Egeria, sometimes known as Etheria or Aetheria, lived around AD 380 and is famous for the letter she wrote to her friends at home, describing her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Very little is known about her and most of that comes from a letter written three centuries after her death by Valerio of Bierzo, a Galician monk. He states that Egeria was a nun from Galicia (or the expression may mean may mean that she was a Gallaeci or Gallic woman - in other words, a woman from Gaul. Some have suggested that she came from near Marseilles, in the south of France.
It is not certain that Valerio was right. In particular the deference with which Egeria was received everywhere she went and the eagerness of the locals to show her the holy places she wanted to see (or invent them on the spot!) seems excessive if she was nothing more than a nun. It is more likely that she was a wealthy matron, possibly a widow, able to splash her money around and to afford a journey that involved at least three years, guides, escorts of Roman soldiers, and so on. Is it likely that a nun would have the resources or the permission from her superiors to undertake such an expensive and lengthy journey?
The only argument in favour of Valerio is the fact that Egeria refers to those back home as "sisters", which is supposed to point to a convent. However others claim that at the time of Egeria, Christians - like many Protestant churches of today - referred to each other as "brother" and "sister".
Of greater interest is the fact that Egeria visited the Holy Land a bare 60 years after Christianity had become legal and 54 years after the empress Helena, mother of Constantine, had made a similar journey, building many of the churches where Egeria worshipped, among them the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and part of the monastery at Mt Sinai. The "True Cross" and its accompanying title, whose adoration forms the high point of Egeria's Easter Festival, was discovered by Helena.
The elaborate liturgy that Egeria describes clearly developed very rapidly once Christianity became legal and pilgrims started to visit the holy places. One gets the feeling that the various rituals, processions, vigils and so on were devised to keep the pilgrims satisfied and ensure that they had a good experience during their visit to the city.
It is interesting that Egeria refers to Jerusalem as Aelia, the name given to the city after it was destroyed by Hadrian following the Bar Kochba revolt. This means that the city Egeria knew would have been the one depicted in the Madeba mosaic map.
|The Madeba map depicts the city of Aelia, which Egeria would have known.|
In the picture opposite you have the Cardo running the full width of the city - this can still be seen in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. On the left is the Damascus Gate with the column that stands in a small plaza just inside the city. Excavations at the Damascus Gate discovered a capital that may have come from this column. The museum featured a hologram depicting the column, but alas the technical wizardry of a hologram did not appeal to visitors as much as the tourist authority had hoped it would and the museum is now shut.
In the middle of the city and at the bottom is the (upside down) Church of the Holy Sepulchre as built by Constantine. The golden dome at the bottom covers the Rotunda, which Egeria refers to as the Anastasis. In front of that - above it in the picture - is the basilica which Egeria calls the Martrium. The hill of Calvary, called "the Cross" by Egeria, stood in an open space between the two buildings.
On the extreme right of the picture is a red-roofed building which probably represents Justinian's Nea Church, about the only building that Egeria would not have recognised, for it was built two centuries after her visit to the Holy Land.
Egeria mentions that the room of the Last Supper is on Mt Zion and also refers to people going "down" to the pillar where Jesus was scourged. These appear to be references to the buildings (or, at least, the sites) known today as the Coenaculum and the Church of St Peter Gallicantu, where visitors are shown a stone column to which, allegedly, Jesus was tied while being scourged in the High Priest's custody. The gospels make no reference to any such scourging - and scourging was a Roman punishment, not a Jewish one - so the authenticity of the site is highly questionable, but clearly the tradition goes back to the time of Egeria!
There can be no doubt of Egeria's piety. Every time she encountered a holy place, she demanded that a prayer be said, the passage describing what happened in that place read from the Scriptures, an appropriate psalm said and a final prayer offered. As not all the holy places were churches, it would seem that Egeria was wealthy enough to carry a copy of the Scriptures around with her - and considering the bulkiness of those hand-written books, that argues an entourage of companions (servants) to do the carrying as well as form the impromptu choir.
As often as possible Egeria also demanded "the Oblation", known in modern terminology as "the sacrifice of the Mass". Modern Protestants are horrified at such a description of the Eucharist, which most of them regard as nothing more than a re-enactment of the Last Supper, but Egeria's language was entirely in harmony with that used by the Early Church Fathers before her. Whether she or they had the same theology of the Mass that modern Catholics hold, there is no doubt that the language used is similar.
In describing the people she encounters and the services in which she participates, Egeria uses several words whose translation is uncertain. The word apotactitae I have rendered as "anchorite" or "anchoress", but that is only a guess. The service known as Lucernare would appear to be when lamps are lighted and so may equate to our modern "Vespers", but as the essence of the service appears to be "light", there is possibly no exact equivalent in modern liturgies.