A pilgrim’s progress: Resources for reporting on religious journeys

Every year, nearly 2 million Muslims travel to Mecca and Medina for the hajj, one of Islam's core practices.

Every year, nearly 2 million pilgrims gather in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the hajj. This five-day pilgrimage is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for all Muslims who have the physical and financial ability to undertake it.

Pilgrims come from Indonesia, Russia, India, Cuba, Fiji, the United States, Nigeria and beyond — all dressed in plain white garments. Men wear seamless, unstitched clothing, and women, white dresses with headscarves. The idea is to dress plainly so as to mask any differences in wealth, origin and status. 

The pilgrimage is considered to be the fifth pillar of Islamic practice, along with the profession of faith, five daily prayers, charity and the fast of Ramadan.

Though the hajj may seem immense, its numbers pale in comparison to other mass movements of people who participate for religious purposes or as part of events with spiritual overtones like Kumbh Mela, the Karbala Walk, Chunyun or even Thanksgiving in the U.S.

For millennia, pilgrims have been visiting sites for renewal, connection and devotion. And today, the alluring power of pilgrimage endures with new generations of spiritual seekers and travelers setting out in search of something beyond their day-to-day.

This source guide provides background and resources to help you report on holy expeditions across the world, with a range of relevant stories and experts to reference along the way.

Between the miraculous and mundane, the margins and mainstream

Pilgrimage is generally defined as a journey with a religious purpose, often taken to a place of spiritual significance and involving certain rituals or paths.

More broadly, pilgrimage can be understood as any journey and its associated activities, undertaken by people to and from one or more places made meaningful by the pilgrims themselves. Though often associated with European Christianity and significant sacred shrines like Lourdes by some in the Global North, pilgrimage is also a key aspect of other faiths, as noted above, as well as trips to seemingly mundane places or movement to and from otherwise unexceptional locations.

While we might think of famous practices like the hajj in Saudi Arabia, Mount Kailash in Tibet or the Santiago de Compostela (the Way of St. James) in Spain, contemporary pilgrimage is not restricted to institutional religions. Some pagans and others with a focus on old religions (i.e., Reconstructionists or “Recons“) travel to lands where they believe gods originated or to ancient sites of significance. For example, a Greek Recon may go to Greece; Celtic practitioners to standing stones in the United Kingdom; heathens to Iceland; African traditionalists to significant sites in South Africa or Uganda.

Visits to nonreligious sites recently have become increasingly popular as a form of pilgrimage.  Large numbers of people find meaning traveling to memorials of suffering, pain and bloodshed like the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. There are also pilgrimages to places linked to pop culture icons like Elvis Presley, Susan B. AnthonySteve Prefontaine or Taylor Swift.

Those journeying to and from pilgrimage sites are also sometimes on the margins of official religious communities. Instead, their motivations for movement are linked to personal spiritual trajectories, frequently with little or nothing to do with institutionalized religion.

Far from removing people from the world, pilgrimage is all about places in the world. Although associated with the extraordinary and faraway, pilgrimage sites can be local and surprisingly unremarkable. What matters is context and the meaning people give to such locales. Though sites of pilgrimage are treated as places of spiritual magnetism or where something extraordinary is said to have happened, the particular physical location — and the meaning made by rituals around, or travels to, it — is of paramount importance. Reporters should take note.

Pilgrims frequently journey with the expectation of miracles or receiving spiritual blessings from contact with significant religious figures, symbols and artifacts (e.g., relics or icons). Or they expect the travel itself will provide some transcendent benefit. Even so, pilgrims’ progress and practices are intimately tied up with the worldly dynamics of tourism, local economies and the embodied experience of bumping up against fellow pilgrims with blood, sweat and tears along the way.

Pilgrimage can also have powerful political overtones. For example, the disputed site of Marian pilgrimage in Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is suffused with symbols of Croat nationalism, featuring prayer beads in national colors and Mary set against the backdrop of a Croatian national flag on everything from pillows to pillboxes. Still, despite its contentious place in the civil war of the 1990s and ongoing tensions in the Balkans, Medjugorje has become a huge draw for pilgrims attracted to its calls for peace and the renewal of faith along with prophecies of divine intervention.

Other pilgrimages such as the hajj become playgrounds for political football, with nation-states and power brokers fighting over everything from logistics and management to the miracles and blessing associated with a sacred site.

For more on the various kinds of pilgrimage in the modern world and how we can better understand these spiritual journeys as a very human act of meaning-making and political self-fashioning, dig deeper with the resources below:



And more … 

Popular pilgrimages around the world

Wherever in the world people are journeying, the one thing that remains constant in pilgrimage is the importance of place. Below is a brief overview, by tradition, of prominent — and lesser known — sites of pilgrimage across the globe along with some recent and relevant news stories.

Bahá’í — The central religious text in the Bahá’í tradition (the Kitáb-i-Aqdas) commends all Bahá’ís who are able to make pilgrimage to one of the two “Great Houses” (the House of the Báb in Shiraz, Iran, and the House of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdad). Today, many Bahá’ís make a nine-day pilgrimage at the invitation of the Supreme Body of the Bahá’í Faith, the Universal House of Justice, to sites in and around the cities of Haifa, Acre and Bahjí in Israel.

Buddhist traditions — While some say Buddhism is itself a pilgrimage, founded in the mobile, ascetic and path-focused teachings of the Buddha himself. Beyond this, there are four principal Buddhist pilgrimage sites, all related to significant events in the Buddha’s life and spiritual journey: Lumbini, Nepal (the Buddha’s birthplace), the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya, India (associated with Buddha’s enlightenment), Sarnath, India (where Buddha first taught his followers) and Kushinagar, India (the place of the Buddha’s death).

Catholicism — Catholics have long been urged to undertake journeys to ask for supernatural aid, venerate a saint or holy figure or discharge a religious obligation. From the earliest days, pilgrimages were made to the Holy Land in Palestine or to Rome. During the Middle Ages pilgrimages were imposed as penance. Now, famous shrines such as Lourdes in France, Fátima in Portugal and Guadalupe in Mexico draw millions each year. Other significant sites include the Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Madjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Martyrs Shrine in Uganda, Chimayo in New Mexico and Quiapo Church in the Philippines.

Hindu traditions — Devotion is the heartbeat of many Hindu traditions, and pilgrimage to temples and shrines manifests as another way that devotees demonstrate their commitment to gods and goddesses. Pilgrimage not only involves commitment to a deity, but to the wider community through charity work, listening to a guru’s sermons and meditating with a guru’s followers. There is also an emerging trend of combining pilgrimage with other types of travel, such as sightseeing or visiting theme parks. At no time is the pulse of Hindu devotion stronger than during Kumbh Mela, one of the largest human gatherings in the world. Kumbh Mela brings millions of Hindus to one of four riverbanks to dip in what they believe to be sacred waters, in Prayagraj (formerly known as Allahabad), Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain. India is dotted with numerous other hallowed sites, linked with particular deities and drawing their respective devotees, who might endeavor to visit each site associated with the deity they are devoted to.

Indigenous traditions — Movement across traditional territories to sacred places has long been central to Indigenous thought and practice. Significant locales are often linked to a web of connections that include local ecosystems, extended kin and other living beings (both human and nonhuman). Indigenous pilgrimages, while diverse, are inherently relational wherein spaces and places tell the story of a particular Indigenous nation or people and their long-standing connections to land and water. Sites in the U.S. are numerous, ranging from the Blackfoot aboriginal people’s Sweet Grass Hills in Montana to the four sacred mountains along the boundaries of the Navajo nation or Mount Baboquivari in southern Arizona, which is sacred to the Tohono O’odham people.

Islam — Beyond the hajj (and the nonobligatory pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, known as Umrah), Muslims engage in a number of pilgrimages to sacred sites and shrines across the world. Each year, millions of Mouride Muslims travel to Touba, Senegal — known as “Africa’s Mecca” — to pay homage to the Sufi movement’s founder, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba. In East Java, Indonesia, Muslims engage in numerous nonhajj pilgrimages, including to Mount Kawi and gravesites like that of Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid, former president and religious leader). Then there is the Arba’een Pilgrimage, or Karbala Walk, one of the world’s largest annual public gatherings, in Karbala, Iraq. Held at the end of the 40-day mourning period known as Ashura, the ritual commemorates the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad — Husayn ibn Ali.

Jainism — Pilgrimage is an important part of Jain spirituality and a village near Patna, India, where the Jain teacher Mahavira (regarded as the person who gave Jainism its present-day form) died is a central site in this tradition. Jains also visit significant temple complexes and mountaintop shrines and attend the bathing of large statues, which is considered an act of devotion and consecration.

JudaismAccording to the Hebrew scriptures, there are three pilgrimage festivals that commemorate agricultural transitions and historical events: PassoverShavuot, and Sukkot. Beyond these biblical pilgrimages, Jewish and other travelers also visit Jerusalem and Israel to visit tombs of Talmudic and cabbalistic sages or sites dedicated to saints. Most famous among these is Meron where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is entombed. It is the site of an annual mass commemoration known as Lag Ba’Omer, where in April 2021 45 people were crushed to death. Additionally, significant sites in the Jewish diaspora also have become sites of pilgrimage including the ancient El Ghriba Synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, where six people recently were killed by a Tunisian naval guard in May 2023. Other small Jewish towns and villages in eastern Europe (known as shtetl routes) or pogrom and Holocaust memorials in Central Europe also serve as significant pilgrimage sites.

Protestantism — Although pilgrimage was formally rejected as a practice of piety by Protestant reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants make numerous journeys to sacred sites across the globe — whether that’s a trip to the Holy Land in Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt or to “Luther Country” to follow in the footsteps of the reformer Martin Luther in central Germany. Other sites are associated with significant teachers or moments in Protestant history, include the Puritan Heritage Sites of Plymouth, Massachusetts; the Old Quaker Meetinghouse in Flushing, New York; or Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Secular (and the “spiritual but not religious”) — As Mary Kavanaugh of CNN wrote, “Pilgrimages aren’t only for the religious.” Not only can nonreligious individuals enjoy the sights, sounds and spiritual intimations of traditional routes like the Camino de Santiago, they have also taken up their own pilgrimages, including visits to memorials commemorating the dead (e.g., the war graves of Flanders and northern France or the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.), journeys through America’s national parks or climate pilgrimages.

Sikhi – Pilgrimage is not compulsory for Sikhs, but many visit important sites in India and the Punjab, where Sikhi first emerged. The most famous sites include the Harmandir Sahib (or Golden Temple) in Amritsar, India. Each year, thousands of Sikhs also visit the birthplace of Guru Nanak at Nankana Sahib, Pakistan. Beyond providing time and space for spiritual reflection and learning more about the history of Sikhi and the Gurus’ lives, pilgrimage is also an opportunity for Vand Chhakna and sewa, ritual charity and loving service.

Reporting tips and ideas

As suggested above, there are numerous angles to cover when it comes to popular pilgrimages. Here’s a short list of tips and ideas to prompt your next story:

  • commoditization and consumerism;
  • media representations of religion, travel and tourism;
  • heritage, tourism and the cultural politics of religious representation;
  • gender, sexuality and religious movements;
  • religion and travel writing;
  • ideological and violent struggles over religion and resistance to intrusion from outsiders;
  • interreligious engagement;
  • religion, tourism, landscape and ecological concerns;
  • pilgrimage to sites of suffering;
  • digitalization and the development of virtual pilgrimage.

Experts and sources

  • Miguel Astor-Aguilera

    Miguel Astor-Aguilera is a professor at Arizona State University whose scholarship concentrates on religious studies, sociocultural anthropology, ethnography, material culture and archaeology focusing on Indigenous epistemologies within Latin America.

  • Anne E. Bailey

    Anne E. Bailey is a medievalist, pilgrimage enthusiast and researcher at Oxford University who writes about saints, relics, shrines and pilgrims.

  • Kathryn Barush

    Kathryn Barush is an assistant professor of art history and religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, where she studies art and the material culture of pilgrimage, domestic and urban shrines, sacred art and sacred space, and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the visual arts.

  • Marion Bowman

    Marion Bowman is a senior lecturer in religious studies at The Open University in England. She studies people on the edges of and outside organized religion, with a particular interest in nontraditional pilgrimage.

  • Saffet Abid Catovic

    Saffet Abid Catovic is a Muslim environmental leader. He co-founded Green Muslims of New Jersey and helped launch the Islamic Society of North America’s Green Masjid Task Force. In 2018, he shared his efforts to offset the carbon footprint of his pilgrimage to Mecca with Sojourners. Imam Catovic serves as Washington office director for the Islamic Society of North America. He earned a master’s in religion and society from Drew University, specializing in religion and the environment.

  • Simon Coleman

    Simon Coleman is professor of religion at the University of Toronto. Coleman’s research focuses on Christian pilgrimage, Pentecostalism and religion in urban contexts in places as diverse as Sweden, England and Nigeria.

  • Carole M. Cusack

    Carole M. Cusack is professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. Trained as a medievalist, Cusack has taught about contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture since the 1990s.

  • Michael A. Di Giovine

    Michael A. Di Giovine is professor of anthropology at West Chester University and director of its Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. His research in Italy and Southeast Asia lies at the intersection of global mobilities (tourism/pilgrimage and immigration), heritage, development, foodways and comparative religious movements.

  • John Eade

    John Eade is professor of sociology and anthropology at University of Roehampton. He has researched the Islamization of urban space, globalization and the global city, British Bangladeshi identity politics, and travel and pilgrimage.

  • Russ Eanes

    Russ Eanes is a writer, walker and cyclist from Harrisonburg, Virginia, a freelance publishing consultant and a travel coach and guide. He has written books on pilgrimage in Spain and Italy.

  • Paul Elie

    Paul Elie is a senior fellow with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and director of the American Pilgrimage Project. He is an expert on religion in literature, the arts and media. He is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a group portrait of the Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.

  • Peyman Eshaghi

    Peyman Eshaghi is an anthropologist and sociologist of religion with the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, Freie Universität Berlin. He co-edited the book with Muslim Pilgrimage in the Modern World with Babak Rahimi. 

  • Ruth Everhart

    Ruth Everhart is a pastor, author and speaker in Leesburg, Virginia. She has written three books, including Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land, a spiritual travel memoir.

  • Kathryn Hurlock

    Kathryn Hurlock is a reader in medieval history at Manchester Metropolitan University, specializing in medieval British history, aspects of warfare and the history of pilgrimage in Britain and Europe from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

  • James Lochtefeld

    James Lochtefeld is a professor of religion and Asian studies at Carthage College, who specializes in Hindu pilgrimage. His book God’s Gateway (2009) is about the north Indian pilgrimage city of Hardwar.

  • Vasudha Narayanan

    Vasudha Narayanan is Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and she helped found the university’s Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions, of which she is director. She is a noted scholar of Hinduism and the environment.

  • Antón M. Pazos

    Antón M. Pazos is a historian and theologian at the Instituto de Estudios Gallegos Padre Sarmiento in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. His research has centered on the contemporary religious history of Spain and America, including pilgrimage in both places.

  • William Powell

    William Powell is an emeritus professor of Chinese religions and Buddhist studies in the department of East Asian languages and cultural studies and the department of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was trained in the philological methods of Buddhist studies. His work focuses on the relationship between Chinese Buddhism, pilgrimage and sacred space, particularly mountains.

  • S. Brent Plate

    S. Brent Plate is a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He has written about religion, art and visual culture. Religions, he notes, discuss the creation of the world, and films work on re-creating the world. He’s interested in how film has “come down” off the screen and infiltrated rituals. His books include A History of Religion in 5-1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses; Religion and Film; The Religion and Film Reader; Blasphemy: Art That Offends; Re-Viewing the Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics; and Representing Religion in World Cinema.

  • Leela Prasad

    Leela Prasad is a religion professor at Duke University, whose work focuses on South Asia, Hindu worlds, gender, colonialism & decoloniality, prison pedagogy & Gandhi, and religion & modernity. She has written on Hindu pilgrimage in South India.

  • Babak Rahimi

    Babak Rahimi is director of the Third World Studies Program and associate professor of communication, culture and religion at the University of California San Diego. He co-edited the book with Muslim Pilgrimage in the Modern World with Peyman Eshaghi.

  • Ian Reader

    Ian Reader is professor emeritus at the University of Manchester. His prime areas of research are on religious dynamics in the contemporary world, with a special focus on Japan, on pilgrimage and on the links between religion and violence.

  • Kathryn Rountree

    Kathryn Rountree is professor of anthropology at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. She has published on contemporary paganism in Malta and New Zealand, feminist spirituality, animism, pilgrimage, embodiment and the contestation of sacred sites. Her books include Embracing the Witch and the Goddess: Feminist Ritual-makers in New Zealand and Crafting Contemporary Pagan Identities in a Catholic Society, and the co-edited Archaeology of Spiritualities.

  • Terri Lynn Simpson

    Terri Lynn Simpson is the founder of Anam Cara Retreats, which focuses on Celtic spirituality. She brings many of her retreats to women’s groups on the East Coast. She has also been a program consultant and coordinator at the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

  • Holly Walters

    Holly Walters is a cultural anthropologist, novelist and lecturer in anthropology and religion at Wellesley College. She is the author of Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas as well as multiple articles on ritual and divine personhood in South Asia.

  • Heather A. Warfield

    Heather A. Warfield is a professor at Antioch University New England. After a career as a mental health therapist, she pursued research on the therapeutic value of pilgrimages. In the decade since, she has delved further into what motivates people to go on pilgrimages, the stories pilgrims share and the meaning pilgrims create from their journeys.

  • Deana Weibel

    Deana Weibel is an anthropology professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She has performed research in the French shrine towns of Lourdes and Rocamadour, on veneration of Black Madonnas, pilgrimage to space and the competition between pilgrimage and tourism.

  • Heinz Werner Wessler

    Heinz Werner Wessler is a professor of Indology at Uppsala University in Sweden. He focuses on Hindi and Urdu languages, cultural history, as well as religion and society in India and Pakistan.

  • M. Shobhana Xavier

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