The ‘sacred’ exists in many forms and travelling to sacred destinations around the globe can revive and inspire the spirit. From the Maluti Mountains to Mecca, the sacred is both near and far.
If given the chance, many of us would gladly pack our bags and spend the rest of our days traveling the world. The human desire for new experiences, coupled with our natural affection for adventure and discovery, makes travelling the globe so appealing. Wanderlust, itchy feet, call it what you will; the desire to travel is the desire to experience the world (and ourselves) anew, whether that means traveling to the urban jungle of New York City or the real jungles of Brazil. By definition, the term ‘sacred’ means ‘revered’ because of the association with holiness. Interestingly, the term is derived from the Latin term ‘sanctum’ meaning ‘set apart’. Travelling to sacred places is then a journey to seek out the holy, that which is set apart from the world as we know it. This usually means taking a break from your to-do list and journeying somewhere away from friends and family, if only for a little while. The paradox of travelling to sacred places is this: in seeking that which is set apart we can rediscover the thread that binds us all, rendering all of us connecting in the shared quest for happiness and fulfillment.
Not necessarily religious, the “scared” is something that most of us will seek as we question the meaning of our lives. While many seek out tropical holidays, keen to relax while soaking in the sun, holidays to sacred places are often not really holidays in the traditional sense. Rather than relaxing and focusing solely on negotiating happy hour while fitting in a five-hour nap, holidays to sacred places usually demand quiet reflection. The rewards however, stretch beyond great Instagram photos, and can leave the soul enriched and energised for many years after you’ve returned home. The pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, known as the Hajj, is a journey to be undertaken by all able Muslim during the period of Dhu al-Hijjah. Both physically and emotionally taxing, this pilgrimage lasts five days and involves performing rituals based on those conducted by the Prophet Muhammad during his last visit to the city.
For 14 centuries, Muslims from around the world have descended upon Mecca for the Hajj, the highest manifestation of Islamic faith and unity. A 2008 study by Harvard University indicated that the Hajj promotes cohesion and a community spirit of harmony. Furthermore, the study found that individuals who have completed the pilgrimage often experience a heightened belief in peace and equality with those who practice different religions. Despite millions of visitors to Mecca, Japan is home to both of the most visited sacred sites in the world; the Meiji Shrine and the Sensoji Temple, which both receive approximately 30 million visitors annually. Both sites are situated in Tokyo, with the Meiji Shrine dedicated to the deified spirit of the first emperor of modern Japan, Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. The Emperor is credited with connecting Japan to the West and aiding the industrialisation of the state. However, it is his wife, the diminutive Empress, who captures the imagination of many visitors.
Described as somewhat of a child prodigy, the Empress was reading and writing poetry all before her sixth birthday and was able to read Classical Chinese text at the age of seven. The shrine, which was a former iris garden, can be found in the trendy district of Harajuku and it is surrounded by an evergreen forest boasting more than 100,000 trees. For those interested in indigenous religions practiced around the world, the shrine is a Shinto shrine, the indigenous religion of Japan. The religion is unique in that it has no founder or holy book; rather it is described as an ‘action-centred religion’ that values harmony with nature and with others. Regardless of your religious beliefs, this is a beautiful and engaging landmark that perfectly encapsulates the Shinto emphasis on harmony. To illustrate, millions of tourists visit the site every year yet there is still a perceptible sense of peace and harmony with nature, with the evergreen forest being deemed a gift to be enjoyed and appreciated by all those who visit.
The Sensoji Temple is a Buddhist temple and it’s the oldest temple in Tokyo, dating back to 628 A.D. After being destroyed during World War II, the colourful temple was rebuilt as a symbol of rebirth and peace. It was originally built in honour of the Buddhist goddess of mercy and happiness, Bodhisattva Kannon. The temple houses a small gold statue of the goddess, however, the statue is not shown to the public. Instead visitors can walk the impressive grounds, enjoying photo opportunities at the Thunder Gate or browsing Nakamise-dori, one of Japan’s oldest shopping streets filled with Godzilla toys, traditional sweets and trinkets. The short shopping street leads to Hozomon, known as ‘Treasure Gate’. It is here that you will find a large pot of burning incense; the smoke from the incense is said to cleanse the spirit (but be sure to rub some on your head as locals believe it gives the gift of wisdom).
Although appreciating our inescapable relationship with nature and the inherent value of different cultures certainly does not require a ticket to Japan, the city of Tokyo offers many opportunities for self-discovery and reflection as Japanese culture offers much food for thought. From the fashion fiends of Harajuku expressing their bold and unique style that gives the middle finger to the conventional, to the quiet dedication of the countless ‘itamae’ of sushi (sushi chefs) who often spend decades perfecting their humble craft. Tokyo begs visitors to reconsider the rules of life. Those travelling in search of acceptance and peace should consider “wabi-sabi”, the Japanese perspective that emphasises and accepts as beautiful the imperfection and impermanence of this world.
If the Mediterranean speaks to your soul and your spirit resembles the Colosseum (broken but proud), then head to Italy for a soul escape. After all, Italy is not only about pizza, pasta and gelato; in the city of Naples you can find Santa Chiara, one of the largest and most significant churches in Naples. It was founded by the then-King of Naples, Robert the Wise in 1310. The church forms part of a Franciscan complex that also includes a museum, bell tower and fountain. Like the Sensoji Temple, the complex was also destroyed during World War II but was later restored to its original condition and houses the tombs of royalty, as well as Salvo d’Acquisto, a military policeman who bravely sacrificed his own life in order to save the lives of 22 civilian hostages during Nazi occupation.
Described as a ‘spiritual gem’, this church is a special place for quiet prayer and reflection as it does not receive as many tourists as other more impressive Italian churches. While visiting the church, be sure to enjoy the sights (and tastes) of Naples, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the birthplace of pizza. Feast on a slice from Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, the oldest pizzeria in Naples that’s been serving the good stuff for over a century. If reviews are to be believed then this might qualify as a spiritual experience for the tastebuds. For a slice of the soulful a bit closer to home, look no further than the Maluti (Maloti) Mountains. Known as the Maloti Mountains only to those living outside of Lesotho, for those fortunate enough to claim these ancient mountains as their backyard, “Maloti” simply means “mountains”.
The Maloti Mountains (also spelled “Maluti” and “Moloti”), form part of the Drakensberg range and spread from Lesotho to the Free State of South Africa. This beautiful mountain range is protected as a World Heritage Site as it harbours endangered species such as the bearded vulture and boasts one of the most unique and fragile ecosystems in Africa. The mesmerising natural beauty of this site is reason alone to visit this indigenous treasure. However, the Maloti Mountains are also celebrated as an important sacred site as several caves include the largest and most concentrated group of rock paintings in Africa, south of the Sahara, with over 600 rock art sites and over 35,000 individual images. These rock painting uniquely embody the rich spiritual life of the San people who called this area home for a time spanning 4000 years, with the rock art allowing visitors a fascinating insight into the traditions and beliefs of the San people.
The exceptional natural beauty combined with the spiritual significance of the rock art, makes the Maloti Mountains a popular site for initiations and traditional healing ceremonies. The mountains are said to be energy centres and so the mountains are often known as the ‘Sangoma University’, as many sangomas choose to complete their training there. In fact, even those sceptical of alternative beliefs have noted the almost tangible energy that is present when visiting the site. The Maloti Mountains are an awe-inspiring escape only a few hours away from Johannesburg. The close proximity to the city of gold is a keen reminder that the sacred is never far from our lives, if only we care to notice. The opportunity to travel to a sacred destination is a journey that not all of us have the resources to complete. However, travelling to a sacred destination in far-flung regions is not essential for the journey of meeting one’s own soul. In fact, such extravagant travels might be superfluous when considering the simple requirements for finding the sacred within: an open heart, a willing mind and a moment of solitude to recognise the divinity inside.