Why pilgrimages are not just for the religious


Most pilgrims aim to strengthen their faith and explore the meaning of life through their journey. An exhibition in Cologne shows how pilgrimages are booming worldwide – and why they’re not just a spiritual experience.

Santiago de Compostela

Altogether, the different paths of the epic Saint James pilgrimage route add up to some 42,000 kilometers (over 26,000 miles). The ultimate stop is the burial place of the Apostle Saint James the Great, located in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (picture). As legend has it, the apostle was executed in Jerusalem after unsuccessfully trying to evangelize Spain.Pilgrim's costume in Sinakara, Peru (DW/S. Oelze)


Most pilgrims who go to Sinakara in Peru wear dancers’ costumes like the one shown here. There are up to 100 different dances, and which one is chosen depends on the origin of the pilgrim. The ritual is completed with a playful fight. The traditions surrounding this pilgrimage have been listed by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Scheiner)


There is hardly any other place on Earth that’s been so contested over the centuries as Jerusalem. Jews, Christians and Muslims all consider it their Holy City. The three monotheistic religions share common roots in the figure of Abraham, who recognized the uniqueness of God. Christians believe that Jesus was buried in the Holy Sepulchre (picture) after being crucified.Saudi-Arabien Mekka Hajj Pilger umrunden die Kaaba (Getty Images/AFP/A. Gharabli)


All Muslims are called upon to participate in the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lifetime. Various rituals, like walking around the Kaaba seven times and touching it (picture) take place over the course of five days. The Prophet Mohamed was born in Mecca, and that’s also where the Holy Quran is said to have been revealed to him.Karbala, Iraq (Mehr)


Each year, an astonishing 30 million Shiite pilgrims visit the tomb of Mohamed’s grandson, Hussein, in the Holy City of Karbala in Iraq, southwest of Baghdad. There, they touch his shrine or the silver grids in the mausoleum and other sacred places. The blessing obtained in this way is believed to help cure diseases.Touba pilgrims in Senegal (Beate Schneider)


Pilgrimages are a logistical miracle. They only work out thanks to the support of numerous volunteers receiving the pilgrims with open arms. That’s also the case in the city of Touba, in Senegal. As there is no hotel there, people welcome the pilgrims in their homes. This gesture is seen as an act of love for the pilgrims who visit the mosque and the mausoleum of Sheikh Amadou Bamba.Japan pilgrims (DW/S. Oelze)


The Shikoku pilgrimage is a bit like that of Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrims travel on the Japanese island wearing white clothes and carrying a book they fill with stamps of the temples they visit. For 1,200 years, pilgrims have been following the traces of the monk Kobo Daishi in order to find inner peace. Nowadays, tourists do the pilgrimage to try to escape the chores of daily life.Mexico City pilgrimage (DW/S. Oelze)

Mexico City

Each year during the month of December, six to eight million Catholics travel to Mexico City for three days in order to venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe in the basilica of the same name. The pilgrimage includes popular festivities with parades, costumes, dances and songs, as well as the sale of devotional objects. Quite a few of these Virgin Mary pictures have however been made in China.

The “pilgrimage” label can include way more than the traditional religious rites.

Fans traveling to Elvis’ grave on the anniversary of his death, for example, or the millions of people flocking to soccer stadiums or huge shopping centers could be considered pilgrims as well.

On the other hand, there is a growing number of people worldwide who are rediscovering pilgrimages as a way of finding inner peace.

The exhibition “Pilgrimage – Longing for Bliss?,” now on show at the Rautenstrauch Joest Museum in Cologne, presents 39 of the most important pilgrimage destinations of all world religions.

Pilgrimages are booming worldwide

The exhibition features pilgrimage sites from each continent, except Australia, ranging from Santiago de Compostela in Spain and the Cathedral of Cologne in Germany, to Karbala in Iraq and Mount Kailash in Tibet.

On this Tibetan mountain, also known as the Holy Mountain Gang Rinpoche, members of four religions travel there to receive blessings. People from all over Asia flock to the mountain, over days, months, or even years. Video recordings document the difficult ascent in deep snow up the 5,200-meter-high mountain, where the air is way too thin.

Pilgrimages, no matter the religion, are associated with effort and deprivations.

In some cases, pilgrims are also rewarded for their enormous efforts. In Ajmer in India, tens of thousands of pilgrims eat up to 7,000 kilos of sweet safran rice per day, offered in huge cooking pots.

Sheikh Moinuddin Chishti (DW/S. Oelze)Shrine of Sheikh Moinuddin Chishti

Each Sufi and Hindu traveling to the shrine of Sheikh Moinuddin Chishti is to be fed properly. Providing so many people with food is a logistical accomplishment carried out by 4,000 members of the shrine staff.

Pilgrimages require organisational skills

And that’s what makes the exhibition in Cologne so interesting. It explores the logistical, economic and political dimensions of pilgrimages. Within a few days, millions of pilgrims need to be received, fed, housed and looked after, and some of them need medical attention. The security of the pilgrims must also be guaranteed.

These rituals also create new business opportunities, for example the devotional objects of Our Lady of Guadalupe sold in Mexico City – “made in China.” On December 11 and 12, six to eight million pilgrims visit the Basilica Our Lady of Guadalupe. It wouldn’t be possible to let so many people in if there weren’t four treadmills transporting people to the sacred shrine. Huge spotlights might prevent a mystical experience, but they are necessary for the pilgrims’ security.

Pilgrims need to be quite well-off to be able to pay for their travel expenses.

In Touba, not a single hotel for pilgrims

Pilgrimages are also booming in Africa.

Each year, two to five million members of a Senegalese Sufi community travel to the Holy City of Touba in the West African country. They visit the grand mosque and the mausoleum of  Sheikh Amadou Bamba, who lived there from 1853 to 1927, and who is venerated as one of the most significant mystics of West Africa.

This big event takes place every year – although there isn’t a single hotel to house the pilgrims. And yet, each one of the faithful will find a bed in private homes, where up to 40 people are sleeping in one room.

Europeans go to Santiago de Compostela and Cologne

Compared with Touba, the 42,000-kilometer-long pilgrimage to the northern Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela almost appears comfortable, as hundreds of guest houses along the way are available for travelers.

 A statue of Saint James the Greater (DW/S. Oelze)                               A statue of Saint James the Greater

Cologne is also another comfortable destination. Each day, roughly 10,000 people visit the golden shrine housing the remains of the three Magi in the Cathedral of Cologne. These pilgrims usually stay in hotels and eat in restaurants.

The exhibition “Pilgrimage – Longing for Bliss?” is organized like a pilgrimage in itself, with different stops allowing visitors to travel from one destination to the next through the world’s different religions. The show runs through April 9, 2017, in Cologne.