On the Road to Enlightenment: 7 of the World's Most Historic Pilgrimage Routes
Embark on a journey through time and faith as we explore the world's most renowned pilgrimage routes. From the scenic trails of Japan to the spiritual heart of Mecca, these routes have been walked by millions of people over the centuries, each seeking to connect with their beliefs and culture. For centuries these routes have offered not only a chance for spiritual fulfillment but also an opportunity to discover new places, meet new people, and push the limits of the physical and mental self. Each pilgrimage has its own rich history and cultural significance.
The Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James in English) is an ancient pilgrimage route in Spain that Christians have been using for over a thousand years. It is a network of routes that all lead to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwestern Spain, where it is believed his remains rest.
The route’s history stretches back to pre-Christian history. The pilgrimage as we know it today follows an early Roman trade route that continues past Galicia to Cape Finisterre. The earliest records of the route being used for pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela are from the 9th century AD during the Kingdom of Asturias.
The pilgrimage soon became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage for Christians. Those who completed the journey carried back with them a Galician scallop shell as proof that they had completed the trip. This practice led to the scallop shell becoming the badge of a pilgrim.
It is no wonder people felt the need to take proof with them. For example, the most popular and traditional route the Camino Frances which starts in the French city of St. Jean Pied de Port covers over 780 km (485 miles). The pilgrimage often took months or even years for some pilgrims to complete. Those who did finish the pilgrimage often arrived at the shrine with very little, due to illness, robbery, or both. Over time this became such a problem that the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela came under the protection of the kingdom of France (where most Pilgrims came from). Industrious Frenchmen settled in towns along the route where they would offer pilgrim aid, making a name for themselves.
Today, the Camino de Santiago is still a popular pilgrimage route amongst Christians. It is seen as a way to disconnect from daily life and find inner peace.
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The Kumano Kodo, Japan
The Kumano Kodo is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes that crisscross Japan’s largest peninsula, the Kii Hanto. The routes have been used for more than a thousand years by the worshippers of the indigenous Shinto religion, as well as Buddhists.
The trails lead to the sacred sites known as the “Kumano Sanzan” or “Three Grand Shrines of Kumano”: Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisaha, and Hayatama Taisha. The routes also lead to other important sites such as the Kumano Hongu Taisha, which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Nachi-no-Taki, which is Japan's tallest waterfall.
The Kumano Kudo is split into three different sub-routes: Kijiji, Kohechi, and Isejii. The Kijiji route travels along the west coast of the peninsula and terminates in the city of Taraba where it splits into two more sub-routes: Nakahechi and Ohechi.
Historically the Nakahechi route was the most popular route amongst pilgrims coming from Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. Records of this route being used date back to the early 10th century.
Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route Daimon-zaka World heritage. Nekosuki. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Kohechi route is the shortest of the three and links Koyasan to the Kumano Sanzan. This route is ‘only’ 70 km (43.5 miles) long but is often described as the most difficult, as it covers three passes of over 1000 meters (3280 ft) elevation gain.
Finally, the Iseji route links the Ise Grand Shrine to the Kumano Sanzan. It is a slightly later addition and didn’t become widely used until the 17th century.
The Jumano Kodo is a unique experience that offers a glimpse into Japan’s rich spiritual history. As people from different religious backgrounds historically used the routes, they are marked by mixed religious symbolism. The path is also surrounded by beautiful nature and the routes pass through deep forests, over steep mountain passes, and along stunning seashores. All of this makes the Kumano Kudo one of the most beautiful pilgrimages in the world.
The Inca Trail, Peru
Dating back to the 15th century the Inca Trail is an ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the sacred city of Machu Picchu in Peru. It was believed that Machu Picchu was a place of great spiritual power, and the city was used for religious ceremonies as well as being the site of emperor Pachacuti’s royal estate.
Phuyupatamarka on the Inca Trail near Machu Picchu, Peru (Public Domain)
The trail consists of three trails that overlap: the Mollepata, Classic, and One Day trails. The Mollepata is the longest and most difficult of the trails. It passes through the Andes mountain range and features cloud forests and alpine tundra environs.
Today, the trail is popular with hikers. Those who undertake the trail can see Inca ruins and archaeological sites like the Inca citadel of Llactapata, and the Intipunku (also known as the Sun Gate). The trail is so popular that it has led to fear that its overuse is leading to erosion. Today the number of hikers allowed to walk the trail is limited per season and only 500 people are allowed per day.
St. Olav’s Way
St. Olav’s Way, also known as the Pilgrim’s route is a network of pilgrimage routes that lead to the Nidaros Cathedral located in Trondheim, Norway. The routes have been used for over a thousand years by Christians from all over Norway and other countries to visit the remains of Norway’s medieval king Saint Olav, located at the Cathedral.
St. Olav’s Cathedral in Norway. (Grzegorz Wysocki/CC BY 3.0)
The most popular and traditional route is the Pilgrimsleden (Pilgrim’s Path) which starts in the Swedish city of Selanger and covers around 770 km (480 miles) of the Norwegian countryside. In the years before the reformation, the route was so popular with pilgrims that mountain stations known as fjellstue were built. These kept pilgrims safe and were used to provide them with food and shelter.
Following the arrival of the railroad, the Pilgrim’s Route fell into disuse for many years. It has seen a resurgence in recent years, however, long abandoned by pilgrims, the route is now popular with long-distance hikers. Passing through idyllic towns and villages like Lillehammer, Roros, and Steinkjer the route is a great way to explore Norway and connect with its cultural and spiritual history.
The Via Francigena
The Via Francigena is a medieval pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint Peter in Rome. Of all the ancient Christian pilgrimage routes, the Via Francigena is one of the longest. It begins in Canterbury England and covers over 1200 km (746 miles), passing through France, Switzerland, and Italy.
St. Peter´s Basilica, destination of the Via Francigena. (Public Domain)
The Via Francigena was a popular pilgrimage route during the Middle Ages and was used by thousands of people from all over Europe, especially by those from the North. The first recorded mention of the route appears in the Itinerarium sancti Willibaldi of 725 AD where it was documented as the “Lombard Way”.
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Records show several important historical figures used the route. At the end of the 10th century, Sigeric the Serious (the then Archbishop of Canterbury) used the route to receive his pallium in Rome. In 880 the Welsh king Rhodri Mawr used the route to visit Rome, as did his grandson, Hywel Dda, in 945.
The route fell into disuse during the Renaissance but was rediscovered in the late 20th century, which led to it being restored and marked for use by modern-day pilgrims. It is once again a popular pilgrimage route amongst European Christians and is considered one of the most historically and culturally significant pilgrimage routes in Europe.
The Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage
Most pilgrimage routes tend to go from point A to point B, but the Shikoku Temple pilgrimage is different. It’s a circuit of 88 temples all located on the island of Shikoku, Japan.
The pilgrimage follows the path of the famous Buddhist monk, Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), who is said to have founded many of the 88 temples during the 9th century. The pilgrimage is considered one of the most important in Japan and is seen as a spiritual journey by many Japanese Buddhists.
Temple 1 of the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage. (Public Domain)
The route itself covers over 1200 km (746 miles). Traditionally the pilgrimage was completed on foot but these days many pilgrims prefer to complete it by bicycle or even bus. To complete the pilgrimage, pilgrims must journey through Shikoku’s four provinces: Awa, Tosa, Iyo, and Sanuki.
Visiting the temples is likened to a symbolic path to enlightenment. Temples 1-23 represent the idea of awakening, 24-39 represent austerity and discipline, and 66-88 represent entering nirvana.
At each temple, the pilgrim (known as a henro) must wash before entering the Hondo (main temple). There they offer coins and incense and chant the ‘Heart Sutra’, the most common sutra of East Asian Buddhism. They then continue to the shrine of Kobo Daishi where they once again make offerings and chant the Heart Sutra.
Today the route is not only popular with Buddhist tourists. It is recognized as a great way for tourists to explore the island of Shikoku, learn about the area's rich history, and immerse themselves in Japanese culture. Some people choose to do all 88 temples in one sitting while others return year after year, completing it bit by bit.
The Hajj, Mecca, Saudi Arabia
No list of pilgrimages would be complete without one of the most well-known and frequently carried out to this day, the Hajj. The Hajj is an annual pilgrimage carried out by Muslims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The Hajj takes place every year. Muslims must take part at least once in their lifetime. (Public Domain)
The Hajj is vitally important to followers of Islam and is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (important cornerstones of the Islamic faith). Every Muslim is expected to complete the Hajj at least once in their lifetime (as long as they are financially and physically capable of doing so).
While the present Hajj is believed to date back to early Islamic times, its origins go back much further. Muslims are taught that the Hajj originated in the time of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his family, making it one of the oldest religious practices in the world.
According to Islamic tradition, Ibrahim was commanded by Allah to leave his wife, Hajar, and son, Isma’il (Ishmael), in the desert of Arabia near the present-day city of Mecca.
Their supplies quickly ran out and Hajar ordered her son to find help. He ran back and forth seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah. Eventually, the angel Jibril (Gabriel) came to the son’s aid and formed the well of Zamzam. Later on, Ibrahim was instructed by God to build the Kaaba, a simple stone structure that Muslims believe was one of the first houses of worship for God.
This story inspired the Islamic prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to carry out the first Hajj in 629 AD. During this first Islamic Hajj, he established the rituals that are still followed to this day such as the Tawaf and Sa’i.
In the centuries following Muhammad’s death, the Islamic empire expanded and the Hajj continued to be a major event. It also became increasingly organized and regulated by the Islamic authorities.
Today the Hajj is regulated by the Saudi government which sets quotas for how many Muslims from each country may undertake the pilgrimage. It is one of the largest annual gatherings of people in the world and brings together Muslims from all over the globe, regardless of race, ethnicity, or social status.
Pilgrimage routes have been a significant part of human history and spiritual practices around the globe since the earliest days of religion. From the Camino de Santiago in Spain to Hajj in Mecca, these routes continue to provide believers with an opportunity to connect with their faith and culture while also offering a chance for personal growth and reflection.
But these routes also have value to followers of other faiths and non-believers. They hold great historical, cultural, and spiritual significance. Undertaking parts of or even the entirety of these routes is a great way to learn about and connect with other cultures and their histories.
Top image: Road to Santiago de Compostela way. Source: Public Domain
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Toro. M. The Camino de Santiago. Google Arts and Culture. Available at: https://artsandculture.google.com/story/the-camino-de-santiago-cathedral-of-santiago-de-compostela/OAWBDrH9T-6yKQ?hl=en