Throughout history, civilizations have erected religious monuments to honor their deities. Sadly, not all incredible holy edifices from the past survive intact today. Many fell into disrepair and now lay in ruins, while others were sacked by armies, destroyed or consecrated and transformed for the purposes of the conquering forces.
Ani, sometimes called the "City of 1,001 Churches," is an example of both. The city, which now falls within the border of Turkey, was once a flourishing Armenian metropolis -- even the capital for a time. Christians flocked to bustling Ani to visit its many churches, monuments, monasteries and tombs, among other secular attractions. Ani thrived for several centuries, with the height of its glory right around the turn of the millennium. But over time, the population was gradually slaughtered and scattered by war. An earthquake in 1319 devastated the city, and although a small population remained for a time, the city is now deserted, slowly crumbling back into the earth.
But many religious monuments have had more luck over the centuries, and in this article, we'll check out some of the exciting edifices still in existence.
10: Sedlec Ossuary
The Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic is built under the cemetery of a Cistercian monastery. When an abbot returned with a little jar of dirt direct from the Holy Land in 1278, the cemetery became a popular place for burials. Later, as the Black Death rolled across Europe, many thousands of people made a pilgrimage of their own to Sedlec, hoping to eventually be buried in such a special place. For example, in the year 1318 alone, about 30,000 people were buried in the Sedlec Ossuary [source: The Sedlec Ossuary].
As a result, an awful lot of bodies started to amass, and even after an enlargement, the cemetery quickly started filling to capacity. During the 1400s, a church was built in the middle of the cemetery, with an ossuary located underneath it. Then, in the 1500s, a monk began retrieving bones and hauling them down to the ossuary. It wasn't until 1870 that Frantisek Rint, a local woodcarver, began arranging the bones (some 40,000 people's worth!) in the fascinating, macabre fashion that visitors can view today. From massive chandeliers to a magnificent coat of arms, and all manner of wall decorations and arrangements in between, Rint created beauty from death in a unique and unforgettable manner.
Marcus Agrippa commissioned the Pantheon to serve as a temple to all the gods and goddesses worshipped in ancient Rome. Today, it's one of the most well-preserved buildings of all those constructed during the heyday of the Roman Empire, though it has since been consecrated as a Christian church. That religious transformation helped save the Pantheon from destruction during the Middle Ages, but the structure underwent several changes during the transition. Paintings, frescoes, sculptures and statues now adorn walls and fill niches.
The architecture still looks familiar, though: The Pantheon has served as a model for many famous buildings, including St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Pantheons in both London and Paris, the United States Capitol, the Jefferson Memorial and others of regional note.
8: Temple Complex of Karnak
Perhaps the most impressive religious monument in the world can be found, unsurprisingly, in Egypt. The Karnak Temple Complex in Thebes is the largest ever built by man. Temples, shrines, chapels and palaces are devoted to all manner of gods and goddesses, and the complex is dominated by the temple dedicated to Amun. There are also processional ways, pylons, obelisks, courts, carved reliefs and columns aplenty, along with a sacred lake and stone sphinxes to top it all off.
The Karnak Temple Complex wasn't completed all at once, of course, and a good portion of it has been added to, destroyed, built over or rebuilt since ancient workers first broke ground. It's impossible to know exactly what it would have looked like at any given point in history, but even from the ruins that survive today, it's easy to see the site has been an incredible monument for most of its long history.
7: Karni Mata Temple
In northwest India, there's a special Hindu temple whose revered animal inhabitants might send shudders down the spines of any visitors caught unawares. That's because the creatures being worshipped there -- some 20,000 in total -- are rats [source: National Geographic Channel]. And not only do people travel far and wide to pay homage to these famous furry animals, they actually interact with the rats in some surprising ways.
It's considered lucky to have rats run across your feet, and even more auspicious to sip or snack on a bit of leftover rat fare. But the biggest blessing of all is to catch a glimpse of the famous albino rats -- there are only about five or so in the whole temple, making this is a rare sighting indeed.
Built in the early 1900s, the temple is dedicated to Karni Mata, a 14th-century mystic believed by her followers to have been an incarnation of the goddess Durga. The legend varies somewhat in the particulars, but at its most basic, Karni Mata made a deal with the death god Yama to ensure her clan members would be reincarnated as rats and protected at her temple until they could be reborn into the clan. And so the rats are protected there in perpetuity. No shoes allowed!
6: The Temple Mount
There's no question that the Middle East is a focal point of religious monuments, and Jerusalem is even more packed with important holy relics than most. Take the Temple Mount: Practitioners of both Judaism and Islam revere the site, and for many reasons.
For Jews, the Temple Mount is where a number of fundamentally important events took place, making it their holiest site. For example, in Jewish religious tradition, it's the place where God gathered the earth that he used to make Adam; it's the location where Adam, Cain, Abel, Noah and Abraham all offered their respective sacrifices (or near sacrifices) to God; and it's the spot where King Solomon's temple rested.
Muslims value Abraham, David and Solomon as prophets, but that's not the main reason they take such an interest in this complex of religious monuments. They believe Muhammad caught his first glimpse of paradise while ascending from the rock. The Temple Mount is also the location of Al-Aqsa Mosque -- one of the oldest and loveliest in the Muslim world -- which is considered the third holiest place for them to pray.
5: The Temple of the Jaguar
The Temple of the Jaguar, often referred to as Temple 1 or Pyramid 1, is one of the many impressive Mayan temples perched atop lofty pyramids in the jungles of Central America. Located in the ancient city of Tikal (now within the border of Guatemala), it was built to house the tomb of one of the city's most successful rulers.
In fact, Tikal is packed with the remains of religious monuments and deity-related art, leading scholars to conjecture that spiritual rituals and pious ceremonies played a fundamental role in ancient Mayan civilization. Temples, shrines, ceremonial platforms and tombs are scattered throughout the settlement at Tikal; apart from the Temple of the Jaguar, you'll find the Temple of Masks and the Temple of the Two-headed Serpent.
4: Angkor Wat
The ancient temple now known as Angkor Wat took some 30 years of hard labor to construct -- and that time wasn't wasted, judging by the ruins still left today. Sometimes spelled Angkor Vat, it's the largest of the temples in the Angkor metropolis of present-day Cambodia, and it's praised both for its stunning architecture, as well as its marvelous artistic appeal.
Detailed scenes from the both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata -- sacred Hindu texts -- adorn the vast gallery walls, carved from the stone in amazing intricacy. The temple and most of the bas-relief murals were created in the 12th century, during and shortly after the reign of King Suryavarman II, although some later carvings (of noticeably poorer quality) were sculpted during the 16th century. Some of the legendary and historic battles depicted on the walls include the Battle of Kurukshetra, which pitted the Pandava family against the Kaurave family in a deadly clash, and the Battle of Lanka, which details the conflict between Prince Rama (one of Vishnu's many avatars) against the army of his opponent, the Demon King.
3: Great Mosque of Djenne
The original Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali was commissioned in the 13th century, but most of that structure was demolished in the 1830s to make way for a smaller, more somber mosque. The current incarnation of the Great Mosque which stands today was constructed between 1906 and 1907.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about the structure is that it's the largest mud brick building in the world. It might seem a little strange that it remains standing -- what with the often fierce flooding during the rainy season and fluctuations in temperature and humidity -- but an annual festival takes care of its upkeep. Each year, the citizens of Djenné prepare for the event by readying large pits of plaster. The plaster typically takes a while to cure, and since it needs to be stirred in the meantime, young boys hop in the vats, playing around and keeping things mixing.
The city's masons guide the operation, which includes a race to see who can convey the plaster to the mosque first, and then the men of the town start slathering it on. At the end of the festival, the Great Mosque is restored to full glory for another year.
2: St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul's Cathedral is a landmark in London, as well as the seat of the Bishop of London. The church has existed in several incarnations since its founding in the 7th century. Since then, many important events have been conducted at the site, including the 80th birthday party of Queen Elizabeth, the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana and the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.
But the iconic St Paul's Cathedral nearly didn't make it through World War II. It was struck with bombs more than once during the Blitz, luckily without any purely devastating effect. Churchill acted as a memorable defender of the cathedral during one particular wartime air raid. As bombs rained down across the city, he ordered all fire-fighting resources to focus on St. Paul's. He said the religious monument was too important to the country's morale to be lost in a blaze. Citizens -- among them many famous intellectuals, artists and historians called upon to help by the Royal Institute of British Architects -- kept up the effort, forming St. Paul's Watch to snuff out fires and guard the cathedral through the worst nights of the Blitz.
1: The Meteora Monasteries
The Metéora Monasteries are a collection of Eastern Orthodox Greek monasteries that perch like birds' nests atop giant sandstone peaks. Around a thousand years ago, ascetic hermits ascended the pinnacles, becoming the first known people to inhabit them. The actual monasteries were established sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries, and the monks were able to protect their mountain strongholds with ease: The only means of ascending the pillars was by a long rope ladder. If any threatening forces gathered below, the monks had simply to haul up their ladders and nets.
Out of the original 24 monasteries, six remain operational today. Also, infrastructural advancements, including stone stairs and bridges, have made them into something of a tourist attraction. However, if you decide to make the journey, keep in mind that there's a dress code. Shoulders must be covered; men should wear long trousers and women long skirts.
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More Great Links
- Armenian Heritage Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.armenianheritage.com/
- Armenica.org Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.armenica.org/
- Atlas Obscura Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://atlasobscura.com/
- Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.autoriteapsara.org/en/apsara.html
- Bourgeois, Jean-Louis. "The History of the Great Mosque of Djenné." Regents of the University of California. 1987. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3336477
- Dunn, Jimmy. "Karnak in Thebes." TourEygpt.net. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.touregypt.net/karnak.htm
- Frommer's Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.frommers.com/
- Guynup, Sharon and Ruggia, Nicolas. "Rats Rule at Indian Temple." National Geographic Channel. June 29, 2004. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/06/0628_040628_tvrats.html
- "Introduction to the Meteora." Frommer's. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.frommers.com/destinations/themeteora/1665010001.html
- Jardine, Lisa. "Homage to Highbury." BBC News. May 15, 2006. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4766707.stm
- Minasyan, Smbat. "Ani." Armenian-History.com. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.armenian-history.com/Capitals/Ani_History_eng.htm
- Sacred Destinations Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.sacred-destinations.com/
- "Sacred Site." Landmarks Foundation. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.landmarksfoundation.org/projects_ani.shtml
- "Saint Paul's Cathedral." Encyclopedia Britannica. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/517978/Saint-Pauls-Cathedral
- Smithsonian Magazine Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010.) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/
- Sedlec Ossuary Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.kostnice.cz/
- St. Paul's Cathedral Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.stpauls.co.uk/Cathedral-History
- "Temple Complex Overview." University of California at Los Angeles. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://dlib.etc.ucla.edu/projects/Karnak/feature/TempleComplexOverview
- Tikal National Park Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.tikalpark.com/
- The Church of Bones Web site. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.sedlecossuary.com/
- "Wonders: Great Mosque of Djenne." PBS. (Oct. 11, 2010) http://www.pbs.org/wonders/Episodes/Epi5/5_wondr2.htm