The meaning of life is a mystery that cultures throughout the ages have wrestled with. It’s led to the creation of holy sites, with people across the planet building architectural wonders to honour their gods, while others revere the magnificence of nature, finding meaningful connections in sacred forests, sacred mountains and sacred rocks. From constructing Stonehenge in England to Mexico’s Chichen Itza pyramid, ancient civilisations have gone to great lengths to mark solstices and equinoxes, or commune with ancestors or worship spirits. What all these places have in common is people trying to make sense of life, death and the universe.
This search for meaning is at the heart of Canadian photographer Chris Rainier‘s latest book, Sacred: In Search of Meaning, which documents spiritual sites and landscapes around the world. A National Geographic Fellow, Rainier has spent the last 40 years focusing on traditional cultures.
“I started working as a travel expedition photographer in the 1980s and went in search of the ‘sacred’, looking for spiritual landscapes and sacred spiritual sites,” he said. “It came from my desire to get at the essence of life beyond daily existence. Why are we here? This is a question every society and every human has asked themselves since the dawn of mankind.”
Rainier thinks it’s vital to for us to understand how cultures around the world regard the universe. “There’s a vast tsunami of modernity sweeping across a lot of traditional cultures and sacred places,” he said, explaining this leaves less space in many cultures for religious beliefs, folklore and superstitions. “The ‘sacred’ is definitely under duress. But with the mass connection to the internet, we tend to forget there’s still the unknown in the world. We can’t forget there are still sacred places and sacred landscapes out there. The sacred can also be as simple as a paddle down a river or a walk in a park, searching for sounds of the wilderness.”
(Credit: Chris Rainier)
Whale Bone Alley, Russia
On remote, windswept Yttygran Island, a tiny isle in Siberia’s Bering Sea, there’s an arrangement of giant whale ribs and vertebrae known as “Whale Bone Alley”. The 550m-long passageway, which juts out of the ground next to the ocean, is an eerie, slightly grisly sight.
“I was on a National Geographic expedition ship in north-east Siberia in the Russian Arctic, and we found these ancient whale bone structures built by a pre-Inuit people called the Yupik, thought to be around 2,000 years old,” Rainier explained. “In many of these sites, there were artefacts found close by. The archaeological theory is that this site is a place where people would gather. They would erect the whale bones and put skins, such as musk ox or polar bear, over the top of the structure to create a gathering room. They would have sacred meetings inside. All that’s left now are the whale bones.”
He added: “In these types of sacred sites there is a sense of spirit – a magical worship of mythological animals and landscape spirits. I could imagine a gathering like this happening in such a profound place.”
While archaeologists believe Whale Bone Alley and other whale bone ruins (there are numerous other sites across Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula) were built as shrines and sacred meeting places, some local people today think such sites were more likely used for butchering and storing whale meat. It seems that one person’s sacred site can be another’s slaughterhouse.
(Credit: Chris Rainier)
Hegra, Saudi Arabia
Hegra was the second city of the Nabateans, who built their renowned capital, Petra, more than 500km to the north-west in what’s now Jordan. Located in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla region, the ancient stone city (known to Muslims as Al-Hijr and also as Mada’in Salih) has roots going back as far as the 1st Century BCE. It’s also the country’s first Unesco World Heritage Site, home to more than 100 well-preserved tombs with elaborate facades carved into the sandstone outcrops.
“These are the burial sites for kings, queens and noble people, just like in Petra,” explained Rainier. “This whole area was part of an ancient caravan route. Arab trading ships would land at the far eastern part of the Saudi Arabian peninsula, then pass by camel caravan through this area, then on to Petra and into the Holy Land. The people would have been very wealthy.”
He added: “This area is so unusual because it’s completely flat in the desert, and then there are these large rock outcrops where they’ve etched burial rooms into the rock. There are doorways, and the bodies would be placed inside rock mausoleums. We don’t know if the people were buried with treasure, but I can imagine they were.”
Travellers can arrange tours of Hegra, which also explore the Hijaz Railway that once carried Muslim pilgrims from Damascus to the holy cities of Makkah and Medina; or take in the sacred site from a hot air balloon. “There are archaeological digs going on around this area,” said Rainier. “They’re just beginning to understand the larger context of this sacred site deep in the Arabian desert.”
(Credit: Chris Rainier)
Anasazi handprints, United States
Ancient rock art is found across the US south-west, especially in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Known as petroglyphs, the pictures – many of which were created by the Fremont and Anasazi cultures – often feature human figures, animals, hunting weapons and handprints. The sites are considered sacred by many Native Americans, who see them as valuable connections to the past and their cultural heritage.
“Living in Santa Fe in New Mexico, I’ve always had a fascination with the First Nations peoples,” said Rainier. “This photo was taken in Utah. They’re thought to be about 4,000 years old but they’re in exquisite condition. You can imagine an ancient person putting their hand up to the red wall, taking the ochre and applying the paint onto the rock. These handprints have a powerful echo from eons ago. I imagine a group of hunters sitting in the shade, maybe saying ‘Why don’t we put our signature here?’ For me, it could be about existence, saying: ‘We are here.'”
Travellers can find other Anasazi handprints at Fallen Roof Ruin, an ancient Anasazi abode and granary in Bears Ears National Monument; while Sand Island Petroglyphs Panel, near Bluff, Utah, has centuries of rock drawings, including the Kokopelli, a mythical, flute-playing fertility deity.
(Credit: Chris Rainier)
Ancient deer stones, Mongolia
“Mongolia is a remarkable country with a rich history,” said Rainier. “There are ancient burial sites scattered across Northern Mongolia. You’ll be driving across the savannah and see a huge pile of rocks or boulders. Inside them would be the burial site of a highly respected warrior. Buried in the boulders are artefacts, such as swords, jewel boxes and the various possessions a warrior would have gathered over a lifetime.”
Ancient megaliths, known as “deer stones” and usually made from granite, are often seen nearby. “Positioned around the burial sites are large monolithic stones etched with mythological deer, ascending with the warrior’s spears and arrows. As the warrior ascends to some sort of spiritual heaven, his weapons are coming with him, carried by the deer. There are deer stones from the Bronze Age at the Uushigiin Uvur site near Moron in Northern Mongolia, which is where this image was taken. The stones date from between the 13th and the 9th Century BCE.”
Uushgiin Uvur has around 30 deer stones, as well as petroglyphs, stone sculptures and rock burial sites. There’s another Bronze Age site, with 100 deer stones, in the Khoid Tamir valley, while an area of Arkhangai province, called Jargalantyn Am, is known as “The Valley of the Deer Stones” as there are so many clustered closely together.
“Mongolians have a deep connection with their past,” said Rainier. “The deer stones are considered very sacred and important in Mongolian culture.”
(Credit: Chris Rainier)
The famous temple complex of Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, sprawling over 400 sq km just outside Siem Reap. Constructed in the early 12th Century as the capital of the Khmer empire, the Unesco World Heritage site was originally a Hindu temple, but was converted into a Buddhist temple by the end of the century and is now one of the world’s most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists.
Monks, nuns, local Cambodians and visiting Buddhists come here every day to make prayers and offerings, while travellers often gather each morning to watch the sun light up the temples – a spiritual experience for many.
“In Angkor Wat, there are four massive pathways, north, south, east and west, that lead into the centre of the temple,” said Rainier. “This gateway in the photo is one of the main gates leading into the temple of Bayon. It’s a very powerful place. There’s a sense of sacredness and mystery. Most people get a feeling of the jungle taking back what man has built, the massive banyan trees splitting open some of the temples. The Bayon Temple evokes a lot of the rich mythological stories of Hinduism, including the belief in the sacred journey to heaven.”
The Angkor Complex includes more than 70 temples and around 1,000 buildings, giving plenty for travellers to explore. There are countless statues of the Buddha, with artworks and carvings telling Buddhist stories, though, out of respect, many of the Hindu statues and artworks also remain.