What did Greek pilgrims call themselves? An ampulla from Sardis suggests an answer

As followers of my research (and blog and tweets) will know, I’m currently working on a book project that examines the economics of pilgrimage in late antiquity. One form of economic activity related to pilgrimage was the production, exchange, and movement of pilgrimage souvenirs. In the process of researching, cataloging, and mapping such souvenirs, I came across one with an inscription that I think provides some insight into how Greek-speaking pilgrims referred to themselves and how they used their souvenirs. I provide here some preliminary thoughts before more formal publication.

First, perhaps, a few words about why it is difficulty to know what pilgrims called themselves in late antiquity. One of the peculiarities of studying pilgrimage in the late Roman and early Byzantine periods is that when using words like “pilgrim” and “pilgrimage” we are anachronistically using terms that describe an identity and ritual that did not have specific terminology in late antiquity. The Latin peregrinus, from which the English word pilgrim descends, can describe a religiously motivated traveller, but it can also describe other sorts of travelers or wanderers. In addition, it is not clear that pilgrims would have used peregrinus to describe themselves (Maraval 2002:63-64).

The lack of clarity concering what pilgrims would have called themselves is not entirely due to a lack of sources surviving from antiquity. There are three first-person narratives of travek to the Holy Land from the late antique period. There are others sources as well, like Theodosius’ text and the Breviarius, but they are very short and don’t provide much information about the journey or the pilgrim — although they have some useful details about the holy sites. There are also some third person narratives, like Jerome’s Encomium of Paula, but they also don’t tell us what pilgrims called themselves. Jerome occasionally uses the word peregrinus, but it’s not specific to Paula or pilgrims, and it’s not clear that Jerome uses the word to refer to religiously motivated travel, in the way English speakers use the word “pilgrim” today. The most famous of the first-person narratives is that of Egeria. She traveled from western Europe to the Holy Land in 381-3 and is the most specific about what she is up to. She famously describes herself as traveling “for the sake of prayer” gratia orationis (13.2, 17.1) in a narrative epistle written from Constantinople to her “sisters” back home. A slightly earlier text, by an anonymous traveller from Bordeaux, from the 330s, has left us a detailed itinerary for travel from Europe to Palestine and back, with important details about Jewish and Christian (and a few other) holy places. However, he leaves the reader to infer what his purpose was. He nowhere gives himself a title like peregrinus. The richly detailed narrative written by the Piacenza Pilgrim about 570, likewise, does not use the term peregrinus nor does he describe his journey as a peregrinatio, pilgrimage, although it is clear his motivation is to see and experience the holy land with all of his senses (for discussion, see Johnson, DOP 70, 2016).

Another peculiarity of pilgrimage narratives is that they survive exclusively in Latin, even though other literary sources and material culture (such as pilgrimage souvenirs with Greek inscriptions) indicate that Greek-speaking pilgrims travelled to the Holy Land as well. Thus, with the question of what Greek pilgrims called themselves we would seem to be at a double loss — the surviving first-person narratives are in Latin, and the Latin word peregrinus doesn’t exclusively mean “pilgrim.” The problem of what Greek pilgrims called themselves has been explored in a short essay by Cyril Mango (1995:1-3), who pointed out the interesting fact that Greek pilgrims in the early modern period adopted the term hadji from the Ottomans — using it to describe Christians traveling to the Holy Land — before dropping it for the more acceptably Greek proskynetes. Mango also points out that the Greek word for stranger or traveller, xenos, (pl: xenoi) had much the same problem that the Latin peregrinus had — that it could describe any traveller, not necessarily a “pilgrim.” He notes a 12th century Greek source that describes pilgrims by by the cumbersome phrase “those who travel in foreign parts [xeniteuon, a verbal form of xenos] for the sake of Christ” which suggests that even by the later middle ages, xenos did not uniquely signal “pilgrim.” So, how did “those who travel(ed) in foreign parts for the sake of Christ” refer to themselves when they did not want to use such a cumbersome phrase?

An ampulla excavated at Sardis in 1994-95 suggests one answer. The image below, from Greenwalt and Rautman’s 1998 publication (AJA 102:465-505, fig. 13) is of an ampulla of the Asia Minor type, a form often associated with Ephesus and usually dated to the 6th-7th centuries (Examples in Vikan 2010:34-36).

Such objects are usually interpreted as pilgrimage souvenirs that could be used to hold holy oil or other materials from a saint’s shrine or similar holy place. The iconography is singular for such an object. One side of the ampulla, the lower one in the image, features John the Baptist and an incised inscription that reads, ΑΓΙΕ ΙΟΑΝΝΗ ΒΑ(ΠΤΙϹΤΑ), a vocative invocation that can be awkwardly translated as “O Holy John [the] Ba[ptist]!” The other side, the upper image in the photo, is the more interesting for our purposes. It depicts the Virgin and Child and has an incised Greek inscription that Greenwalt and Rautman read as ΒΟΕΙΘΕ Τ(Ο)ΥϹ ΞΕΝ(Ο)ΥϹ “Help the Travellers!” which may, given that it is inscribed on a probable pilgrimage souvenir be better translated as “Help the Pilgrims!” If that it the case, then the ampulla presents epigraphic evidence for what pilgrims called themselves. The vessel is only 7.3 cm. tall. So, it could have easily been worn to work its protective powers as an amulet (on that topic, see Cline 2019 on my CV). It’s also worth noting that both inscriptions are incised and are not part of the mold that produced the image on the ampulla. Perhaps the creator of the object could incise the “Help the travellers/pilgrims” inscription for pilgrims and travelers in need of aid, while others might prefer to ask the Virgin for something else.

“Cisterns of Remarkable Beauty” at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

As part of my research into the ways that pilgrims and their guides authenticated holy sites during classical and late antiquity, I’ve been looking at springs, wells, cisterns, and other water sources that appear in pilgrimage narratives.  The reason for the focus on water sources is that pilgrims frequently mention them as a way to demonstrate the authenticity of a holy site. For example, the Bordeaux Pilgrim and the Piacenza describe the Well of Jacob as still flowing in their own day, as a means of authenticating the site they’re visiting, connecting the present to the past, and demonstrating continuing divine presence – as water from such sources is often associated with miracles and blessings.  The Bordeaux Pilgrim (BP) is particularly fixated on water and water sources.  Susan Weingarten noted that the BP describes over 15 water sources in his relatively spare account of travels in Roman Palestine.[1]  As many readers will know, the BP’s text is mostly a bare-bones itinerary that lists distances and stopping points on a journey from Bordeaux to the Holy Land in 333 CE.  In this respect, the BP text is similar to the 2ndcentury Antonine Itinerary. However, when the traveler enters Palestine at Caesarea, the text changes and the author offers commentary on mostly biblical and Christian sites.  The BP begins his commentary on the holy sites by describing their association with water, starting with the Balneus(Bath/Baptistry) of Cornelius the Centurion at Caesarea and continuing to the sacred spring at Syna (Shuni), where women bath and become pregnant.  The pilgrim explores other water sources during his travels, some of which you can see me talk about here, and others about which I’ll speak at the SBL in Denver in November.

The water that concerns this entry, however, comes from a curious sentence that appears in the pilgrim’s commentary on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  I was drawn to the passage after reading it in the translation by John Wilkinson – probably the most widely quoted English translation. According to Wilkinson’s translation, the pilgrim notes that Constantine built a basilica there and that it has “cisterns of remarkable beauty.”  I was really struck by the passage when I noticed Wilkinson’s translation, because it seemed to fit so well the BP’s general preoccupation with water.  I also just loved the idea that the one architectural detail of the church that the BP found beautiful were the cisterns.  Such a sentiment does not seem impossible for the pilgrim. For example, prior to arriving at the Holy Sepulcher, he comments on the size and scale of “Solomon’s” cisterns near the temple mount (590). The temple was, of course, no longer standing and the remaining water storage, although not from the Solomonic era, is proof for the pilgrim of Solomon’s reputation as a builder.

Reconstructed plan of Constantinian basilica at Holy Sepulcher. After Gibson and Taylor, 1994, p. 75.

When the pilgrim arrives at the Constantine’s church at the Holy Sepulcher and comments on the cisterns that Constantine built there, he makes Constantine into a new Solomon of sorts.  Unfortunately, while the cisterns most have been impressive for the pilgrim to note them, I don’t think he calls the cisterns “beautiful.” The Latin text of the description is as follows:

ibidem modo iussu Constantini imperatoris basilica facta est, id est dominicum, mirae pulchritudinis habens ad latus excepturia, unde aqua levatur, et balneum a tergo, ubi infantes lavantur (Itin. Burd. 594.2-4).

Wilkinson takes mirae pulchritudinis“of remarkable beauty” to describe excepturia“cisterns.”  However, I think the more likely reading is that the phrase “of remarkable beauty” describes the basilica, and the phrase id est dominicumis an explanatory note in parentheses, before the sentence continues on with its main subject, the basilica.  So, a more likely translation is:

“Recently, at the very place [of the tomb] by order of Constantine a basilica of remarkable beauty has been built, that is a building of the Lord, which has cisterns at the side, from which water can be brought up, and a bath behind, where children are baptized.”

Aubrey Stewart, in his 1896 English translation for the Pilgrims Text Society, translates the passage similarly, having apparently decided that the beauty must belong to the basilica as a whole and not just the cisterns (p. 24).

There are a couple of other items of linguistic interest in the passage.

On basilica: As other scholars have noted, the pilgrim assumes that his reader may not understand what “basilica” means in reference to ecclesiastical architecture.  The term “basilica” is borrowed from Greek and can also describe a form of Roman civic architecture.  However, the use of the term for a church building appears to be new enough that the pilgrim has to explain it.

On balneus: Context indicates that the use of the term balneushere means a baptistry, although it can mean “bath” in other contexts. It follows that the term levantur means baptize here, although it can mean “wash” in other contexts.  The use of balneushere has important implications for other parts of the BP text.  For example, when the pilgrim describes the balneus of Cornelius the Centurion at Caesarea (585), he may refer to a baptistry or a bath, or a bath that is now a baptistry.  Whether or not the balneus the pilgrim saw belonged to Cornelius or even the first century remains an open question.  However, I think we can say for certain that while the cisterns at Constantine’s basilica were apparently worthy of comment, the Bordeaux Pilgrim describes the basilica as a whole as “of remarkable beauty” and not just the cisterns.

[1]S. Weingarten, “Was the Pilgrim from Bordeaux a Woman? A Response to Laurie Douglass,” JECS 7 (1999) 292 (of 291-7).


Did Egeria eat fish at Edessa?

As part of my research on Holy Land pilgrimage this year, I’ve been re-reading and translating the most significant accounts of early Christian travel in the region.  One of those texts is Egeria’s account of her travels.  Egeria was a Latin-writing traveller from the western Mediterranean who travelled in Sinai, Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor between 381 and 383 CE.  When she arrived in Constantinople at the end of her travels in the Holy Land — but before setting off again for Ephesus — she wrote an account of her journey to her “sisters” back home.  The resulting text is a sort of extended epistolary narrative rich with details about her visits to holy sites.

Recently, I’ve been focusing on descriptions in pilgrimage literature of fountains, springs, and wells as part of an examination of how such places demonstrated the authenticity of holy sites, past epiphanies, and on-going divine presence.  Egeria has some fascinating descriptions of springs and wells.  One my favorite descriptions occurs when she describes her visit to Edessa in Roman Syria — modern Urfa in Turkey.  While there, the Bishop of Edessa shows Egeria the palace of the 1st-century King Abgar, who was famous in Egeria’s day for his legendary correspondence with Jesus, original copies of which Egeria reports to have been shown by the bishop at the gates of the city (19.16-19).  According to the story reported by Egeria, the Lord sent King Abgar a letter promising that no enemy would enter the gate of the city.  When the Persians later besieged Edessa, Abgar took the Lord’s letter to the gate of the city and prayed, which caused the Persians to retreat in darkness. The Persians did not give up easily, however, and they cut off the water supply to Edessa. Egeria reports that on the very day the water was cut off, God caused a spring to flow out of the palace (19.7-13).

Egeria offers further, intriguing details about the spring and its fish, which, I think have been misapprehended by the most recent English translations, which is too bad, because I really wanted them to be correct!  Egeria reports: Ibi erant fontes, piscibus pleni, quales ego adhuc nunquam vidi, id est tantae magnitudinis et vel tam perlustres aut tam boni saporis (19.7. Latin textFranceschini and R. Weber, 1965) John Wilkinson, in the most widely used English translation renders the sentence “…[We] saw the pools with fish in them. I have never seen fish like them, they were so big , so brightly colored, and tasted so good” (Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels 1971/2002: 133).  Gingras’ translation is very similar: “fish of such great size, of such great luster, and of such good taste.” (Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage.  1970:78).  I really wanted Egeria to eat the fish at Edessa, in part because it is such a great image!  However, the Latin text is ambiguous as to whether it is the fish or the springs that Egeria found tasty – both the springs (fontes) and fish (pisces) are masculine plurals.  In fact,  John Bernard in his 1896 translation for the Palestine Pilgrims Texts leaves the English as ambiguous as the Latin.

However, Egeria’s descriptions of other springs shows that she tastes them and comments on them.  In fact, as I hope to show in a forthcoming paper, her comments on their taste and clarity are indicative of their holiness and authenticity.  While the taste of the fish could be indicative of such holiness, and thus also supportive of my paper’s point, Egeria exhibits a pattern of tasting springs elsewhere in her text.  So, I was curious how Pierre Maraval had translated the text in his widely used French translation.  As it turns out, Maraval appears to agree that Egeria tastes the water not the fish, translating: “il y avait là des fontaines pleines de poissons, telles que je n’en avais encore jamais vues tant elles étaitent vastes, tant leur eau était limpide et d’un gôut excellent.” P.Maraval, Égerie: Journal de voyage. ( 1982) 207.  Here, Maraval inserts “eau/ water” into the second part of the line to make clear what Egeria tasted.  As Maraval indicates in his notes, the fish in the pools were considered sacred in pre-Christian times as they were after the Islamic conquest.  In fact, pools still exist at Edessa/Urfa and they contain fish that are considered sacred, as Segal describes in his study Edessa: The Blessed City (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970) 2. The pools can be seen in the more recent photo below and the fish can be seen in the video.  So, while I really love the image of Egeria commenting on how tasty the fish were at the pools in the palace of Edessa, I don’t think she ate them.  Rather, she tasted of the spring bought forth by the Lord, and its delicious taste was an indicator of its sanctity.

Abraham’s Pool in Urfa. Photo:Bernard Gagnon, courrtesy of wikipedia commons.

The Piacenza Pilgrim’s Garlic and Radishes

As part of my research on early Christian pilgrimage, I’m taking the opportunity to go back through some of the most important pilgrimage accounts and make my own annotated translations.  In a few cases this had led to some very interesting discoveries.  At present, I’ve been making my way through the text my favorite account, that by the anonymous pilgrim from Piacenza, who travelled to the Holy Land between 560 and 570 CE.  As Scott Johnson has pointed out in a recent re-assessment of the Piacenza Pilgrim, the account has much to offer scholars of late antique Christianity and pilgrimage — despite the way in which many scholars have dismissed both the pilgrim and his account (DOP 70, 2016: 43-70).  The account contains a number of seemingly idiosyncratic practices and observations.  But, as Johnson points out, viewing the Piacenza Pilgrim’s practices as idiosyncratic assumes an understanding of what normative pilgrimage practices were, and the evidence for defining normative pilgrimage in the sixth century is lacking. In my opinion, the Piacenza Pilgrim most likely represents what many pilgrims were doing when traveling to the Holy Land from the West.

In any case, while translating the Piacenza Pilgrim, I’ve been comparing my translation to the standard Enlglish translation by John Wilkinson — an excellent translation and one that is the most commonly cited in English-language scholarship.  I was translating Piacenza Pilgrim 36.4, using the critical edition of the Latin text edited by Celestina Milani, Itinerarium Antonini Placentini: Un viaggio in terra sancta del 560-570 d.c. (Milano: Università Cattolica, 1977).  Milani’s edition helpfully lays out two branches of the older, recensio prior and the later recensio altera on opposing pages.  She also helpfully provides an Italian translation of the recensio altera.  The passage that got my attention, and the one supposedly about garlic and radishes in this entry’s title, describes how the Piacenza Pilgrim and his company were met at the roadside in the Sinai by “Saracens” who brought cold water from the interior of the desert, for which they would accept bread from the pilgrims.  The Saracens are described as bringing resticulas cum radicibus to the pilgrims, which Wilkenson translates as “garlic and radishes.”  However, the phase does not mean that.  Rather, a literal translation would be “ropes with roots” of which “radishes” are one possibility.  However, the type of root the Piacenza Pilgrim is referring to is suggested in the next phrase, when the Pilgrim describes the roots as having “the scent of a sweetness beyond any other spices…”  odor suavatatis super omnia aromata. Now, some people might describe radishes this way. However, in antiquity the “sweet root” is licorice.  Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary provides notes s.v radix, I.2 dulcis radix= licorice, citing Scribonius Largus, Compositiones Medicamentorum 170.  A similar definition appears in the Oxford Latin Dictionary,  s.v. radix, noting the “root that is called sweet,” is licorice, citing Celsus, de Medicina, 6.10.1:  radix quem dulcem appelant.  Celsus’ text goes on to say, that the sweet root can be “crushed and boiled in rain wine or honey wine…”  Indeed, licorice as the “sweet root” appears in the Greek term for it: γλυκύρριζα, glykorrhiza, “sweet root,”  which would seem to be the ultimate source of the English term with the initial “gl” having been dropped along the way.  So, it does not appear that the Saracens brought the pilgrimage the sweetest smelling garlic and radishes, but “ropes of licorice root” which grow in various parts of the eastern Mediterranean and was probably bundled for the pilgrims much as it is today, as seen in the photo below.

Licorice root

This is a minor philological point in my overall research, but it does reveal what sorts of discoveries are still to be had in the texts and what a reexamination of some passages can reveal about what late antique pilgrims encountered on their journeys.