For hundreds of years, different cultures and religions around the world have used caves as spaces for worship, meditation, art, and burials. Find intricate carvings of Hindu deities, learn the legends of Greek gods, and unearth the sacred at these subterranean destinations.
Actun Tunichil Muknal
In myths, journeys to the underworld are never easy, and after visiting Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Stone Sepulchre), you may feel that you have been through your own epic test. Access to the Maya sacrificial site within the cave involves hiking, wading, and underwater swimming, but nearly a mile (1.6 kilometers) underground you will reach the resting place of the “crystal maiden,” a complete female skeleton that sparkles from eons of crystal calcification. The cave also contains Maya pottery shards, many showing the “kill hole” intended to allow spirits to escape.
Elephanta Caves, Gharapuri Island,
Carved out of a hillside in the fifth century, the ecstatic faces and swaying bodies of Hindu deities in the temples of the Elephanta Caves seem to be listening to the drone of ancient Indian instruments. The sinuous curves of the Siva Nataraja, or many-armed cosmic dancer, and the three faces of the Trimurti, representing the creator, preserver, and destroyer aspects of the god Siva, are as expressive today as centuries ago.
Cut into the Xiangshan and Longmen Shan hillsides above the Yi River, the Longmen (or “Dragon’s Gate”) complex of temple grottoes is an exquisite treasury of Buddhist carvings comprising 2,345 caves and niches, 2,800 inscriptions, and 43 pagodas, the earliest dating from the Northern Wei dynasty (A.D. 493). [Related: 21 photos of China's stunning World Heritage sites]
This complex of five Buddhist cave shrines was commissioned by King Valagambahu in 1 B.C. and has been a pilgrimage site for 22 centuries. Exquisitely painted and gilded murals, as well as sculptures, shimmer in the caves; ceiling murals have been painted directly onto the rough contours of the rock.
In ancient Greece this vast cave on Mount Parnassus was a place of worship of the god Pan and the nymphs. A rock near the entrance may have been used as an altar. [Related: Soar over the dramatic cliff monasteries of Meteora]
Bronze-Age Minoan Caves
Crete has more than 3,000 caves, many associated with the gods of Greek mythology and with goddess worship practiced by the Minoans, a Bronze-Age civilization that lasted from 2600 to 1100 B.C. The Dikteon Cave is said to be where Rhea gave birth to Zeus; the Idaian Cave, where Rhea hid Zeus from his father, Cronus.
St. Paul’s Grotto
In A.D. 60, St. Paul, then a Roman prisoner, was shipwrecked on Malta and is said to have sheltered in this tiny cave. In the Bible, Acts 28 relates that Paul was treated well by the Maltese and that during his stay he performed miraculous cures and survived a viper’s bite, leading the locals to view him as a god.
St. Michael’s Shrine
Christian legend says that this cave shrine in Monte Sant’Angelo was chosen by the archangel Michael, who appeared to the Bishop of Sipontum in A.D. 490 and promised, “Where the rocks open widely, the sins of men may be pardoned.” It is said that Michael left an altar, a red cloth, and his footprint in stone to mark the spot. [Related: Meet the man with the keys to the Vatican]
Grotte de Font-de-Gaume
Bison, horses, and mammoths are among the animals painted into the rough limestone walls of this cave in the Dordogne. Created at least 15,000 years ago, the paintings still have vivid colors and a sense of vitality. Their purpose may have been to do with hunting or with an attempt to represent a lunar calendar. [Related: Discover 3 incredible cave art sites in Europe]
Sof Omar Caves
It is said that Allah revealed the opening to this limestone cave system to Sheikh Sof Omar in the 12th century. The sheikh and his followers used the caves as a mosque, a purpose to which the caves were well suited as they had been eroded into columns, buttresses, domes, vaults, and pillars—a natural architectural marvel still used as a gathering place by local Muslims.
This list was adapted from National Geographic's book Sacred Places of a Lifetime.