno (whose fountain is situated in St. Peter’s Square) and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (whose colonnade graces the facade of the building), with painting by none other than Michelangelo.
Inside, the church is resplendent with great works of art including Michelangelo’s sculpture, Pietà, along with gilding, paintings and reliefs. Given that it is not a formal art gallery, it contains one of the world’s greatest art collections.
St. Peter isn’t the only one buried at his namesake basilica; many popes are also interred here, as are several famous patrons. St. Peter’s Basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At certain times of the day, you can hear the basilica’s bells chiming; one dates back to 1288. Older or newer, every aspect of St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, is a treasure for visitors.
For the people who live in Nepal, daily life is likely fairly normal, but for those of us who view it as the home of the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, it’s a place shrouded in mystery, ambition, and too often accidental deaths. When you see a massive mountain or a collection of temples every day, the impact is negligible; for explorers, mountain climbers and travellers, it’s magical.
Such is the Pashupatinath Temple, Nepal, situated near Kathmandu on the banks of the Bagmati River in the Kathmandu Valley, part of the exotic Himalayan range. This is not just one temple, but a vast assemblage of temples, shrines and ashrams — a total of over 500 temples and monuments in the area — one of the world’s greatest amazing sacred places.
Built over countless years, beginning in the 5th century, most structures at Pashupatinath Temple are designed in the classic Nepalese pagoda style, rather reminiscent of those found in China and Japan. The site has been renovated and refurbished over its many centuries, including an almost complete rebuild at some point during the 1400s. It was damaged, although not extensively, during an earthquake in 2015, so the restoration continues. This is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Dedicated to Lord Shiva, of the Hindu belief system, Pashupatinath Temple is one of the four most significant temple sites in all of Asia for Shiva followers. In addition to being a place of high worship, it also acts as a cremation site (we were unable to verify if it is still active in this regard). Visitors will be amused by the resident monkeys, and the sadhu (holy persons) who commune with their god in this sacred place, often smoking marijuana.
The stunning riverbank setting makes sense; the ancient peoples of Nepal found a naturally holy place in which to erect a sacred place to their Lord Shiva. It is a feat for the eyes as well as the spirit.
The Greeks were counting on her: their goddess Athena, worshipped for being victorious in battle, was their hope for winning the agonizing Peloponnesian War against the tricky Spartans. In erecting (in 420 BC) this temple to her honour, they created an amazing sacred place that we can still enjoy today. However, centuries have had their effects, and it’s always best to check before planning to see the Athens-situated Acropolis to ensure the Temple of Athena is open to visitors.
The proper name of the Temple of Athena is Temple of Athena Nike (Greek for “victory”, so no surprise it was used to market sports shoes). While restoration continues as needed (the floor was in rough shape, necessitating a major renovation in 1998), the strength of its white Pentelic marble can be thanked for its relative durability.
Small by comparison to other temples in Greece and at the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena was designed in the Ionic column style, the capitals (decorative tops) of the columns looking similar to a pair of curled ram’s horns. Both front and rear facades boast colonnades of four Ionic columns each, a dramatic 7 metres (23 feet) high.
Some of the most stunning friezes in Greece were included at the Acropolis, and the one that used to be on the Temple of Athena now rests safely in the Acropolis Museum. While the Temple of Athena Nike has been damaged and dismantled over its long history, once Greece gained its independence in 1834, there has been more emphasis placed on the preservation of its important antiquities; this is, after all, the cradle of modern civilization, a place that all humans should try to see. And give their thanks to Athena and those who built such amazing sacred places.