Some of the world’s most beautiful buildings have been constructed in the name of religion. Designed as tributes to deities or divine rulers, they dazzle with intricate and, in some cases, colourful details. From the most magnificent mosques with golden domes to boldly beautiful temples, churches, and synagogues, these are some of the most captivating places of worship around the world.
Neue Synagogue dates back to the mid-19th century but bears the scars of more recent history. The Moorish-style building was among the synagogues set ablaze across Germany on 9 November 1938 (Kristallnacht or the November Pogrom), saved only because the local police chief argued it was a historical building. It was all but destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, with its golden domes and intricate façade restored in 1995. Today the building has a prayer room and, while it hasn’t been officially rededicated as a synagogue, is an important centre for Jewish communities in Berlin.
This magnificent Byzantine monument was built in the 6th century as a Christian cathedral and has played a role as a place of worship for different religions over the centuries. It became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century and remained so until 1934, when it was designated a museum. But since summer 2020, the Hagia Sophia is officially a mosque again. Its domes, walls and minarets bear witness to its complex history with Islamic inscriptions and Christian mosaics.
Gazing out to the shores of Lake Michigan and surrounded by manicured, petal-shaped gardens, each with a fountain, this temple just outside Chicago is the only in the US dedicated to the Baha’i faith and one of just seven worldwide. The alabaster-hued structure, made with quartz and cement, was built in the 1920s with a dome intricately carved like lace. The Baha’i faith is built on the unity of all mankind and, as such, all faiths are welcomed. There are no official leaders or clergy, with readings made by local community members.
Prague is home to several stunning synagogues including this beauty in the heart of the Jewish Quarter. The Spanish Synagogue, built in 1868, is so-named due to its Moorish-Andalusian interior: a dazzling display of gilded touches, balustrades, intricate mosaics, carvings and stained glass. The butter-yellow building sits on the site of the Old School, the city’s oldest Jewish place of worship, and was neglected under Nazi and Communist rule until it was revived, restored and eventually reopened by the Jewish Museum in the latter half of the 19th century.
This Zen Buddhist temple is officially named Rokuon-ji, though it’s obvious how it earned its more popular moniker Kinkaku-ji, meaning ‘Golden Temple’. Its warm golden glow adds to its otherworldly beauty, as does its position at the edge of a mirror pond, giving the tiered structure the appearance of floating on the water. It was built as rather opulent retirement villa for shogun (military dictator) Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397 and became a temple following his death in 1408.
Each of the 11 rose-hued rock churches of Lalibela seems like an impossible marvel, carved into living rock as part of King Lalibela’s quest to create a New Jerusalem in the 12th century. Bete Giyorgis, or the Church of Saint George, is the most striking of all: a monolithic, cross-shaped structure chiselled straight into the ground and accessed via tunnels and stairwells. The king claimed he carved the churches with only the angels to help him, though it’s more likely he used thousands of slaves.
This elegant, Venetian-Renaissance-style church has a touching backstory. Henry Flagler, founder of Standard Oil and the Florida East Coast Railway, had the Memorial Presbyterian Church built in 1889 as a monument to his daughter, Jenny Louise Benedict, who died due to complications when giving birth. And it’s a suitably thoughtful memorial, with wood-carved walls, stained glass and a cornflower-blue domed ceiling. Flagler and his family, including Jenny Louise, are entombed in the church.
Basilica San Marco, or St Mark’s Church, is the most recognisable building in Venice and one of the most famous – and opulently designed – cathedrals in the world. It was founded in the 9th century and was rebuilt in 932 after being destroyed by fire. Its Byzantine architecture dominates Piazza San Marco with a head-spinning display of domes, niches, floral decorations and incredibly detailed reliefs depicting biblical scenes. The interior is also a dazzler with gold-leaf mosaics, statues and various examples of rare marble. Take a look at more of the world's stunning cathedrals.
Ottawa’s oldest and largest church had humble beginnings: the first structure here was a small wooden church, built in 1832. The rather grander current building was finished in 1885 and, while quite striking, it’s the inside that really wows. Gilded details and shades of sapphire and Tiffany blue give it the feel of a beautiful jewellery box, while carved reliefs, statues and gleaming stained-glass windows add to the opulence.
I will share more of these beautiful buildings in my next article.