Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

PILGRIMAGE: Journeys of Meaning by Peter Stanford book review

  • Written by  Lucy Kehoe
  • Published in Books
PILGRIMAGE: Journeys of Meaning by Peter Stanford book review
29 Apr
by Peter Stanford • Thames & Hudson

In 2019, 347,578 people walked the requisite 100 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago to receive their pilgrim’s certificate. In the same year, 2.5 million Muslims completed the Islamic rite of Hajj with a trip to Mecca, while on the banks of the Ganges, a staggering 120 million people joined in ritual bathing as part of Hinduism’s Kumbh Mela. In short, pilgrimages are booming. Yet, globally, religious affiliation continues its free-fall. It’s that contradiction into which Peter Stanford delves for his latest book, which navigates the blurring lines between tourism and pilgrimage to explore the pull of ancient sites.

Through footways as diverse as Japan’s Shikoku Buddhist trail, the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way and pathways to Ethiopia’s underground chapels, Stanford builds a rounded index of celebrated pilgrimages, providing a basic understanding of their histories, traditions and current popularity. Don’t read this expecting a definition of a pilgrim, however: Stanford evades prescribed edicts. These travellers can be pious, curious, even surprisingly secular and they seek everything from absolution to elusive ‘mindfulness’.

A practising Catholic and former editor of the Catholic Herald, Stanford’s interpretations of papal pilgrimages, as expected, are precise, but the rigour of his research and analysis transcends creed. His kindness to the spiritually secure and those at the more eclectic end of worship is revitalising, given our current proclivity to banish tales of saints and miracles to the ditch of conspiracies and cranks. Considering the New Age allures of Machu Picchu and the youthfulness of North America’s Mormon Trail, a judgement-free narrative helps to reveal these otherwise intangible spiritual rites. Stanford wonders if these pilgrimages ‘speak to an older variety of truth’, carried by past pilgrims who were able to ‘hold on to two sorts of truth simultaneously, the physical and the metaphysical’.

There are few concrete answers here as to why pilgrimage continues to entice, but perhaps this is a topic that shouldn’t offer absolutism. For Stanford, pilgrimage remains relevant precisely because it offers a road parallel to the certainties of life – it’s a journey that seeks to find something greater than our norm.

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...


Our pick of the 10 best books of 2021 


Tom Chivers is a writer, publisher and arts producer. His…


Our nonfiction reviews for Septemer 


Journalist, author and humanitarian Tara Kangarlou spent four years reporting…


Jonathan Drori CBE FRGS is the author of the international…


Explore the month's best nonfiction reads