Sacred Places

views updated Jun 27 2018


Every civilization has its share of sacred places, that is, geographical locations, buildings, monuments, or environmental features, such as mountains, lakes, rocks, waterfalls, and so on, that are believed to be endowed with intense spiritual qualities. Indeed, such places are frequently thought to possess a variety of supernatural powers that can heal, rejuvenate, or otherwise affect the human beings who visit them, often as devout pilgrims. They are also sometimes thought to be the focal points of creation, the places where deities first manifested themselves or performed some fundamental actions, and are thus typically steeped in mythology and theological dogmas.

In what follows, we shall consider eight well-known sacred places in several parts of the world, all of which have not only had a profound impact on the civilizations that venerate them, but also, in several cases, on a fair share of the human race. They are England's Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid of Egypt, the Greek oracle at Delphi, the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán, the great Islamic pilgrimage site of Mecca, and the Ise-Jingu, the most sacred of all Japanese Shinto shrines.


We begin with one of the oldestand best-knownsacred places on the planet, the great megalithic stone circle known as Stonehenge, the ruins of which still loom majestically above Salisbury Plain in southwestern England. Like Rome, Stonehenge was not built in a day, but rather over a span of about fifteen hundred years, from about 2900 to 1500 b.c.e. The earliest phase in its construction involved the excavation of a circular ditch some 360 feet (110 meters) in diameter and five feet (1.5 meters) deep. Inside the ditch was an embankment, composed of excavated material, and just inside the embankment was a circle of fifty-six holes, or pits, that have come to be known as "Aubrey Holes" after their seventeenth-century discoverer, John Aubrey. These holes may have held posts of some sort.

The second phase in Stonehenge's construction, which lasted from 2900 to about 2500 b.c.e., saw the erection of wooden structures and posts in the center of the site. It was during the third and final phase (25001600 b.c.e.), however, that the monument we know today was created. Two concentric circles of approximately eighty huge stone pillars, quarried in southwestern Wales and known as "bluestones," from their bluish color, were erected in the center of the circleonly to be replaced several centuries later by a row of even bigger "sarsen" stones that were brought from Marlborough Downs, some twenty-five miles (forty kilometers) to the north. The thirty sarsen stones, each of which stands approximately thirteen feet (four meters) high, form a circle about 108 feet (33 meters) in diameter. Originally, they were topped by a circle of lintels; however, today only a few remain intact, together with seventeen of the original sarsen pillars.

Inside the so-called Sarsen Circle the builders erected a horseshoe-shaped structure composed of five pairs of huge sarsen blocks, weighing approximately forty metric tons each, each topped by an equally massive lintel forming a series of trilithons, or three-stone gateways, the largest of which rises twenty-four feet (seven meters). Within the horseshoe, next to the central trilithon, lies the formerly erect Altar Stone. In addition, four "station stones" are located just inside the embankment, and several more sarsen blocks were originally placed near the entrance to the site. The two that survive are the Slaughter Stone and the Heel Stone, which were placed just outside the ditch. The latter stone appears to have played a crucial part in the rituals that took place (and still take place) during the summer solstice.

In any case, it is the ruins of this final phase in Stonehenge's evolution that impress visitors today. Although there are over one thousand stone circles in Britain, the massive remains on Salisbury Plain are by far the most impressive, despite the collapse of most of the lintels and over half of the original stones. That it was an intensely sacred place dating back into the mists of prehistory is undoubted, despite the fact that the closely related questions of who built Stonehenge and what went on there have long been hotly debated.

The earliest theory, advocated by the aforementioned James Aubrey, was that it was built by the ancient Celtic Druids. However, while these mysterious white-clad priests probably venerated Stonehenge and performed rituals there, it long predated their appearance in Britain around 600 b.c.e. Other theories range from wandering Mycenaeans (on one of the sarsen stones there are markings that some scholars have identified as a Mycenaean double-ax) to Egyptians and even ancient astronauts. However the most likely candidates were the Bronze Age (30001000 b.c.e.) inhabitants of southern Britain, including the "Wessex people," whose precise linguistic affiliations are as yet unknown, although we do know that they shared a great many traits in common with the pre-Celtic populations of western Europe, including stone circles (compare Carnac in Brittany).

However, the questions of what it was used for can now be tentatively addressed, if not definitively answered. In the mid-1960s American astronomer Gerald S. Hawkins suggested that Stonehenge was an ancient astronomical observatory that was used to calculate a variety of celestial events, including both lunar and solar eclipses, as well as the summer and winter solstices. To this day, the sun rises over the Heel Stone on 21 June, the summer solstice, and thousands of pilgrims, including latter-day "Druids," flock to Stonehenge every year on that date to watch this occur. If Hawkins is correct, the calendar, as well as the solar and lunar cycles, must have loomed large indeed in the beliefs systems of those who built the monument. However, this hypothesis is by no means universally accepted. Other scholars assert that, while it was clearly a place where extremely important rituals took place, some of them perhaps involving animal and perhaps human sacrifices (hence the "Slaughter Stone"), it was not a primordial "computer" designed to facilitate the calculation of astronomical events. In short, a definitive interpretation of the fundamental meaning and purpose of this remarkable place remains elusive.

Nevertheless, anyone making the trek to Salisbury Plain for the first time cannot help but be awestruck at the sight of those mighty stones silhouetted against the sky. The enduring sacredness of Stonehenge is underscored by the fact that, unlike the other megalithic monuments of Britain, such as the great stone circle at Avebury, some thirty miles (forty-eight kilometers) to the north, it has never been intruded upon by a town or village.

The Great Pyramid

Our second example of a major sacred place, the Great Pyramid at Giza (near Cairo) in northern Egypt, dates from approximately the same time at which the prehistoric people of southern Britain were beginning the second phase in Stonehenge's construction, that is, c. 2500 b.c.e. In fact, the Great Pyramid can be dated far more precisely. It was during the reign of the pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) (25512528), which marked the high point of what Egyptologists call the "Old Kingdom." It was the first of the three major pyramids built at Giza, the other two being the pyramids of the pharaohs Khafre and Menkaure, respectively, Khufu's son and grandson. However, it also represents the culmination of a long period of development that began in predynastic times with the construction of mastabas, or flat-topped tombs with sloping sides, and continuing through the famous Step Pyramid at Saqqâra (also near Cairo) that was designed by the brilliant Egyptian architect Imhotep for King Djoser (Third Dynasty), who reigned from 2630 to 2611, and the so-called Bent Pyramid built by Khufu's father Sneferu (25752551).

Like those pyramids and mastabas that preceded it, the Great Pyramid, which originally rose 481.4 feet (146.73 meters) and is composed of approximately 2.3 million blocks, each of which weighs, on average, 2.5 metric tons, was a royal tomb. It was located on the west bank of the Nile. Indeed, all of the sacred places in Egypt that played host to the dead, from Giza and Saqqara to the Valley of the Kings opposite ancient Thebes (modern Luxor), were located on the west bank of the river because it was in the direction of the setting sun, that is, the land of the dead, the place toward which the Sun God Re sailed each day as he navigated the Celestial Nile, which ran at right angles to the Earthly river.

In view of its mammoth proportions, the weight of the stone blocks, and the fact that it is almost perfectly aligned with the points of the compass, some researchers have suggested that the Great Pyramid, as well as the other two Giza pyramids and the Sphinx, traditionally attributed to Khufu's son Khafre, must have been built by technologically sophisticated extraterrestrials, as no human technology, ancient or modern, could possibly have manipulated stones of this size and weight. However, recent archaeological research at Giza has clearly demonstrated that the pyramids were built by thousands of ordinary human beings, most of whom were peasants, rather than slaves, whose labor was conscripted during the fallow season, and who lived in nearby barracks. Moreover, the architects knew enough geometry to work out the remarkable alignments and, after several earlier failures, to determine the correct angle and slope. It is also clear that by using ramps, rollers, massive sleds, and sheer human muscle power, the builders were in fact able to wrestle the blocks into position without any extraterrestrial help.

Nevertheless, even though they were almost certainly not built by space aliens, from the beginning of Egyptian history, the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara have had a special religious significance. They were thus fitting final resting places for the Pharaoh's soulor souls, as the ancient Egyptians believed that each person had two souls: a ka and a ba. At death, the ka left the deceased's mortal remains and went to the afterworld; the ba, however, was destined to remain behind in the tomb, which was why pharaohs and other wealthy Egyptians were buried with such a plethora of grave goods: the ba needed these things to survive. Both souls needed as close a replica of the former living body as it was possible to produce, which accounts for the practice of mummification.

In any case, although the wealth interred with Khufu in the Great Pyramid has long since been looted, his ba must have been surrounded initially with a priceless horde of objects with which it could live in a princely style for what his heirs hoped would be eternity. In addition to physical objects, the needs of a deceased pharaoh were served by a retinue of figures called ushabtis, figurines would serve both his ka in the afterworld and his ba within the pyramid's burial chamber.

The interior of the Great Pyramid has two such chambers, the King's Chamber, which is reached by a steep gallery, and the Queen's Chamber, some distance below it. As just indicated, both chambers are now completely empty, and have been for several millennia. However, the King's Chamber, which is located close to the center of the pyramid, has long been considered to possess extraordinary spiritual power. The author of this article once spent the better part of an hour, between waves of tourists, sitting cross-legged in the center of the chamber in question, doing his best to absorb some of that supposed spiritual energy, or "pyramid power," as it is sometimes called. While he failed to notice any appreciable psychic changes, he did come away from the experience with a profound sense of awe and wonder. The Great Pyramid is thus by any measure an extremely sacred place, and all who visit it, even casually, cannot help but be impressed not only by its sheer size, but also by its ineffable majesty and intense spiritual aura.


Some five hundred-odd miles (805 kilometers) due north of Giza, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, which looms above the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth in northwestern Greece, is another extremely sacred place: Delphi, site of the famous Oracle of Apollo. Like Stonehenge, the origins of Delphi are lost in the mists of mythology and prehistory; however, we do know that very early on the ancient Greeks came to consider it to be the center of the universe.

The central feature of Delphi is the Temple of Apollo, which commemorates the god's slaying of Python, a terrible she-dragon that lived on the slopes of Parnassus. According to ancient Greek mythology, the goddess Hera sent Python to harm her husband Zeus's paramour, Leto, while Leto was pregnant with Apollo and Artemis. But Leto was saved in the nick of time by Poseidon, who hid her in the waves. In any case, four days after he was born, Apollo set out to find a location where he could establish his sanctuary. When he wandered onto the slopes of Parnassus, he encountered Python, who immediately attempted to kill him, just as she had his mother. Apollo loosed one of the magical arrows the smith-god Hephaestus had forged for him and mortally wounded the monstrous reptile. However, one of Python's tasks had been to guard the region, which had been sacred to her mother, the primordial earth-goddess Gaia, and so Apollo needed to purify himself and placate the slain monster's spirit. He exiled himself to Thessaly, did his penance, and when he returned to what was to become Delphi, he established the oracle that bears his name. In memory of Python, he named the woman who spoke with his voice the Pythia.

The name Delphi comes from delphin, the Greek word for "dolphin." When Apollo realized that he needed priests to interpret his words, he changed himself into a dolphin and lured a boatload of Cretan sailors to the shore beneath Mount Parnassus and convinced them to serve him.

From the earliest period in Greek history, Delphi was an extremely sacred place. Both individuals and cities came to Delphi to hear Apollo's oracles. Indeed, each major Greek city maintained a treasury along the Sacred Way that led up to the Temple of Apollo. The region around Delphi was nominally a dependency of the city of Phocis, although the site was in effect international territory and, except on rare occasions, unaffected by the wars that constantly pitted city-state against city-state, the most famous of which was the Peloponnesian War (431404 b.c.e.).

The mantic, or divinatory ritual, took place in a chamber deep within the temple called the manteion. The Pythia, who, in anthropological terms, was a shaman, that is, someone who goes into a trance and is either possessed by a divine being or is able to visit the spirit world, chewed a laurel leaf and then mounted a tripod that stood on top of the Omphalos Stone, which was believed to be the world's navel. According to several ancient eyewitnesses, including the second-century c.e. historian Plutarch, "noxious fumes" issued from a hole, about nine inches in diameter, directly beneath the tripod and surrounded the Pythia. Some modern scholars have suggested that the chewed laurel leaves might have been responsible for her altered state of consciousness, and that the fumes came from a natural source beneath the ground. However, we now know that no such source exists and that laurel is not a hallucinogen. The author of this article has suggested that the "noxious fumes" probably came from Cannabis sativa leaves burning in a secret furnace directly beneath the manteion, and that it was their hallucinogenic effect that put the Pythia into a trance. Unfortunately, all evidence of such a furnace has long since disappeared, and, until further research is done on the charring in the interior of the hole, this must remain a tentative hypothesis.

In any case, after the petitioner posed his question, the Pythia babbled incoherently. Her random utterances were then reshaped by the Delphic priests into coherent, albeit cryptic "responses," which frequently reflected current political realities or the size of the gift the petitioner or his city had made to the oracle.

In addition to the Temple of Apollo, the surviving ruins of which date from the fourth century b.c.e., when the oracle was at the height of its importance, Delphi includes several other temples, a theater, and the aforementioned treasuries. Although it declined steadily during the Roman period (after 150 b.c.e.), and especially after the spread of Christianity in the fourth century, the oracle remained a sacred place in the eyes of both the Romans and the Greeks, and it survived until 390, when the Temple of Apollo was finally closed by the Roman emperor Theodosius I (347395), along with other pagan sites in Greece, including the Parthenon.

The Temple Mount

Our next two sacred places, which still possess a profound spiritual aura, are in the city of Jerusalem, a city sacred to three world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which, between them, command the devotion of well over two-thirds of the world's population. By the beginning of the Bronze Age (c. 3500 b.c.e.) what was to become Jerusalem had been conquered by a Canaanitic people known as the Jebusites. By around 1400 Egyptian records indicate that the site was called Urusalim (Heb., Yerushalayim). However, the history of Jerusalem as we know it begins with the Hebrew conquest of the region around 1250. Around 1000 King David managed to capture the city from the Jebusites, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Qiryat Ye'crim, where it had been kept, and installed it in a tabernacle. He also began construction of a modest temple, which was vastly enlarged and completed by his son and successor, King Solomon.

Although Jerusalem is studded with monuments sacred to the three religious traditions that venerate the city, in what follows we shall focus on two locations that loom above the rest: the first is the Temple Mount, which today includes the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Western Wall or "Wailing Wall," the last remnant of the Second Temple; the second is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Temple Mount, also known as Mount Moriah and, to Muslims, as Haram-esh-Sherif, was initially the site of Solomon's Temple, completed in the early tenth century b.c.e., which was totally destroyed by the invading Babylonians in 586. The Second Temple was begun on the same site shortly after 539, when the Persians liberated the Jews from captivity. It was ravaged several times in the ensuing centuries, most notably by the Syrian king Antiochus IV in 168 b.c.e. In 4 b.c.e. the Second Temple was extensively restored by Herod the Great, only to be destroyed permanently by the Romans in 70 c.e. in the wake of the great Jewish Revolt of 6970.

The dimensions and appearance of both temples were roughly similar. The First Temple reached the zenith of its development under King Hezekiah (c. 715687 b.c.e.). By that time it had become a prime place of pilgrimage for Jews from both Israel and Judah. The most sacred part of the temple was the "Holy of Holies," where the Ark of the Covenant, a box, traditionally 2.5 cubits (3 feet, 9 inches) in length and 1.5 cubits (2 feet, 3 inches) in height, that contained the Tablets of the Law (the Ten Commandments) which Moses had received atop Mount Sinai, was kept. The Holy of Holies was located deep inside the principal building and could only be approached by the hereditary priests, that is, the descendants of Aaron, the first Jewish high priest and traditional founder of the Hebrew priesthood.

The Second Temple, especially as restored and enlarged by Herod the Great, was even larger and more impressive than Solomon's Temple, although it still served fundamentally to house the Ark and the Tablets of the Law. It was in the Second Temple that Jesus disputed with the Pharisees and later kicked over the tables of the money changers in the courtyard. However, save for a handful of artifacts looted by the Romansa menorah, or sacred seven-branched candelabra, a shofar, or ritual horn, and some cups and other vessels, images of which were carved on the Arch of Titus in Romemost of the Second Temple's furnishings, including the Ark and its sacred contents, were lost forever when the building was razed in 70 c.e. (According to some legends, the Ark of the Covenant managed to survive the catastrophe, and several sites have been suggested as its ultimate resting place, including one in Ethiopia; this was the theme of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. )

However, the Temple Mount remained, as did the aforementioned Western Wall, better known as the "Wailing Wall," where Jews still come to pray and lament the temple's loss. And the Temple Mount also came to occupy an extremely important position in Islam as well. Indeed, it is the third most important pilgrimage site, outranked only by Mecca and Medina. The reason is that when the prophet Muhammad died in 632 c.e. he ascended to heaven astride his horse, but not before stopping briefly at the Haram esh-Sherif, or Temple Mount, more specifically on the rock traditionally believed to be the one on which Abraham offered the sacrifice of his son Isaac to God. Indeed, devout Muslims believe that the imprint of one of Muhammad's horse's hooves can still be seen on this rock. A sanctuary, called the Dome of the Rock, was built between 691 and 692 c.e. by the Umayyad caliph 'Abd al-Malik to mark this sacred spot. Originally its domed roof was covered with gold leaf, although in 1962 the gold was replaced by gold-colored anodized aluminum. Nearby is the sacred al-Aqsa Mosque, which has also figured importantly in recent disputes between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The second sacred site in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to have been constructed on the site of Jesus' crucifixion and interment. In some respects, as the historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith points out, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the original version of which was built by Helen, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, in 330, can be regarded as the successor to the Second Temple. Indeed, it immediately became the single most important Christian pilgrimage site (the second was the equally ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) and thus carried on the tradition that Jerusalem was a supremely sacred place among adherents of the new religion.

The original church, built in the Byzantine style, was destroyed by the Persians in 614. It was rebuilt in the same style shortly thereafter and, although severely damaged by an earthquake in 808, managed to survive until the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim destroyed the building again in 1009 and along with it the cave that was the presumed tomb of Jesus. In 1244 the Crusaders rebuilt the church, in the Romanesque style, and it has remained essentially intact ever since, despite several attempts at restoration.

In the interior, the site of Golgotha, the traditional location of Jesus' crucifixion is marked by a Greek Orthodox chapel, and his tomb, or Sepulcher, called in Greek the Anastasis, or "Place of Resurrection," is located beneath a rotunda surrounded by columns supporting an ornamented, domed roof. The Sepulcher itself is marked by a structure known as the Edicule, which is believed to be directly above the cave destroyed in 1009.

A uniqueand not always happyfeature of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is that it is jointly owned by three major Christian denominations: the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic Churches. Other communitiesthe Egyptian Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox, and the Syrian Orthodox Churchesalso possess certain rights and small properties in or near the building. For example, the Copts share a small area on the roof. The rights and privileges of all of these communities are protected by the Status Quo of the Holy Places (1852), as guaranteed in the Treaty of Berlin (1878), although the several communities jealously guard their spaces and rarely agree on even the smallest matters of basic maintenance. Indeed, at various times the secular authority, as of the early 2000s wielded by the State of Israel, has been forced to intervene in these disputes and subsidize needed repairs and renovations.

Nevertheless, despite the recent political upheavals in the region and the ongoing squabbles among its owners, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher remains the foremost Christian pilgrimage site in the world and is indeed a worthy successor to its vanished neighbor, the ancient Hebrew Temple.

The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán

The Pyramid of the Sun at the great pre-Columbian site of Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico is an awe-inspiring sight. One of the largest man-made constructions in the Americasa continent dotted with enormous pre-Columbian pyramidsthe Sun Pyramid stands at 489 feet (149 meters) by 551 feet (168 meters) at it base, 148 feet (45 meters) in height. Its graceful volumetric construction echoes the shape of the mountain behind it, encouraging viewers to perceive the man-made shape as a metaphorical echo of the enormous natural form that dominates the valley.

The Pyramid of the Sun is one of a series of impressive pyramids, temples, and plazas that line the Avenue of the Dead, the main north-south axis of the central precinct of Teotihuacán, one of the largest cities of the world during the first millennium c.e., when it boasted a population of 100,000 to 150,000. The city began its rise to prominence around 1 c.e.; the pyramid began to be constructed around 150 c.e., and was repeatedly expanded through multiple construction phases. Abandoned rather suddenly after 600, the enormous ruins of this urban center nonetheless continued to influence Mexican life for centuries thereafter. The conquering Spanish learned of the site from the Aztec ruler Montezuma, who regularly visited there, considering it a holy place. Tourists, both Mexican and international, continue to be moved by its grandeur, and the U.S.-based artist Michael Heizer, son of an archaeologist, has gained international prominence for his abstract earthworks, which echo the majestic form of the pyramid he saw as a child.

The full significance of the Pyramid of the Sun only became clear to archaeologists in the early 1970s, when a tunnel was accidentally discovered at the foot of the main staircase. This tunnel leads directly toward the center of the pyramid's base, where six chambers or caves were discovered. Originally believed to be natural springs, these "caves" are now thought to be completely man-made, and to date back to the earliest date of the pyramid's construction.

In the religions of the ancient Americas, perhaps more so than in the other great religious traditions described here, sacred places loomed especially large in the spiritual imagination. Widespread traditions of ancestor worship invested the tombs of the dead with great power both as the sources of political and social legitimacy for the living, and as sites imbued with religious sanctity and powerful with the sources of life, fecundity, and health not only for human descendants, but for the ecosystem more generally. Features of the natural landscape, such as springs, caves, and mountain peaks, were likewise invested with great sacral significance, and were often believed to be original places from which the very first ancestors emerged. In Mesoamerica in particular, the idea of a hidden source of water inside a cave was closely associated with the birth of ancestors and with the control of rainfall, the circulation of water, the origins of time, and the source of life. This complex of ideas was one of the oldest and the most pervasive religious concepts, traceable far back in time, and shared across the many language and cultural groups of the region. The six secret caves under the Pyramid of the Sun may make specific reference to the origin myth of ruling lineages, but more importantly, in constructing their largest and most impressive temple-pyramid around a circle of secret caves containing canalized water, the builders of the Pyramid of the Sun tapped into this most primordial of ancient American ideas about sacred space.


The most sacred place in Islam is the city of Mecca (or Makkah in Arabic), which is located in the western part of Saudi Arabia about seventy-five miles (121 kilometers) inland from the port city of Jidda in Hejaz province. Although it was clearly a sacred place for centuries before the time of Muhammad (c. 570632 c.e.), and includes the famous Ka'ba, a cube-shaped building said to have been built by the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and in whose southeastern corner can be found the venerated "Black Stone," supposedly given to Abraham by the Angel Gabriel, the city's sacredness in Islam derives primarily from the fact that it was the Prophet's birthplace.

Muhammad lived peacefully in Mecca, managing his wife's business affairs, until he was about forty years of age, when he began receiving revelations from God via the Angel Gabriel. He soon began to preach his new faith, supported by his devoted wife Khadijah and a growing number of followers. But after his wife died, he began to struggle against opposition from several quarters and, in the year 622, he was forced to flee to the nearby city of Medina one step ahead of a plot to assassinate him. This retreat, called in Arabic the Hegira, or "flight," later became the base-year for the Muslim calendar.

Eventually Muhammad returned to Mecca in triumph, and after his death in 632, his revelations were gathered together into the Muslim holy book, the Koran. These revelations included the "Five Pillars of Islam," one of which asserts that every Muslim should make a pilgrimage, called the hajj, to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. Thus the city annually plays host to two million Muslims from all over the world. Wearing a white robe called an ihram, the pilgrims are expected to circle the Ka'ba seven times, to run another seven times between two hills, Safa and Marwa, to spend from noon until sunset on a hill in the valley of Arafat, to throw stones at the devil in the valley of Mina, and to sacrifice sheep and goats. The hajj occurs only in the first two weeks of Dhu al-Hijja, the last month of the Muslim lunar year, and during the time they are in Mecca and its environs the pilgrims are expected to observe some strict taboos, including abstinence from sexual activity. Those who make this pilgrimage are entitled to add the title hajji to their names.

Thus, like Jerusalem, Mecca has become a worldwide place of pilgrimage. It is clearly a place apart, a place brimming with spirituality and sacredness, despite the fact that only Muslims are permitted to visit it.


Our final example of an important sacred place is the Ise-Jingu, the most sacred shrine in Shinto, the indigenous belief system of Japan. Located in the city of Ise in Mie prefecture, about an hour's train ride south of Nagoya, it is dedicated to the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, from whom the imperial family is traditionally believed to descend through her grandson, Honinigi, who, according to the Kojiki (712 c.e.), the most ancient Japanese mythological text, descended to Earth and extended his grandmother's sovereignty to the "Reed Plain," that is, the mortal realm. Actually, there are two major shrines at Ise. The Outer Shine is dedicated to Toyouke, the kami, or god, of harvests and goods. But it is the Inner Shrine, or Naiku, that is most important to the Japanese people, as it is there that Amaterasu is enshrined.

Traditionally, the Naiku is said to date from the third century c.e., and the extremely simple architecture reflects the wooden thatched-roof storehouses of the late prehistoric period. However, what sets the Ise complex apart not only from all other Shinto shrines, but from sacred places elsewhere in the world, is that all of the shrine buildings are torn down and rebuilt exactly as they were every twenty years (the most recent rebuilding was in 1993). Thus, the Ise shrines are at once extremely oldthe rebuilding cycle began in the eighth centuryand very new. And the same holds for Amaterasu and Toyouke, who are ritually rejuvenated with each rebuilding.

Each year, the emperor is expected to make a pilgrimage to Ise to honor his ancestor and report to her about what has happened to him and the realm since his last visit. But he is not the only pilgrim. A great many Japanese from all walks of life visit Ise annually to worship at its shrines and do honor to the Sun Goddess. Indeed, in the mid-nineteenth century, as Japan began to open up to the outside world, several Ise-related cults swept across the country and impelled thousands of Japanese peasants to leave their villages and head for the Ise-Jingu. While the current Ise pilgrimages are far less frenzied, the shrine remains central not only to Shinto, but to Japanese culture per se.


These, then, are eight of our planet's premier sacred places. While they are very different from one another in a great many respects, all share at least one common quality: an intense spirituality that makes them special. Some paranormal researchers have suggested that they are inherent "power spots," located at the confluence of what have been called "ley lines," that is, energy-charged paths that presumably connect major ancient and prehistoric sites. While most orthodox scientists scoff at this notion, one cannot help but wonder whether these six locations and others like them do have an inherent spiritual power that sets them apart and renders them sacred, not only to those who built them, but to subsequent generations and cultures.

See also Religion ; Sacred Texts ; Visual Order to Organizing Collections .


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C. Scott Littleton

Sacred Places

views updated May 29 2018

570. Sacred Places

  1. Alph sacred river in Xanadu. [Br. Poetry: Coleridge Kubla Kahn]
  2. Delphi shrine sacred to Apollo and site of temple and oracle. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 274]
  3. Ganges river sacred to the Hindus, who are freed from sin by bathing in it. [Hinduism: Brewer Dictionary, 385]
  4. Holy Bottle oracle consulted by Panurge to ascertain whether he should many. [Fr. Lit.: Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel ]
  5. Kaaba central shrine at Mecca. [Islamic Religion: Brewer Dictionary, 513]
  6. Mecca holy city where Muhammad was born. [Islamic Religion: Brewer Dictionary, 596]
  7. Medina holy city to which Muhammad fled from Mecca. [Islamic Religion: Brewer Dictionary, 596]
  8. Monsalvat the mountain of salvation where the Holy Grail is guarded by knights. [Ger. Opera: Wagner Parsifal in Benét, 761]
  9. Nemi lake in Italy, sacred to the cult of Diana and site of human sacrifices. [Rom. Myth.: EB, XVI, 211]
  10. Zem Zem sacred well in Mecca where Hagar revived Ishmael. [Moslem Tradition: Brewer Dictionary, 969]

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Sacred places

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