Belief is a universal human condition. From a Matamoros death cult to the very belief that science will one day explain all things to us; or even faith in ourselves to be able to change, grow, and achieve, we all believe in something. That belief is one of the greatest aspects to being alive, and a defining trait of the human animal. It can bring us together as people, and drive us apart over slight differences to cause generations of hatred. Belief is a powerful and driving force in our lives that can lift us from suffering and remake the face of the world; for good or ill.
To celebrate that which inspires and provokes us, we found the most remarkable celebrations of faith from around the world in this array of the 21 most beautiful temples, cathedrals, shrines, mosques, and buildings of belief. One thing we can all agree on: These are impressive.
Sabancı Merkez Camii, Adana, Turkey
Bearing six minarets, the Sabancı Merkez Camii is a sprawling mosque that has the distinction of being the largest in Turkey. It stands over a huge Armenian graveyard, giving it a grim locale that is nonetheless idyllic as it looks out over the Seyhan River. Outfitted in marble and gold leaf, it’s dense and opulent; imposing yet airy.
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel
Capable of being seen from anywhere in the holy city, the Dome of the Rock is not actually a mosque, but rather a Muslim shrine. It is built where the prophet Muhammad allegedly ascended to heaven during his Night Journey. It is the oldest Muslim site in the world and bears the most ancient mihrab (indicator of the direction of Mecca) in existence.
Sagrada Família, Barcelona, Spain
Antoni Gaudí spent 40 years designing the Sagrada Família. It uses Gothic and Byzantine architectural styles in an unusual intermixture that was naturally inspired. The building itself shows nods to both religious iconography and constructs found in plants and mountains. Each of the 18 towers has its own significance, with the center one representative of Jesus Christ.
All Saints Chapel, Martinho Campos, Brazil
There’s little to even identify this as a chapel, save for the gray cross inherent in the construction itself. That cross breaks from the standard cruciform style by being wider than it is tall, an intentional move by architect Gustavo Penna. The peaceful interior is a place intended for reflection and meditation, with ample scenery provided by the world outside.
Grand Choral Synagogue, St. Petersburg, Russia
A striking structure from Vasily Stasov, the Grand Choral Synagogue celebrates the large contributions of Russian Jews in one of the few countries where repression of the Jewish people was somewhat less caustic than in many locations further west.
The Monastery of Tatev, Armenia
An historical monument, the Tatev monastery was once a center for not only spirituality, but for teaching, expansion of the mind and soul, as well as pursuits of the purely scholastic. The dense stone walls and battlements are less an artistic choice and more a combination of the materials available at the time of building, and the war-torn nature of its medieval roots.
Popa Taungkalat Shrine, Myanmar
Beautiful to behold, it requires a 20 minute walk up stone steps through hawkers and literal monkeys who are known to steal from passers-by, but once you enter the serene complex of temples and behold the incomparable view of the world from this perch, the arduous hike will prove well worth it.
Ramanathaswamy Temple, Tamil Nadu, India
Oddly enough, one of the most gorgeous Hindu temples is dedicated to the god Shiva, known colloquially as “The Destroyer” of that faith. Thousand pillar halls and massive theerthams where pilgrims must cleanse themselves before worshipping the deity are the major wonders to behold here. Only true Hindus are permitted into the inner shrine.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
One of the few mosques in the area available to non-Muslims, Ramanathaswamy boasts more than 80 of the sterling marble domes. The entire structure is interlaced with delicate floral artwork and glittering stones, but the build is only traditional on the outside. Inside is more modern, offering a seamless melding of new and old.
Beth Sholom Synagogue, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
Bearing the distinction of being built by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Beth Sholom is not only lovely from the outside, but a technological marvel. The roof is corrugated plastic which provides an otherworldly glow on the inside as diffuse light filters down over the attendants. It’s literal outhouse technology turned into a transcendent experience.
Gawdawpalin Temple, Bagan, Myanmar
Simple stone befitting the Buddhist faith, this temple was begun by King Narapatisithu, who allegedly didn’t finish it because he was struck blind after declaring his greatness above all his ancestors.
Phraya Nakhon Cave, Thailand
Stunning and serene, the perfect combination of natural beauty and man-made wonder allows this humble subterranean temple to be one of the most photographed places in the world, yet pictures cannot do the gentle, natural experience justice.
El Castillo, Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico
A starkly symbolic representation of the darker side of faith, El Castillo, the Mayan crown jewel of Chichén Itzá carries not only time-honored architecture, but also walls of skulls and scenes of warrior worship that marked the culture that would one day be wiped out by European invaders.
Temple of Hephaestus, Athens, Greece
One of the few temples of ancient Greece to still stand largely as it was built, the Temple of Hephaestus is now believed to have actually been built to honor Theseus, which has led to a change of name to Thission for the area. It is made in the Doric style which inspires many modern monuments.
Shree Jagannath, Puri, India
On the eastern coast of India lies this lesser known work that is actually dedicated to the supreme god of the Hindu religion, Jagannath. Not only is it the site of daily worship, but many festivals on days of observance. Complex in the extreme, at any time it is as likely to be a place of revelry as one of quiet rumination and prayer.
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, Paris, France
As gothic as it gets, the Notre Dame Cathedral is more menacing than beautiful on the outside, this site has been the home of many churches, and even a Gallo-Roman temple. Though symmetrical at first glance, it’s actually replete with tiny deviations, acting as Easter Eggs for the keen observer.
Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, Medina, Saudi Arabia
Home and tomb of the Prophet Muhammad, Al-Masjid an-Nabawi spreads out rather than up, allowing for a sense of openness and an interaction with nature that is central to the faith of adherents.
Cathedral of Brasilia, Brasilia, Brazil
The modern design of this sweeping comes from Oscar Niemeyer who made it with the intent of two hands reaching skyward to receive divine blessings. Inside and out it is unlike any other cathedral in the world, prominently displaying the intermixing of contemporary building styles with matters of devotion.
St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
Known the world over for its bright colors, unusual, bulbous build, and location in the heart of Red Square, it’s a little known fact that The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed was actually commissioned by Ivan the Terrible.
Blue Mosque of Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey
Given its name due to the blue tiling used throughout, the Blue Mosque was made to celebrate peace after a multitude of wars in Persia and required the purchase and subsequent destruction of several other mosques that had been made by various other sultans out of funds acquired from bloodshed and conquest.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The largest religious site in the world, the ruins of Angkor Wat were made as a representation of Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods. Its construction took place over several years as various rulers attempted to make ever bigger and better monuments than their ancestors. The result is an odd mixture of styles, and an oddly sad game of wastefulness by monarchs in the name of their idols.