Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the pyramids of Egypt, Jerusalem, Banaras, and Mt. Fuji. Since prehistoric times, these and other sacred places have exerted a mysterious attraction for millions of people around the world. Ancient legends and modern-day reports tell of extraordinary experiences that people have had while visiting these magical places. Sacred sites have the power to heal the body, enlighten the mind, increase creativity, develop psychic abilities, and awaken the soul to an awareness of its true purpose in life. These power places are found all across the planet in the form of sacred mountains, healing springs, enchanted caves, and sites of divine apparitions.
After several months of research in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress and the map division of the Smithsonian, I began my long pilgrimage. Traveling as a solitary pilgrim for the next 20 years (the first five by bicycle) I visited, studied and photographed 1000 sacred sites and power places in more than 100 countries around the world. Living and meditating at the sacred sites, I continued to have experiences of visionary revelation, miraculous apparitions, and communication with the elemental forces of the sacred sites. Based on these mystical experiences and on my studies of mythology, archaeology, ancient religions, and shamanism, I developed a fascinating (and highly controversial) explanation to account for the mysterious powers of the sacred sites.
What Makes a Place Sacred?
Thus far I've recognized 20 distinct factors that contribute to the localized energy fields of sacred sites. Those can be divided into three main categories: influences of the Earth; influences of the structures that humans have built at the sacred sites; and influences caused by the accumulated power of focused human intention.
What is the key to the mystery of the sacred sites, and how are we to explain their power? Why do millions of people flock to these holy and magical places every year?
I have had a keen interest in exploring sacred sites for most of my life. Since 1984, I have traveled extensively in more than 100 countries to visit, study, and photograph more than 1,000 sacred places. On this rambling, global pilgrimage, I discovered many fascinating things about the holy sites, their spiritual magnetism, and their legendary powers.
It is a curious fact that while sacred sites represent the most visited category of places on the Earth (compared to cities where people live full time), there has been little scholarly study of the sites or the great pilgrimages to them. Only recently have cultural geographers, social anthropologists, and religious historians begun to study the ancient and enduring phenomena of people making pilgrimages to sacred sites. While it's certainly true that religion and tourism result in many people visiting the sacred sites, a fundamental question remains unanswered: How are we to account for the initial development of the ancient pilgrimage traditions? What started them? Why did human beings originally visit and venerate certain places on Earth?
A Personal Pilgrimage
My own search for answers to these questions began in a most unexpected way in the autumn of 1983. After spending 12 years in a disciplined practice of Hindu and Buddhist meditation techniques, I had begun to have unusual visionary experiences in which I was directed to travel to Easter Island, in the remote southern Pacific Ocean. Visiting Easter Island, and also the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, I had two more visions that directed me to “follow the pilgrimage routes of the ancient religions” and to begin those travels in Japan. These visionary experiences were both auditory and visual, and of surprising clarity.
The visions were so compelling that I left my successful travel agency business in the United States and journeyed to Japan. Bicycling around that country for eight months, I photographed dozens of sacred mountains and ancient temples. Near the end of my pilgrimage, at the Shinto sacred site of Izumo Taisha, I had another vision. During this extraordinary experience of revelation, I was directed to continue my explorations of sacred sites all around the world.
From this vision, I learned that during the upcoming 25 years large numbers of people—from outside of the major religious traditions—would feel compelled to visit the sacred sites. However, these people would not know where the sites were located or the appropriate response to their attraction. I realized that my photographs and the information I would gather would assist people in responding to and finding the power places.
I believe that there is a presence or numinosity (a spiritual elevation) at the sacred sites that accounts for the extraordinary - and often miraculous - experiences that human beings have on pilgrimage. This presence may be described as a field of energy, a spiritual ambiance, or a density of holiness that saturates and surrounds the sacred sites. When humans enter into these fields, they may experience a variety of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual effects. Which of course begs the question: How may we explain or account for these mysterious energy fields? What factors contribute to their presence and powers?
What Makes a Place Sacred?
The first main category—Earth influences—relates to the geophysical characteristics of the sacred sites, including localized magnetism, radioactivity, geothermal activity, the presence of underground water, ionization, and ultrasound. The aesthetic qualities of the sacred sites can also be included in this category. Beautiful and unusual surroundings have always had transformative effects on humans.
The second category of factors contributing to the power of sacred sites concerns the design, construction, and ornamentation of the structures that humans have placed there. A particularly fascinating example is the sacred geometry used in the construction of the temples, mosques and cathedrals at certain locations —ancient people, deeply observant of the mathematically repeating patterns of nature, sought to encode those patterns and proportions in the architecture they created at the sacred sites. Similar to how mathematically precise shapes of musical instruments create specific sounds, the purposeful shapes of sacred structures assist in generating specific fields of energy and influence. Contributing to and amplifying these fields of influence, ancient architects and craftsman also used sound, light, aromatic substances, jewel-encrusted icons, and mineral-plated sculpture.
A third factor contributing to the potency of the sacred sites is the concentrated power of human intention. As photographic film records the energy of light and audio tapes record the energy of sound, the Earth itself can record the energy and intention of the millions of humans who have visited a sacred site. Within the shrines and sanctuaries, priests, priestesses, and pilgrims have gathered for thousands of years; their dancing, chanting and praying have continuously charged the fields with love and peace, healing and divinity. The megalithic stone rings, healing springs, sacred mountains, Mayan temples, Gothic cathedrals, and Egyptian pyramids are repositories of the concentrated spiritual aspirations and attainments of humanity. Here, too, are the places where Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and other sages and shamans awakened to the deepest realizations of spiritual wisdom.
I believe it is highly beneficial for people to make pilgrimages to the sacred sites (you can see a list at my website, sacredsites.com). These legendary places have the mysterious capacity to awaken and catalyze within us compassion, wisdom, peace of mind, and respect for the Earth. The development of these qualities in more members of the human species is crucially important, considering the numerous ecological and social problems in the world. The sacred sites and their subtle fields of spiritual energy can assist in the transformation of human consciousness and thereby the healing of the Earth.