Text Treasures: The Pilgrimage of Egeria

Codex Aretinus 405 contains the only surviving copy of Egeria’s Travels.
Lameiro, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Egeria’s Travels is an early Christian pilgrimage account by an educated and well-traveled woman from the Roman province of Galicia (in modern Spain) that tells of her journey to and around the Holy Land. Dating to the late fourth century, this work is a rich source of geographical and historical information.

The account is unfortunately incomplete and survives in a single manuscript, now in the municipal library of Arezzo, Italy. Egeria’s work appears on pages 31–74 of Codex Aretinus 405, which was produced in the 11th century in the monastery of Monte Cassino. It is debatable how faithfully this copy transmits the original work. The parchment manuscript lacks the beginning and ending as well as four pages in the middle. Due to this state of preservation, the original title has not survived. The customary title derives from the work’s content and is variously given as Itinerarium Egeriae (Egeria’s Travels), Peregrinatio ad Loca Sancta (Pilgrimage to the Holy Sites), or Peregrinatio Aetheriae (Pilgrimage of Etheria).

The author’s identity is similarly modern conjecture. Addressing her readers repeatedly as dominae (“ladies”), dominae animae meae (“my dear ladies”), and dominae sorores (“sister ladies”), she clearly was a woman—either a nun writing for fellow nuns or a noblewoman writing for her intimate circle of pious friends. The first scholar to publish the manuscript, G.F. Gamurrini, identified her with the fourth-century noblewoman Silvia di Aquitania. She was later identified with Galla Placidia (388–450), a daughter of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I, and with “the religious person” whom the seventh-century hermit Valerius of Bierzo (in Galicia, Spain) praised, in a letter to his fellow monks, for her pilgrimage to the Levant. Since different manuscripts of this letter provide several different spellings of her name, she has been variously known as Aetheria, Etheria, and Egeria, the last of which is currently most widely used.

Although the surviving manuscript of Egeria’s Travels dates from the 11th century, the work was likely composed in the late fourth century. From internal evidence (e.g., historical events and names of local figures), scholars infer that Egeria traveled for three years sometime between 381 and 384. This early date makes her account the first Western report about the Christian communities in the Levant, and possibly the first female author from Spain. The text is written in a peculiar type of Late Latin, which was the original language of the composition. A blend of classical and colloquial constructions reflecting the style of the Latin Bible, Egeria’s style is simple and clear, though with numerous dialectal and regional idiosyncrasies.

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Divided into two parts with epistolary features, the work possibly originated as two letters. The first one reports on four trips: (1) to Mt. Sinai and back to Jerusalem, via the land of Goshen (1–9); (2) to Mt. Nebo and the traditional tomb of Moses (10–12); (3) to Carneas in Idumea (13–16); and (4) the return voyage to Constantinople, with stops at Edessa, Charris, Tarsus, Seleucia, and Chalcedon (16–23). The second part concerns the liturgical rites Egeria observed in Jerusalem (24–45), the catechesis prior to and after baptism (45–47), and the anniversary celebrations of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (48–49), after which the text breaks off. It has been suggested that the lost parts of Egeria’s Travels contained descriptions of the holy buildings of Jerusalem, a trip to Egypt, Samaria, and Galilee (with a hike up Mt. Tabor), and details of an excursion into Judea.

The historical value of Egeria’s account rests in its first-hand information about ecclesiastical and monastic buildings in the Holy Land, religious practices at various holy sites, and the organization of early Christian pilgrimages.

Egeria’s Travels was popular through the Middle Ages, and later works are known to have used Egeria’s account, including the 12th-century Liber de locis sanctis (Book About the Holy Sites) by Peter the Deacon, who apparently had the intact Codex Aretinus at his disposal.

The most recent English translation of Egeria’s Travels, with the facing Latin text, is Paul F. Bradshaw and Anne McGowan’s Egeria, Journey to the Holy Land (Brepols, 2020). The best critical edition of the Latin original appeared in the series Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 175 (Itineraria et alia geographica, pp. 37–90; Brepols, 1965); a different Latin edition (from Sources Chrétiennes, vol. 296) is available online.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:


Pilgrims’ Progress to Byzantine Jerusalem

Where Was Moses Buried?


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