Pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the religious imagination.
The desire to visit places — especially distant ones — that are seen as endowed with transcendence and spiritual power is evidenced in many of the world’s great religions. Since many faiths employ words denoting a journey — “road,” “walking,” “path” — to describe their religious practice, perhaps it is natural for the pilgrimage to provide a metaphor of that greater pilgrimage: the life of the believer. In fact, the notion of pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — but in very different ways.
From the earliest settled period Israelites felt the urge to visit holy places where they experienced an encounter with the Divine. In the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Hebrew Bible — we see that the three most solemn festivals of the Jewish year were pilgrimage festivals. In Exodus there is an old listing of the major festivals: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of the Harvest (Shevuot/Pentecost) and the Feast of the Wine and Olive Harvest (Sukkot/Tabernacles). The Israelites are commanded to “celebrate” these festivals and to “appear before the Lord.” In fact, the word used for “celebrate” and for “festival” is taken from the Hebrew root ḥgg, which happens to be the same root as the Arabic word for the ḥajj, or obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca.
So strong is the notion of pilgrimage in the Hebrew Bible that Passover, which was originally a family or clan festival, evolved over the centuries into a pilgrim festival. The construction of the Temple by Solomon in the 10th century B.C. provided the Israelites with a focal point for pilgrimage. While political divisions, wars and exiles limited the ability and desire of some to travel to Jerusalem, the city remained and still remains the major pilgrimage site for Jews.
Throughout the historical books of the Hebrew Bible there are references to huge pilgrimage gatherings in Jerusalem, but these are balanced by remarks such as, “no Passover like this had ever been celebrated since the days of the judges,” and with laments that Israelites are not fulfilling their pilgrimage obligations.
While the very logistics for every Israelite to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year makes it highly unlikely that the ideal was ever attained, large numbers did manage to make it to Jerusalem at least for Passover. In his work “The Jewish Wars,” Flavius Josephus wrote of a Passover during his time in which 256,000 lambs were sacrificed. He estimated the number of pilgrims at 2.7 million — a number most historians doubt. (Indeed it is known that Josephus was not above creating data to fit his story.) Nonetheless, contemporary scholars believe that anywhere between 150,000 and 300,000 pilgrims would visit Jerusalem on any given Passover.
The Passover was a tense time for the Roman occupiers of Judea during the New Testament period. The Roman troops were often put on higher alert and their numbers increased. They were well aware that the large number of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the feast proved fertile ground for riots and rebellion.
The earliest Christian community sprung from the Jewish community of Palestine, so the first Christians would have shared in the three great pilgrimage feasts of the Jews. In the New Testament, however, the Gospel writers are interested primarily in the Passover, the time that Jesus died and rose from the dead. All the Gospels mention the Passover and the crowds — presumably of pilgrims — in their Passion narratives. Luke, however, also mentions that Jesus’ “parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.” It was on one of these pilgrimages that Jesus became separated from his parents. Luke also mentions the Feast of Shevuot, Pentecost, in his account of the descent of the Holy Spirit in The Acts of the Apostles.
The Gospel of John uses the Jewish feasts as a type of framework for the ministry of Jesus. Three Feasts of the Passover appear in John’s Gospel (this was the origin for the ancient Christian calculation of a three-year ministry for Jesus). John also mentions the Feast of Sukkot/Tabernacles. In each instance, the feast functions as an opportunity for a major teaching of Jesus to be revealed.
While pilgrimage plays a secondary role to the story of Jesus in the New Testament, for Christians “the Holy Land” was and remains a place with strong spiritual attraction. Even as the Christian community separated itself more and more from its Jewish roots, Christians felt drawn to the place where Jesus lived, taught, died and rose from the dead. In addition, the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul, who were both martyred in Rome, provided a destination for pilgrims and inspired the faithful for almost two thousand years.
That inspiration expanded to include other areas that became centers of pilgrimage all over the Christian world. Places such as Canterbury in England and Campostella in Spain were famous as destinations for medieval pilgrims in the West. Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” relates the sometimes-bawdy stories of pilgrims on their way to visit the tomb of St. Thomas à Becket. In the Christian East, pilgrims flocked to shrines and monasteries. The famous 19th-century Russian work, “The Way of a Pilgrim,” recounts the journey of a pilgrim who practices ceaseless prayer.
During the Middle Ages, the Middle East once again became a place for pilgrimage for Latin pilgrims from the West, though ever-changing political realities and the dangers of travel made such journeys very difficult. The difficulty of pilgrimages to the Holy Land helped make them popular as penitential practices. Pilgrims were expected to be in a state of spiritual preparedness. Travelers underwent rituals of absolution and purification; they were often celibate for the duration of the pilgrimage and traveled unarmed and wore special garb.
Since the Baroque period in the Roman Catholic Church, new centers of pilgrimage have arisen that are associated with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Many of them are connected with apparitions, places such as Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima and Knock. In the East — especially since the unraveling of the Soviet Union — pilgrims flood the Holy Land, while the tombs of local saints, such as St. Charbel in Lebanon, draw thousands daily.
In Islam the ḥajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, is one of the Five Pillars of the faith. Every Muslim who is able is obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in his or her lifetime (Qur’an 3:98). While the ḥajj is a serious religious obligation for Muslims, those who are sick, handicapped or those who simply cannot afford it without serious detriment to their family are excused from making the pilgrimage. In some instances there is provision made for having a proxy make the hajj for someone who is unable to fulfill the obligation.
The pilgrimage to Mecca is far older than Islam. In the center of Mecca lies the “House” which enshrines the Kaʽba, a large cube-like structure that has drawn pilgrims from time immemorial. In one of the corners of the Ka’ba is set the “Black Stone,” which some believe is a meteorite, but that is not certain. Devout Muslims believe the stone dates to Adam and Eve and was dropped from heaven to indicate where they should build an altar and the first temple. The “House,” or sacred precinct, was considered to have been built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael. As the ancestor of all monotheists, Abraham naturally built the temple to the one God.
At the time of Muhammad, however, the sacred precinct also contained images of well over 300 deities. In pre-Islamic times, pilgrims would visit the shrine and walk around the Ka?ba, reverencing it and worshiping the many idols present. The time of pilgrimage was an important period for commerce, so violence was strictly forbidden. After years of conflict and negotiations, Muhammad entered Mecca with his troops on 10 January 630, went to the sacred precinct and destroyed its idols, rededicating it to the One God.
The Muslim calendar moves “backwards” through the solar year by about 12 days every year. The month of Dhul-Ḥajj in the Islamic calendar is the time set aside during which the obligatory pilgrimage must take place. To be sure, Muslims can make the ʽumra, the minor pilgrimage, at any time of the year. However, pilgrimages outside the time of the month of the ḥajj do not cover the obligation to make a pilgrimage once in one’s lifetime.
Upon arrival in Arabia, Muslims pilgrims make the intention to perform the ḥajj and to fulfill the obligation. When they reach the boundary of the pilgrimage area, they must enter the state of iḥrām. To enter this condition, the pilgrim must wash as if for prayer. Men then receive two large white sheets of cloth. One functions as a type of skirt and the other to cover the top of the body. Everyone making the ḥajj is dressed the same. The devout must not use perfume of any kind or cut their hair or nails and they must be celibate during the time of the pilgrimage. In addition, all kinds of violence and profanity are forbidden and even mundane thoughts are to be put aside. The pilgrim is to concentrate totally on being before God. At the end of the time of the pilgrimage, sacrifices are offered on ʽEid ul-Aḍḥā, the Feast of Sacrifice, after which people leave the condition of iḥrām — men often by shaving their heads — and return to normal life.
Performing pilgrimage is often a life-changing event for Muslims. It is intensely spiritual and bonds the pilgrim closer to his or her faith. Such an experience of pilgrimage is not limited to Muslims alone. Though Christians have much less organized rituals for pilgrimage, nevertheless the spiritual discipline, the sense of community and the focusing on God often have a profound effect on the believer. Jews who make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the first time, especially during time of Passover, often experience a deeply emotional and spiritual connection with their faith and history.
In an era when travel is far less dangerous than in the past, people still feel the urge to make pilgrimages. The Trappist monk M. Basil Pennington captured the mystery and allure of these journeys for the spiritual seeker when he wrote of his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land:
“The pilgrims continue to come. Only God knows what each one of us brings, and with what kind of heart….We know the mess we bring and the often distracted heart that brings it. But this is all we have — all we are. One stretches out his arms to receive.”