Pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Communities in the Holy Land

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Pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Communities in the Holy Land

To a Christian, Jerusalem during the Middle Ages (500–1500) was both a place on a map and an idea. On the map, it was a far-off city that Christians, if they could read, knew of from the Bible, and if they could not, they learned about from their priests and bishops. As an idea, though, Jerusalem and other sites in the Holy Land fired the spiritual imagination of Christians, because these sites were the birthplace of their faith. Here could be found the place where Christ had been born, the areas where he had lived and taught, the place where his mother had shed tears for his death, and the sites of his death, burial, and Resurrection. For Christians, Jerusalem and the surrounding region were the holiest places on earth.

The goal of any Christian living at that time was to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. At the time of the Crusades, the tradition of making such a trip to a sacred place already had a long history, dating back to the 300s and even earlier. Christians wanted to see the buildings that the Roman emperor Constantine had erected to house the holy sites during his reign in the fourth century. The flow of pilgrims slowed with the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the seventh century. Also, continuing political turmoil in Europe up through the ninth century made pilgrimages to the Holy Land the privilege of a select few.

Two events took place that made it easier to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land. First, Hungary, through which pilgrims who traveled on foot had to pass, converted to Christianity. Then the Christian Byzantines extended their empire into Asia Minor and the Balkans. With these friendly nations in control of much of the route, travel to Jerusalem by land became easier, and by about the year 1000 the flow of pilgrims resumed. Early in the eleventh century, Hakim, the Muslim caliph who ruled over Jerusalem, destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as well as other buildings that Constantine had constructed. Pilgrims after this time found a different place than the one their ancestors had gone to, but these buildings would be restored after the First Crusade in 1099.

Not every Christian in Europe could afford to make a journey that was as long, exhausting, and expensive as a trip to the Holy Land. Many peasants and commoners had to remain content with visiting sacred sites in Europe—if they could afford to do even that. Those who did make a trip to the Holy Land, therefore, tended to be from the higher classes, including landowners, clerics (members of the clergy), and prosperous merchants, simply because they had the money.

The typical pilgrim was likely to be a member of the nobility—perhaps a count, a baron, a knight, or a landowning vassal (a person who had sworn allegiance to a lord and, in return, obtained the lord's protection; see "The Structure of Medieval Society" in Chapter 9). Women, of course, made the trip, but they rarely went on their own. The pilgrim might have been accompanied by one or more family members; perhaps, too, by companions who had fought with him in battles against the Muslims in Spain. Each pilgrim, if he could afford it, would bring along a servant, and any party of pilgrims would almost certainly have included a priest or monk, who functioned not only as a spiritual adviser but also as a kind of "tour guide."

While a party of pilgrims might have consisted of just a half dozen people, many such small groups often left on pilgrimages together. Also, parties of pilgrims would encounter others along the route and travel together for greater safety. Thus, a caravan of pilgrims often included a great many people, perhaps dozens or more, and the number grew as the pilgrims proceeded. Occasionally, the numbers were much higher. One group, led by Duke Richard II of Normandy, was reported to have consisted of seven hundred pilgrims. In 1064 and 1065 a group of bishops and nobles led a German pilgrimage whose size was estimated by people at the time at between seven thousand and twelve thousand.

Women, Pilgrimages, and the Crusades

Because of the difficulties and dangers of the journey, pilgrims tended to be men, but many women made the journey with the same enthusiasm as men did. Much of what historians know about pilgrimages comes from women who wrote about the journeys, such as Etheria of Aquitaine (a region in France), who made the pilgrimage in the fourth century.

Many women accompanied the leaders of the Crusades. During the First Crusade, the wives of Baldwin of Boulogne and Raymond of Toulouse traveled with their husbands. Eleanor of Aquitaine went along with her husband, King Louis VII of France, during the Second Crusade, and Richard I of England married Berengaria, daughter of the king of Navarre, while en route to the Third Crusade. Many of the women who went suffered great hardships. Some were killed during battles. Others died of disease, including a large number during the siege of Antioch in the First Crusade. Some went along as prostitutes. Others served in such roles as cooks and washerwomen. Interestingly, whenever the Muslims accidentally captured a washerwoman, they always returned her unharmed.

There also are many reports that women took part in battles. They often provided water, wine, and food to the troops or carried stones used as weapons during sieges of castles or cities. One report tells of a woman who was helping fill up a moat during the Third Crusade when she was struck by an arrow. As she lay dying, she insisted that her body be used to help fill the trench.


The chief purpose of a pilgrimage was to do penance, or repent for sins. According to church teaching, sinners could achieve salvation in heaven by showing that they were sorry for their sins, confessing them to a priest, and then offering penance to acknowledge that their sins were offenses against God. Frequently, penance consisted of prayer or giving aid to the poor, but another way to repent was to go on a pilgrimage. The journey itself, because it was so difficult, was part of the penance.

A pilgrim to the Holy Land had to prepare carefully for the journey. Pilgrims first had to confess their sins to a priest, and the priest had to approve the pilgrimage. Without this approval, the pilgrim could not gain any spiritual benefit from the journey. A pilgrim also had to take a public vow before the priest. This vow marked the official beginning of the pilgrimage. The priest would list the specific places the pilgrim was to visit. He would then bless the pilgrim and offer a mass. Later, when the pilgrim returned, the priest would declare that the vow had been fulfilled and that the pilgrim was pardoned of the sins that had required the pilgrimage.


A pilgrimage to the Holy Land took months. Typically, European pilgrims would start as soon as they could in the spring and hope that they could make it to the Holy Land, visit the sites, and return before winter, though problems such as illness frequently caused delays. Accordingly, a pilgrim had to make many arrangements before departure. One was to raise enough money to make the journey. A noble or other prosperous pilgrim who wanted to travel in style might spend up to an entire year's income to make the journey. Poorer pilgrims often spent much more than a year's income and often relied on donations and support from their families. Landowners often financed the journey by mortgaging their estates (that is, borrowing money on them) or a portion of them. Others sold personal property to raise the money needed.

After the money was raised, the question arose as to how the pilgrim would keep personal affairs in order during a long absence. Shopkeepers and merchants had to find someone to run their businesses. A noble had to find someone to manage his estate. If the noble was entangled in a dispute with a rival noble, plans had to be made for the defense of the estate. This responsibility would often fall to a relative who was a knight. A noble or vassal also had to see to it that any additional duties he had were taken care of. For example, a vassal who also served as a magistrate, or judge, on his lord's estate had to make arrangements for this task to be fulfilled.

There was always the possibility that a pilgrim would die during the journey. With that in mind, many landholders donated their land to a monastery (a religious community run by monks). Their donation was made with the provision that when they returned, they would continue to receive the income from the land until their death. If they died during the pilgrimage, the monastery would own the land, but any income from it would be used to support the pilgrim's widow and children during their lifetimes. Writing a will was a privilege for only a few during this time. All pilgrims, however, were allowed to write wills. This was not an empty precaution. A cemetery outside Jerusalem held the bodies of many pilgrims who did not survive the journey.


After the ceremony of taking the vow, a pilgrim would typically depart on foot. A noble would often be followed by dozens, if not hundreds, of well-wishers and family members for the first mile or two. After proceeding for a few miles on foot, pilgrims with means would then gather their horses; pack animals; and, in some cases, wagons and continue the journey on horseback. Poorer pilgrims, of course, would walk all the way to the Holy Land if they took the overland route.

Before the Crusades, most pilgrims did, in fact, travel by land. Their route depended on where they started the journey. Eventually, pilgrims from countries such as France or from the Holy Roman Empire would reach eastern Europe. After traveling through the kingdom of Hungary and the Balkans, they would arrive at Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. They then would travel across Anatolia, a region in western Asia Minor, and over the Taurus Mountains to Antioch, a Syrian seaport at the extreme northeastern tip of the Mediterranean Sea. From there they would proceed down the eastern coast of the Mediterranean through western Syria to Palestine and on to Jerusalem. A pilgrim from France faced a journey of some 1,500 or more miles (more than 2,400 kilometers), at the rate of perhaps 25 miles (or about 40 kilometers) a day. If all went well, the journey would take at least two hard months, but rarely did everything go as planned.

At about the time of the Crusades, many pilgrims were making the journey by sea. By this time the Turks were in control of much of Asia Minor, and they harassed Christian pilgrims. Pilgrims also knew that the Turks had fought the early crusading armies that had taken this route. One of the ironies of the early Crusades is that they were fought in part to keep the overland route to the Holy Land open. While the First Crusade succeeded in capturing Jerusalem, the overland route became more dangerous than it ever had been before. At the same time that the Crusaders were fighting to keep the Holy Land open, many pilgrims were actually en route to the Holy Land by sea.

These pilgrims would converge on one of the port cities along the Italian coast, typically Venice. By about the twelfth century Venice was a major maritime power and the chief point of departure for pilgrims, and the city derived much of its income catering to the pilgrim trade. After the Crusades, official guides to the Holy Land were appointed, licensed, and paid by the city. The city was expensive, so pilgrims arriving there would have to find accommodations suited to their means. A noble would have little difficulty affording comfortable lodging. A poorer pilgrim had to make do in a hostel (an inexpensive sleeping place) or even sleep on the ground outside the walls of the city.

The next step was to book passage on a ship. On the city square, tables were set up, one for each ship planning to depart to the Holy Land. Pilgrims would simply approach one of the tables and buy their tickets. Payment had to be in Venetian gold ducats, and money changers were everywhere, ready to exchange into the local currency whatever money the pilgrims had brought—for a fee, of course. Passage on a ship cost about sixty ducats, though poorer pilgrims were often able to book the worst shipboard accommodations for thirty ducats. They would then board a ship, which would sail down the Adriatic Sea to the eastern Mediterranean and onward to one of the port cities on the Levant, the European term for the countries that bordered the eastern Mediterranean. Along the way the ship would make port at islands such as Cyprus to stock up on provisions and provide some rest for weary travelers.


A trip to the Holy Land was dangerous, more so the farther a pilgrim traveled away from home. In Europe the roads were still fairly good. People usually welcomed pilgrims to their towns (many of which also contained sacred sites that pilgrims wanted to visit), for the pilgrim trade was a source of income for them as well. Sometimes these towns were the destination of pilgrims who were not headed to the Holy Land. Often pilgrims found hospitality at castles and farms along the way.

The first real danger facing the pilgrims who took the land route to Italy was crossing the Alps. Although pilgrimages started in the spring so as to take advantage of favorable weather, crossing mountainous terrain was always risky. A spring snowstorm could blow up, rivers could rise above their banks during the spring thaw, and bridges were often weakened by the ravages of winter. Whatever route they took, pilgrims confronted the danger of injury or illness, and many arrived in the Holy Land sick or exhausted from the journey. Some ran out of money. A drought during the summer could make food scarce, thereby causing it to become more expensive to purchase. Those who traveled by sea also had a long and difficult journey. Storms at sea could capsize the ships and send pilgrims to their deaths.

One constant danger was bandits. Pilgrims were easy targets, for they typically traveled with few defenses, although a nobleman and his companions might be armed, and prosperous merchants sometimes hired armed guards. Bandits knew that the pilgrims carried money and luxury goods to trade for food and other supplies along the way, and many robbers made a good living off them. Matters were no easier at sea. Pilgrim ships were frequently the prey of pirates, and the commanders of these ships had to go out of their way to avoid areas where pirates were known to lurk.

Another problem related to banditry was extortion. Along the way, local landowners and even entire villages demanded "toll" money for safe passage. Anyone who resisted paying the toll might be killed or at least mugged for money. In the Alps many local nobles held bridges and demanded a toll from pilgrims before allowing them to cross.

Once a pilgrim reached the Holy Land, conditions did not improve. Muslim bandits patrolled the roads leading to Jerusalem and robbed pilgrims when they were almost within sight of their goal. The large group of German pilgrims mentioned earlier in the chapter had to do battle with Arab bandits when they were just two days from Jerusalem. Fighting off the Arabs as best they could, they took shelter in a nearby deserted village and were saved only when Egyptian troops came to their rescue and escorted them to Jerusalem. In fighting the Arabs, though, the pilgrims broke with the tradition that they were to avoid violence because of their pious undertaking. Some historians regard this battle, in which they combined war with a religious mission, as a foreshadowing of the Crusades. After the Crusades, when Jerusalem was restored to Muslim hands, many Christians, even knights, joined Arab bandits in this profitable enterprise.


Upon arriving in Ramleh, usually one day's journey from the last stop in Jerusalem, pilgrims were issued instructions. They were always to show Christian charity, patience, and tact. They were to avoid any behavior that could be considered aggressive or offensive. They were not to enter a mosque (a place of worship for Muslims), and they were to stay away from Muslim graveyards. They were always to travel in groups to protect themselves from bandits and pickpockets. Nobles had to be reminded not to engrave their coat of arms into walls and other objects at holy places as well as at inns; graffiti was a problem even a thousand years ago. In particular, pilgrims were not to carry off pieces of holy places or relics, remnants of objects that were held sacred because of their association with saints, though many ignored this instruction and took away with them objects such as stones found at the holy sites.

Typically, visitors arrived at the gates of Jerusalem around nightfall, having left Ramleh in the morning. They paid an admission fee at the Gate of David at the western edge of the city and proceeded to the Hospital of Saint John. The "hospital," which today would be called a hostel, was run by an order of monks who came to be known as the Knights Hospitallers and who would play a role as warrior-monks during the Crusades. At the hospital, pilgrims could get accommodations, and those who were ill or injured could receive medical care.

The sites

The next morning most pilgrims headed directly for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred site in the city. To get there, they may have walked down the Via Dolorosa, or Street of Sadness. This was the route that Christ had taken when he carried his cross to his Crucifixion. All along the way, shopkeepers and street merchants, hawking their products, tried to attract the attention of the pilgrims. Many of the pilgrims were crying in religious ecstasy or singing hymns. A visit to the holy sites in Jerusalem was a noisy and raucous affair, not a quiet and reverential experience.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been built by Constantine and his mother, Helena, in the 300s. Legend holds that she discovered the True Cross, the cross on which Christ was crucified, in the rubble of a demolished Roman temple. The church was a jumble of shrines and chapels, many of them maintained by Christian sects such as the Nestorians, the Armenians, the Jacobites, and the Coptic Christians. Within the immense building, pilgrims could see many of the places connected with Christ's death. They were often amazed that these places were close enough to one another that they could be enclosed in a single building.

Once inside, they were awed by the places where Christ had been crucified and buried. They could see the hole on Mount Calvary where the cross had been planted in the ground. They viewed the places where Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had taken Christ's body down from the cross and prepared it for burial, where Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene, and where his mother had grieved for him. They stood on the spot where the Roman soldiers had divided Christ's garments. To see the tomb of Christ, a pilgrim had to wait for a Muslim to unlock the door. This was a custom that predated the Crusades and continued into modern times. For
a devout Christian pilgrim, arriving at Christ's tomb after months of hardship and danger was to reach the center of the world—indeed, the center of the universe.

Most pilgrims wanted not just to see the church but to spend the night there and hear mass the following morning. Priests and monks hoped that they would be granted the privilege of saying mass in the church. Many young nobles came to the church to be knighted. Pilgrims who were fortunate enough to spend the night discovered that they were locked inside until the following morning.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was not the only holy site in Jerusalem. There were many others, but at least two were almost certain to be on a pilgrim's itinerary, and both were located on the Mount of Olives. The first, the Tomb of the Virgin, was regarded as the burial spot of Christ's mother, Mary, and was located at the foot of the mount. The second, the Church of the Ascension, was on the Mount of Olives itself. This chapel was built on the place said to be where Christ had ascended into heaven after his death.

Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land would take in other sites as well, depending on the amount of time they had, the state of their purse, and the list of sites they had been instructed to see when they took their vow. Many went to other cities in Palestine, such as Jaffa, and some went as far as Egypt to see sites mentioned in the Old Testament. Among the most common places, other than Jerusalem, was Nazareth, Christ's childhood home. At Nazareth pilgrims would have seen the site of the Annunciation, where an angel had told Mary that she was to give birth, and the basilica that was built over the site. Although the Muslim caliph Hakim had ordered that this church be destroyed in 1010, the Crusaders rebuilt it in 1101. Also in Nazareth was Mary's house, which had been turned into a basilica in the sixth century. Tradition holds that a third site in Nazareth, Saint Joseph's House, was where Joseph and Mary had wed.

Chapel of the Innocents

A site that pilgrims could visit in Bethlehem was the Chapel of the Innocents. The chapel, which contains numerous bones, memorializes the Slaughter of the Innocents—the killing of children in and around Bethlehem by the Judean king Herod. When Herod learned of the birth of Christ and the prophecies that he was the Messiah, or the savior of the Jews, he was determined to put an end to this threat to his power. He ordered that all male children under the age of two years be killed. Biblical historians debate the number of children who were actually killed. Some put the number at thousands, and others believe that there were as few as twelve.

Christian communities in the Holy Land

In Bethlehem pilgrims visited the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot—a cave—where Christ had been born. At the Church of the Nativity, they would have seen the tomb of Saint Paula of Bethlehem, buried under the church at her death in 404. In 385 Paula (also known as Paulina and Pauline the Widow) traveled with her daughter, Eustochium, on a pilgrimage to Egypt and the Holy Land. The two women settled in Bethlehem, where they built a convent (a home for nuns) and a hospice (a guesthouse) for other pilgrims. Paula was the first abbess of the convent, and after her death her granddaughter, also called Paula, took over the convent, which continued to operate at the time of the Crusades.

While in Bethlehem, pilgrims could also find accommodations at another Christian community. This was the monastery built by Saint Jerome, one of the major fathers of the Christian church. Jerome first traveled to the Holy Land in about 373, and he was ordained a priest at Antioch. After spending time in Constantinople and Rome, he returned to the Holy Land and, like Saint Paula, settled in Bethlehem in 386. There, with the women's help, he built a monastery, where he wrote treatises about Christianity until his death in 420.

The convent of Saint Paula and the monastery of Saint Jerome were typical of the types of accommodation available to pilgrims in the Holy Land. As noted earlier, visitors to Jerusalem could find hospitality at the Hospital of Saint John, and these and other Christian institutions were welcome stops for weary and poor pilgrims. Throughout the region could be found monasteries, convents, and Christian churches run by various sects, or subgroups, of Christianity, as well as by the Eastern Orthodox Church. When the Crusades began, European Christians believed that these and other Christian communities in the Holy Land were under threat and that Muslims were guilty of terrible crimes against their members. It was to protect not only the sacred sites but also these Christian communities that the Crusades were launched.

For More Information


Erdmann, Carl. The Origin of the Idea of Crusade. Translated by Marshall W. Baldwin and Walter Goffart. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Fossier, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages. 3 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986–1997.

Labarge, Margaret Wade. Medieval Travellers: The Rich and Restless. New York: Norton, 1983.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Sumption, Jonathan. Pilgrimage: An Image of Mediaeval Religion. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.


Bull, Marcus. "The Pilgrimage Origins of the First Crusade." HistoryToday 47, no. 3 (March 1997): 10–15.

Web Sites

Bréhier, Louis. "Crusades." The New Catholic Encyclopedia.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04543c.htm (accessed on August 11, 2004).

The Christian Crusades.http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/bible/crusades.stm (accessed on August 11, 2004).

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Pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Communities in the Holy Land

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