Visiting Six of the World’s Holiest Sites

Varanasi, India

For Hindus, Varanasi, India, is the holiest of the seven sacred cities. And Buddhism was founded at nearby Sarnath around 528 B.C., when Buddha gave his first sermon, “The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma” (also called “Turning the Wheel of the Dharma”).

Varanasi’s ghats, stone embankments along the sacred Ganges River where locals and pilgrims perform ritual ablutions, are draws for both the faithful and tourists. In the evenings, visitors often hire boats to watch priests at Dashashwamedh Ghat perform the aarti, a Hindu worship ritual, while devotees help put thousands of candles or floating lamps on the river in dedication to Lord Shiva.

When to Go: The weather in October through March is pleasant. Dussehra, the Hindu holiday celebrating the triumph of good over evil, is celebrated in September or October; Bharat Milap and Diwali, the famed festival of lights, are celebrated in October or November; and the Ganga Festival, celebrated on the banks of the sacred Ganges, takes place in November.

Where to Stay: Bhadra Kali Guest House is near the Dashashwamedh Ghat. There’s a panoramic view of the city and the river from the rooftop, where monkeys are also known to hang out, looking to be fed.

Cultural Tip: Don’t take photos of funeral ceremonies at the cremation ghats, even from the river. No bags, phones, or pens are allowed in the Vishwanath Temple—deposit those in nearby lockers—and be forewarned: Security is tight at the temple. Accounts vary as to whether or not foreigners are allowed in.

What to Read Before You Go: Check out Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede, who describes Varanasi in colorful and poetic language—“a city of armchair philosophers and tea-stand saints”—and spends time with different groups of residents to show as many sides of the city as possible. The Bhagavad Gita, the text that is a cornerstone of Hinduism and considered a masterpiece of Sanskrit poetry, is less than 200 pages and a surprisingly easy holiday read.

El Mirador and Tikal, Guatemala

The Temple of the Great Jaguar sits in the Grand Plaza at the ruins of Tikal.

The ruins of El Mirador were initially discovered in 1926 but remained obscured by a tangle of jungle growth in northern Guatemala for another 36 years. What archaeologists finally found upon closer inspection turned what they knew about Preclassic Maya civilization on its head.

Built more than 2,000 years ago—long before archaeologists believed such a place could exist at that era in Maya history—El Mirador was a busy metropolis covering six square miles, home to tens of thousands of people, and filled with grand buildings and plazas. It’s now thought to be the cradle of Maya civilization.

About 40 miles to the south of El Mirador in Guatemala’s Petén region is Tikal, another major site of Maya civilization—its largest city during the Maya Classic period. A UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Guatemala’s first protected sites (Tikal National Park was established in 1955), Tikal in its heyday comprised ceremonial platforms, palaces, residences of various sizes, roads, plazas, and towering temples shaped like pyramids, many of which can be safely climbed by visitors.

When to Go: From November to mid-February is the best time to visit El Mirador and Tikal, which lie in the humid Guatemalan lowlands.

Where to Stay: Trips to El Mirador start from the village of Carmelita. Most visitors hike or travel there by donkey over a few days, camping along the way. Helicopters can also be chartered for a short flight from the nearby town of Flores. Once there, an old landing strip serves as a campsite for visitors. Visitors to Tikal can take a day trip to see the site while staying in Flores. Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel, close to the Tikal ruins, offers well-appointed suites overlooking a lagoon. There are also a few hotels just outside of Tikal: Hotel Jaguar Inn, Jungle Lodge Hotel, and Hotel Tikal Inn.

Cultural Tip: Hiring a local guide from Carmelita is highly recommended. Turismo Cooperativa Carmelita also arranges tours.

What to Watch Before You Go: Watch a Library of Congress talk by Richard Hansen, an archaeologist who has worked at El Mirador for decades, about what is known on the collapse of the Maya civilization in the Mirador Basin.

Jerusalem, Israel

A muslim woman walks by the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a religious site revered by both Muslims and Jews.

The ancient city of Jerusalem resonates deeply with three monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The three religions intersect—and intertwine—in the maze of streets that run through Jerusalem’s Old City, ringed by a wall that dates back to the 16th century. That’s positively modern-day compared with the city’s holiest sites.

The Temple Mount, a large stone plaza in Old City, is the site of Judaism’s First Temple, built by King Solomon and destroyed in 587 B.C. It is now the site of the Dome of the Rock, the iconic gold-domed Islamic mosque completed in A.D. 691. Christian sites include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which broke ground in A.D. 236 on the site of Jesus’s burial and resurrection.

When to Go: Spring is a cool, dry time in most of Israel. The Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) fall in either September or October and bring the country to a standstill. Many Christians visit at Easter, in either March or April.

Where to Stay: More than a century old, the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem is full of history and is where foreign journalists, diplomats, and a few notable celebrities have stayed. It was originally a home for the Ottoman Pasha Rabbah Effendi al-Husseini and his harem before becoming a Christian commune, and no two rooms are the same.

Cultural Tip: The Temple Mount complex, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall all require that visitors be dressed modestly. Praying by non-Muslims at the Temple Mount is prohibited. When leaving the Western Wall, it is traditional to walk away backward so as not to show the wall your back. Access to many of the sites is subject to change due to holidays and political situations, so check before visiting.

What to Read Before You Go: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Avi Shalit is a 2013 award-winning book by an Israeli journalist exploring his conflicting feelings about Israel.

New Orleans, United States

A tour guide lectures visitors as she stands in front of Marie Laveau’s tomb inside St. Louis Cemetary No. 1 in New Orleans.

New Orleans may be home to the loud and sometimes lewd pre-Lenten Mardi Gras celebration, but it’s also a city influenced by a long and complicated history of religious devotion. In fact, while other states have “counties,” Louisiana still refers to such territorial divisions as “parishes.” St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States, is in New Orleans.

Many also associate the city with Louisiana voodoo, the spiritual beliefs and practices originating with enslaved West Africans that merge ancestor worship, polytheism, and Catholicism. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the burial place of Creole voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, and her tomb attracts hundreds of visitors every year.

When to Go: February to May are the coolest months in subtropical New Orleans. Festive Mardi Gras and the following solemn Lent take place in February, March, or April.

Where to Stay: The French Quarter’s Hotel Monteleone is a historic building and one of the most famous haunted hotels in the country. Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner have all visited. No word if they were among the guests to have seen the ghost of Maurice Begere, a child who died at the hotel in the late 1800s and who, the management says, still appears on occasion.

Cultural Tip: St. Augustine Church, the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the United States, holds a yearly jazz Mass during the Satchmo Festival in August. St. Augustine also celebrates traditional Mass with a choir, full band, and piano every Sunday at 10 a.m. for parishioners and visitors alike.

What to Read and Watch Before You Go: New Orleans Noir, an anthology that includes a collection of fictional stories based in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans, is edited by a former reporter and writer. Portions of the book’s profits are donated to a program that awards grants to writers affected by the hurricane. Spike Lee’s documentary on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, is an in-depth look at the impact of the storm on New Orleans.

Cairo, Egypt

The Mohammad Ali Mosque in Cairo, Egypt sits at the top of the city’s Citadel.

Located on the banks of the Nile River, Cairo, Egypt’s capital, holds the special distinction of being home to the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing: the Great Pyramid, completed around 2540 B.C. It’s part of a six-pyramid complex just outside the city on the Giza Plateau.

Not quite as old, the nearby Citadel was built on a hill by the caliph who defeated the invading Crusaders in the 12th century. The Citadel is famous for its views over Cairo, as well as for being the site of the grand Mohammed Ali Mosque. Built in the 1800s, the mosque is one of the first buildings visible when approaching the city. With its Ottoman-influenced architecture, the mosque resembles the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, another monument of Islam.

The history of Christianity in Egypt dates to just a few decades after Jesus died. During the Roman era, St. Mark is believed by scholars to have come to Alexandria to spread the gospel through Egypt. Cairo’s oldest area is the Coptic Christian area, which has five churches, the first mosque built in Egypt, the oldest synagogue in the country, and the ruins of Roman fortifications. Built on an old Roman fortress, the Hanging Church (so named because the nave was built between the ruins of two towers) has 110 religious icons; the oldest dating back to the eighth century.

When to Go: Due to the pleasant weather, March to April and October to November are the best times to go to Cairo, with March and April bringing sandstorms that are both a hindrance and a special sight to see.

Where to Stay: As the name suggests, Pyramids View Inn has quite the view. From either a room or the roof, guests can see the pyramids, including the sound and light show each evening. If swimming in a pool overlooking the Nile is more tempting, Kempinski Nile Hotel Garden City Cairo has visitors covered.

Cultural Tip: Only a limited number of tickets are sold in the morning and again in the early afternoon to enter the pyramids. No cameras are allowed inside the pyramids, and climbing, although once a popular tourist activity, is now off-limits.

What to Read Before You Go: World-renowned Egyptologist Barbara Mertz wrote a fictional series set in Egypt before writing Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt, a book of nonfiction that illuminates some of the history behind her fiction. It covers the first Stone Age settlements through the reign of Cleopatra and the Roman invasions, including pictures, maps, photographs, and charts to showcase the fascinating history and stories. The Cairo Trilogy by the late Cairo native Naguib Mahfouz helped earn him the 1988 Nobel Prize in literature; he was the first Arab to win the award. The trilogy covers three generations of Cairo residents, giving a look back into early 20th-century Egyptian life.

Rome, Italy

St. Peter’s Square, initially designed under the direction of Pope Alexander VII, leads visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.

Rome, the Eternal City, is home to Vatican City, the 109-acre city-state run by the Catholic Church and the seat of Roman Catholicism. At St. Peter’s Basilica—or St. Peter’s Square if the attending faithful outnumber the 15,000-person capacity of the Basilica—the pope celebrates Mass. St. Peter’s Basilica is soaring, more than 40 stories tall, with a dome designed by Michelangelo. St. Peter the Apostle’s tomb lies under the altar.

Nearby in Rome is the Pantheon, a massive structure that was originally designed as a pagan temple by Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 125. One of Rome’s best preserved ancient buildings, it has been used continuously as a Christian church since the seventh century. The Colosseum, the symbolic, not-to-be-missed Roman landmark built in the first century A.D., was not only the site of gladiatorial fights but also where Christian martyrs were put to death.

When to Go: June and July are high season but also hot. Christian holidays like Easter or Christmas are busy, with many events.

Where to Stay: From Deko Rome, located in a historic, early 20th-century building, you can stroll Via Veneto, the avenue made famous in Federico Fellini’s movie La Dolce Vita, just steps away. The Palazzo Manfredi is a small boutique hotel with a perfect view of the Colosseum from the restaurant on the top-floor terrace.

Cultural Tips: Visitors can climb (or take an elevator for an extra fee) to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica for a view of Rome. The Pantheon is still in use as a Catholic church, with Mass celebrated on Sundays and holy days, and it’s open to the public.

What to Read Before You Go: Mary Beard, a well-known English scholar and professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, recently published SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. The book, which takes its name from the acronym for a Latin phrase that means “the senate and people of Rome,” is an extensive examination of the Roman Empire.

source: By Jackie Snow

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