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An act of faith

A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken for religious reasons, formerly long and arduous though increasingly involving air travel and luxury hotels. It is done with the hope of increasing one's chance of salvation or of winning a secular benefit such as a miraculous cure. Those performing a pilgrimage are known as pilgrims, especially in Christian tradition.

The practice is common in several religions, including the Abrahamic faiths and major Asian traditions. Pilgrimage has frequently turned into a sizeable money-spinner both for the destination and for travel agents to get you there, whether in medieval Europe or modern-day Mecca.

Many pilgrimage sites are in lands controlled by opposing religions: Christians in the middle ages trying to get to Jerusalem, Shi'a pilgrims killed by Sunnis in the Middle East, or contemporary Baha'i and Zoroastrians facing hostility from fundamentalist Muslims. Major religious festivals with large numbers of pilgrims are also susceptible to deaths from crushes, transportation accidents, and terrorist attacks. This means pilgrims may end up with God rather sooner than they intended.

But anything that gets you out of the house can't be all bad.


Holy water containers on sale at a Lourdes shop

The practice is very old; Origen's trip to Jerusalem in the 3rd century CE is one of the first to be recorded, and the anonymous Bordeaux Itinerary recounts a journey from France to Jerusalem in the early 4th century CE.[1] Pilgrimage is particularly popular in Roman Catholicism, whose believers may travel long distances to gawk at bits of dead saints.

Christian destinations include:

  • Jerusalem, the big one, a popular pilgrimage place when it wasn't occupied by Muslims, and when it was you had the Crusades.
  • Santiago de Compostela, a site in Spain devoted to St James (Santiago in Spanish). 240,000 pilgrims per year buy painted scallop shells and Jesus keyrings; in some places gouging locals even charge for toilet paper.[2]
  • LourdesWikipedia, in southwestern France, known for (not) healing the sick. Pilgrimage brings around EUR 270m income per year to Lourdes.[3]
  • Fátima, Portugal, site of visions of the Virgin Mary
  • Rome, home of Popes, popular in the Middle Ages for Roman Catholics, and still full of tourists. As a result of the large number of visitors, the Vatican City has the highest crime rate in the world (per head of population).[4]
  • ChimayóWikipedia, New Mexico, USA, home of a Catholic church visited on Holy Week; its dirt will cure all ailments, whether eaten, rubbed all over your body, or simply displayed in a nice jar.[5]
  • CanterburyWikipedia, UK, much-visited by English pilgrims in the Middle Ages, as it was significantly closer (sloth) to London than any of the above; see Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.[6]


Mormons visit sites associated with Christianity in general and Mormonism in particular, with Salt Lake City, Utah the most popular destination.[7]


"Stoning the Devil" at the Hajj

Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which are the central articles of the faith, and every Muslim is expected to make the journey once in their lifetime if they can (exceptions for sick and poor).[8] The ritual is held for 10 days every year, and is estimated to bring US$10bn to the Saudi economy, from the increasing number of luxury hotels to souvenirs like beads and prayer mats.[9] Despite the trappings of modern tourism, the Hajj is still rather dangerous, with crushes and stampedes causing thousands of deaths in recent years.[10]

There are numerous other Islamic holy sites, particularly for Shi'as (some Sunnis believe that pilgrimage to anywhere other than Mecca is blasphemous). There are many Shi'a pilgrimage sites in Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.[11] Sufis also go on pilgrimages such as to Sharif Dargah in Rajahstan, India.[12]


In the days when most Jews lived in the vicinity of Judea and Samaria (from the time of Solomon to the Roman destruction of 70 CE), pilgrimage to Jerusalem was expected three times a year. Pilgrims would assemble at Passover, Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), and Shavuot (Pentecost), filling Jerusalem and camping out on the Mount of Olives or in nearby villages.[13]

Today, many Jews from all over the world visit the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem and other holy places in Israel.


Originally Baha'i were expected to make pilgrimages to the House of Bahá'u'lláh in Baghdad, Iraq, and the House of the Báb in Shiraz, Iran. However these are not easily accessible, so other places are visited instead, such as the Bahá'í World Centre near Haifa, Israel.[1]


Maha Bodh: a reasonable facsimile

Buddhists commonly make pilgrimages to four sites associated with the Buddha:[1]

  • Lumbini, now in Nepal, Buddha's birthplace
  • Bodh Gaya, in Bihar state, India, where the Buddha obtained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. You can visit a tree, but not the same one.[14]
  • Sarnath, near Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India, where the Buddha first taught
  • Kusinara, now Kusinagar in India, where he died

There are many other sites in different parts of Asia.


The Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range is a Unesco World Heritage Site in Japan comprising Buddhist and Shinto shrines.[15]


Hindus visit lots of places in India, Mauritius, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Malaysia.[16]

In 2002, a mob in Gujarat set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, killing 59.[17]


Sikhism was originally anti-pilgrimage. But Sikhs go to important sites such as the Golden Temple at Amritsar.


There are various Zoroastrian sites in the Middle East and India. Religious wars and intolerance can make it difficult and dangerous though.


The Yazidi go to the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in Lalis, near Mosul, Iraq. They are expected to make one pilgrimage in their lifetime; those living nearby go more frequently.[18]

Theology and symbolism[edit]

Pilgrimage is commonly used as an allegory for the journey through life we must all take, and particularly for a spiritual journey or the development of faith, as in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. As a Jungian archetype, it relates to ideas of heroic journey and salvation through struggle, such as in the myth of the hunt for the Holy Grail. Obviously this is less relevant when it is undertaken in the same manner as a package holiday to Disneyland.

Other things[edit]

  • The Pilgrim Fathers, who were colonists, not pilgrims, traveled on the Mayflower and stole Massachusetts; yes it's a misnomer.
  • Pilgrimage of Grace, a popular uprising against Henry VIII: much less peaceful than the name would imply.

External links[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Pilgrimage, Wikipedia
  2. Lifting the Soul, and the Spanish Economy, Too, New York Times, 31 August 2014
  3. Pilgrims, Prayers, and Profits: Assessing the Cultural Significance and Economic Value of Lourdes, Vanessa J. Panaligan, CulturalDiplomacy.org
  4. Ten Secrets of the Vatican Exposed, The Week, 2013
  5. El Santuario de Chimayo, Wikipedia
  6. Top Ten Historic Pilgrimages, National Geographic
  7. Mormon pilgrimage and tourism, Lloyd E. Hudman, Annals of Tourism Research, Volume 19, Issue 1, 1992, Pages 107-121
  8. BBC Five Pillars of Islam
  9. The economics of Hajj: Money and pilgrimage, BBC, 25 October 2012
  10. Incidents during the Hajj, Wikipedia
  11. Shia Islam, Sacred Sites
  12. A Sufi Pilgrimage, Wall Street Journal, 2012
  13. Going on a Pilgrimage, Seetheholyland.net
  14. Bodh Gaya, Buddha Dharma Education Association
  15. Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, Wikipedia
  16. Hindu pilgrimage sites, Wikipedia
  17. Godhra train burning, Wikipedia
  18. Yazidis, Wikipedia