Journey to the extraordinary: Check out these awe-inspiring sacred sites and ancient wonders.
Located in the Judean Mountains, between the Mediterranean Sea and the northern tip of the Dead Sea, Jerusalem has a history that goes back to the 4th millennium BC, making it one of the oldest cities in the world.
Jerusalem is considered holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam – making it sacred to more than a third of the world’s population. Key religious sites include the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. The old walled city, a World Heritage site, has been traditionally divided into four quarters, although the names used today — the Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Quarters — were introduced in the early 19th century.
But Jerusalem’s appeal is certainly not limited to religious travelers. With its rich history, archeological treasures, museums and concerts, Jerusalem is a popular destination for religious and non-religious travelers alike.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The ancient capital of the Khmer kingdom, Angkor is the most popular destination in Cambodia. Stretching over some 400 sq km, including forests and jungles, Angkor Archaeological Park contains remains of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century.
Explore Angkor Wat (believed to be the largest religious structure in the world) and the city’s other ancient towers and temples. The nearby town of Siem Reap offers a number of hotels, restaurants and transportation to Angkor.
Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island, located in the South Pacific between Chile and Tahiti, is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. Its name “Easter Island” derives from its rediscovery by a Dutch explorer on Easter Sunday in 1722.
Formed out of an ancient volcanic eruption, the triangular-shaped island covers only 103 kilometers (64 square miles). It is famous for its 800 or so ancient Polynesian statues that stand across the island. Exactly why and how the original inhabitants — referred to as Rapa Nui — assembled these ancient wonders is not fully understood (partly because their written language has yet to be deciphered). It is thought the Rapu Nui people arrived from Polynesia around 400 AD.
Chichen Itza, Mexico
Chichén Itzá is the largest of the ruined Mayan cities on the Yucatán Peninsula. It is believed that the construction of the first temples (dedicated to the rain god Chac) began in the 7th century — and the city reached its peak under the rule of the Itzáes in the 10th century.
In the following centuries, Chichén Itzá became the most powerful city in the Yucatan. Most of the grand architecture was built during this age, in a mixture of Maya and Toltec styles. At the end of the 12th century, the city was captured by rival city Mayapán, but it remained a place of pilgrimage for the Maya until the 16th century.
The structures of Chichén Itzá were overgrown with jungle and slowly decayed until major archaeological excavations began in the 1920s.
Ávila is a medieval city in the province of Castile-Léon, about 113 kilometers (70 miles) northwest of Madrid. Founded in the 11th century to protect Spanish territories from the Moors, Ávila enjoys an authentic medieval atmosphere with its magnificently preserved city wall, historic cathedral, and a number of Romanesque churches. The old town of Ávila has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Ávila is important to pilgrims because of its association with the mystic and reformer St. Teresa of Ávila. Teresa, a 16th-century Carmelite nun, reformed her order, had many ecstatic visions, and wrote several books. She is the female patron saint of Spain and was the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church. Shrines erected in her honour include Convento de Santa Teresa, a 17th-century convent built over the site of Teresa’s birth, and the Monasterio de la Encarnacion, where she lived.
Parthenon, Athens, Greece
The Parthenon, which has stood atop the Acropolis of Athens for nearly 2,500 years, is the most famous surviving building of Ancient Greece and one of the most famous buildings in the world.
It was built to give thanks to Athena, the city’s patron goddess, for protecting Athens and Greece in the Persian Wars. Throughout its long life, the Parthenon has functioned most importantly as a Greek temple, but has also been a treasury, a fortress, a church, and a mosque.
Located in the Hautes-Pyrénées département in southwest France, Lourdes is the largest Catholic pilgrimage destination in France and one of the most popular Catholic shrines in the world.
The small town (population 17,000) receives more than 5 million visitors each year thanks to visions of the Virgin Mary reported by a young girl named Bernadette in 1858.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes includes 52 hectares of property and 22 places of worship, including a sacred grotto, two basilicas, and a variety of buildings for pilgrims and the sick. Outside the sanctuary, many pilgrims also visit the home of the young visionary, St. Bernadette.
The Great Sphinx, Egypt
Built in about 2530 BC by the pharaoh Khafre, the Great Sphinx is a colossal stone statue located next to the Pyramids of Giza. Carved out of limestone, the Sphinx has the facial features of a man and the body of a recumbent lion. To give you an idea of its impressive size: it is approximately 73 meters (240 feet) long and 20 meters (66 feet) high.
Primarily, the Sphinx was thought to have been a guardian figure, protecting the tomb of the Khafre by warding off evil spirits. It was also considered an oracle of sorts: within the structure’s paw is a 15th-century BC stone tablet recounting a vision given to a prince who slept in the shadow of the Sphinx (and perhaps sought its divine aid). It is believed he later became a pharaoh through its intercession.
A number of mysteries continue to surround the Sphinx, such as why the builders chose such heavy blocks for the temple or how they were able to move them. There is also some question about when the Sphinx was actually constructed, with many theorizing it was constructed as early as 7000 BC.
Article credit: Cynthia Ross Cravit of 50Plus.com