Cyberpilgrimage: theory, practice and future 
Pedram Khosronejad (Powerhouse Museum)
Kenji Kuroda (National Museum of Ethnology)
Start time:
18 May, 2014 at 15:30 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

In this panel we tackle with new phenomenon of cyberpilgrimage (pilgrimage mediated by digital media) in contemporary religions.

Long Abstract

Today cyberspace is a reason for concern in most religious communities. In the last few years, both orthodox and less orthodox religious groups and communities seem to have acknowledged that the development of the Internet cannot be ignored, trivialized or kept away from religious communities. The discussion has therefore moved to more general questions on the degree to which true believers are allowed to get involved with the Internet and cyber space and on how to make it more relevant to their religious beliefs and duties.

In this panel we tackle with new phenomenon of cyberpilgrimage (pilgrimage mediated by digital media) in contemporary religions. The field of cyberpilgrimage, primarily from the viewpoint of religious and theology studies, is new topic in digital anthropology and anthropological pilgrimage studies. However, the new phenomenon seems to be a key to deconstruct and rethink former concept of pilgrimage in various reasons; lack of physical journey, general availability of access to sacred area and so on. Thus, the presenters in this panel explore dynamics of cyberpilgrimage in terms of pilgrimage studies.

Accepted papers:


Kenji Kuroda (National Museum of Ethnology)

Paper short abstract:

In this presentation I tackle religious authorities' views on digitalizing holy space in Shiite Islam in terms of exploring religious "norm" and practice among contemporary Muslims.

Paper long abstract:

Visiting holy shrine, called ziyarat in Persian, of their holy religious leaders and the relatives has been one of great important religious practice among Twelver Shiite Muslims and has been encouraged by development of new transportation tools. Although visiting holy shrine has been historically important religious practice among Shi'a, it has not been always easy to do such religious practice in terms of various points including political situation, financial situation and so on. Thus there have been alternative practice and media to access to holy shrines through their history.

In recent years, major holy shrines, usually shrines of Imams in Iraq and Iran, have own website including live camera. In addition, website of holy shrine of Imam Rida in northeast Iran achieved to create virtual visiting environment. Such digitalizing holy spaces not only make easy laymen to access holy shrine, but also seem to make new religious experiments as if they really visit holy shrine.

However it is unclear whether digitalizing holy spaces and such religious experiment are permitted under Islamic law. This matter is quite important for understanding religious practice in terms of Islamic discursive tradition. Especially, there has been religious "followed-following " relationship between higher jurisprudence authority and non-religious professionals in Twelver Shiite community since late 18th century.

Thus in this presentation I tackle with religious authorities' views on digitalizing holy space in Shiite Islam in terms of exploring religious "norm" and practice among contemporary Muslims.


Liisa Vesik (Estonian Literary Museum)
Andres Kuperjanov (Estonian Literary Museum)

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyzes the phenomenon of cyberpilgrimages in contemporary Bulgaria: to canonical Bulgarian Orthodox pilgrimage destinations like the Rila Monastery as well as newer ones like the Forest of Crosses, and to the church and burial place of Baba Vanga (1911-1996).

Paper long abstract:

The presentation concerns the destinations of various virtual pilgrimages of the Bulgarian Orthodox tradition and how they transformed during the 20th century (e.g., being the the political and economic influence sphere of the Soviet Union and corresponding official regulation of religious practices). Three pilgrimage destinations are compared: a) the abbey and chapel of Ivan of Rila, a symbol of identity and religious continuity since the Middle Ages, one of the most popular pilgrimage destination and legendary node of southern Slavs; b) the monastery of Holy trinity - the Forest of Crosses, c) the church, abbey, burial site and religious complex in the former home of the Bulgarian religious clairvoyant Baba Vanga (1911-1996), a controversial person.

All three sites are related to different layers of religion, tightly bound with Bulgarian political history, identity, personal religious phenomena, and the virtual and physical pilgrimages carry different connotations. Ivan of Rila is one of the most influential theological figures of Bulgarian Orhtodoxy, the name saint of the country. The Forest of Crosses is a legendary place where pieces of Christ's Cross are preserved whereas the Baba Vanga cult site is a 21st century complex.

The paper is based on comparative fieldwork (2006-2013, both online and on-site) concerning different sacred sites as the nodes of traditions. All three locations differ in their narrative components, target groups and follow different developmental trends.


Liora Sarfati (Ben Gurion University in Eilat)

Paper short abstract:

Online pilgrimage related to Jewish saints in Israel allows a unique interplay between tangible, imaginary, and mediated experiences. Cyber venerators compartmentalize their activities into various life contexts and enjoy a personally tailored combination of Internet based and locational practices.

Paper long abstract:

New media developments in Israel have enabled relocating religious activities to the Internet. This paper explores pilgrimage to gravesites of Jewish Saints (Tsaddik) in its locational and cyber forms. Tsaddik gravesite pilgrimage is a space centered activity. People travel far in order to be physically present in the vicinity of the Tsaddik's spirit. The gravesite is an axis-mundi, which facilitates direct communication between the human and the supernatural. Most Tsaddik veneration websites offer to mediate between web-surfers and human messengers, who can pray, play recorded requests, or light candles at the gravesite for an Internet user that they never met in person. Another technological mediation happens in many contemporary Tsaddik grave rituals when pilgrims hold cellular phones above the crowds' heads to transmit images and sounds of prayer to friends and relatives who stayed at home. The connection between two completely different kinds of spaces, the traditional structure of the grave, and the virtual flat representation on the screen allows a unique interplay between tangible, imaginary, and mediated experiences. Online venerators of the Tsaddik are also able to compartmentalize their activities in accordance with the various contexts of their lives. They are not asked for full dedication and commitment while conducting cyber pilgrimage, and they can keep this practice as a personal secret. The translocation of hope-producing rituals from gravesites to the Internet produces new complexities in practice and ideology as it provides new spaces for religious activity and broadens the cultural spectrum of spirituality in Israel.