“How I rejoiced when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of Yahweh!’
And now our feet are standing
In your gateways, Jerusalem”
Psalm 122, a “Song of Ascent” of Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem
When the English mystic Margery Kempe neared the end of her long pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem in the fifteenth century, she broke down in tears. To be fair, as is recounted unflinchingly in The Book of Margery Kempe, her account of her travels around medieval Europe, including along the Camino, she was often given over to loud weeping and cries, prompted she believed by her closeness to Christ. But the sight of Jerusalem, the city of his death and resurrection, brought it on afresh, so much so, recounts the book, said to be among the earliest known autobiographies in English, that, “she was on the point of falling off her ass”. Two German fellow pilgrims had to step in to stop her falling. “Sirs, I beg you,” she said, “don’t be annoyed though I weep bitterly at this holy place where our Lord Jesus Christ lived and died.”
For Kempe, the wife of a well-to-do merchant from Kings Lynn in Norfolk, and the mother of 14 children, who waited until she was 40 to explore by going on pilgrimage the mystical visions of Jesus that she had been experiencing, arriving in Jerusalem in 1413 was nothing less than her chance to walk in the footsteps of her saviour and feel his pain. And she did it quite literally, collapsing to the ground on what had been Mount Calvary where he died on the cross, and spreading out her arms as if being crucified. Her heart, she wrote, was “bursting apart”. Today’s pilgrims to Jerusalem are, on the whole, less flamboyant, but the aim of many remains largely the same as Kempe’s, to breathe life into the gospel accounts, to lift them off the pages of the Bible, to transport them away from a story that had imbibed in childhood at Sunday school, and to make them real.
On the whole, pilgrimage routes and destinations are typically associated with one particular faith tradition. Jerusalem is simultaneously sacred to three. Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad are all said to feature in its story. As such it is, arguably, for more pilgrims than any other spot on earth, the Holy City, the natural focus for spiritual seekers.
Inside Jerusalem’s walled old city, covering just one square kilometre and standing on the site where King David established a capital for the Israelites in the tenth century BCE, Jews, Christians and Muslims each have their own named quarter, even if such topographical delineations no longer accurately reflect who actually lives in each. The final one of the four is designated for the Armenians, Christians who broke with Catholic Rome in the fourth century CE. Around the same time, a group of Armenian monks settled in the southwestern corner of the Old City, between the Zion and Jaffa gates, and an Armenian community grew in the shadow of the Cathedral Saint James, site of the martyrdom of the apostle (before his body was reputedly taken to Galicia) and seat of the Armenian patriarch. Today numbers of Armenians there have dwindled to a few hundred.
Those first Armenian monks were part of the first great influx of Christian pilgrims into Jerusalem. In the centuries straight after Jesus’s death, the city had not been a particular focus of devotions or activity – curiously in hindsight, though the fledgling church’s immediate concerns were around missionary activity and sheer survival. By the second century it had become a centre for early Christian libraries, but it was only once Christianity had found its feet as the official religion of the Roman Empire by decree of Constantine the Great in 323CE – and the threat of persecution hanging over it had been removed – that many began to feel a strong pull to journey back to the birthplace of their faith.
Extracted from Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning, available to pre-order now and publishing 29 April 2021.