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Pilgrimage is beginning to resemble any other kind of holiday

1 May 2021

9:00 AM

1 May 2021

9:00 AM

Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning Peter Stanford

Thames & Hudson, pp.256, 25

Hidden away in the Old City of Jerusalem is a tattoo parlour which has been serving pilgrims for the past 700 years. The Razzouk family parlour near the Jaffa Gate claims to have been inking crosses into travellers’ skins since the 1300s. True or not, it’s a good example of how contemporary pilgrimage sites draw on an occasionally dubious history to offer something unique in a crowded travel market.

The pilgrim parlour is one of many memorable details from Peter Stanford’s Pilgrimage, which looks at how this ancient tradition has been revived for the 21st century. The book gives a brisk account of a dozen different routes and shrines, including well-known destinations such as Mecca and Rome, as well as more obscure sites such as Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the North Wales Pilgrims Way. A few of the destinations are surprising, such as the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, presented here as a shrine for New Age backpackers, and the annual Mormon miracle pageants, which used to take place in Utah. But in each case we are given a history of the site, a description of the major traditions and a discussion of how it has adapted to the demands of modern tourism. At the same time, Stanford tries to explain why, in an age of increasing secularisation, pilgrim numbers are on the rise.

One answer is that pilgrimage offers an ideal ritual for the growing category of the spiritual-but-not-religious. Now that more people find themselves outside any particular denomination or creed, they ‘feel liberated to explore faith and grace in whatever ways they choose, free from any institutional constraint or allegiance’. The most successful pilgrim shrines often target this category. The Camino de Santiago in Spain hosts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year, many of them non-believers; provided you are willing to walk the 500 miles to the tomb of St James, there’s no need to pray to Jesus or confess your sins, let alone volunteer with the needy and give away your money. ‘The genius of the revived Camino,’ Stanford argues, ‘is it is big enough, long enough and flexible enough in its own identity to accommodate all comers.’ For those seeking time away from their day-to-day lives, it also provides a kind of informal therapy, while a cynic might add that it’s a model or faith well-suited to social media, with plenty of dramatic views and the occasional platitudinous quote.

The book’s best passages give the reader a sense of what makes these places unique. For example, when writing about the rock-cut churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia, Stanford describes in detail the pilgrim processions that circle these buildings in the early morning light. By capturing both the strangeness and the beauty of the site — ‘where more than any other destination on earth time suddenly has no meaning’ – we are reminded that people can be drawn towards pilgrim shrines for reasons which have little to do with trends in the travel industry.

Elsewhere we learn about the crowds of local children who gather each morning beneath the sacred Bodhi Tree in Bihar, eastern India — where the Buddha was said to have achieved enlightenment — picking the leaves from the ground to sell to the coachloads of tourists. And the forest of discarded crutches that used to hang from the roof of the grotto at Lourdes, left behind by pilgrims who were healed after a dip in the holy waters. But I wanted more of the curious details that come from visiting these shrines in person — the smell, the sound, and the taste of a place — because otherwise it can be difficult to work out what inspires pilgrims to return.

With a chapter for every destination, the book can feel rushed at times, while the differences between the various religions occasionally become blurred. For instance, though more pilgrims are flying to Mecca each year, and more pilgrims are walking to Rome, they may be doing so for entirely different reasons. In addition, reading the book in 2021, it’s hard not to wonder how pilgrimage will survive in a time of pandemic.

But many well-known sites have gone through periods of neglect before, and even without the pressures of Covid, the tradition was changing for contemporary tourists, with vloggers showing virtual pilgrims round the Great Mosque of Mecca and glamping options available for well-healed westerners visiting the Kumbh Mela in India. Of course, the more comfort and convenience on offer, the more pilgrimage begins to resemble any other kind of holiday. But as Stanford makes clear from the start, for medieval believers travelling to Canterbury or Rome was often a holiday too. And at least those pilgrims to Jerusalem who want to prove they have suffered can book a tattoo at the oldest parlour in the world.

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