Tracing the Footsteps of Jesus

From the fourth through the sixth centuries, people across the Mediterranean world flocked to the Roman province of Palestine. They were drawn by a new Christian understanding of the historical and spiritual significance of the region. The church father Jerome described his friend Paula's response when she arrived in Jerusalem from Rome: “Before the Cross she threw herself down in adoration as though she beheld the Lord hanging upon it: and when she entered the tomb which was the scene of the Resurrection she kissed the stone which the angel had rolled away from the door of the sepulchre. Indeed so ardent was her faith that she even licked with her mouth the very spot on which the Lord's body had lain, like one athirst for the river which he has longed for.” Many foreign visitors settled in Palestine, embracing the monastic life of prayer.

The Christian Holy Land of this era can be seen most clearly through the eyes of a fourth-century woman named Egeria, a nun from Spain who traveled to the East and recorded what she witnessed for her monastic sisters back home. Not all of her account survives and little is known about her, but what has been preserved shows us how Christians responded to the land of the Bible and celebrated Christ's resurrection in Jerusalem.

By Camel, Mule, and Foot

Egeria's account is unusual for the time because a woman wrote it, but her activities were not out of the ordinary. There is ample evidence that wealthy Western women, often widows, traveled to the Holy Land and Egypt and gave generous donations to monasteries they visited. They were motivated by a desire to see the places where Jesus had lived, to visit the sites associated with the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, and to meet holy men and women practicing monasticism in this region. Such travelers considered wandering so far from home to be a form of spiritual discipline, like prayer, fasting, and celibacy. They acted out the spiritual reality that Christians are only sojourners on earth whose citizenship is in heaven.

Travelers faced real hardships, from the threat of shipwreck and pirates aboard cargo vessels, to the lack of fresh water in arid climates. Inns were physically and spiritually dangerous, filled with thieves and prostitutes. Monasteries fulfilled their call to hospitality by building guesthouses for pilgrims. Some travelers, such as the Bordeaux Pilgrim and the Piacenza Pilgrim, wrote itineraries that not only inspired other pilgrims but also offered practical guidance for the unfamiliar terrain (something like a Byzantine Lonely Planet guide!) In the midst of his accounts of the holy men and women he encountered, the Piacenza Pilgrim constantly noted the availability of drinking water. At the tomb of Rachel between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, for example, each traveler could draw seven pints of fresh water—a generous ration for one who had crossed a desert by camel with only two pints a day.

Egeria usually traveled by foot, although sometimes she hired mules. She had ample financial resources for her traveling party, which probably included servants and, in dangerous regions, imperial guards. Egeria was certainly in charge of her itinerary, deciding how long to stay in each location and choosing new destinations. Her journey lasted at least three years. Local monks and clergy served as her guides to the holy places and celebrated the Eucharist with her and her companions.

A Pilgrim's Itinerary

The beginning and end of Egeria's travelogue are missing, but we can outline large portions of her route once she reached the East. After arriving from Constantinople, she explored biblical sites surrounding Jerusalem. She made longer trips to Egypt, Galilee, Mt. Sinai, and Mt. Nebo. After celebrating Easter in Jerusalem, Egeria traveled to Antioch and east to the Syrian city of Edessa to pray at the shrine of the apostle Thomas. The bishop of Edessa graciously welcomed her, articulating her motive and that of other Christian visitors: “My daughter, I see that you have taken on yourself, because of your piety, the great task of journeying from very distant lands to these places. Therefore … we will show you whatever places there and here that Christians like to see.”

In addition to places associated with Jesus, Egeria sought out Old Testament sites because she understood the history of the Israelites to be part of the Christian gospel. She visited many sites in Egypt, including the “plain above the Red Sea … where the children of Israel cried out when they saw the Egyptians pursuing them” and the “city of Pithom, which the children of Israel had built.”

She described the arduous climb up Mt. Sinai: “By the will of Christ our God, and with the help of the prayers of the holy men who were accompanying us, I made the ascent, though with great effort, because it had to be made on foot, since it was absolutely impossible to make the climb in the saddle.” Her joy at visiting the place where God spoke to Moses is evident: “Once all your wishes have been fulfilled and you have come down from there, then you can see it in the distance.”

Egeria was not a tourist but a worshiper. At holy places she read appropriate Scriptures, sang Psalms, prayed, and shared the Eucharist. She was as eager to meet holy men and women as to visit holy places. Monks had settled at many places associated with events from the Bible. Their ability to point out the historical details of nearby biblical sites reveals how Palestinian and Egyptian Christians guarded communal memories. They were concerned about historical accuracy and confessed their inability to preserve certain sites. Egeria explained why she was unable to see the pillar of Lot's wife: “The pillar is said to have been covered by the Dead Sea. … The bishop of that place … told us that for some years now the pillar has not been visible.” Some Christians viewed the physical remains in the Holy Land as symbols of spiritual realities in a believer's life. But Egeria saw the holy sites and the Christians who lived there as witnesses to the historical reality of Scripture.

Egeria had scholarly motives that corresponded with her spiritual ones. In Edessa she obtained copies for her own monastery's library of the legendary correspondence between Jesus and King Agbar of Edessa. Egeria promised her sisters at home that they should read them: “Although I had copies of them at home, I was clearly pleased to accept them … in case the copy which had reached us at home happened to be incomplete; for the copy which I had received was certainly more extensive.” This shows that women's monasteries in late antiquity were centers of learning as well as prayer.

Holy Week in the Holy City

The focal point of Egeria's entire account is her description of worship in Jerusalem. She carefully observed how the Christians there observed the liturgical year, paying particular attention to the services of Holy Week. In many respects, worship in the Holy Land, with its daily pattern of prayer at appointed hours, vigils, singing of psalms, and the celebration of the Eucharist, would have been familiar to Egeria's fellow Christians in the West: “Everything is done which is customarily done at home with us.”

But Christians in Jerusalem had the added witness of geography to augment their liturgy. They physically moved from place to place in Jerusalem during Holy Week as they remembered the events of Christ's Passion. Christians could literally trace the footsteps of Jesus.

The remains of the Jewish Temple did not feature prominently in Egeria's account; rather, the focus of Christian worship in Jerusalem was Golgotha. Visitors today to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre see a building constructed in the Crusader period, but Egeria worshipped in the church complex sponsored by the Emperor Constantine, under the supervision of his mother Helena, and later imperial patrons. Eusebius described the sculpted ceiling of Constantine's church as “like a vast sea, over the whole church; and being overlaid throughout with the purest gold, caused the entire building to glitter as it were with rays of gold.”

Christians fasted during Lent in order to prepare spiritually for Easter. During this period, clergy instructed catechumens (those seeking baptism) in basic Christian doctrines. On Palm Sunday, Christians processed from the Mount of Olives to the city. “All the children who are present here,” Egeria described, “including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents' shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, and others, olive branches.” Services continued throughout the week, gaining intensity on Maundy Thursday as people gathered at Gethsemane to remember the Last Supper and Judas' betrayal.

On Good Friday, believers approached individually to kneel before and kiss the wooden remains of the True Cross. Deacons were set to guard this precious relic of Christ's Passion after one eager worshiper had tried to bite off and steal a piece of the wood. “There is no one, young or old,” Egeria wrote, “on this day who does not sob more than can be imagined for the whole three hours, because the Lord suffered all this for us.”

Prayers and Scripture reading continued through midnight on Holy Saturday. Then the catechumens were baptized, clothed in white robes, and led forth by the bishop to share as full members of the church body in the Easter Eucharist. Egeria noted the stamina of the worshipers, who participated in as many of the long services as they were physically able. After Easter, all feasted in celebration of the resurrection. Festivities continued until Pentecost, when a procession to the Mount of Olives lasted a full day.

Something to Write Home About

We do not know when Egeria eventually returned home, but we are certain that her account reached the West. A seventh-century Spanish monk named Valerius praised her for making the remarkable journey and reported that she became the abbess of her community. Many Western pilgrims returned home carrying mementos such as the small vessels called ampullae, decorated with scenes of Christ's Passion and filled with holy oil; Egeria brought the letters from Edessa, and she treasured her memories. The desire to share with her sisters the liturgical and monastic practices of the Holy Land consumed her. One of the Jerusalem customs that proved popular in the West was the practice of processing around the city from church to church during Holy Week. The practice continues today among Christians who observe the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

Egeria's exuberance at visiting places where biblical events transpired was not only about sacred history. Her desire to meet Christians who prayed and worshiped in those places testifies to her belief that the faith preserved in the Holy Land was a living reality. She was willing to wander for years, enduring rigors and uncertainties, because she understood that the universal church transcended the limits of time and geography. Her message continues to teach those of us who cannot make the journey ourselves.

By Jennifer Hevelone-Harper

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #97 in 2008]

Jennifer Hevelone-Harper is associate professor and chair of history at Gordon College.
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