Places of Faith around the World

Explore the architecture of faith from around the world.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by SmartHistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine, The Dome of the Rock in the Old City.Yad Vashem

Old City of Jerusalem (Judaism, Christianity, Islam)

Israel, Jerusalem, Western Wall and The Dome of The Rock (2005-10-03) by Medioimages/PhotodiscGetty Images

The Old City of Jerusalem is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. We can see the Western Wall and above it, the Dome of the Rock. The Temple Mount (the raised plateau) was once home to the Jewish Temple.

Though the Temple was destroyed, for the Jewish people, the Western Wall remains sacred. This place is also sacred for Christians and for Muslims. If you look behind you, you can see the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Western Wall is a fragment of a wall that once encircled the Temple Mount. When the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple, a portion of the wall survived. This is the "Western Wall" we see here.

Israel, Jerusalem, The Dome of The Rock (2005-10-03) by Medioimages/PhotodiscGetty Images

Under the golden dome a large rock marks the site of the Biblical Sacrifice of Isaac (or Ishmael). For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad traveled here during his Night Journey before ascending to Heaven.

Greek Chapel, Catacomb of Priscilla, 2nd century, Rome

This is a space called the “Greek Chapel,” built under Priscilla’s house (Priscilla was an early practitioner of Christianity).

It’s not really a chapel and it wasn’t Greek (Greek and Latin writing were found here). This room held stone tombs and was used for meals honoring the dead. The walls are covered with paintings.

These painted squares are meant to mimic decorative stone. Ancient Greek and Roman palaces had walls made of expensive imported stones of different colors.

Here, the early Christians copied this type of luxurious interior, but with paint, not marble. This is a style is known as First Style Roman wall painting.

We can see a story from the Bible, Three Youths in a Fiery Furnace. These youths were condemned by the Babylonian king for not honoring an idol. They are miraculously unharmed, even as they stand in the flames.

Here is the Adoration of the Magi (the three kings) following the Star of Bethlehem from the East. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the infant Jesus. This is a very early example of a subject of countless later paintings.

Loculi and paintings, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome (Christianity)

We are standing in the catacombs. The narrow passageways spread for miles, sometimes three stories deep.

Small niches called loculi are dug into the soft stone walls. These tombs once held the dead. Above you can still see a little of the artwork that once filled these passages, and behind you, there are fragments of stone slabs (now mounted on the wall), that once sealed the tombs.

Tombs like this were originally sealed with stacked clay tiles (they looks like bricks) and covered with either a large clay or stone slab and then plastered over and painted or carved. Some of these tombs are stacked nine high.

A man stands between two painted trees with animals left and right. The man carries a third animal on his shoulders. This is Christ the “Good Shepherd.” In early Christian art, the shepherd is a symbol for Christ looking after the faithful.

If you tilt your head to the left, you can see two people. Archaeologists believe this is Mary holding baby Jesus and an angel pointing to a star. If correct, this is the oldest known painting of the Madonna (Mary) and Christ Child.

Mounted on the wall behind us, we can see some of the broken slabs that once covered the loculi. If you look closely you might see some of the Greek and Latin letters that were used to identify the tombs.

Here a triangular slab of marble with an anchor for a boat carved into it. This Early Christian symbol represents the idea that Christianity offers safety. On the ceiling you can see graffiti that is more than 150 years old.

The Excellent siting by PT.Taman Wisata Candi Borobudur, Prambanan & Ratu Boko [PERSERO] and N.V.Photografisch Atelier Kurkdjian, Soerabaja, Java, ca, 1920 (Leo Haks- Rare Books-)PT. Taman Wisata Candi Borobudur Prambanan dan Ratu Boko

Borobudur, Indonesia (Buddhism)

The Buddhist temple at Borobudur is 1200 years old. It is on the island of Java in Indonesia. 

The temple is a massive man-made mountain of stone. It has terraces but no interior space. Pathways filled with sculpture lead around and up to the top of the temple. The temple was designed as a three-dimensional mandala—a picture that represents the universe.

This pathway leads up to a series of terraces. There are hundreds of statues of Buddha, and sculptures about the stories of Buddhism along the way. The journey is important in Buddhism. Walking around the temple symbolizes the spiritual path to enlightenment.

Everywhere we look the stone is carved with stories from the life and teachings of Buddha. We can see a few of the 108 sculptures of Buddha in a niches. His legs crossed and his hands are in different positions called mudras.

Stone lions stand on either side of the paths leading to the temple. This one has a big mane, large eyes and broad flat mouth. These lions had the important job of guarding this sacred place.

Stoepa's op de bovenste galerijen van de nog ongerestaureerde Borobudur (1872 - 1890) by Céphas, KassianRijksmuseum

Near the top of Borobudur (Buddhism)

We are nearly at the very top of Borobudur—symbolically closer to enlightenment and the center of the mandala that Borobudur represents. The platforms at the top are round and the architecture up here leads our eyes upward to the sky. All around us is the lush green landscape of the Island of Java.

We’re surrounded by 72 bell-shaped stupas, a symbol of the burial mound of the Buddha. Each stupa contains a sculpture of Buddha. Lotus petals are carved into the base. The lotus is a beautiful flower that grows out of mud—a symbol of the path to enlightenment.

Behind you, at the very top and also at the temple’s center, sits the large central stupa, a symbol of the enlightenment that Buddha achieved.

The Taj Mahal (19th century)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Mosque, Taj Mahal, India (Islam)

The Taj Mahal is famous around the world. Less well known is its mosque (a place for prayer), built by Muslim rulers in India, hundreds of years ago. This mosque’s red sandstone walls contrast with the white marble of the Taj Mahal.

We can see three entrances. The large central entrance is called an iwan—a common feature of mosques. Within the iwan there are smaller doorways leading into the building’s shallow prayer hall.

Above the doorway, there is an floral pattern of inlaid stone. The interior of the iwan is decorated with a dizzying pattern. As is typical of Islamic art and architecture, a single shape is varied and multiplied creating complex patterns.

There is a small minaret (a tower used to call the faithful to prayer) at each corner of the mosque. The minarets are octagonal (8-sided). Each is capped with a dome matching the four minarets around the Taj Mahal.

This is the west side of the Taj Mahal rather than the more common view from the gardens. The Yamuna River is to our left. The Taj Mahal was built as a tomb for the wife of one of India’s Mughal rulers.

Inside the mosque, Taj Mahal (Islam)

We have stepped into the prayer hall inside the mosque. Beyond the door we can see the Taj Mahal and in the other direction a niche called the mihrab. We can look down the long prayer hall or up at its three domes, one directly above us. Every surface is carved or inlaid with decorative stonework.

The mihrab points in toward Mecca. Muslims face the holy city of Mecca when they pray. Just to the right are three steps—this is where a sermon is given. Writing from the Quran (the Islamic holy book), surrounds the mihrab.

Directly above us is a dome decorated with a beautiful, complex geometric patterns. It is one of three large domes in this mosque.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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