Pilgrimage: A trip beyond travel, a purpose beyond pleasure

In his beautifully realized book, “Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning,” Peter Stanford explores 12 ancient sites that attract searchers after wisdom.

Thames & Hudson
"Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning" by Peter Stanford, Thames & Hudson, 304 pp.

“Pilgrimage is a word that should be used with care, not thrown around lightly in glossy travel brochures,” says British author and journalist Peter Stanford. In his engrossing new book “Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning,” he invites the reader on an exploration of 12 ancient sites that call the modern pilgrim to a trip beyond travel, a purpose beyond pleasure. 

From destinations like the Camino de Santiago in Spain to Shikoku in Japan, these journeys intertwine with history and myth, and don’t require today’s pilgrim to be part of a religious tradition. Instead, these sites speak to an age of freedom and curiosity, rousing those who are willing – and hoping – to be touched by a power outside themselves.

The most eclectic of these routes is the Camino, as it’s known, which straddles the border between the French Pyrenees and northern Spain. Legends abound, but the official history explains that in the 9th century the remains of James, the fisherman disciple of Jesus, were transported to Santiago’s original cathedral. These days, travelers no longer wear long tunics or carry staffs with metal tips to fend off animals. But the sight of St. James Cathedral, and the sound of its bells in the distance, still encourage pilgrims at this “penultimate staging post to summon up one last effort to reach journey’s end,” the author writes.

The holiest city of Islam, Mecca in Saudi Arabia, was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in 570. Muslims complete the 5-day journey of hajj – required of them to take once in a lifetime if they’re able – all wearing a wrapping called ihram. A reminder, Stanford says, “that all wearers are equal … and that they are, when in Mecca, somewhere between this world and the next.” Here, their faith resonates, undergirding the brotherhood and sisterhood they strive to live daily. Since the 7th century, the site has been restricted to Muslims, so those outside Islam must appreciate its sacred pilgrim traditions from afar.

Ethiopia’s Lalibela region has beckoned Orthodox Christians for centuries (and now sparks interest from the West). Many people believe that King Lalibela saw a vision of a holy city in a dream. The journey takes pilgrims through a maze of grottos and caves, down into a complex of 11 ancient churches hewn out of rock. Dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries (some say much earlier), these structures have “no ambition to soar to the heavens,” Stanford writes. There are no explanations as to who built these intricately carved buildings, or how, or why. Lore has it that while the ancient laborers slept, angels came down from heaven to continue the work at a speed far greater than that of mortals. Modern-day archaeologists express doubts – but so far have provided no better answers.

Mystical elements weave throughout all the sites featured in the book, particularly Japan’s Shikoku and its 88 Buddhist temples, which attract thousands of pilgrims a year. Setting itself apart from linear paths, Shikoku is circular, threading through four provinces. The symbolism plays an integral part: Pilgrims end where they started out, closing the circle. “It opens the possibility,” the author writes, of “a version of the seamless, never-ending journey towards enlightenment.” 

If one criticism might be leveled at this book, it’s that of a missed opportunity. The history, while entirely engrossing, could have been enriched with the experiences of actual travelers telling their stories. Readers are left to wonder why they ventured along these roads and what wisdom or self-knowledge they gained.  

A pilgrimage offers an experience that at its most basic allows the participants, as Stanford notes, “to turn their backs for a moment in time on the logic of the modern world.” As the pandemic wanes in some regions, and people begin to make plans again, the question of purpose mingling with pleasure is more relevant than ever. And after reading “Pilgrimage,” the question might even be asked when one steps out the door for a daily walk.

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