Religious architecture, pilgrimage sites
Orvieto Cathedral, Italy - impressive monument of religious architecture. H.P.Schaefer, CC-BY-SA-3.0
Since ancient times human talents and skills have been expressed in religious architecture and arts, traditions and rituals have evolved around pilgrimage sites. Religious buildings represent a major part of the highest achievements in architecture and crafts.
Although religious architecture in different regions and countries are very diverse, there are certain characteristics uniting them.
In most cases religious buildings are accented by one or several high, vertical structures. These structures may have practical purpose (call for prayer in belltowers of Christianity and minarets of Islam) or just symbolic meaning (pagodas and stupas in Buddhism, gopurams in Hinduism). With the exception of Egyptian pyramids and Pharos lighthouse the highest buildings of the world up to the late 19th century were religious buildings.
Vertical structures served as a cue, a mark of the religion present in the respective city.
In religious countries religious structures for most part are the largest structures in communities and cities. Many of the largest structures in world are religious buildings. Construction of such buildings often exerted and even ruined finances of the largest and richest countries. Numerous constructive innovations have been obtained through the construction of there enormous structures in order to achieve unseen height and unprecedented size.
Most religions and countries of the world used the best available materials and work of the most skilled artists and craftsmen in order to create possibly magnificent and splendid buildings for worship.
Most plentiful furnishings are characteristic for Indian temples - notably the Southern Indian Hindu temples and Jainist temples. Most of other religions are somewhat more modest, but still are not refraining from the use of such materials as gold, silver and precious stones. Some religious movements though are quite modest - such as Baptists in Christianity.
This page offers information about those buildings and other monuments which serve for religious purposes up to this day.
Hagia Sophia, Turkey - one of most important monuments of religious architecture.
F.H.Mira, Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Also included are religious buildings, which are in uninterrupted use, even if they don't serve for religious purposes today. Example - Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which today is a museum.
There are numerous religions in the world with a very diverse number of followers. Among the notable religions could be named:
- Christianity - 2,1 - 2,2 billion followers, originated circa 33 AD
- Islam - 1,3 - 1,6 billion followers, originated circa 613 AD
- Hinduism - 0,95 - 1,4 billion followers, originated circa 1700 - 1100 BC
- Buddhism - 250 - 500 million followers, originated circa 400 BC
- Sikhism - 20 - 30 million followers, originated circa 1500 AD
- Judaism - 12 - 18 million followers, time of origin disputed, could be 1200 BC
- Bahá'í Faith - 7,6 - 7,9 million followers, originated in 1863 AD
- Jainism - 6 - 12 million followers, originated latest circa 840 BC.
- Shinto - 4 million followers (mainly in Japan), evolved since 7th - 8th century
- Cheondoism - 3 million followers (nearly all in Korea), originated in early 20th century
- Tenrikyo - 2 million followers (mainly in Japan), originated in 1854
- Cao Đài - 1 - 3 million followers (nearly all in Vietnam), originated in 1926
- Ahl-e Haqq - 1 million followers (mainly in Iran), originated in late 14th century
Gopalaswamy Temple, India. Mlakshmanan, Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-3.0
This website has a specific classification system for the religious monuments of world, which aims to divide these monuments into groups of comparable sizes. These divisions are:
Ottobeuren Basilica, Germany. Johannes Böckh & Thomas Mirtsch, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0
Buildings where Christians gather and worship God: the most magnificent churches are located in Europe, especially Western Europe; while the oldest and historically most important ones are located in Eastern Mediterranean countries like Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, Greece. Many churches are the most well known monuments of architecture in the world. Valuable historic art like sculpture, paintings, stone and wood carvings are usually concentrated in churches.
A complex of buildings where people practising religious asceticism like monks or nuns live, work and pray. Monasteries have proven to be a very significant element in history, influencing politics, science, architecture and art. Often monasteries themselves serve as repositories of written works, art and special crafts.
The oldest Christian monasteries are located in Egypt, while some of the most influential ones are in France, Italy, Spain and other European countries.
Imam Reza Shrine, Iran. Photo by lahsan, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0
Mosques are buildings in which Muslims gather and worship God.
Contrary to Christianity and many other religions, Islamic tradition avoids the depiction of animals and especially, humans. Thus the attention of Islamic artists turned to calligraphy and ornamentation, creating an art that is unique in this respect.
The oldest and most significant mosques are located in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem, as well as in Iraq. The large territorial spread of Islam has led to the creation of regional art schools. One should note the sophisticated and harmonious architecture of mosques in Iran, and the unique adobe mosques in Mali; as well as the diverse and unique monuments in India and Pakistan.
Hinduism is one of the oldest religions and many of the most impressive Hindu temples are archaeological monuments. Meanwhile the ones still in use represent some of the most impressive monuments of architecture in world.
Hinduism is confined almost solely to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and uniquely, to distant Bali island. In other countries, Hinduism has spread comparatively recently. Some of the most stunning monuments of architecture are located in South India.
Buddhism is represented in several culturally diverse countries in Asia and in each of them there exists a specific tradition of architecture and art. It can be said that only the name of religion unites the equally diverse and beautiful temples in such distant and culturally different countries as Sri Lanka and Japan.
Some of the most distinct and interesting Buddhist art centres are:
- India and Nepal
- Burma and Thailand
- Sri Lanka
Monasteries have a very important part in the Buddhist heritage. These institutions have played key roles in the development and politics of many regions in Asia. Up to this day, monasteries serve as the keepers of (often little known to Western world) knowledge, repositories of art values and centres of education.
This subcategory includes monuments of other religions, not included in the above subcategories. Here are included numerous unique monuments: such as the incredible stone carvings of Jainists, the renowned harmonious architecture of the Shinto and some of the remaining Zoroastric temples which contain eternal fires, brought from Persia in the 7th century.
Religious architecture has the following subdivision:
- Christian monasteries
- Islamic shrines
- Hindu shrines
- Buddhist shrines
- Judaism monuments
- Jain shrines
- Other contemporary shrines
- Ancient shrines
Outstanding religious monuments
Below are listed some of most important, impressive and beautiful religious monuments of the world:
Arranged in chronological order of construction.
- Church of the Holy Sepulchre - Palestine, West Bank, Jerusalem. One of the most important churches for Christians, it is said to be located on the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. A pilgrimage site since the 4th century, the church was built in 333 AD and rebuilt several times; the last time in 1048 and since then renovated.
- Hagia Sophia - Turkey, Istanbul. A former Orthodox basilica built between 532 - 537 AD, it is now a museum. Possibly the highest achievement of Byzantine architecture, it has been the largest cathedral in world for nearly 1000 years.
- Church of the Nativity - Palestine, West Bank, Bethlehem. On the supposed location where Jesus Christ was born, it is one of the oldest continuously operating churches, and a site of worship since circa 100 AD. The current basilica was built in 565 AD.
- Basilica of St.Denis - France, Paris. The first truly Gothic building in world, founded in 7th century and rebuilt in Gothic style in 12th century. It is the burial site of almost all kings of France.
- Aachen Cathedral - Germany, North Rhine - Westphalia. Historically a very important church, it was the residence of Charlemagne, as well as the place of coronation for 42 kings and queens. It was built in 792 - 805 AD and rebuilt numerous times.
- Duomo of Pisa with Leaning tower - Italy, Tuscany. An impressive monument of European medieval Romanesque architecture, the cathedral was started in 1063 and rebuilt several times: the baptistry was started circa 1153 and the famous leaning belltower started in 1173-1372.
- Notre Dame de Paris - France, Paris. 1163 - 1345. One of the most significant Gothic cathedrals and one of best known architectural monuments in world.
- Cologne Cathedral - Germany, North Rhine - Westphalia. A very impressive Gothic cathedral with two towers, 157 metres in height, built in 1248 - 1880.
- Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi - Italy, Umbria. A pilgrimage site of global importance, built in 1253.
- Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral) - Italy, Tuscany, Florence. One of most impressive churches in world, the largest building in medieval Europe. Built in 1296 - 1469.
- St. Peter's Basilica - Vatican City. Best known of the four ancient papal basilicas. The most important church in Christian history, with the largest interior of any church. The present basilica was built in 1506 - 1626 and represents one of the most important pieces of Renaissance architecture.
- Saint Basil's Cathedral - Russia, Moscow. A very ornate and unusual church built in 1555 - 1561.
- Sagrada Familia - Spain, Catalonia, Barcelona. Largest and by far the most impressive Art Nouveau church in the world, designed by Antoni Gaudi; started in 1882 and due to be completed in 2026.
Arranged by year of foundation.
- Monastery of Saint Anthony - Egyp, Red Sea. A Coptic monastery and the oldest continuously operating Christian monastery in world, built in 356 AD, with important artworks and library.
- Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai - Egypt, South Sinai. An ancient, continuously operating Christian monastery, active since circa 381 AD. The monastery was built between 527 - 565 AD and hosts an extremely important library of ancient writings.
- Farfa Abbey - Italy, Lazio. Benedictine abbey, built circa 370 - 380 AD and later destroyed. Activity restarted circa 681 AD. It has a huge importance in the history of Italy, as well as numerous architectural and artistic points of interest.
- Lerins Abbey - France, Alpes-Maritimes. A large, fortified Cistercian monastery on an island, active since the 5th century. It is one of the centres of development for Western European monasticism. The oldest buildings date from circa 1073.
- Monte Cassino - Italy, Lazio. This monastery was established circa 529 AD, and was the seed of the Benedictine order. It was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times.
- Iona Abbey - United Kingdom, Scotland, Iona Island. Once one of the largest religious centres in Western Europe, established in 563 and serving as a centre for the spread of Western Christianity. 48 kings of different Western European countries are thought to be buried here.
Rousanou Monastery, Meteora.
Takeaway, Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0
- Cluny Abbey - France, Saône-et-Loire. A building of extreme importance to Western Europe' s monasticism since 10th century, it was also important in shaping the development of European Christian society. It was started in 910 AD and its highest influence was felt in the 11th - early 12th centuries. Although an enormous complex of buildings grew there over time, only a small part remains today.
- Great Lavra of Athos - Greece, Macedonia. The most important monastery on the Athos peninsula. Founded in 963 AD, it contains an important libary. The other 19 monasteries of Holy Mount Athos are also very important monuments of history and culture.
- Kiev Pechersk Lavra - Ukraine, Kiev. it started as a cave monastery in 1015, and developed into a centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is comprised of numerous important buildings as well as caves, many containing important artworks.
Arranged in chrolonolgical order of construction.
- Al-Masjid al-Nabawi - Saudi Arabia, Al Madinah. It is the second most important Islamic site, containing the tomb of Muhammad (Green Dome). It is the second largest mosque in world, built in 622 AD. It has been rebuilt numerous times, with the latest significant rebuildings dating from the 19th and 20th centuries.
- Masjid al-Haram - Saudi Arabia, Makkah. The largest mosque in world, it was built in 638 AD to surround the Kaaba - holiest site of Islam.
- Imam Husayn Shrine - Iraq, Karbalā. The mosque was built over the grave of the second grandson of Muhammad. First built in 684 AD, it was rebuilt numerous times. Currently the mosque is plastered with gold and adorned with jewels.
- Al-Aqsa Mosque - Palestine, West Bank, Jerusalem. It is one of holiest sites in Islam connected to life of Muhammad. Although in this site was built the second oldest mosque in the first half of 7th century, the current building dates from 1035 and is located over the Temple Mound - holiest site in Judaism.
- Dome of the Rock - Palestine, West Bank, Jerusalem. The oldest existing Islamic building in world, it was completed in 691 AD. The rock at the heart of the Dome is the holiest site in Judaism and one of the holiest in Islam.
- Umayyad Mosque - Syria, Damascus. This is one of largest and oldest mosques in world and is of great importance to Christians as well, reportedly containing the head of John the Baptist. It was built in 706-715 and before this time served as a church.
- Imam Reza shrine - Iran, Meshed. An important religious and theological complex, this shrine includes the tomb of Imām Ridhā, the eighth Imām and the beautiful Goharshad Mosque, various theological educational institutions and library. It is visited by 15 - 20 million pilgrims a year. It was built in 818 AD.
- Shah Mosque - Iran, Isfahan. One of masterpieces of Persian architecture, its construction started in 1611.
- Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) - Turkey, Istanbul. One of largest mosques in the world, completed in 1616. In many respects it is modeled after the Christian Hagia Sophia, which is nearby. It was an imperial mosque of the Ottoman Empire.
Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, India. Raj srikanth800, Wikimedia Commons, GNU FDL
Hinduism is an ancient religion and many Hindu temples are now considered archaeological monuments. Here is a list of those monuments, which have been in more or less uninterrupted use since their construction. The monuments are arranged by age.
- Tirumala Venkateswara Temple - India, Andhra Pradesh. One of the most important Hindu temple complexes, founded in the 4h century (?). It is the most visited religious site in India. It is an incredibly richly decorated temple complex, enclosed by a wall.
- Dwarakadheesh temple (Dwarkadhish temple) - India, Gujarat. One of the main Krishna temples existing, according to legend, since around 400 BC. The current temple was built in the 16th century. It is 51.8 metres high and very ornate.
- Ellora Caves, Kailasanatha Temple - India, Maharashtra. One of highest achievements not only in Hindu architecture but in ancient structural engineering of the world. Group of rock-cut temples, including the glorious Kailasanatha Temple cut of whole rock. Built circa 550 - 1000 AD.
- Elephanta Caves - India, Maharashtra. Group of beautiful rock-cut temples, built circa 5th - 8th c AD. Great Cave includes famous sculpture of Trimurthi.
- Aihole Temple City - India, Karnataka. Group of more than 125 7th century Hindu temples in varous styles. Considered to be a laboratory of architectural and artistic experiments where the glorious Chalukyan style was created.
- Prambanan - Indonesia, Central Java. The largest Hindu temple in Indonesia. Built circa 850 AD, one of highest achievements of Indonesian architecture.
- Khajuraho Temple City - India, Madhya Pradesh. Large group of beautiful Hindu and Jain temples, famous for their erotic sculpture. Built in 950 - 1150 AD.
- Jagannath Temple in Puri - India, Orissa. One of the most important Hindu temple complexes, it was built in 11th century. Well fortified, it contains 120 temples and shrines; most of them magnificent and very diverse buildings.
- Brihadeeswarar temple - India, Tamil Nadu. One of the most beautiful temples, it has a 70 metre high tower. It was built in 11th century, is made of granite and is considered to be one of highest achievements of Indian art and architecture.
- Angkor Vat - Cambodia, Angkor. Considered to be the single largest religious complex in the world, built in the ancient capital of Khmers in early 12th century. Considered to be one of greatest achievements of humankind in architecture. Initially built as a Hindu monument, later converted into Buddhist temple complex.
- Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple - India, Tamil Nadu. One of the largest and most grandiose religious complexes in the world, it is the largest in India and covers 63 hectares. It includes the 72 metres high gopuram - ornate gate tower.
Mount Kailash, Tibet. Heringf, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0
Buddhism is an ancient religion, some of whose monuments are also archaeologically important. Here are those monuments, which have been in more or less uninterrupted use since their construction. the monuments are arranged by age.
- Mount Kailash - Tibet. Visually very impressive mountain, 6638 metres high. It is a very sacred site for many of the religions of Asia, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. It is off limits to people due to its religious signficance. Pilgrims walk around the mountain in a 52 km long trek.
- Ajanta Caves - India, Maharashtra. One of most beautiful rock-cut temple complexes of the world, developed in 2nd c. BC - 480 AD. In total here are 28 - 30 rock-cut structures, containing murals and sculptures of high importance to the culture of mankind.
- Sanchi - India, Madhya Pradesh. An important Buddhist pilgrimage site with some 50 buildings from the 3rd - 12th centuries. It is an enormous hemispheric stupa from the 3rd century.
- Nalanda Buddhist University - India, Bihar. Important Buddhist learning centre in 427 - 1197 AD, one of the first great universities of the world. Complex of amazing buildings built from red brick.
- Buddhist shrines in Bamyan - Afghanistan, Hazarajat. Group of Buddhist shrines, includes the oldest known oil paintings in world from 5th - 9th c. AD. Until 2001 site contained the highest Buddha statues in world, up to 53 m high. Deliberately destroyed in March 2001 by Taliban.
- Shaolin Monastery - China, Henan. Located on sacred Mount Song and founded in 477, it was destroyed and rebuilt many times. It is renowned in Western world for it's association with Chinese martial arts, but the temple is also the birthplace of Zen Buddhism, it has the largest collection of stupas in China.
- Shwedagon Pagoda - Burma, Yangon. Gilded and 98 metres tall, this stupa is richly adorned with jewels. It is the most sacred pagoda in Burma. Built in 6th century (?), it is one of the most impressive architecture monuments in the world.
- Mahabodhi Temple - India, Bihar. One of the holiest sites for Buddhism it is located on the spot where Buddha attained enlightement. Its main element is a 55 metre high, richly decorated tower built in the 5th - 6th centuries and heavily restored in the 1880ies.
- Tōdai-ji - Japan, Nara. An important and beautiful temple complex established in 728, it contains the largest wooden building in world.
- Nanchan Temple - China, Shanxi. An ancient temple, rebuilt in 782 AD, the wooden structures from this rebuilding are among the oldest wooden structures in China. It is one of numerous monasteries of sacred Mount Wutai.
- Borobudur - Indonesia, Central Java. Possibly started as non-Buddhist strtucture, finished circa 830 AD. Largest Buddhist structure in world, exceptionally impressive pyramid-shaped shrine adorned with 2,772 sculpted panels and 504 Buddha sculptures. Approximately 123 m wide and long, 34,5 m high.
- Bagan temple city - Burma, Mandalay Division. An ancient temple city with numerous temples built mainly in 9th - 11th centuries, once the most important centre of Buddhism in the region. Although most of the temples are not in active use, local inhabitants continue to use them for some religious activities.
Fogong Pagoda, China.
Peellden, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0
- Popa Taung Kalat - Burma, Mandalay Region. This beautiful monastic complex sits on top of an extinct volcanic plug, rising 170 - 180 metres over the surrounding area.
- Ryōan-ji - Japan, Kyoto. A Zen Buddhist temple, renowned for its dry rock garden from late 15th century, containing 15 boulders, of which only 14 can be seen from any angle. Only the enlightened are able to see the 15th.
The monuments arranged chronologically.
- Temple of Confucius - China, Shangdong. The largest and oldest temple of Confucius, established in 478 BC and expanded since then.
- Tài Shān (Mount Tai) - China, Shandong. This 1545 m high mountain is one of the five sacred mountains in Tao religion, often regarded as the most important of them. A pilgrimage site for 3000 years, it is covered with numerous temples and other monuments. The largest temple, Dai Miao, dates from the 3rd century BC.
- Western Wall - Palestine, West Bank, Jerusalem. An important Jewish religious site, it is the only remaining part of Second Temple, which was constructed circa 19 BC. Throughout the history this also has been an important site for the politics of the Near East, due to different events related to the access of the Jews to this wall.
- Ise Grand Shrine - Japan, Mie. This is one of the holiest Shinto shrines, especially its inner shrine, Naikū, where the goddess Amaterasu-ōmikami is worshipped. The history of this shrine goes back to 4 BC, with the first shrine built circa 692 AD. Wooden buildings are built in a specific style and are rebuilt every 20 years.
- Ranakpur Temple - India, Rajasthan. A beautiful, white marble Jainist temple from late 14th - middle 15th centuries. It contains over 1444 beautifully carved pillars, each with its own design.
- Harmandir Sahib - India, Punjab, Amritsar. The most holy site for Sikhs, originally built in 1574 and rebuilt in 1588 - 1604. It is a gold covered temple, surrounded by a manmade lake.
- Shri Sammet Shikharji (Parasnath Hill) - India, Jharkhand. One of the main pilgrimage destinations for Jains, it has a hilly location that was once surrounded by primeval forests. The temple buildings have been standing at least since 1765 AD, but most likely are considerably older.
- Udvada Atash Behram - India, Gujarat. The oldest functioning Zoroastrian place of worship, consecrated in 1742 with sacred fire brought from Persia.