Pilgrimage travel

Travel Perspectives — By on September 16, 2008 at 7:40 am

A fast-growing travel niche is religion-based tourism, which caters to people who want to have a pilgrimage experience during their journey. This NY Times article has more information.

Some 16 feet beneath the present-day street level of Damascus, the Syrian capital, just off the Street Called Straight, is a cramped, artificially lighted chapel with roughly cut stones for walls and a few modern pews as furnishings. The grotto was once part of a home where — 2,000 years ago — Saul of Tarsus is said to have taken shelter after he was blinded by a heavenly light, the incident that converted him to Christianity. He emerged from that home as the Apostle Paul.

On a recent sultry summer evening, that historical event was very much on the minds of the 20 or so worshipers who watched reverently as a priest stood in front of a modern altar at one end of the small room, arranged the liturgical items he had brought with him, lighted the candles and celebrated Mass. “In the tradition of legions of pilgrims, we find ourselves doing what the early Christians did,” the Rev. Cesare Atuire said during his homily…

To many present-day pilgrims … nothing quite compares with the experience of traveling the road to Damascus. “It’s one thing for Christians to read the Holy Scriptures, quite another to come see where things happened,” said Father Atuire…

Of course, Christians aren’t the only ones showing an interest in religion-based tourism. Participants in the Kumbh Mela, a rotating Hindu festival, have reportedly topped 75 million, and each year, some two million Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Nor is Damascus the only place where Christians are heading these days. Lourdes, France, which the Pope will visit in September, draws an average of six million a year … and San Giovanni Rotondo, home to the shrine of the mystic monk Padre Pio, lured eight million to Puglia, Italy, in the last year.

Father Atuire has some thoughts about the surge of believers searching for the roots of their faith. “In times of epochal change, people sense a greater need to find points of reference,” he said while a bus lurched along a Syrian highway to the town of Malula and the Convent of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, another popular pilgrimage site and one of the few places in the world where Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, is still heard. “But at the same time many are looking for untraditional forms of expression and a pilgrimage allows you to approach a religious experience from a different perspective.”

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