Since time immemorial, mountains have been regarded as sacred sites, thanks to their high altitudes which kept them close to the skies – the perceived abode of the Gods. Year after year, these sacred mountains are climbed by pilgrims, devotees and other curious souls, thanks to the spiritual energy – and a sense of peace – that surrounds these landscapes.
CROAGH PATRICK, IRELAND
Considered the most sacred mountain in Ireland, Croagh Patrick, or “the Reek”, is climbed by pilgrims every year on Reek Sunday (the last Sunday of July) – a ritual dating back over 5,000 years in honour of Saint Patrick.
More than 25,000 pilgrims undertake the annual pilgrimage on Reek Sunday and on Garland Friday (last Friday of July); some walk barefoot or on their knees on the way to the summit where there is a small chapel (built in the early 1990s) open in summer. You can see Clew Bay and County Mayo’s countryside as you climb Croagh Patrick – at 762m high, it is one of the highest mountains in the west of Ireland.
MT. ATHOS, GREECE
Restricted to only male travellers since its early days, Mt. Athos has been an Orthodox spiritual centre since 1054. Deeply rooted in Greek mythology, Mt. Athos is currently home to about 20 monasteries (with 1,400 inhabitants) which cling to the steep rocky slopes around the Chalcidice peninsula facing the Aegean Sea. Backed by beautiful chestnut and Mediterranean forests that rise to 2,033m, Mt. Athos is a showcase of orthodox monastic architecture and agrarian lifestyle.
Travel to Mt. Athos is only possible by ferry, and men (no women and children allowed) require special permission in the form of a Byzantine Visa written in Greek, with Orthodox Christians given priority.
Part of the Trans-Himalayan mountains in Tibet, Kailash remains sacred to 4 central religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Bon. Rising to an altitude of 6,714m, Kailash’s 4 sheer walls denote the cardinal directions of the compass – and from Kailash flows 4 rivers that travel to 4 different parts of the world.
No pilgrims climb Kailash (it’s considered a sacrilege) – rather, pilgrims of all four religions walk in a clockwise direction around it – one round (a kora), is believed to remove the sins of one’s current life; 108 koras help one to attain Nirvana. Some pilgrims also perform body-length prostrations for 54km – the distance of one kora.
Known as one of the 4 sacred sites of the annual Char Dham pilgrimage, Badrinath towers over the state of Uttarakhand at a height of 3,100m. Badrinath is known for being the seat of Shiva thanks to the Jyothirlingam (symbolic form of Shiva) it holds; it’s the most significant of all the 12 Jyothirlinga located in various parts of India.
Open only from the end of April to the beginning of November, the temple and the town get very crowded during the pilgrimage season. Although the temple is accessible by road, you can also hike to Badrinath from Kedarnath (another temple along the Char Dham route) or from the famous Valley of Flowers.
MT.RAMELAU, TIMOR LESTE
The tallest mountain in Timor Leste, Mt.Ramelau (popularly known as Tatamailau), is revered by the Timorese and is considered sacred as it is believed to be the abode of the souls of Timorese ancestors.
On its summit stands a 3m-tall statue of the Virgin Mary, which was erected in 1997. Towards the end of March, pilgrims make the trek up the mountain for the Annunciation of The Blessed Virgin Mary. There are 2 routes to the top: via Hato Bulico (4 hours) and the more scenic Aimeta (6 hours). Camping is possible at the summit plateau, and wild horses can sometimes be seen galloping around the area.
Situated in the Sinai Peninsula, Mt. Sinai (2,2,85m) is cited in the Bible, Quran and Torah as the place where the Ten Commandments were received, making it an important landmark for Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Mt. Sinai can be climbed via two routes. The first, Sikket Saydna Musa (Path of Moses), passes numerous chapels and structures honouring saints and the Virgin Mary, and involves climbing 4,000 steps (3 hours) – to reach the top where Moses’ Cave is located. The longer, less scenic Siket El Bashait has a camel-riding option. At the summit is a mosque and a Greek orthodox chapel (closed to the public).