Egeria - Pilgrim and Writer

In the middle of the fourth century c.e., a Christian woman took a journey lasting four years to the Middle East. She wrote a journal of her travels, and the manuscript lay dormant until the late 1800s.

Other Latin writers made mention of her, so her accounts circulated among religious pilgrims before they were lost for centuries. Her name was Egeria (also known as Eutheria, Aetheria, and Silvia), and she was writing for other religious women who lived in Europe, perhaps on the Atlantic coast of Spain or France.

Most likely she was a nun commissioned by her community to put her curious and adventurous mind to work for the benefit of the spiritual life of her sisters. She went on pilgrimage to the most important sites of the Christian and Jewish world of her day.

Her account is one of the most valuable documents scholars have of the fourth-century world of travel, piety, early monasticism, women’s roles, and even the development of late Latin.

Her book has two parts. The first part is a travelogue and is simply her report of her pilgrimage. She tells her sisters of her visits to such hallowed and historical places as Jerusalem, Edessa, sites in Mesopotamia, Mount Sinai, Jericho, the Jordan River, Antioch, and Constantinople, and of meeting people (usually monks and mystics) staffing the places.

She follows the itinerary of the people who made the places famous and prays there. Often her comments about the rustics at the sacred sites show a bit of dry humor.

Her tourist program has many other objectives, such as following the path of Moses through the desert to Mt. Sinai, her plan to visit the home of Abraham’s family (Carrhae or biblical Harran, southeast of Edessa), and her hope to go to Thomas the Apostle’s tomb in Edessa.

The travelogue is incomplete, for like any good pilgrim she concocted ever more schemes to visit other places like Ephesus to pray at the tomb of the John the "Beloved" Apostle. This part of her travels is missing from the manuscript.

The second part is more a journalistic report on the church of Jerusalem’s liturgical practices over the three years she lodged there. Her record of the practices surrounding daily life and prayer of the church is the first one that scholars have on the topic.

She also reports on how the church’s celebrations correspond to its unique location in the Holy Land. The liturgies she describes are hardly stationary ceremonies in one church location, but they involve processions from place to place according to the occasion. In addition, her descriptions are useful for historians of church architecture.

Her account allows modern readers to see things like the need for military escorts in various places of the Holy Land, the unfailing hospitality of the monasteries along the way, the road network, and the system of inns maintained by the empire.

She speaks of the monks, the nuns, and the religious laity in the Holy Land and their patterns of fasting and the instruction of the candidates for entrance into the church. Finally, she epitomizes the heart of the pilgrim and shows pluck and pithiness as she describes each stage of her spiritual journey.