The death of 14 Muslims made news last week when pilgrims converging on a holy site in Mecca collided with crowds leaving it. Security forces intervened and blamed the deaths on "pilgrims not following the rules." But Mecca is by no means unfamiliar with disasters of this kind—in 1990, for example, nearly 1,500 people were trampled to death. The problem has become so severe that it has necessitated 300 video cameras and the creation of a command and control center to monitor the thousands of people streaming through.
This kind of experience has little resonance for modern Westerners, whose travels to the Holy Land today look more like recreational tours than death-defying treks. But the pilgrim impulse still animates many Jewish and Christian believers, as it does Muslims. While the Ministry of Information in Saudi Arabia reported last year that over 250,000 Muslim pilgrims had already completed their hajj to Mecca and Medina by early March, Pope John Paul II's visit to Israel in 2000 generated so much interest that US Catholic bishops drafted guidelines for pilgrims traveling to the Jubilee celebrations, and one online directory touts 14 travel agencies (serving both Catholic and Protestant clientele) devoted solely to religious pilgrimages.
So what is it that draws believers from each of these world religions to holy sites?
To start with, Islamic law requires Muslims to go on hajj—or pilgrimage to Mecca—once in their lifetime. Yet the journey has its own magnetism for the Islamic faithful. Muslims claim the vicinity of Mecca as the site of Hagar's wandering in the desert after Abraham and Sarah expelled her in Genesis 21. The story goes that Abraham visited Hagar there and, with Ishmael's assistance, built the first mosque in Mecca, ordaining that all those submitted to Allah should journey there. As part of their pilgrimage, Muslims throw stones at pillars to identify with Abraham's conquering diabolic temptation to not sacrifice his son Ishmael. (The Qur'an places Ishmael, not Isaac, in the biblical story.) Later, the pilgrims gather in a plain outside Mecca to rehearse a "final judgment" that they believe will take place in Jerusalem. By making the pilgrimage to Mecca, Muslims both remember their beginnings and anticipate history's culmination.
Jews date the practice of pilgrimage to the feasts described in Deuteronomy 16:16—the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and the Feast of Booths (Succot). Mosaic law required every Jewish male to observe each feast every year "at the place which God will choose." Although Shiloh was the first choice for celebrating the feasts, the center shifted to Jerusalem after Solomon built the Temple around 1000 BC—and pilgrimage began there in earnest. The Babylonian exile, which began in 586 BC, only heightened that desire, and Herod's renovation of the Temple (started in 20 BC) no doubt encouraged mass pilgrimage. Even after Titus's destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Jews continued to travel (and settle) there in small numbers. Scholar Harry Partin calls this a pilgrimage of "center"—indicating that the faith of many Jews is still very much focused on their holy city. At the end of Passover every year, Jews end their feast with the wistful "Next year in Jerusalem."
Christians, on the other hand, have no biblical mandate to travel to the Holy Lands. In fact, Christians throughout the centuries have had an ambivalent attitude toward the land. Augustine, for example, argued God cannot be contained in space, and that Christians do not need to travel far to find God; rather, if we humble ourselves, he will draw near to us. Protestants especially have picked up on this suspicion of pilgrimage—John Milton critiqued it in Paradise Lost: "Here Pilgrims roam, that stray'd so farr to seek/ In Golgotha him dead, who lives in Heav'n."
Why, then, have so many Christians sought out Jerusalem and other biblical sites? Christian pilgrimage is fundamentally concerned with rediscovering origins. Many Christian pilgrims have voiced their longing to "walk where Jesus walked." Roman Catholics have set up Stations of the Cross to draw such walkers through the scenes of Jesus' life. Perhaps such pilgrims feel as did the fourth-century theologian Jerome, who said, "One may only truly understand the Holy Scriptures after looking upon Judea with one's own eyes."
Christians have had other reasons for journeying to the Holy Lands. During the Middle Ages, when Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem reached its high tide, Bernard of Clairvaux linked pilgrimage to crusade to help with the war effort. When the Crusades failed, Boniface VIII briefly offered indulgences to pilgrims if they would come to Rome, promising them heaven in return for their money. It was this development that sixteenth-century Reformers reacted to, in some cases rejecting pilgrimage altogether. But in the twentieth century, Protestant interest in traveling to Jerusalem resurged with the establishment of Israel and easier access to holy sites.
In forms both strange and familiar, pilgrimage retains a secure place in all three monotheistic religions. If its survival in spite of Jerusalem's tumultuous history is any indication, even the current conflict in the Middle East won't hinder pilgrims from any of these faiths from seeking out "God's country."
Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator for Christian History magazine. This article is heavily indebted to Harry Partin's "Pilgrimage to Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian, Muslim" (Encounter, 46:1 Winter 1985).
For essays on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, see Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, edited by Lee I. Levine (New York: Continuum, 1999).
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Play Me That Hot Puritan Love Song | A little-read book of the Bible reminds us of the astonishing intimacy we enjoy with Christ (Feb. 14, 2003)
Iraq's Christians Caught in the Middle, Again | If the looming war breaks out, 350,000 Iraqi Christians will be caught in a West-East conflict eerily similar to 4th-century events. (Feb. 7, 2003)
Finding God in a Box | Have archaeological discoveries like the James ossuary served or obscured the quest to verify the Bible? (Jan. 31, 2003)
Sex, Politics, and the Bible | Some words just don't mean what they used to (Jan. 24, 2003)
Caveat Gyrator (Elvis Priestly, Part II) | So you've got an evangelistic pop-culture act ready for prime time. Here's a historical pause for reflection. (Jan. 17, 2003)
From Oratorios to Elvis | Pop culture has been coming to a church near you for hundreds of years (Jan. 10, 2003)
The Christian DNA of Modern Genetics | Though open to frightening ethical abuse, genetics has been a Christian vocation since Gregor Mendel did his famous pea-plant experiments in the mid-nineteenth century (Jan. 3, 2003)
I'm Dreaming of a Victorian Christmas | An ageless story reminds us of the values the Victorians can still teach us. (Dec. 23, 2002)
No Humbug | A Christmas Carol remains the quintessential holiday story, but why? (Dec. 20, 2002)
'Tell Billy Graham the Jesus People Love Him.' | How evangelism's senior statesman helped the hippies "tune in, turn on to God." (Dec. 13, 2002)
Advent—Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind | 'Tis the season when even the free-ranging revivalist pulls up a chair to the table of historic liturgy. (Dec. 6, 2002)
Dig that Billy Graham Cat! | How the grand old man of evangelism helped create Christian youth culture in the zoot-suit era. (Nov. 22, 2002)
From Swamped Creatures to Separated Brethren | Non-Catholics' spiritual status improved dramatically from Unam Sanctam to Vatican II, but where are we now? (Nov. 15, 2002)
An 'Ordinary Saint' in Wartime | William Wilberforce saw two long charitable campaigns through, even in war's distracting shadow. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Just War, Just Nation? | World War II preacher points America back to the nation's soul. (Nov. 1, 2002)