For several years now, I have served as an instructor and guide for school groups visiting a particular place of worship in Cambridge. The purpose of the students’ visits is to receive a measure of “religious education” about the design, architecture, and practices of the venue. Church furnishings, symbolism, and art are explained. But this isn’t the only type of Sacred Site Tourism. Many people visit cathedrals, temples, mosques, and shrines, with a view of seeing them as historical structures, cultural artifacts, or as “museums.”
The purpose of this post is not to give advice for those visiting places of worship for the purpose of worship or prayer while on their holidays, but rather to give tips for those visiting with a “tourist” agenda. Many of these points are given to visiting students in my introductory comments of educational visits, and some are more generally “touristy.”
Number One: Be Respectful
You may not be a believer, or at least share the beliefs of those who worship within the site you are visiting. It may be to you a historical building, or repository of heritage. But for those who worship there, it is a special place. It is therefore useful to get a feel of the place when you arrive. What is the atmosphere? Is it a quiet place of prayer and contemplation (as is often the case of Catholic Cathedrals) or of active prayer (Mosques), or of education and teaching. Try to conform to the feel of the place.
Another area of respect is to aware of dress codes, and gender expectations. Check to see if there are any notices in regards to these. Most mosques expect that those entering have their arms and legs covered (avoiding sleeveless tops, and shorts), women are often expected to have their heads covered. Note that these are not uniquely Muslim norms. Some cathedrals in Italy expect women to cover the hair, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem requires legs to be covered (men and women). If visiting during worship time, many mosques require women to stay behind men (for the issue of decency), Orthodox Synagogues for women to be in a gallery, and Sikh Gurdwaras usually have men’s and women’s sides of the worship hall, and men and women are expected to cover their heads in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. Many Jain temples also request that leather not be brought into the worship areas.
Number Two: Photography
Here again see if there are any notices. Some places ban photography during worship period, but allow it between services. Others require a permit for photography (some of the ancient synagogues in Prague have this policy). Even if photography is permitted – then consider Tip One. Be respectful. Don’t use flash photography if it will disturb others’ prayer or worship. Don’t photograph worshipers without their permission, and don’t take too many snaps – giving the impression that the venue is a cheap tourist trap.
Number Three: Cleanliness and Godliness
Eating and drinking within worship spaces may be permitted, but littering definitely isn’t. Many places of worship do not have extensive cleaning staffs, but rather are maintained by volunteers from within their congregations. What you may leave behind, may not be cleared away before the “true purpose” of the space is next conducted. If eating and drinking is prohibited, then again see Tip One. Respect the practices of the place. This is equally true when it comes to foot ware. In mosques, prayer is conducted by bowing down on a clean surface. Shoes which have been outside soil this, and therefore are not permitted in the worship areas. Similar shoe removal is seen in Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist sites.
Number Four: Avoid Souvenir Hunting
Okay for this one you may get a mixed message. Many famous cathedrals and churches have small shops in which religious medallions, post cards, and the like are sold. If they are available – go for it. Other smaller churches have pamphlets, and the like in racks sometimes with “honesty boxes.” If a price is put on a booklet, please pay it. If tracts and other literature is noted as “please take one” then follow your conscience allowing for the fact that the intent is to teach you about their beliefs. As such don’t clear out their pamphlet stands just for souvenirs.
A word about candles. Candles are seen in many churches flickering away in alcoves. These are often (especially in Catholic churches) as aids and symbols of prayer. Many of these welcome you lighting a candle of remembrance or of prayer. But if a donation is requested please follow your conscience. If you don’t plan on using the candle as intended, but want it as a souvenir, then please give a fair gift for it.
Of other items. Weekly bulletins, and the like are often found in places of worship. They are usually intended for the regular attendees. These may seem ideal keepsakes of your visit, but refrain if it seems they are dwindling in supply.
Number Five: Leaving Your Mark
This too is an interesting one. You may find in ancient sites, graffiti that is centuries old. Some of these were left by pilgrims, others by conquering armies, and all give a sense of history. While it may be tempting to “join the tradition,” it is problematic on several fronts. A simple one is you are weakening the infrastructure, and a second is that you may be inadvertently removing or obscuring more ancient marks. If you really feel that your visit needs to be recorded for posterity, many churches and temples have visitors’ books. Feel free to use them.
Number Six: Provide for the Site’s Future
Remember, these venues were never intended to be tourist sites. Many of these ancient structures require huge sums to maintain their fabric. Gravity alone is a foe, pulling on roofs and walls. But pollution, erosion, and human visitation take their toll as well. Stairs become worn, woodwork decays, and cloth decays. If you see a donation box at the end of your visit, show your appreciation for the opportunity you have had to enrich your vacation.