Some of the oldest destinations for pilgrimages are in India. On the sacred river Ganges lies Benares, the holy city of Brahminism. Buddhism offers four sites of pilgrimage: the Buddha's birthplace at Kapilavastu, the site where he first preached at Gaya, where the highest insight dawned on him at Benares, and where he achieved Nirvana at Kusinagara.
In Israel and Judah the visitation of certain ancient cult-centers was repressed in the 7th century BCE, when the worship was restricted to Jahweh at the temple in Jersusalem. In Syria, the shrine of Astarte at the headwater spring of the river Adonis survived until it was destroyed by order of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE.
In mainland Greece, a stream of individuals made their way to Delphi or the oracle of Zeus at Dodona, and once every four years, at the period of the Olympic games, the temple of Zeus at Olympia formed the goal of swarms of pilgrims from every part of the Hellenic world. When Alexander the Great reached Egypt, he put his whole vast enterprise on hold, while he made his way with a small band deep into the Libyan desert, to consult the oracle of Ammun. During the imperium of his Ptolemaic heirs, the shrine of Isis at Philae received many votive inscriptions from Greeks on behalf of their kindred far away at home.
No religion has laid greater stress on the duty of a pilgrimage than Islam in the Hajj (q.v.).
In the Middle Ages, even as early as the 4th century CE, Christian pilgrimage was regarded as a sacred obligation and a trial of one's faith, since travel was dangerous, expensive and time-consuming. Popular destinations for pilgrimage in England included Bury St. Edmunds and Thomas Beckett's shrine at Canterbury, the destination of Chaucer's 14th century pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales. The shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain lay at the end of a long connected string of pilgrims' sites, as did the city of Rome.
Pilgrims contributed an important element to long-distance trade before the modern era, and brought prosperity to successful pilgrimage sites, an economic phenomenon unequalled until the tourist trade of the 20th century. Encouraging pilgrims was a motivation for assembling (and sometimes fabricating) relics and for writing hagiographies of local saints, filled with inspiring accounts of miracle cures. Lourdes and other modern pilgrimage sites keep this spirit alive.
Over the centuries the terms 'pilgrim' and 'pilgrimage' have come to have a somewhat devalued meaning, and are nowadays often applied in a secular context. For example, fans of Elvis Presley may choose to visit his home, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee. Similarly one may refer to a cultural center such as Venice as a 'tourists' mecca (old spelling of Makkah).
The Pilgrims were a group of English 'Separatists', religious dissidents who exiled themselves first in the Netherlands, then sailed for Massachusetts, in the hope of setting up a colony where they could enjoy religious freedom. In this context, the term 'pilgrim' (first used of them in 1799) means only that they travelled a long way in order to practise their religion.