Sacred mountains (Mount Shasta, Machu Picchu, Mauna Kea)


Religions around the world have long attributed divine qualities to the mountains that tower over their civilizations, and it makes a lot of sense. After all, these looming peaks are often the objects that are most closely positioned next to the heavens, the celestial bodies and the unknown.

However, that's not the only reason why mountains are often imbued with religious significance.

Many of Earth's peaks are considered sacred because of their connections to famous events — when Noah's ark came to rest upon Mount Ararat — or because the mountain demonstrates a god-like strength for destruction — consider Mount Shasta or Mauna Kea.

Regardless of whether you believe the legends that surround them, it's hard to deny the sublime power that mountains represent. There's even an official United Nations holiday — International Mountain Day on Dec. 11 — which celebrates the planet's peaks and recognizes the importance of sustainable mountain development.

From Mount Everest to Mauna Kea, continue below for a look at some of the Earth's most revered and holy mountains.

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Sacred peaks: Mount Everest

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Mount Everest, Nepal

Earth's highest mountain is also a place of great spiritual significance. At the base of Everest lies the famous Rongbuk Monsatery, which is an important pilgrimage site for the Sherpa people, who believe the mountain is teeming with spiritual energy.

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Sacred peaks: Mauna Kea

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Mauna Kea, Hawaii

All five volcanoes found on Hawaii's Big Island are regarded by Native Hawaiians as sacred mountains, but due to its height (13,803 feet above sea level), Mauna Kea is generally accepted to be the most sacred of the bunch. What's extra fascinating about Mauna Kea is that if you measure its height from its oceanic base (33,100 feet), it is more than twice as high as Mount Everest (15,260 feet).

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Sacred peaks: Machu Picchu

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Machu Picchu, Peru

These famous ruins were likely built as a royal retreat for the 15th century Incan emperor Pachacuti. Many scholars speculate that the location was chosen for spiritual reasons, most notably that the Urubamba River — known to the ancient Inca as the Vilcamayo ("Sacred River") — that almost completely encircles the mountain.

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Sacred peaks: Uluru

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Uluru, Australia

Found smack dab in the middle of Australia, this massive sandstone rock formation is one of the country's most famous landmarks. For the Anangu — the aboriginal people who have lived in the area for thousands of years — it is also a sacred monument. According to legend, anyone who removes rocks from Uluru is cursed and doomed to experience great misfortunes.

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Sacred peaks: Mount Shasta

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Mount Shasta, California

According to the lore of the native Klamath Tribe, this 14,179-foot snow-capped volcano is inhabited by Skell, the Spirit of the Above-World. It is said that Skell once fought a fierce battle with Llao, the Spirit of the Below-World, who resides in nearby Mount Mazama. The battle is likely a representation of the continuation of the legend, with volcanic eruptions occurring simultaneously at both sites. At the end of the battle, Llao loses and Mount Mazama collapses in on itself, forming Oregon's famous Crater Lake.

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Sacred peaks: Sinai Mountains

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Sinai Mountains, Egypt

Located in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, the biblical Mount Sinai is referenced in Abrahamic religions as the location where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

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Sacred peaks: Mount Kailash

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Mount Kailash, Tibet

Situated along the nearly 1,000-mile Transhimalaya range, this Tibetan mountain is held dearly sacred in four different religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Bön. For example, Kailash's summit is where the Hindu god Shiva is believed to sit in a state of eternal meditation.

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Sacred peaks: Mount Vesuvius

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Mount Vesuvius, Italy

At the time of Mount Vesuvius' deadly eruption in 79 A.D., the volcano was regarded as a divine "Genius"-type entity and a reflection of Jupiter's power. Doomed residents of nearby Pompeii portrayed the mountain as a serpent creature in their household shrines and frescoes.

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Sacred peaks: Akka mountain

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Áhkká, Lapland, Sweden

This 12-peaked massif in Sweden's Stora Sjöfallet National Park is regarded as holy in the indigenous Sami tradition. The name translates to "old woman" in the Lule Sami language, and it is often referred to as the "Queen of Lapland."

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Sacred peaks: Black Hills

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Black Hills, South Dakota
The name "Black Hills" — a literal translation of the Lakota name "Pahá Sápa" — refers to how dark the forest-covered mountains look from a distance. The range has a storied past in Native American history, and multiple tribes claim the land is the "sacred center of the world."

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Sacred peaks: Mount Olympos

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Mount Olympus, Greece

As the highest peak in Greece, it comes as no surprise that the snow-capped Mount Olympus would play a significant role in the ancient Greek world. According to mythology, this mountain formed following the defeat of the Titans at the hands of the Twelve Olympian gods — including Zeus, Hera, Apollo and Artemis.

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Sacred peaks: Ararat

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Mount Ararat, Turkey

This dormant volcano in eastern Turkey has two peaks: Greater Ararat (16,854 feet) and Lesser Ararat (12,782 feet). In the Judeo-Christian religions, the peaks are believed to be the location where Noah's ark finally landed following the great Biblical flood mentioned in the book of Genesis.

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Sacred peaks: Mount Fuji

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Mount Fuji, Japan

Japan boasts three holy mountains, but Mount Fuji is the most well-known and iconic. The other holy mountains are Mount Tate and Mount Haku. The 12,389-foot active strato volcano is a stunning natural landmark, but it is the mountain's unique cultural significance that led to its designation as a World Heritage Site.

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Sacred peaks: Arunachala

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Arunachala, Tamil Nadu, India

This holy hill in southern India is not as big as Mount Everest or Mount Fuji, but it remains an important holy place in the Hindu tradition. At the base of the hill is the Annamalaiyar Temple, which is dedicated to Shiva and plays an important role in the Hindu sect of Saivism. According to legend, Arunachala formed from a column of light created by Shiva, who was trying to settle an argument between Brahma and Vishnu over who was greater.

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Sacred peaks: Teide

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Teide Mountain, Canary Islands

The aboriginal Guanches people of the Canary Islands believed that this active volcano contains the devil Guayota, who was trapped inside by Magec, the god of light and sun. The Guanches light bonfires every time the volcano erupts, in hopes of scaring off the evil Guayota.

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Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.