Her name survives by chance; her long letter home survives, in fragments, because later generations recognised that in her unaffected, enthusiastic style the woman we call Egeria was a remarkable traveller and diarist. Historians value the evidence she provides of an obscure but crucial period in the development of Western culture. We might see in her a prototype of the intrepid, intelligent woman writer/adventurer – an elite club which counts Freya Stark, Celia Fiennes and Karen Blixen amongst it members.
Egeria was a Gaulish woman who spent three years on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She may have been a nun. She was educated, probably comfortably off, and wanted to see the land of Genesis, the Old Testament and the gospels. She had a sharp eye, relentless curiosity, a taste for the quirky and she took hardship in her stride.
That she set out on her travels while the Roman Empire was falling to bits is extraordinary, but it should not surprise. Late Roman Gaul was a paradoxically self-confident society: civilised, literate, bourgeois and intellectual. It was natural that educated Christians should want to see the land in which their faith was born. Egeria was not the first. Another well-to-do woman – mother of the Emperor Constantine – had trodden some of the same paths (and discovered the True Cross). Earlier in the 4th century Constantine had built the churches which protected and preserved the monuments of Jesus, the apostles and the legendary heroes of Israel.
Egeria’s travels tell us something of her late-Roman outlook; they offer an enormous amount of information about the development of the cult centres of early Christianity. They also tell us much about the universal human desire to satisfy curiosity, to pay homage to heroes, to explore the seeds of faith.
Egeria 3.1 The Ascent of Sinai
We reached the mountain late on the Sabbath, and arriving at a certain monastery, the monks who dwelt there received us very kindly, showing us every kindness; there is also a church and a priest there. We stayed there that night, and early on the Lord’s Day, together with the priest and the monks who dwelt there, we began the ascent of the mountains one by one. These mountains are ascended with infinite toil, for you cannot go up gently by a spiral track, as we say snail-shell wise, but you climb straight up the whole way, as if up a wall, and you must come straight down each mountain until you reach the very foot of the middle one, which is specially called Sinai. By this way, then, at the bidding of Christ our God, and helped by the prayers of the holy men who accompanied us, we arrived at the fourth hour, at the summit of Sinai, the holy mountain of God, where the law was given.
Egeria 23.3 Antioch to Constantinople
There is nothing at the holy church in that place except numberless cells of men and of women. I found there a very dear friend of mine, to whose manner of life all in the East bore testimony, a holy deaconess named Marthana, whom I had known at Jerusalem, whither she had come for the sake of prayer; And when she had seen me, how can I describe the extent of her joy or of mine ? But to return to the matter in hand: there are very many cells on the hill and in the midst of it a great wall which encloses the church containing the very beautiful memorial. The wall was built to guard the church because of the Hisauri, who are very malicious and who frequently commit acts of robbery, to prevent them from making an attempt on the monastery which is established there.
Eusebius: Vita Constantini 3.25-8
After these things, the pious emperor … judged it incumbent on him to render the blessed locality of our Saviour’s resurrection an object of attraction and veneration to all. He issued immediate injunctions, therefore, for the erection in that spot of a house of prayer … (3.26) This sacred cave, then, certain impious and godless persons had thought to remove entirely from the eyes of men … Accordingly they brought a quantity of earth from a distance with much labour, and covered the entire spot; then, having raised this to a moderate height, they paved it with stone, concealing the holy cave beneath this massive mound… (3.27) The emperor, however … fired with holy ardour, directed that the ground itself should be dug up to a considerable depth, and the soil which had been polluted by the foul impurities of demon worship transported to a far distant place… (3.28) But as soon as the original surface of the ground, beneath the covering of earth, appeared, immediately, and contrary to all expectation, the venerable and hollowed monument of our Saviour’s resurrection was discovered. Then indeed did this most holy cave present a faithful similitude of his return to life, in that, after lying buried in darkness, it again emerged to light … (3.29) Immediately the emperor sent forth injunctions which breathed a truly pious spirit, at the same time granting ample supplies of money, and commanding that a house of prayer worthy of the worship of God should be erected near the Saviour’s tomb on a scale of rich and royal greatness.
306 Constantine declared Emperor of Western Empire at York
312 Constantine wins Battle of Milvian Bridge.
313 Constantine recognises Christianity: Edict of Milan:
314 Council of Arles. Great synod of Bishops across Empire, including representatives (3 bishops: York, London, ?Lincoln) from Britain.
324 Constantine I becomes sole emperor of united Empire.
325 Council of Nicaea convened to unify Christian orthodoxy. Nicaean Creed composed. Delegates from every region of the Empire except Britain.
326 Constantine’s programme of works begins on Golgotha
330 Constantinople founded
337 Death of Constantine I. Eusebius writes Life of Constantine.
367 So-called Barbarian conspiracy in Britain; frontier overrun
380 Edict of Thessalonica: Christianity becomes the state religion
381–4 Pilgrimage of Egeria to the Holy places
Egeria’s Travels, translated and edited by John Wilkinson. SPCK 1971