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There are a ton of different religions around the world. Some are mainstream and are well known by the rest of the world. However, some are more hidden and are waiting to be discovered. Regardless of what any personal belief is of the individual studying these religions, there is one thing that we must agree on: religions influence the world around us. One of the most beautiful influences of religion is with architecture. Some of the most gorgeous and amazing places were built with the idea of religion in mind. In this paper, I am going to outline ten sacred religious places that I personally would love to visit.
Our first stop on this pilgrimage is at the Shwedagon Pagoda located in Yangon, Myanmar. This beautiful piece of architecture that lights up the night sky is known by locals as “Shwedagon Zedi Daw The,” and sits on top of a hill that allows this building to be 99 meters high. This Pagoda is known as the oldest ones in the entire world at an estimated 2,600 years old! The exact age that this was constructed is not known, however, it is known that this building goes all the way back to the lifetime of the Buddha when it was built by the Mon in the 6th century. There is a legend that this Pagoda came to life due to two merchant brothers from Okkalapa, who met the Buddha in India. The Buddha gave the two merchants eight of his hairs, which he instructed to “enshrine them in the same spot on a hill in Okkalapa where relics of the previous three reincarnations of the Buddha were buried”. The merchants took the hairs back to the king, and eventually, the king himself picked a spot on Singuttara Hill where the relics were enshrined, which is now the Pagoda. This building contains over 7,000 diamonds, and rubies to give it a reflecting base for when the sun starts to set in the area. Followers of Buddha make the pilgrimage to see this site at least once. It has the same significance to the religious believers of Buddha that the Kaaba at Mecca has on Muslims. To pay respects to the Buddha, visitors must remove their shoes when entering. They are also encouraged to make offerings and observe. One interesting fact about this Pagoda is that it is said to have the eight hairs of the Buddha inside of it! Attending this would be phenomenal, as not only would I be able to observe the beauty of the gold and the overall building, but I would also be able to experience the power behind this religion. Hearing the stories of Buddha from the travelers, seeing the eight hairs, and more make this a must-needed place for me to see.
Next on our list, we have the Lotus Temple located in New Delhi, India. This temple also has the name of Baha’i House of Worship, or Bahai Mashriqul-Adhkar, which is part of the Baha’i faith. This temple reflects the overall principle of the Baha’i faith, which is the unity of mankind. While this is in reference to those of the Baha’i faith, anyone regardless of religious background is welcome into the temple. The title of this temple is the “Dawning Place of the Remembrance of God,” which attracts more than 70 million visitors a year, which breaks down to ten thousand per day! They hold teachings of the Baha’i Faith in the Lotus, focusing primarily on the “Oneness of God, the Oneness of Religions, and the Oneness of Mankind”. The lotus flower is a common religious symbol referencing purity, which is found in the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Baha’i does not worship a particular deity, but rather the oneness of the whole world through all religions. This is extremely interesting, as this religion only wants individuals to live in peace and harmony, and is okay with different religious views. It would give me a unique perspective to talk to the people there and see exactly what backgrounds they have, and what brought them to the Lotus Temple.
We move over to Christianity and visit the Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe Chapel located in Le Puy-en-Velay, France. The name of this chapel can be translated to “St. Michael on a needle,” since the rock formation makes the chapel look like a needle. This chapel was originally built on an extinct volcano and has 268 steps to lead to it. When one gets to the chapel, it can be used to meditate, pray, or have a moment of self-reflection. Originally in history, a dolmen was made there by the Romans. They dedicated this dolmen to Mercury, which is “the swift messenger god with winged shoes.” In the future, the Christians replaced that dolmen with the chapel dedicated to St. Michael. This attraction brings many pilgrims with the beauty of this architectural masterpiece and was also the original starting point for the route to Santiago de Compostela. The stonework of the chapel paints a picture of specific themes from Genesis and Revelation and carries statues of different Christian idols such as St. Peter, the Virgin Mary, and St. John. We also see depictions and theories of the resurrection of the dead, heaven, hell, the Twelve Apostles, angels, and saints. The artwork for this place is easily the most exciting part for me about this place, however, I would also want to talk with the people there to learn more about my religion. I classify myself as a Christian, and to be able to talk to individuals who share the same belief as me would allow me to connect and learn with them.
The Hagia Sophia located in Istanbul, Turkey is another well-known area of Christian religious significance. The name of this place is translated into “Shrine of the Holy of God.” The Hagia Sophia was built under the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, however, the original order was for this to be built by Constantine. Once built, a fire inside of it damaged the building, where they rebuilt it when the Roman emperor Constans I was ruling. After the rebuilding, it has since gone through two additional partial collapses but continues to be rebuilt. Like the Baha’i religion, the Hagia Sophia is a symbol for peace, harmony, and for religious tolerance of other religions. Religious tolerance is a massive accomplishment, as Turkey holds some of the largest amounts of people for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. After all of the collapses and changes the structure has gone through, today it is a museum where millions of people come to embrace its architecture and its view of religious tolerance, where no one is judged, and everyone is respected. I would love to go into the museum and view the amazing artwork that tells about these different religions, as well as see if they have any stories or portrayals of when the crusaders destroyed the altar and sacred icons of this area long ago.
Let’s go over to Asia in Shibuya, Tokyo to visit the Meiji Shrine, which represents the Shinto religion. The Shinto religion has no founder, holy book, or even the concept of religious conversion. This shrine stands to value harmony with nature, and to show off the divine spirit known as Kami. This shrine is not all just a religious discussion as it was also dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who is the founder of Japan. Many Shinto festivals and ceremonies are held in the Meiji Shrine, the biggest being Hatsu-mode, which is the first visit to a shrine of the year, January 1st. This temple is unique in the fact that it pays respect to the founder of Japan. I would also love to talk with people about how they do not worship a specific deity, but rather the concepts of Kami and what exactly Kami is. This would allow me to have a deeper understanding of religion.
The Batu Caves located in Gombak, Selangor, Malaysia is a Hindu temple close to Kuala Lumpur that has 272 steps to walk prior to arriving and is a pilgrimage spot for many individuals practicing Hinduism. These caves have a large golden statue of the god Lord Murugan, which is the Hindu deity of war. Devotees of the religion will arrive here to make offerings, pray, and participate in the various festivals that are held to celebrate Hindu life. The most famous celebration is Thaipusam, a festival where people pierce their own bodies in penance. This is a symbol for triumph over evil, and the path of following well. The most common offerings to give are fruits, flowers, and pails of milk. For me seeing this spot would allow me to put myself in the shoes of somebody practicing Hinduism, and to truly observe their rituals and religious practices.
We now make our trip over to Ravenna, Italy to visit the Basilica of San Vitale. This architectural masterpiece offers some important pieces of early Christian Byzantine art. Julianus Argentarius, a wealthy individual, funded most of the church for it to stay open. Inside, it holds mosaic medallions of Christ and depicts the Twelve Apostles. There are two very important depictions of Abraham. One of which Abraham’s wife, Sarah, awaits him as he brings a calf to some other guests who are at a table, and also the famous story of Abraham getting ready to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to show God that he was completely devoted to him. The entire church is filled with tons of artwork with Christian significance. Because I am Christian, I would love to see the artwork that is portrayed, especially with the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, as it would allow me to put myself into those times with my faith. It would allow me to feel like I am a part of my religion, and to share it with the others to have made the trip to there.
The next place of significance houses two religions in one place, symbolizing religious tolerance. The Spanish Synagogue in Josefov, Czech Republic houses both Jewish and Muslim faiths. This synagogue was built due to their history, where Spain originally expelled Moors and Jews, causing them to run to various other countries in Europe. What is even more interesting is that the synagogue is very respectful of both religions and can house them both. For example, in the Koran, one of the laws does not allow any person or animal to be directly depicted in any sculpture or painting. Because of this, any figures that are needed to tell a story are used in geometric shapes instead of physical characteristics. The synagogue primarily covers the Jewish faith, as it explains the history of the Czech Jewish community during the enlightenment and emancipation periods. It also depicts the hardships of the Jewish and the Germans, showing stories of the Holocaust and what the Jews had to do to hide from the Germans. In 1942, the Nazis closed the synagogue, and most of the staff that worked there (who were primarily Jewish) were sent to concentration camps. Visitors are taught about the destruction of the Jewish Town, the struggles of the Jewish people, and mourn the people that were taken away when it was shut down. This synagogue has since reopened today as a museum with many different concerts. I have never personally been to a museum that shows the struggles of Jews during the time of the holocaust and other hardships. It is important to never forget these events and to learn about them, as many lives were lost. I would also like to learn about their faith by talking with people, as the Jewish faith is not too far off from Christianity.
The Boudhanath Stupa located in Kathmandu, Nepal, is a beautiful sight to see that focuses on Buddhism. The most amazing thing about this is the history involved, and how it truly represents all of Buddhism’s beliefs, such as the five Buddhas. This Stupa was built in the 14th century after the Munghal invasions, and ever since has been a major destination for pilgrimage and meditation. The individuals that come here are the Tibetan Buddhists and the local Nepalis. If you look at the building from above, it resembles a diagram of the Buddhist cosmos. Inside of the structure, the four cardinal points are located by using the four Dhyani Buddhas, with the fifth Buddha, Vairocana, in the center of the building. In addition to marking the points of the Stupa, the five Buddhas also represent the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether. They also have 13 rings that symbolize the path to enlightenment, which is also depicted in the name, as another name for the path is “bodhi.” The Stupa celebrates various events, but the most favorite is the Tibetan New Year, also known as “Losar,” which is the biggest celebration in all of Nepal. By visiting this place, I can talk with the locals about the Buddhist beliefs and values that I have learned from my education of religions. I would also be able to make connections between my learning and the physical artwork and religious sculptures that are at this establishment. In addition, I would love to ask who lives by the path of enlightenment, and what they do in order to stay on the path.
Finally, on my last stop for my pilgrimage, I will be visiting the Angkor Wat located in northern Cambodia. This structure is considered the largest religious monument in the entire world and houses the Buddhist religion. In the language of Khmer, Angkor Wat translates to “temple city,” and with good reason as the entire structure looks like a ton of temples enclosed in a city. While this temple is no longer active due to forest overgrowth and earthquakes, its original purpose was an offering to the Hindu god Vishnu. However, by the end of the 12th century, it became a Buddhist temple. The Angkor Wat was not always a Buddhist temple, however. The original ruler during the time was Suryavarman II, who enforced Hinduism as the religion for the entire region of Cambodia. Later, it was taken over by Buddhism. The founder of this beautiful temple was a French explorer named Henri Mouhot, who said that it was “grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.” Most Buddhists believe that “the temple’s construction was ordered by the god Indra, and that the work was accomplished in one night”. The overall structure of the temple was meant to depict Mount Meru, which is the home of the gods. Even though this temple was taken over by Buddhism, it still represents many Hindu gods inside of the temple walls as well as Buddhist gods. While I cannot enter the temple, I would love to visit with the other Hindu and Buddhist individuals the largest religious monument in the world. I would have so many questions about their core beliefs and to hear the history of the temple and take in the religious significance of the area.
By growing my education through this philosophy of religion class, it has left me extremely intrigued about these religious places as well as the religions themselves. A lot of learning is through experience, and while the textbook has taught me the basic overview of these religions, being able to physically see it and experience it would be an amazing moment in life that I could not pass up. If I had an opportunity to visit any sacred places, these would most certainly be my top ten. The internet only has so much information on these places, and I would love to ask the locals their thoughts on it, and to see if their religion touches base on if there was a purpose for these buildings that were maybe not explained in the history. These structures are breathtakingly beautiful and hold so much education and history that I would be excited to hear.
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