Pilgrims’ Progress to Byzantine Jerusalem

Ancient pilgrimages to the Holy Land

helena

Mother of Emperor Constantine, Helena (right, pictured with her son) was perhaps the most famous pilgrim to travel to Byzantine Jerusalem and is credited with finding the tomb of Jesus and the True Cross. Unlike Egeria’s Travels and the journals of the Bordeaux Pilgrim and the Piacenza Pilgrim, Helena’s travels were not recorded in a personal journal. Rather we learn about her pilgrimage through the writings of others.

Jerusalem has been revered as a holy city for millennia—with pilgrims a staple feature in its bustling streets. Egeria’s Travels and the journals of the Bordeaux Pilgrim and the Piacenza Pilgrim demonstrate that this was as true in the Byzantine period as it is today.

In the September/October 2014 issue of BAR, “After Hadrian’s Banishment: Jews in Christian Jerusalem” examines the diverse population of Byzantine Jerusalem. Despite being banned from living in Jerusalem after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 A.D.), Jews were once again living in the city by the Byzantine period.

The Roman emperor Hadrian, who was responsible for expelling the Jews from Jerusalem, renamed the city Aelia Capitolina in the second century and left it to an overwhelmingly pagan population—Roman soldiers and citizens and the Hellenized residents of Palestine. When Constantine made Christianity a lawful religion in 325 A.D., Jerusalem became a Christian city. However, far from being transformed overnight, the population of Byzantine Jerusalem remained diverse with minorities, such as Jews, living in the city.

An interesting facet of this population was pilgrims—both Christian and Jewish. Traveling from distant lands, pilgrims came to worship in the Holy Land. Their accounts—from Egeria’s Travels and the journals of the Bordeaux Pilgrim and the Piacenza Pilgrim to the better-known writings about Helena, mother of Constantine, and Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II—offer valuable insight into life in Byzantine Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Egeria’s Travels even included a map.

While some pilgrims are known to us by name, such as Egeria the nun (author of Egeria’s Travels), others remain anonymous, like the Bordeaux Pilgrim and the Piacenza Pilgrim.

The Bordeaux Pilgrim is the earliest known Christian pilgrim who left an account of his journey to the Holy Land. Chronicling his travels in 333–334, the pilgrim began in Burdigala—modern-day Bordeaux in France, hence the name the Bordeaux Pilgrim—and passed through northern Italy, the Danube Valley, Constantinople, Asia Minor and Syria on his way to Byzantine Jerusalem. The journal kept by the Bordeaux Pilgrim is known as the Itinerarium Burdigalense. While the original copy of his journal is lost, the Itinerarium Burdigalense was transmitted over several centuries and survived in four early manuscripts written between the eighth and tenth centuries.
 


 
How can we reconstruct and visualize ancient and medieval pilgrimage routes? Find out in “Map Quests: Geography, Digital Humanities and the Ancient World” by Sarah E. Bond in Bible History Daily.
 

 
In his journal, the Bordeaux Pilgrim describes how Jews visited the Temple Mount and mourned upon “a pierced stone” (lapis pertusus).

Egeria was a pious woman from Galicia, Spain, who traveled around the Holy Land in the years 381 to 384 A.D. Writing in Latin, she chronicled her travels in a devout letter—the Itinerarium Egeriae or Egeria’s Travels. Many believe that she was a nun because she addressed her letter to her “beloved sisters.”


christian-ampulla

This hexagonal glass bottle—called an ampulla—was manufactured for a pilgrim in Byzantine Jerusalem. A cross can be seen on its face. Photo: Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantine Collection, Washington, DC.

jewish-ampulla

While less common than Christian ampullae, Jewish ampullae—such as this hexagonal glass bottle featuring a menorah—were also manufactured in Byzantine Jerusalem. Photo: Rijksmuseum Van Oudheden.


Only fragments of Egeria’s Travels have survived, the original letter long since lost. The middle section of Egeria’s Travels, documenting about four months of her pilgrimage, was preserved in the 11th-century manuscript Codex Aretinus. This medieval manuscript also went missing for several centuries, but it was rediscovered in 1884 at the monastic library in S. Maria in Arezzo, Italy, by Italian scholar Gian Francesco Gamurrini.

Egeria described holy sites in Byzantine Jerusalem, detailing religious processions and rituals among Christians. Her account provides useful information about liturgical worship in the fourth century, when the church calendar was still developing. For instance, Egeria visited Byzantine Jerusalem before December 25 was fixed and recognized as Jesus’ birthday. However, at this time she documented that there was already a procession from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Mount Zion that took place on the Sunday of Pentecost.

The anonymous Piacenza Pilgrim journeyed to the Holy Land in the 570s from the city of Piacenza in northern Italy. Itinerarium Antonini Placentini, his journal, overflows with wondrous tales from his travels. It recounts traditions about holy sites and relics and includes interesting anecdotes—some which seem nothing short of miraculous. When witnessing a baptism in the Jordan River on the Feast of Epiphany, the pilgrim describes how the waters stood still: “At dawn … the priest goes down to the river. The moment he starts blessing the water the Jordan turns back on itself with a roar, and the water stays still till the baptism is finished.”1 By the time the Piacenza Pilgrim visited Byzantine Jerusalem, Christmas was celebrated on December 25.

Perhaps the most famous Byzantine pilgrim was Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who came to Jerusalem in 326–327 when she was 80 years old. Eusebius of Caesarea notes that she contributed to the construction of both the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives.

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Helena is best-known for discovering Jesus’ tomb and the True Cross. Appended to his translation of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, Tyrannius Rufinus relates the legend of how the empress found the True Cross: Three crosses were uncovered at a site that Helena had begun excavating, and a test was performed to determine which cross had been used to crucify Jesus. A very sick woman was brought to the crosses. Nothing happened when she touched the first two. Upon touching the third cross, however, she was miraculously healed. This proved to everyone present that Helena had found the True Cross, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over the site of discovery.

More than a hundred years after Helena, another empress took a pilgrimage to Byzantine Jerusalem. Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II, journeyed to the holy city in 439. Later, after separating from her husband the emperor, Eudocia made Jerusalem her home. The empress funded numerous construction projects, including the building of St. Stephen’s Church and monastery and the rebuilding of the wall around Mount Zion and the Siloam Pool. A skilled poet, she also wrote literature, including the epic poem Martyrdom of St. Cyprian.

Pilgrims visiting Byzantine Jerusalem—both royal and common—often purchased eulogia, implements thought to ward off evil. One type of eulogia manufactured in Byzantine Jerusalem were ampullae, hexagonal glass bottles likely used to hold holy water or oil. Ampullae with both Christian and Jewish symbols have been unearthed. These artifacts demonstrate that there were enough Christian and Jewish pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem to warrant the making of eulogia for them.

More information about the population of Byzantine Jerusalem—and about the Christian and Jewish pilgrims who visited the Holy Land—can be found in the article “After Hadrian’s Banishment: Jews in Christian Jerusalem” in the September/October 2014 issue of BAR.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full article “After Hadrian’s Banishment: Jews in Christian Jerusalem” in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

Notes

1 John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades (Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1977), p. 82.
 


 

Learn more about pilgrims who visited Byzantine Jerusalem in the BAS Library:

“Past Perfect: A Pilgrim on Mt. Sinai,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2007.

Jan Willem Drijvers, “The True Cross,” Bible Review, August 2003.

Jodi Magness, “Illuminating Byzantine Jerusalem,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1998.

Gary Vikan, “Don’t Leave Home Without Them,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1997.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

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  1. Kurt says

    After the Exile. Two centuries after the Jews returned from Babylon, Greek influence began to dominate the Middle East, and many peoples abandoned circumcision. But when Syrian King Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) proscribed circumcision, he found Jewish mothers willing to die rather than deny their sons the “sign of the covenant.” (Ge 17:11) Years later Roman Emperor Hadrian got the same results when forbidding the Jews to circumcise their boys. Some Jewish athletes, however, who desired to participate in Hellenistic games (in which runners wore no clothing) endeavored to become “uncircumcised” by an operation aimed at restoring some semblance of a foreskin in an effort to avoid scorn and ridicule. Paul may have alluded to such a practice when he counseled Christians: “Was any man called circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised.” (1Co 7:18) The Greek verb here rendered “become uncircumcised” (e·pi·spa′o·mai) literally means “draw upon,” evidently referring to drawing the prepuce forward in order to become as if uncircumcised.—Compare Int.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200000977#h=11:338-11:1053

  2. D says

    Even though Hadrian prohibited Jews from entering Jerusalem and banned Judaism in Judea, the ban didn’t last long. Hadrian died in 138, a few years after the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt. His successor, Antoninus Pius, the first of the Antonines (the second and last were his successors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus), lifted the ban. The reason Jerusalem didn’t become a mainly Jewish city again was the devastation and depopulation of the area. Jewish life had moved to the north (Galilee) and was becomed dominated by the larger and wealthier community in Persia, outside of Roman rule. The revival of Jerusalem as a city began in the fourth century, when it became a predominantly Christian city.


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