From Asia to the Americas, here are some of the top religious and spiritual sites in the world…
What makes a place sacred?
Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern sociology, believed it was society. The collective conscience of a community comes together to touch certain mountains, trees, buildings and other ordinary objects and infuse them with a divine power, setting them apart for holy purposes.
Our world is filled with natural wonders, churches, synagogues, mosques, pilgrimage sites and other places where people have experienced the power of God and of community.
Here are 50 awe-inspiring sacred sites that you must experience in your lifetime.
*Visit sites marked with an asterisk with extra caution and reverence — our research indicates that there may be tension between indigenous people and national governments about who should have access to these sacred spots.
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Sedona’s landscape is striking in and of itself, but practitioners of New Age spirituality believe
the region is also filled with “vortex” energy sites which people can tap into for inner healing.
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Also known as “Bear Lodge,” this natural rock tower has been a site of worship and healing for over 20 Native American tribes.
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Although the Washington National Cathedral is part of the Episcopal Church, it has become a spiritual center that is open to Americans of many faiths — hosting Jewish, Muslim and Christian prayers
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The Salt Lake Temple is a the largest
temple associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While access inside of the structure is restricted to Mormons, visitors can tour the gardens of Temple Square
to learn about the church’s history.
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Medicine wheels are stone circles or “sacred hoops
” constructed long ago by Native Americans in Canada and some parts of the United States. While their original purpose is hard to pin down, some archaeologists believe
the stones are aligned with the movements of the heavens and were used for healing. This 5,000-year-old medicine wheel in Majorville is believed
to be the largest remaining example of this kind of sacred space.
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The city of Chichén Itzá was the cente
r of the Mayan Empire from A.D. 750 to 1200. At the heart of this complex is the Temple of Kukulkan, a step pyramid that was constructed to align
with the spring and autumn equinoxes.
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This basilica houses a relic important to many Catholics — the tilma (or cloak) that the Virgin Mary is said to have given the peasant Juan Diego in 1531. The cloak still bears an image of the Virgin. The basilica is now one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the world.
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In Haiti, the Voudou spirit Erzulie is closely associated with the Virgin Mary. Every summer, thousands of Haitians travel to the Saut-d’Eau waterfalls, the supposed site of a Marian apparition, to ask
for favors and healing.
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Around 250 A.D., the rising waters of this lake submerged a bustling Mayan city.Archaeological evidence
shows that the underwater buildings are still filled with religious paraphernalia, which means the site may have been an ancient pilgrimage destination.
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This Catholic cathedral is located
inside a salt mine, 500 feet below the ground. The space is richly decorated with sculptures cut from marble and salt.
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statue of Jesus towers over the city of Rio de Janeiro. The Art Deco sculpture is made out
of concrete and its surface is covered with small triangular soapstone tiles.
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Machu Picchu was built by the ancient Incans during the 15th century. It served as a royal estate for nobility and houses a number of religious structures, including a “Temple of the Sun” that aligns directly with the sun’s rays during the June solstice.
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These 13-foot high statues, called moai, are carved
out of volcanic ash. Many archaeologists believe the moai were created by inhabitants of Easter Island between 1400 and 1600 AD to commemorate the spirits of ancestors, tribal chiefs or other powerful male figures.
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This Spanish cathedral is the final stop on the Camino del Santiago (the Way of St. James
), a network
of pilgrimage routes that Christians have traveled for at leasteleven
centuries. The cathedral was built to honor the tomb of St. James. Pilgrimages to the cathedral have increased in popularity in recent years, attracting visitors of all faiths.
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Sagrada Familia (officially known as the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family) is the life work of architect Antoni Gaudí. The first stone in the temple was laid in1882
, and the project isn’t expected to be completed until 2026
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Stonehenge was built between 3000 and 1520 B.C. While the giant outer ring is constructed from sandstone taken from local quarries
, the inner ring of stones comes from about 150 miles away
, in South Wales.
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According to Catholic tradition
, the Virgin Mary appeared 18 times to a young peasant girl in the grotto of Massabielle near Lourdes, France in 1858. Soon after, Catholics from around began making pilgrimages to Lourdes, hoping for healing
and miracles after bathing in the grotto’s waters.
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is a Benedictine abbey that was built between the 11th and 16th centuries. The abbey is surrounded by a bay, which during particularly high tides
, cuts the abbey off from the mainland completely.
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is built at the top of a volcanic core in the center of the French village of Le Puy-en-Velay. It is dedicated to the Archangel Michael
, whom some Catholics believe has a tendency
to appear to people on mountain tops.
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St. Peter’s Basilica
is a major pilgrimage site for the Roman Catholic Church. It covers the shrine of St. Peter the Apostle. Millions are expected
to flock to the basilica in 2016 as part of Pope Francis’ Holy Year of Mercy, which invites Catholic priests and laypeople to rediscover their faith and practice mercy.
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Monks started finding spiritual refuge in these “columns of the sky
” in the 11th century. There are 24 monasteries in the region, some with beautiful 16th century frescoes.
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The ancient Greeks believed
Delphi was the center of the world. One of the most important buildings in the complex is the Temple of Apollo, where people from all over Greece came to consult the Oracle of Delphi
about the future.
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in Prague was built in 1868, over the site of a 12-century Jewish worship site. It is called “Spanish” because of its Moorish design.
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Also called the “Church of the Holy Wisdom,” this cathedral
was built over an earlier pagan temple in the sixth century. It was repurposed as a mosque in the 1400s and is now a museum.
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This stunning mosque was built by the Ottoman sultan Ahmed I
in the early 17th century. Its exterior features six delicate minarets (or towers), while the interior is lined with blue İznik tiles, which give the mosque its name.
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Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia is a kaleidoscope
of colors and patterns. Ivan the Terrible commissioned the iconic church after defeating
the Tartars of Kazan on the Feast of Intercession in 1552. The cathedral, comprised of nine primary chapels, has become a symbol of Russian culture.
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The Stone Circles of Senegambia encompass
four sites of ancient monuments along the River Gambia in Gambia and Senegal. There are a total of 93 circles and 1,102 carved stones, which archaeological excavations have revealed to contain human burials and artifacts dating between the 1st and 2nd millennia to our era, according to UNESCO.
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The majestic Victoria Falls
stretches along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Christian missionary and explorer David Livingstone
is often credited with “discovering” the falls, but the site has been a well-known sacred destination for the region’s tribes for centuries. Locals call it “Mosi-o-Tunya,” or “the smoke that thunders.”
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South Africa’s Khoi and San people believed
this flat mountain top was home to their god.
contain the remains of ancient villages (or kayas) which were abandoned in the 1940s. The forests are now the focal point of the Mijikenda people’s religious beliefs. The kayas are still seen as the eternal homes of their ancestors.
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Bete Giyorgis (Saint George) church is carved out of one single piece of stone. It is one of 11 solid rock churches in the town of Lalibela, which has become a pilgrimage site for Ethiopian Christians.
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Moulay Idriss is considered to be the holiest city in Morocco
. It is the site where the prophet Muhammad’s great-grandson, who brought Islam to Morocco 1,200 years ago, is buried.
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Mt. Sinai is considered to be the site
where God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses. The sacred mountain is important for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
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Jerusalem is a city of ancient religious significance, considered holy in Christianity, Judaism and Islam alike. Located in the Judean Mountains between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea, the city is believed to be the site of Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple
, Jesus’s Last Supper
and Muhammad’s Night of Ascension.
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Safed is perched at the highest point of Israel and is considered one of the country’s four holy cities. In the 1600s it became the center of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, where mystics lived, studied and shared ideas.
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The Lotus Temple
is a Bahāʾī house of worship, or a mashriq, that is shaped like a floating lotus flower. Bahāʾīs consider the lotus to be a symbol of “purity, beauty, and divinity.”
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The Golden Temple, located in Amritsar, India, is historically a central religious site for the Sikh faith. The temple averages fifty thousand visitors
daily and is open to anyone who comes seeking spiritual comfort and solace.
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The Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage in India that brings thousands of Hindus together to bathe in one of four sacred rivers. The pilgrimage derives its name from a mythical fight in Hindu tradition that took place between gods and demons over a pitcher of holy nectar. It is believed that four drops of the nectar spilled, landing in the four cities that take turns hosts the festival. In 2016 the Kumbh Mela will take place in Haridwar
This 2,500-year-old sacred site is composed of hundreds of temples, stupas and statues. Devotees, monks, and tourists visit the complex to see a shrine manybelieve
holds strands of Buddha’s hair.
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The famous Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India is believed to be the site at which Siddhartha Gautama, later known as Buddha, attained enlightenment. Bodhi
is a Sanskrit word that translates
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This massive archaeological site
in Siem Reap is over 400 square miles and contains numerous temples, canals, and monuments. It was the capital
of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries.
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Shikoku is a Japanese island and the birthplace
of Kobo-Daishi, a revered monk and teacher who helped popularize Buddhism in Japan in the 9th century. The 750-mile pilgrimage route connects 88 temples and shrines, and each portion is said to represent a step toward nirvana.
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Both Buddhists and Hindus consider Mt. Kailash to be a spiritual home for the gods
. According to tradition, a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash can help erase bad karma accumulated over a lifetime.
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Potala Palace has served as the winter palace
of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century, and it is where the current Dalai Lama was installed
in 1940. It is now a World Heritage Site, housing thousands of Buddhist artifacts.
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The Temple and Cemetery of Confucius is located
in China’s Shandong Province beside what was once the philosopher’s sprawling family mansion. The cemetery contains Confucius’ tomb, as well as more than 100,000 graves of his descendants.
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The Temple of Heaven, located in Beijing, China, is said to symbolize
the relationship between earth and heaven. Founded in the early 15th century, the temple originally served
as a site for cultural rites performed by the ruling emperor.
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The indigenous Anangu people believe that this sandstone monolith was created by their ancestors during Dreamtime, a time beyond memory.
Located in the Australian state of New South Wales, Baiame Cave is site of significance named after the figure in Aboriginal culture believed to be the creator of the universe. The cave contains a large painting of Baiame, making it a rare example of indigenous rock art in the region.