1. Jerusalem, Israel
Jerusalem, full of golden-hued buildings that reflect the desert sunshine, is both an ancient capital and a bustling metropolis. Its walled Old City, a labyrinth of narrow streets divided into four quarters, contains sites sacred to Jewish, Christian and Muslim pilgrims.
In Jerusalem, Bible stories leap off the page into vivid life. Through the centuries, millions of Christians have re-lived Jesus’ final hours by walking the Via Dolorosa, which tradition says traces the route he followed to the cross. The sacred pathway ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is believed to have been buried. The cavernous, twelfth-century building contains altars and shrines commemorating his suffering, death and resurrection. Other sacred sites include the Western Wall (the only remnant of the Second Temple), the Mount of Olives, Church of all Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane.
2. Ephesus, Turkey
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Ephesus was one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire and an influential center for the early Christian church. The Apostle Paul lived here for about three years and addressed one of his letters to the community at Ephesus. One strain of Christian tradition says that the Gospel of John was written here and that the mother of Jesus spent the last years of her life in Ephesus under the care of John the Apostle.
Pilgrims to this site in western Turkey gather at two major landmarks: the House of the Virgin Mary (located on top of a mountain several miles from the city) and the ruins of the Basilica of St. John, where the remains of the apostle are said to lie. The city’s many well-preserved Roman-era sites provide an evocative backdrop for imagining the earliest years of the Christian church.
3. Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Spain’s northwestern province of Galicia is home to one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites, second in importance only to Rome and Jerusalem. The city of Santiago de Compostela contains a massive Roman Catholic cathedral where the remains of the apostle St. James are said to lie.
For centuries, the routes that lead to the city from throughout Europe have been filled with pilgrims walking on foot to reach the cathedral. The most popular trail, the French Way, takes about six weeks to complete and is lined with religious, cultural and artistic monuments. Pilgrim hostels along the way offer low-cost lodgings, and the cathedral in Santiago offers La Compostela, a Latin document certifying that the pilgrim has completed at least the last 100 kilometers (62 miles) on foot.
4. Vatican City, Rome
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Steeped in Christian tradition and history, Vatican City is one of the most-visited pilgrimage sites in the world. The 109-acre walled enclave lies within the city of Rome and is a sovereign city-state as well as the seat of the papacy. Its centerpiece is St. Peter’s Basilica, built over the site where tradition says that St. Peter was crucified and buried. In front of the basilica lies St. Peter’s Square, designed by the artist Bernini in the seventeenth century in the shape of arms spread open to embrace the world.
Artistic treasures fill Vatican City, including the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel and the “Pieta,” both by Michelangelo. Among its newest places of veneration is the tomb of St. John Paul II, located less than 100 feet from the tomb of St. Peter.
5. Mt. Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt
The desert peninsula that lies between Egypt and Israel is home to Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. For thousands of years, pilgrims have climbed to the summit of this remote peak. The surrounding landscape is both bleak and beautiful, particularly at dawn and evening when its harsh terrain glows with an almost unearthly light.
At the base of the mountain, a small community of Greek Orthodox monks lives at St. Catherine’s Monastery. Visitors enter through massive stone walls, that were built in the sixth century to protect the monastery from attack. Winding through a narrow passageway, they enter the Basilica of the Transfiguration, which dates back to AD 527, when the Emperor Justinian ordered that a church be built here on the remains of an even older chapel. Inside, Byzantine icons line the church’s walls and an ornate icon screen separates the altar from the sanctuary. The adjoining library is home to a priceless collection of icons, paintings, mosaics, altar pieces and illuminated manuscripts.
6. Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City
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This holy site dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe is the most-visited shrine in North America. Located in Mexico City, the Basilica de Guadalupe stands near the place where the Virgin Mary appeared to the Indian peasant Juan Diego in 1531 and told him that she wished to have a church built in her honor. Her image was later miraculously imprinted upon his tunic.
Two basilicas stand at the shrine today. One was built in the eighteenth century; the other constructed in the 1970s. The latter structure houses Diego’s tunic, an object of veneration for pilgrims. During the week of December 12, the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, millions visit the shrine. At any time of year, many pilgrims choose to do the last part of the pilgrimage on their knees as a sign of devotion.