There are literally hundreds of thousands of churches, cathedrals, synagogues, and sacred Jewish and Christian shrines to be found all over the world. Of these, hundreds, if not thousands, are of particular religious and/or historic importance. But are there seven that stand out above all of the rest? Well, sort of. The most important sacred sites of both religions can be found in the Holy Land, while the seats of the largest Christian denominations are scattered around the world, mostly in Europe. Here is The Complete Pilgrim’s pick of the Seven Must-See Edifices of Judeo-Christianity.
Web: https://thekotel.org (Western Wall Heritage Foundation website)
The Temple Mount, specifically the Western Wall, is the most sacred place on Earth for the Jewish people. An enormous retaining wall constructed by Herod the Great in the 1st century BCE, it is believed that this is the closest point to the former location of the Second Temple without actually ascending the Temple Mount. Although it is possible to get closer to the suspected location, particularly religious Jews will generally avoid walking on the Temple Mount for fear of accidentally stepping on the section that once contained the Holy of Holies.
The first great Temple was built here by Solomon in the 10th century BCE, destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, rebuilt in the 5th century BCE and greatly expanded in the days of Herod the Great. Unfortunately the Second Temple was laid waste by the Romans in 70 CE and Jewish worship there ceased. In the two thousand years since then the Western Wall has been revered by the Jewish people. Today it is the most popular destination of Jewish pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.
The Western Wall is not the only surviving part of Herod’s retaining wall, but it is the most famous. Jews and other pilgrims come here from all over the world to pray and weep tears of ecstasy. The plaza in front of the wall is designated as a synagogue, and there are separate worship areas for males and females. Those who do choose to ascend and visit the Temple Mount will not find a temple but rather a pair of medieval mosques. For those who are interested there is also a tunnel system that runs beneath the Temple Mount which can be visited by tour.
CAVE OF THE PATRIARCHS
Hebron, West Bank
Web: www.hebronfund.org/cave-machpelah-overview (The Hebron Fund website)
The Cave of the Patriarchs was among the earliest places of pilgrimage for the ancient Israelites, and possibly the oldest major shrine of the Abrahamic faiths. According to tradition that dates back thousands of years, it is the place where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are buried along with some of their wives. For many Jews it is the second most sacred site after the Western Wall in Jerusalem. While the shrine above the cave was built at a much later period, it still dates back to the days of Herod the Great, making it the Holy Land’s most enduring shrine.
According to the Torah, Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite for four hundred silver shekels. It was originally intended for the burial of his wife Sarah, but over the next century it became a family tomb. After the Bar Khokba Revolt in the 2nd century CE Hebron and the Cave of Machpelah changed hands numerous times. Each subsequent conqueror apparently treated the site with reverence, and unlike virtually all other shrines in the Holy Land, the structure has remained mostly intact for the better part of two thousand years.
The Cave of the Patriarchs consists of the Roman era shrine above and two caves below. The construction style is similar to major projects of the Herodian period, and the exterior appears much the same today as it did two thousand years ago. The interior of the shrine is divided into two halves, a mosque and a synagogue. A cenotaph honoring Isaac and Rebecca is in the mosque, and a cenotaph honoring Jacob and Leah is in the synagogue. The cenotaph of Abraham and Sarah is incorporated into the divider and can be seen from either side. According to tradition the actual bodies are buried beneath the shrine in the caves.
CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY
Bethlehem, West Bank
Web: www.custodia.org/en/sanctuaries/bethlehem (official Catholic website)
The Church of the Nativity stands on the traditional site of the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and is generally regarded as Christianity’s second holiest site. The current structure dates in large part to the 6th century and is one of the oldest churches still in use in the world. Like the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity is overseen by several major denominations in a complex arrangement that dates back centuries. For many Christians it is the penultimate Christmas pilgrimage destination.
During the reign of Caesar Augustus, sometime around the year 4 BC, Mary and Joseph were required to travel to Bethlehem in order to register for the imperial census. What followed is probably the single most famous narrative in the New Testament: The Nativity of Jesus. There is no way today to tell with any certainty exactly where the famous manger once stood. However, when Helena arrived in the Holy Land in the 4th century looking for holy places upon which to construct shrines, the local Christians showed her exactly where to build. This first church survived until 529 when it was destroyed in the Samaritan Revolt. It was replaced by a new church based on the original plans and has remained standing ever since.
The Church of the Nativity consists of the main church structure above and the grottoes below, as well as the adjoining St. Catherine’s Church. The main church is entered through the tiny Door of Humility, so called because it forces all those entering to bend over low. The interior mostly dates from the Byzantine period, with many embellishments added later, including an oak ceiling donated by King Edward IV of England. A mosaic of the Three Wise Men is the shrine’s most famous piece of art. Legend has it that this decoration saved the Church from demolition by the Persians. The main attraction is the Grotto of the Nativity located beneath the Church. Inside, a fourteen-pointed star, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem and the Stations of the Cross, marks the traditional place where Jesus was born.
CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE
Web: www.custodia.org/en/sancutaries/holy-sepulchre (official Catholic website)
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, for the vast majority of the world’s Christians, the most sacred place on Earth. Contained within its walls are the final Stations of the Cross, including the traditional locations where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and where he was buried. Millions of Christians from around the world flood into Jerusalem’s Old City every year for the chance to worship in this church. Jointly overseen by the Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian churches, it is held in trust for Christians of every denomination.
After the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, a new interest was taken in its holy places. The greatest and most important of these, without question, was the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church was largely destroyed during the early years of Islamic rule but rebuilt by Crusaders in the Middle Ages. Today, Christians of all denominations are now free to visit the Holy Sepulchre year-round. After centuries of squabbling, an agreement known as the Status Quo was reached in the 18th century. The Supulchre is now under the joint jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church, all of whom have a sitting patriarch in Jerusalem.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre dominates what is believed by many to be the ancient hill of Golgotha. A huge structure crowned with a massive dome, the true size of the church is difficult to ascertain from the outside due to its strange layout and the crowding of nearby buildings, not to mention its relatively humble entrance. The church interior is a magnificent labyrinth of chapels, halls and rooms decorated with a wealth of artifacts and artwork that reflect numerous contributions over many centuries. Most of the points of interest are directly related to Christ’s death, including the last five of the fourteen Stations of the Cross. The highlight of the church is the Holy Sepulcher itself, where Jesus was laid to rest in the donated tomb. The Sepulcher consists of an enclosed stone shrine located directly beneath the great dome.
Web: https://ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/en (official website)
The Hagia Sophia of Istanbul is the greatest surviving church of antiquity. It is also one of the most spectacular buildings of the ancient world that has survived mostly intact to the present day. Constructed by the Byzantine Empire at its height in the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia became one of five Patriarchal seats of the church, and for a time was the greatest of these. After the Great Schism, the Hagia Sophia was revered as the mother church of all Eastern Christians. Although it has now been reverted to use as a mosque, the Hagia Sofia remains Orthodox Christianity’s spiritual heart.
In the early 6th century, the emperor Justinian I decided to build a monumental new church as a symbol of the imperial capital. This church, the Hagia Sophia, was the largest and most spectacular that had yet been constructed. For nearly a thousand years Constantinople remained the capital of the Greek Orthodox world, and the Hagia Sophia its chief church. However, in 1453, the Turks conquered the city, and the Hagia Sophia was appropriated and put to use as a mosque. It remained so until the early 20th century, when it was neutralized by the Turkish government and repurposed as a museum.
The Hagia Sophia of Istanbul is the greatest surviving example of Byzantine architecture. The staggered walls give the outer structure an almost stepped appearance crowned by a great dome with a golden spire. Four towering white minarets were added to the complex in the 15th century after the Hagia Sofia was converted to use as a mosque. The interior of the church is decorated in marble pillaged from throughout the empire. One of the most striking features of the Hagia Sophia is the large number of windows in the place. Few other churches built in the early Middle Ages boasted such an abundance of natural light.
Web: www.vaticanstate.va/content/vaticanstate/en/monument/basilica-di-s-pietro (official website)
St. Peter’s Basilica is the great cathedral of Vatican City, the world’s smallest sovereign state, and the seat of the Papacy of the Roman Catholic Church. During the Middle Ages the site of Peter’s martyrdom and burial became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Europe. This shrine of Peter, which dominates the tiny enclave, draws millions of Catholic pilgrims to Rome every year. It is one of the seven ancient pilgrimage churches of Rome, one of the five Patriarchal Basilicas (representing Constantinople) and one of only four cathedrals in the world to bear the title of Basilica Major.
Even from the earliest days of the Church, the symbolic importance of Peter’s gravesite was recognized by the Christians of Rome. Shortly after Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in the 4th century, a huge church was constructed over the site. Now known as Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, it stood for over twelve centuries. In the year 800, Charlemagne accepted the title of Holy Roman Emperor from the Pope here. By the time the Crusades were underway, Old Saint Peter’s Basilica was showing signs of its age. During the 1400s it was decided that old St. Peter’s would be torn down and completely rebuilt. In 1626 the new Basilica of St. Peter was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII. Today it is among the most visited churches on Earth, not only by Catholics but by Christians of every denomination.
St. Peter’s Basilica is the grand champion of all of the world’s churches in terms of size and splendor. In front of the Basilica is the immense St. Peter’s Plaza, circumscribed by a massive colonnade and crowned with the statues of a hundred and forty saints. The interior is an unparalleled work of art. Every inch of the massive sanctuary is overwhelming, from the extensive marble work to the soaring columns to the gilt archways and ceilings. Among the artisans who contributed to its completion were Michaelangelo, who oversaw much of the construction, including the great dome; and Bernini, who designed some of the basilica’s greatest interior elements. Beneath the altar and sanctuary, in the Vatican Grotto, St. Peter is buried along with ninety-one Popes and some other historic Church figures.
Web: www.canterbury-cathedral.org (official website)
Canterbury Cathedral is the seat of the Church of England and, for most of the Middle Ages, it was also England’s greatest pilgrimage shrine. Canterbury Cathedral houses some of England’s oldest Christian treasures, including the relic of St. Thomas Becket, a 12th century champion of the separation of church and state. While the hordes of Chaucer emulating pilgrims to Canterbury are long gone, many tourists still visit every year to see this most beloved of English religious sites.
Canterbury and its great cathedral enjoy one of the longest and greatest traditions of pilgrimage in Northern Europe. In 597 Augustine of Canterbury was sent to England by the Church in order to see it through the dark times of the early Saxon occupation. A local church was made available for his use, and he soon began the work of converting it into a cathedral. For centuries Canterbury Cathedral was England’s most important religious center. When Henry VIII declared England’s independence from Rome in the 16th century, authority of the new Church was vested in the Archbishop of Canterbury. Virtually overnight, Canterbury found itself at the center of one of the world’s largest Christian denominations. Today Canterbury Cathedral is one of England’s most important Christian holy sites.
Canterbury Cathedral is a sprawling Gothic building that was largely completed in 1077. The overall design features an atypical cross-shaped layout, with what is effectively a second transept. Its lofty design and intricately detailed exterior masonry suggest something other than Gothic. Canterbury Cathedral’s interior features high vaulted ceilings supported by great pillars. However, its extensive lighting and numerous windows give it a much lighter feel then typical of the period. The main site of interest is the Tomb of Thomas Becket. A marble plaque identifies the location where the saint was murdered. Thomas Becket’s body lies under a simple stone slab that is merely labeled ‘Thomas’ in large red letters.