What makes a place... sacred?

| July 3, 2018

What makes somewhere sacred? Is it just history and geography, or is there something more, something intangible? Sarah Baxter explores why even atheist travellers are drawn to the world’s spiritual places.

Lake Titicaca

Some places, it seems, are somehow able to soak into our souls. They don’t only impress our external senses with their attractive landscapes or architectural finesse. They go deeper.  

They kept on coming, a motley crew indeed. A divorcee from Alabama. Students from Costa Rica. Sun-flushed Scandinavians. Sturdy Germans. An Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotsman. A gaggle of Spaniards. A teacher. A preacher. A barman. A nun. Disparate souls with no obvious common ground, connected only by the time-pressed earthen path they had all chosen to follow. The same trail that millions have followed for over 1,000 years.

Walking along the main route of the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrimage route across northern Spain, is less a hike than a lesson in anthropology. Early travellers were drawn to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela to seek salvation at the tomb of St James the Apostle – his remains were supposedly discovered here in the ninth century. But what draws travellers now? These days, there seem to be as many reasons for making the pilgrimage as there are pilgrims. And interestingly, in these ever more secular times, the numbers on the Camino have consistently increased for the past three decades – from 2,491 in 1986 to 301,036 in 2017. Many of today’s multitude may be seeking simple adventure. But is that it? There are so many other walks around the world – why come here? Why are so many – religious, atheist and agnostic alike – drawn to tread this ancient path?

Camino de Santiago

Camino de Santiago

Some places, it seems, are somehow able to soak into our souls. They don’t only impress our senses with their attractive landscapes or architectural finesse. They go deeper. They bury beyond sight, sound and smell to tap into something less tangible. They tickle our psyche, access our inner being. They make us ask questions about the meaning of life. These places might not be obvious from the outside – there may be more magnificent monuments or more spectacular waterfalls – but there’s something there that stops us in our tracks. And it’s because they are sacred places, held in reverence by our ancestors. They are not just churches or trails or mountain tops. They are centres of spirituality, often dating back centuries, which seem to radiate the dreams, desires and devotion of our forebears. Even if we don’t share those dreams, we can still sense their echoes.

What makes these places special in the first place? There’s no equation or science. These are places of shared symbolism but not of structure. In the city of Kyoto, humankind has erected more than 2,000 religious sites over the centuries – a wealth of pagodas, temples, shrines and gardens, while in Haiti, followers of the island’s Catholic-inflected vodou pray and chant at a jungle waterfall because, in the 19th century, a vision of the Virgin Mary once appeared by a tree and left her image imprinted on its leaves.

Some natural sites are simply too striking not to be spiritual. Take Uluru: how could early Aboriginal peoples, walking through the Outback some 40,000 years ago, not have woven this enormous and incongruous hump of blood-red rock into their Dreamtime stories? It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe the legends – that it’s the remains of a giant red kangaroo or the earth risen up in grief at a battle of two tribes. You can still sense an inherent heft about the place. Whether a fiery, heart stopping Uluru sunset moves you closer to your God, gods or the sheer wonder of Mother Nature matters not – the point is its ability to move us all.



And that’s why we seek these destinations. That’s why Christians still visit the Inca sites on Lake Titicaca, why Muslims walk the stone circle at Avebury, why mighty Mount Kailash is circumambulated not only by Buddhists, Hindus, Bons and Jains – all of whom consider it sacred – but by curious atheists too. We bring our own beliefs (or lack thereof) to these spiritual spots. We seek knowledge and adventure and a greater understanding of ideas that are not our own. We don’t need to pray to be impressed by a power somehow greater than water, rocks or bricks alone.

Wherever in the world you travel, you’ll find that humans have created their own sorts of sacred. Whether it’s First Nations people trying to cope with life in the Canadian wilderness, the Maori creating a mythology to suit the rambunctious landscapes of New Zealand or the Easter Islanders carving deities to safe-keep their remote ocean home, people have always searched for ways of deciphering the world around them. By travelling, we get to experience these interpretations in situ; we see the diverse environments that have engendered beliefs, even watch the practitioners in action. But we can also feel a similarity between these spiritual places, and see that there’s a universal quest for meaning.

Adams Peak

Adams Peak

Illustrations by Harry and Zanna Goldhawk

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