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Sacred Journeys: Pilgrimage and Holy Places


Admission requirements

Admission to the MA Middle Eastern Studies or the MA Asian Studies or the MA Theology & Religious Studies. 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.


This course aims to provide students with 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.

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

  • weekly reading assignments (450 pages), 64 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 (c) brief comments about why
    you selected the question, statement or quotation, 12 hrs

  • study on pilgrimage of one’s choice: reading, 30 hrs;

  • presentation, 8 hrs;

  • final paper of 1000 to 1500 words consisting of a summary of the main arguments
    and a critical discussion, 12 hrs.

Total: 140 hrs = 5 EC

Assessment method


  • Individual presentation (of the final paper)

  • Final paper MA-students Religious Studies, 5 ec: 1,000- 1,500 words

  • Attendance and participation

Oral presentations last around 30 minutes. In the oral presentation, the student presents her or his plans for the final paper and critically discusses the literature that he or she will use.


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

  • Final paper MA-students: 1,000- 1,500 words: 60%

  • Attendance and participation: 10%


To pass the course, students must have received an overall mark for the course of 5.50 (=6) or higher.

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.)

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.

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).


Students are required to register through uSis

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

(Studeren à la carte is not 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 accomodations 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).