One Sunday in 381 A.D. a woman made her way up Mount Sinai. “The mountains,” she tells us, “are ascended with infinite toil” because the path doesn’t rise gently like a spiral. So she, together with the priest and monks from a nearby monastery, had to go up on foot. They couldn’t use donkeys like modern travelers to the Grand Canyon, and instead had to “climb straight up the whole way, as if up a wall.” She didn’t feel the pain of the journey, she reports, because she was eager to reach the spot where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. When she reached the summit she found only a single church and a cave where, she was told, Moses had dwelled. The mountain was so holy, she tells us, that none of the monks or priests who lived nearby were permitted to live on its summit.
The author of this story was Egeria, a female Christian pilgrim whose only mark on history is her partially preserved ‘pilgrimage diary.’ She was not the first Christian pilgrim that we know about, but she is one of the earliest Christian woman writers and her words give us a glimpse into the lives of those invisible and forgotten Christians whose presence and work often goes unremarked upon in the writings of male contemporaries.
Egeria’s diary tracks the course of her three-year journey around the ancient Mediterranean. Egeria’s pilgrimage took her first to Egypt and the many biblical sites located there, on through the desert to Sinai, home of famous celebrity monks, and then on to the Holy Land. According to the seventh-century Spanish monk Valerius, Egeria, despite her “female fragility,” climbed a number of mountains in the course of her journey: Nebo, Faran, Tabor, Eremus, and the mountain of Elijah. She was in other words, the first recorded female mountaineer.
According to Valerius, Egeria came from the most remote shores of the Western Sea (the east coast of the Atlantic), which could mean either Spain or, as many scholars have argued, the Rhone Valley. Beyond that not much is known about Egeria’s background. The fact that she addresses her diary to “sisters” might lead us to think that she was a nun, but she could equally have been addressing a group of Christian women. That she undertook such a journey at all is a sign that she was wealthy. Kate Cooper, a professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Manchester and author of the excellent book Band of Angels, notes that she may have come from a merchant family, which would have enabled her to draw “on a network of family business contacts across the Mediterranean… made it easier to organize not only sea passages, but also tents, camels, mules, and local guides required for desert travel in the Roman period.”
Her diary is remarkable because of what it can tell us about religious rituals and travel in the ancient world. Egeria traversed the Mediterranean with the Bible as her roadmap, seeking the homes of the patriarchs, burial sites of prophets, and the locations central to lives of biblical heroes. At every stop, she tells us, she would consult local clerics about the customs and traditional practices in each location. Sometimes this meant ascending a mountain, other times drinking from a stream that God created in the wilderness for Moses and the people of Israel (it was very sweet, apparently). Her practice, upon reaching a site, was to first say a prayer, then read a Bible passage, sing a psalm, and conclude with a second prayer.
For Egeria the places she visited were almost the pop-up version of the Bible she kept with her. Dr. Jennifer Barry, assistant professor of religion at the University of Mary Washington, told The Daily Beast that “Egeria reveals for her readers how an ancient devotee to the Christian faith imagined her surroundings and the significance of experiencing the ‘holy land.’ The landscape she describes is populated with the biblical text and allusions to non-canonical texts.” By walking in the footsteps of Moses and Jesus, she was stepping into the biblical story.
If there’s one notable exception to this biblical rule in Egeria’s writings it’s her description of her visit to the shrine of Thecla in Seleucia. The visit is vividly described in Cooper’s book and reveals how Egeria was embraced by the community of women that she encountered there. Thecla herself was a wealthy Christian woman who, centuries before Egeria’s visit, had travelled the ancient Mediterranean on her own spiritual journey. Barry said that “Thecla served as a significant Christian model for Egeria and other women in late antiquity. It is quite telling that the heroine Thecla, like Egeria, wandered about the Roman empire without the aid of any man.”
Those who want to follow in Egeria’s footsteps can consult the itinerary of her journey at the Egeria Project, an international project that documents, preserves, and promotes ancient sites of pilgrimage. Just a cursory glance at the photographs of the sites will make it clear just how difficult ancient travel was. You don’t get a sense of those discomforts when you read Egeria’s journal. Barry told me that “instead, Egeria reflects on the joys of discovery.” There’s nothing here, she adds, like the complaints voiced by John Chrysostom.
But however difficult these kinds of journeys were (and for many, still are), what Egeria shows us is just how tough and active ancient Christian women were. Dr. Barry told me that “upper class women appear to have moved around quite a bit in late antiquity” and are mentioned in the letters of Jerome. “At the highest levels of Roman society,” she added, women were moving about and, seemingly, enjoying themselves. This undercuts many preconceived notions that women were restricted, ignorant, and left out of the joys of travel in the ancient world. There were many bodies wandering about the Mediterranean in the early Christian movement and many of those were female.”