Secular pilgrimage

During the COVID19 crisis, we saw on TV images of empty West Wall and via Dolorosa, Mecca, and museums of Vatican, Louvre, and Times Square. These are the places which are much more than a magnet for tourist. There is something common to these cultural icons and the way they change us.

What is a pilgrimage?

By definition “A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place. People make pilgrimages to places like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Dharamsala as part of their religious or spiritual practice. A pilgrimage is often a spiritual journey, but some pilgrimages deal with other kinds of devotion.”

Watching word trends in google, we can see the word Pilgrimage used to be especially popular in the mid-19th century but never stopped being relevant before and after.

In the ancient Jewish religion,  it was important to sacrifice animals in the Temple in Jerusalem. The whole way to the sacrifice was sacred and filled with symbolic meanings. All monotheistic religions inherited some aspects of that historic pilgrimage. Visiting the places which are profoundly sacred with several key stations is both a physical and a spiritual journey.

The places of pilgrimage tend to attract money and power. Huge wars, entire crusades, started to allow free pilgrimage and to control the places of pilgrimage.

Ancient tourism

A secular pilgrimage is often a journey to visit places of special meaning. Herodotus, an ancient tourist and the father of history, defined seven wonders of the ancient world:

  • Great Pyramid of Giza, El Giza, Egypt the only one that still exists. When it was young, it was covered with marble and gold. These precious materials possibly disappeared well before Herodotus.
  • Colossus of Rhodes, on the Greek island, was very similar to the statue of liberty both in shape and in function.
  • Hanging Gardens of Babylon,  or maybe of Nineveh, are an interpretation of heaven on earth: a terraced oasis in the middle of plain desert. The effort required complex irrigation and even thickening the walls of the city.
  • Lighthouse of Alexandria, in Egypt. For me it is comparable with Eiffel’s tower. It was more than a lighthouse, but the beacon of the city with the greatest library and the wisest scholars.
  • Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, in Turkey. Something similar to the Taj Mahal. A beautiful yet haunted place built for a beloved lady by her grieving husband.
  • Statue of Zeus at Olympia Greece. Gold and ivory plates on a wooden framework.  The huge statue occupied half the width of the aisle of the temple built to house it. It seemed that if Zeus were to stand up.
  • Temple of Artemis at EphesusTurkey, was rebuilt several times. The first temple possibly predated Amazons. In 356 BC, the second temple was destroyed in a vainglorious act of arson by a man, Herostratus, who set fire to the wooden roof-beams, seeking fame at any cost. It was rebuilt by Alexander the Great.  Some of the columns in Hagia Sophia originally belonged to the temple of Artemis.

A poet named Antipater of Sidon visited the seven places and wrote “I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labor of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand'”

We can feel from the poem, that the journey is more than physical, it also a spiritual search.

19th-century and now

In the 19th century, traveling became safe under the British flag. British empire covered about a quarter of the world and young people from Britain, France, Germany, and some other countries traveled for a year to see the wonders of the world. Some went to Palestine for religious experience, others visited Italy for art pilgrimage. More adventurous people traveled all over the world. Here are some items on their list:

  • Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa located in Alexandria, Egypt.
  • Colosseum in the center of the city of Rome, Italy.
  • Great Wall of China built across the historical northern borders of China.
  • Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.
  • Leaning Tower of Pisa in Pisa, Italy.
  • Porcelain Tower of Nanjing located on the south bank of the external Qinhuai River in Nanjing, People’s Republic of China.
  • Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.
  • Cairo Citadel is a medieval Islamic fortification in Cairo, Egypt.
  • Cluny Abbey in Cluny, Saône-et-Loire, France.
  • Ely Cathedral in Ely, Cambridgeshire, England.
  • Taj Mahal on the south bank of the Yamuna river in the India city of Agra.

The list of the world’s wonders visited by adventurers is constantly changing. Today this list also contains:

  • Petra in Jordan
  • Christ the Redeemer in Brazil
  • Machu Picchu in Peru
  • Chichen Itza in Mexico

Before or after college it is quite common to travel around half of the world seeing different cultures and how other people live their lives. Sometimes people who retire also visit the places they were too busy to see during the peak of their careers.

I am embarrassed to say that I have personally visited less than half of these sites, and prefer to see the other places on video even when the travel is easy and safe.

Great expectations

Visiting certain places like Paris, Florence, and Jerusalem is a complex experience. Many people suffer from positive and negative hallucinations. The places we want to visit are grand and solemn, but they are embedded in filth and fuss.

For example, the holiest church of Jerusalem is not properly maintained and does not have toilets due to the status quo between various Christian communities. This is a holy place and a great church, and it is the center of the holy pilgrimage, yet it is not at all what you would expect.

Taj Mahal is beautiful beyond words but on the way to the mausoleum, western eyes will see people defecating in the middle of the street. Even the mausoleum itself may catch the stench when the direction of the wind changes. This can have a certain influence on spiritual experience.

Pilgrimage to nature

No wonder that modern secular pilgrims often prefer to have their spiritual journey in the natural wonders. Some of these wonders include the grand canyon,  all of the biggest falls, and many other places. For example, my wife still has dreams of Milford Sound in New Zealand, which we saw during our honeymoon.

Some places offer a merge between wonderful nature and old temples. For example, I loved the shrines of Niko and Miyajima in Japan. When walking the ancient trails in Japan it is easier to understand the roots of pilgrimage, a feeling of wonder and inspiration carefully protected and honored by the local people.

Romantic experience

In 19th century, the English and German aristocracy went to Italy and Greece to see great art, eat great food and try to relive the classical culture. Only there was a romantic twist to the story: they enjoyed not the great monuments of human genius, but their ruins covered by greens and signs of time. In a way, they enjoyed the victory of nature over humanity. This is almost the direct opposite of what the ancient Greeks loved to see.

Possibly the 19th century’s aristocracy was a very formal and decadent bunch that quietly wanted to rebel. Maybe they were tired of somewhat unnatural etiquette. They considered folk art as something authentic and nobble and were looking for apprehension and awe.  There was a strong recourse to historical and natural inevitability, a Zeitgeist, in the representation of its ideas.

romantic ruins

Modern secular pilgrimage

Who are the modern secular pilgrims and what do they seek? Here are some stereotypical characters:

  • Young people in poor countries, experiencing simple life, love, and drugs/
  • Retired gentlemen, seeing all the wonders of the world for the last time before they can fade away quietly.
  • Tired high-tech employees enjoying digital detox on some remote trail
  • Art and food lovers looking for inspiration.
  • Married couples desperately needing a romantic environment simply to spend time together and rediscover one another.
  • Adrenaline junkies looking for the next fix in the most extreme environment they can find.

I think you will recognize some of the characters. They look for very different things, but their search has a deep purpose. We may argue to which extend these things are spiritual and the tourists devoted. I think this is a question of passion and the things that different people are passionate about.


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