Ancient Pilgrimage in the Modern World

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By: Rangar Cline

A 2012 WIN-Gallup study found a notable decline in religiosity around the globe, and that 33% of the world’s population describe themselves as non-religious or atheist. A 2012 Pew survey identified similar trends in the U.S. But one aspect of religious behavior remains more popular than ever: pilgrimage, producing 330 million travelers a year – fully one-third of global tourism. In the context of religious disaffiliation, why do we continue to visit sacred places and what motivated pilgrims in the past?

My current book project considers the motivations and economics of Roman-era pilgrims, but I’ve come to recognize the value of observing modern pilgrims’ behavior for hints abut the past. One motivation that unites Greco-Roman pilgrimage traditions, some Jewish pilgrimage traditions and early Christian pilgrimage is the search for authenticity. This is found in ‘proofs’ like miracles, and the way blessings and souvenirs authenticate a pilgrim’s journey. Observing modern-day pilgrims also helps appreciate the ‘experiential’ model of pilgrimage, which I argue evolved by the early Middle Ages, with its emphasis on ascetic virtues like hardship and suffering as markers of authentic pilgrimage.

The continuing popularity of pilgrimage to the Holy Land and elsewhere indicates that travel, distance, and hardship still demonstrate authenticity, both among the faithful in search of proof of the divine, and those with little faith but who believe that participation in a difficult human endeavor grants an authentic, transcendent experience.

Some aspects of pilgrimage behavior are still best observed in person, including the interactions of pilgrims with each other and with the dedications, votive offerings, and graffiti of past pilgrims. For example, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem one can observe organized groups of pilgrims and solo travelers venerating Golgotha and the empty Tomb, which texts show have been venerated from the fourth century, and for which there are prescribed rituals and liturgies.

We could learn this from ancient sources, modern commentaries, and images, but what only becomes apparent in person is just how disorienting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher really is. On most days one sees a confused array of newly arrived international visitors dismayed by the number of holy sites and glittering holy objects packed within the church’s dim interior. Within moments of arriving, pilgrims begin to look at the behavior of others to figure out what to do, where to go, and what to venerate.

Pilgrims at Stone of Anointing (all images courtesy Ragnar Cline).

Although the church has undergone modifications over the centuries, the social aspects of pilgrimage and the manner in which pilgrims look to each other, not just religious authorities, for behavioral cues would surely have been a part of the pilgrim’s experience of the Holy Sepulcher from the beginning. Doing as others did, and the socially affirmation of religious rituals, would have ensured the authenticity of a pilgrim’s experience in the first centuries of the Holy Sepulcher, much as today. But such social experiences are difficult to glean from early pilgrims’ accounts, which tend to focus on what the author saw or did, with only occasional mentions of what others did.

Another aspect of pilgrimage that becomes clearer in person are the ways that visitors interact with the vestiges of past pilgrims. One part of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that attracts many visitors, including those who may not wait in line to visit the tomb or bother to kiss the Stone of Anointing, are the numerous crosses carved by pilgrims in the stairway leading down to the Chapel of Helena. Most visitors I’ve observed stop, examine, and frequently touch the crosses – sometimes carefully tracing the outlines.

Stairs to Helena Chapel

Even for the less religious, the visible proof of centuries of pilgrims’ visitations appears to sanctify the site. Such tangible demonstrations of others’ journeys authenticate one’s own; the pilgrim has come to the right place. Late antique textual sources describe early Holy Land pilgrims leaving graffiti and votives, many of which survive. In one remarkable text, the sixth-century Piacenza Pilgrim describes carving his parents’ names at Cana so that they might share his blessings of pilgrimage. But while the evidence of past pilgrims can authenticate the experience of pilgrims in the present, the impact of such graffiti is largely absent from Holy Land pilgrims’ accounts.

Another aspect of pilgrimage that is difficult to comprehend without direct observation is the physical setting and its effect on visitors. One of the best examples is Monte Sant’Angelo on the Gargano Peninsula in Italy’s Apulia region. Without being there in person it is impossible to appreciate the shrine’s precarious location, the difficulty of traveling there, and the impact of walking deep into a cave to visit archangel Michael’s shrine. There is a small town atop the mountain, a testament to the economic impact of the shrine. But the site is a three-hour drive from the nearest coastal town. Most of that distance is up steep mountain switchbacks dotted with roadside shrines to those whose journeys to see the shrine were not so fortunate. Of course, such a journey would be even more difficult on foot.

The shrine, founded in the fifth century, was a popular destination for pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, and especially for those dedicated to the archangel, drawn to this shrine and to Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. The distance to Monte Sant’Angelo and its relative remoteness reinforced the perceived authenticity of the shrine and the pilgrims’ experience. Once pilgrims travel to the top of the mountain they enter a shrine deep in a mountain cave, which holds a footprint said to come from Michael.

Entrance to the shrine

Along the path into the cave are names and graffiti – mostly tracings of hands and feet – left by past pilgrims. For skeptics, the impact of graffiti is perhaps more powerful than the original objects of pilgrimage. The graffiti testify to the many thousands of pilgrims who have made this journey and certify the authenticity of the experience. The impact of traveling up a remote mountain, to descend through a graffiti-marked path, into a cave to see the physical relics of Michael’s fifth-century appearance, can only be appreciated by actually traveling to the site.

Of course, you might also want to take something home to show that you made the journey to Monte Sant’Angelo and to share the shrine’s blessings with others. Another aspect of pilgrim behavior is appreciated better in person than through texts and artifacts alone: the production, sale, and movement of souvenirs. At Monte Sant’Angelo you can buy numerous souvenirs directed related to the site’s legend, but also items that have little to do with Michael, such toy cars, plastic guns, and rainbow lawn ornaments.

Michael souvenirs

Other souvenirs at Monte Sant’Angelo

Why would someone buy such objects? In Michael’s case, objects purchased at Monte Sant’Angelo, usually with the name of the site printed on it, signal the pilgrim’s successful journey. A Michael image or religious icon purchased near the shrine also have additional ritual power. Toys and lawn ornaments may also have an added value because of where they were purchased. Sure, you could buy these back in Rome or the United States, but they are worth more to you because they were purchased at a special place. Merchants sell them not because they necessarily make sense at the Archangel’s shrine but because people buy them.

The combination of religious and non-religious souvenirs at Monte Sant’Angelo reminds me of those available at many shops in Jerusalem. In summer 2016, in the gift shop of Jerusalem’s Church of the Dormition, I saw a combination of Jewish and Christian souvenirs ranging from models of Herod’s Temple, to mezuzot, to icons of Mary, to mosaic menorah kits. The gift shop would not sell such a combination of objects unless pilgrims purchased them. The mostly Christian visitors seem to buy Jewish as well as Christian souvenirs at the Church of the Dormition.

Church of the Dormition Gift Shop

Some of those Christian visitors may have also visited the nearby Tomb of David, which perhaps explains the appeal of Jewish souvenirs. But these souvenirs lack a specific connection to the Tomb of David. Most signal broader connections to Jewish culture and Israel, and some represent entirely different sites, like the Temple. Readers might object that the Temple is not that far from the Tomb of David and the Church of the Dormition, which exactly my point. As I’ve recently discussed, modern studies of ancient pilgrimage souvenirs assume that souvenirs were produced and sold at the place they represent; if that were not the case, the souvenir would lose value to the pilgrim. At a certain level, this tends to be correct; a souvenir depicting Jerusalem has less appeal when sold in Athens. But perceived proximity is relative. For a modern pilgrim from Tulsa, a Bethlehem souvenir from Jerusalem (or the airport) or a mezuzah from the Catholic gift shop can be authentic – so long as it comes from the Holy Land.

Pilgrimage in the Holy Land and Mediterranean Europe has changed much over the centuries, but the economics of pilgrimage that are only fleetingly referred to in ancient texts can sometimes be better understood by observing pilgrimage commerce in the Holy Land today. The social aspects of pilgrimage and the interaction with pilgrims’ graffiti that often go unmentioned in texts are also on vivid display today.

Observing the motivations of past and present pilgrims aid in understanding its enduring appeal. While the number of those claiming religious affiliation continues to decline worldwide, ancient pilgrimage sites like those in Jerusalem continue to appeal to large numbers of travelers. Modern pilgrims, like their predecessors, come in search of authentic evidence of sacred stories, often in the form of ancient stones, sacred footprints, or modern miracles. Even those pilgrims who may not believe the stories or miracle accounts search for an authentic experience, shared with other present-day pilgrims and countless others who have traveled before. In an age of digital realities, the chance to experience an authentic, ancient pilgrimage and the promise of personal transformation draws multitudes even when other aspects of religion may have lost their appeal.

Rangar Cline is Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma.


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Further reading on early Christian pilgrimage accounts:

  1. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels. Oxford: Aris and Phillips, 1993.
  2. Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades. Oxford: Aris and Phillips, 2002.

Further reading on early Byzantine pilgrimage souvenirs:

G. Vikan, Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2010

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