It has been said that the first tourists in the world were pilgrims, religious folk making their way through exotic deserts and across foreign shores on a holy journey. They didn’t have digital cameras or blogs, but their journeys were as much about the soul as about discovering new cultures, cuisines and adventure. Today, there are just as many spiritual destinations for us to discover, whatever faith we choose to follow.
Buddhism is a path, a way of life that tunes its followers towards the road to nirvana. Lets start by heading over to South Korea for an authentic Temple Stay in a Buddhist monastery, developed to introduce foreigners to the concepts of Zen Buddhism. Here you’ll don grey robes, eat strictly vegetarian meals, learn about meditation and the worthiness of chores in a relaxed, tranquil environment. Thailand (and many other countries) offers 10-day Buddhist meditation retreats, where silence and reflection is revered. Tibetan Buddhism has its centre nowadays in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala. Here you can take Buddhist classes (in various languages), and meditate in the crowded presence of the Dalai Lama. Incredible temples devoted to the Buddha abound throughout Southeast Asia, and consider climbing the magnificent Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, where legend states you can find the footprint of the Buddha himself.
Biblical Tourism is booming in North America, as Christians of various denominations book tours to discover Biblical sites in Israel and beyond. For an alternative, consider the11th century rock churches of Ethiopia’s Lalibela, built to mirror Jerusalem. Israel is ground zero for Biblical tourism, as busloads of foreigners visit sites like Bethlehem, the Red Sea, and the Sea of Galilee. Amongst old ruins and beautiful landmarks, you can hear the echoes of Jesus and his followers. Turkey, known as the “other holy land”, is rich with Biblical history, especially in the east. Here you can find villages like Harran, mentioned in the Bible, regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. Christians also make annual pilgrimages to the resting places or shrines of saints, such as the shrine of St Francis Xavier in Goa, India, the Marian centres of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, or churches like Lourdes in France.
Foreigners are denied entry into Mecca, site of the holy pilgrimage, or hajj, mentioned as one of the cornerstones of Islamic faith. Muslims undertaking the journey describe it as unforgettable and transcendent, and millions undertake the hajj each year. Following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed has always drawn followers of the faith, through countries like Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Travellers of any faith are overwhelmed by the majesty and grandeur of the great mosques in Istanbul – the 16th century Blue Mosque, the Suleyman Mosque, and the basis of them all, the 6th century Hagia Sofia (originally a church of Eastern Orthodoxy). Ancient mosques, holy sites and pilgrimages can also be found throughout Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq. Jerusalem, a holy city to all three monotheistic faiths, has many important destinations for Muslims, such the magnificent Dome of the Rock.
Hindu festivals, as befits the religion itself, are renowned to be colourful, vibrant, and thrillingly jovial. A blend of worship, celebration, spectacle and processions, festivals like Diwali, Esala or Durga have been delighting travellers and Hindus alike for millennia. Along the banks of the holy Ganges in India, ashrams sound bells in Rishikesh to signal the puja, a ceremony of worship, bursting with dancing and music. In Sri Lanka, I bore witness to a stunning spectacle at the annual Esala festival in Kataragama, where men demonstrated their faith by dragging loads behind them with hooks in their back, or piercing parts of the body in vows of devotion. Today, many westerners depart on yoga retreats throughout India, a chance to grow both mind and body. Ashrams, under the guidance of gurus and masters, are full of foreigners seeking answers to the burning questions of life.
Jews around the world are emotionally tied to the Holy Land of Israel, their spiritual and political home. The famous Western Wall in Jerusalem, all that remains of the grand Temple from Biblical times, sweeps most visitors away with the raw emotion on display. Walking the city streets of Haifa, Tiberius or Jerusalem reconnects modern Jews to their ancient legacy. Climbing Masada in the desert symbolizes the eternal struggle and courage of Jewish ancestors. In eastern Turkey, visitors to Sanilurfa can visit Biblical sites like the cave where Abraham, the father of all three monotheistic religions, was born. In Prague, the Old New Synagogue dates back to the 11th century, and Jewish visitors to the mostly decimated Jewish Quarters of post World War Europe – Krakow, Budapest, Vilnius and others – are both fascinated, and horrified, by the not-too distant past.
Confucianism, Bahai, Jainism, Zoroastrianism – whatever your faith, visiting historical roots, festivals and holy centres offers incredible rewards for the modern traveller. And for all the unfortunate tragedies of history demonstrating otherwise, it will always be worth noting that every prophet, teacher and religious path urges us to treat one another as we would treat ourselves.