From earliest times, people have made special journeys to spots that were consecrated as "holy" or associated with a god, either for healing, a blessing or to fulfill a vow or spiritual obligation. The concept of a pilgrimage is still alive and well today, with literally millions of people leaving home each year to visit sites that hold deep meaning for them.
A "hajj" is the pilgrimage to the Ka'aba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which is mandatory for all able-bodied Muslims who can bear the expense. Preparations for a hajj begin during the Islamic months of Shawwal and Ze-Qa'd, when one prepares mentally and physically for the journey. The pilgrimage itself occurs for five days during the month of Dul-Hajj. Once in Mecca, there are prescribed prayers and rituals at different sites but the most important is the "istlam." This involves prostrating oneself and kissing or at least touching the Hajr-e-Aswad, or Black Stone, at the center of the Ka'aba. This is followed by "tawaaf," circling the Ka'aba seven times counterclockwise while saying specific prayers and performing istlam during the circuit.
The Ganges River
India's Ganges River is one of the most sacred places in the world for Hindus, who call it "Mother Ganges." Each morning, thousands of Hindus go to the Ganges, face the sun and pray. They will then set offerings of flowers or food or float small oil lamps on its surface. They then drink the water, cup some in their hands and pour it back as an offering to their ancestors. It is believed that bathing in the Ganges cleanses one of all sin and that the dead must be bathed in the Ganges in order for their souls to reach the next world.
Jerusalem is the most holy site in the world for Jews and Christians and holds importance for Muslims as well. Jews from all over the world travel to pray at the Western or "Wailing" Wall in the Old City, the last remaining vestige of the second Temple. The holiest site for Christians in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where it is believed Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. The Dome of the Rock, a mosque built on the Temple Mount, is also an important site for Muslims.
The Vatican in Rome, where St. Peter was martyred, is the home of the Pope and one of the holiest sites in the world for Roman Catholics. It contains St. Peter's Basilica; it is said that the body of Peter is buried below the altar. The Vatican is also a place of pilgrimage for art enthusiasts. Besides the famous works of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican contains many museums with some of the most exquisite architecture, paintings and sculptures in the world.
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