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Sacred Journeys: Pilgrimage and Holy Places (ResMA)


Admission requirements

Admission to the MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) or the MA Asian Studies (research).
Preferably, students have some basic knowledge of and interest in the anthropology and sociology of religion.
Students who lack this knowledge are advised to read D.L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion (Oxford 2006) before the start of the course. Students of other MA programmes are kindly referred to the regular MA course.


This course aims at providing students knowledge of and insights into the development, function and meaning of pilgrimage and sainthood in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, both historical and contemporary. The scholarly inquiry into the diversity of religious expressions and behavior is interdisciplinary in nature and demonstrates changes in the religious landscape revealing an increasing religious pluralism in our times.

Pilgrimage is an ‘arena’ for competing religious and secular discourses, for both the official co-optation and the non-official recovery of religious meanings, for conflict between orthodoxies, sects, and confessional groups, for drives towards consensus, and for counter movements towards division. At the same time pilgrimage can be understood or identified in terms of ‘movement’: movement as performative action (effecting certain social and cultural transformations), movement as embodied action (providing the catalyst for certain kinds of bodily experiences), movement as part of a semantic field (referring to the need to contextualize the meaning of pilgrimage within local cultural understandings of mobility), and movement as metaphor (the ways in which pilgrimage-related discourses may evoke movement rather than require it).

The study of these various expressions, in most cases fluid and ambiguous, but highly dynamic and mutable, not only provides us with knowledge about people’s changing beliefs but also about the wider society in which they manifest themselves. The religious, social, cultural, political and material aspects of pilgrimage and its rites have produced a variety of scholarly interpretations.

In this course we will study examples of pilgrimage and sainthood in historical and contemporary Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and specifically examine the theoretical orientations being used to interpret them. The course consists of two parts. In the first part, a series of lectures will offer an interpretative and theoretical framework in addition to regional perspectives;, in the second, the student will present their own research in preparation of the written term paper.

Course Objectives

After successfully completing the course, the student is able:

  • to provide an in-depth overview of the ritual practice of the sacred journeys discussed in class;

  • to recognize the various theoretical perspectives informing the study of these pilgrimages and holy places;

  • to conduct a critical literature review of a particular pilgrimage or holy place;

  • to report about it orally and in writing.


check timetable

Mode of instruction


Lectures by the instructors and a few guest experts, as well as oral presentations by students.
Attendance is mandatory and participation in discussions consists in 10% of the grade. Each student is expected to have done the assigned readings and to have submitted pertinent Q&Cs in time.

Students are required to attend all sessions. The convenors need to be informed without delay of any classes missed for a good reason (i.e. due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness, family issues, problems with residence permits, the Dutch railways in winter, etc.). In these cases it is up to the discretion of the convener(s) of the course whether or not the missed class will have to be made up with an extra assignment. Being absent without notification can result in a lower grade or exclusion from the term end exams and a failing grade for the course.

Bring the books or handouts we are working with to each meeting. If an emergency requires you to miss a meeting, notify the instructor in time, and be prepared to have another student report on what you missed; you are responsible for seminar information and announcements whether present or not.

Course Load

  • weekly meetings 12 x 2 hrs, 24 hrs, with an extra 6 hrs in a form to be discussed

  • weekly reading assignments (450 pages), 60 hrs

  • 6 assignments (Q&Cs) consisting of (a) a summary of the main arguments of the literature assigned for the class (maximum of three paragraphs) (b) a question or statement about an issue raised in the literature or a specific quotation that you would like to discuss and (b) brief comments about why you selected the question, statement or quotation, 10 hrs

  • presentation, 30 hrs

  • end term paper of 6,000 words, 150 hrs

Total: 280 hrs = 10 EC

Assessment method


  • Individual presentation (of the final paper)

  • Final paper ResMA-students: 6,000 words

  • Attendance and participation


  • Individual presentation (of the final paper): 30%

  • Final paper ResMA-students: 6,000 words: 60%

  • Attendance and participation: 10%

The end-term paper is written in two stages: a first version, which will be commented on, and a final version. Students who do not meet the deadline for the first version will lose the right to get comments and will only be graded based on their final version. Students who do not meet the deadline for the final version, will get a failing grade. (The paper deadline mentioned in uSis is a fictional date for administration purposes only. The actual date will be communicated by the convenor of the course.)

In order to pass the course, students must obtain an overall mark of 5.50 (=6) or higher.

The course is an integrated whole. All categories must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.

Exam Review

If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the final results, a review of the end term paper will be organized.


Reading material and assignments will be distributed through Blackboard.

Note: there is no separate Blackboard page available for this ResMa course. Please subscribe to the Blackboard page of the regular MA course.

Reading list

Reading assignments for each meeting will be posted on Blackboard in due time, but students are required to have read at least the following article prior to the first meeting of the course:
S. Coleman, “Do you believe in pilgrimage? Communitas, contestation and beyond”, Anthropological Theory 2/3 (2002), 355-368 (this article can be easily downloaded via the University Library webcatalogue).

For the Research MA students additional reading will be determined by the convener at a later stage taking into account the students’ fields of interest. Extra sessions will be organized to discuss this extra literature.


Students are required to register through uSis. To avoid mistakes and problems, students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the timetable in the column under the heading “Act.nbr.”. General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch.

Registration à la carte or contractonderwijs

A la carte nor contractonderwijs is possible for this course.


Dr. N.M. Dessing
Prof. Dr. J. van der Vliet


Students with disabilities

The university is committed to supporting and accommodating students with disabilities as stated in the university protocol (especially pages 3-5). Students should contact Fenestra Disability Centre at least four weeks before the start of their courses to ensure that all necessary academic accommodations can be made in time conform the abovementioned protocol.

Academic Integrity

Students are expected to be familiar with Leiden University policies on plagiarism and academic integrity. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. If you submit any work with your name affixed to it, it is assumed to be your own work with all sources used properly indicated and documented in the text (with quotations and/or citations).