The Pilgrimage of Egeria, by Anne McGowan and Paul F. Bradshaw

by
12 April 2019

John Binns joins an early Christian pilgrim on her Middle Eastern travels

IT WAS in 1884 that the travel diary made by a pilgrim to the Holy Land in the fourth century was discovered, bound up with a set of writings of St Hilary of Poitiers. It describes the experiences of a visitor to biblical sites in Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor, as well as Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The visitor, a woman, gives a careful description of the liturgy that she participated in.

After much scholarly debate, which is summarised in the introduction to this book, a consensus has emerged that she was called Egeria, came from Spain, and visited Jerusalem between 381 and 384. Her account describes the city of Jerusalem and its liturgical life just a few decades after it became a Christian city and the first churches were built, and so is the first witness to the form of Christian discipleship which became known as pilgrimage, and which was a path followed by countless others travelling to many spiritual destinations across the Christian world.

There have been several editions of the Latin text, and also translations into English. This addition to the literature brings together themes of recent scholarship. There is an introduction discussing the background and identity of our traveller, the nature of pilgrimage, and the life of the Jerusalem church as presented in the text; then there is a clear translation, which is placed alongside a commentary in the form of footnotes that help us to appreciate her descriptions; and there follow some short extracts from other early pilgrimage accounts. Together, these enable the reader to enter into Egeria’s experience, discover the city and its worship with her, and share in her excitement.

After the account of her wanderings, when she returns from her visits to her starting-point in Constantinople, she looks back and carefully describes how the church in Jerusalem lives through the liturgical year, celebrating the events in the various main churches in the places where they happened, and reading the scriptures at each. Holy Week and Easter are the heart of this worship, and, in addition, there are descriptions of Christian initiation and other parts of the life of the church.

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Although her account is the earliest of the pilgrim diaries, the Christian landscape was already well-established, and she was shown, for example, the tomb of Job and the letter written by Jesus to Abgar of Edessa, as well as the churches. As she travels, she is greeted by the bishop and the monks living at the sites, and she finds impressive church buildings, where she takes part in the liturgy with local Christians.

The practice of pilgrimage as a religious devotion, with its spiritual as well as physical progression and its liminal character, has been researched in recent years, as is shown in the introduction, and has grown in popularity. This foundational account has a contemporary character, and this new translation will help today’s pilgrims benefit from their experience and recognise how they are a part of a long tradition of Christian pilgrimage and worship.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.

The Pilgrimage of Egeria: A new translation of the “Itinerarium Egeriae” with introduction and commentary
Anne McGowan and Paul F. Bradshaw
Liturgical Press £19.99
(978-0-8146-8421-4)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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