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Routes to the Holy Land

Routes to the Holy Land: The early centuries, the Middle Ages and the Balkan itineraries in the era of the crusades

“Humans are the most mobile of animals”. This famous statement by Aristotle aptly refers to one of the strongest forces driving the human soul, an impulse that is both biological and anthropological. In the case of the multi-millenarian march to Jerusalem, Christian society has reinforced this impulse with religious motives: Christ died in the Holy City for the Salvation of mankind, and for two millennia the faithful have been travelling to His Tomb to express their devotion and to wash away their sins.

It all began in 326, when the emperor Constantine built numerous monuments in the Holy Land in memory of the most important moments in Christ’s life. The most important of these was obviously in Jerusalem: the complex of the Holy Sepulchre, comprising the basilica of the Martirium, a colonnaded walkway and the rotunda of the Anastasis containing the Tomb itself. At the same time the emperor built the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Constantine’s monuments put the imperial seal on a form of devotion that was already in its early stages, since the faithful had already begun to venerate the sites associated with Christ’s Passion a few decades after His death. As well as providing a living reminder of the historic events, the imposing basilicas also gave visual expression to all the Christological dogmas that had been established in the ecumenical councils of the 4th century. These had stressed Christ’s dual nature, divine but also human. In the following centuries other important churches were built in the Holy Land, including those of Mount Zion, completed in 392-394, and the Tomb of Mary, completed shortly afterwards. The result was the creation of a holy Christian topography, within which, in the following centuries, the liturgical itineraries of Holy Week and other moments of the Christian calendar unfolded.

The pressing need for Jerusalem and the profound religiosity that drove the ancient pilgrims, known as “palmers” because of the palm of Jericho by which they were distinguished, are dimensions that our disenchanted modern society finds it difficult to fully grasp. Even the most important sources in our possession, the pilgrims’ travel diaries, provide us with only partial reflections on their spirituality. They do however have much to tell us about the preferred travel routes (both terrestrial and marine), journey times and the role played in this context by the settlements through which they passed.

In general, the pilgrims used the road network that had been created throughout Europe by the Romans. In the late-ancient period this was still fully intact, and was basically used uninterruptedly – with opportune additions and variants where the topography or patterns of settlement had changed – throughout the Middle Ages. The faithful of central and northern Europe had two alternatives: to travel down through the Italian peninsula by road to the ports of Puglia, from where they would proceed by ship, or to travel through the Balkans to Constantinople and proceed from there to Jerusalem by coastal maritime routes or along the inland highways of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Syria.

The anonymous pilgrim of Bordeaux (333 AD): the Via Diagonalis, the Middle Eastern land route, the Via Egnatia and the Via Traiana

The big flows of pilgrims began at about the same time as the construction of Constantine’s churches. One of the first ever accounts of the journey, the famous Itinerarium Burdigalense, provides a wealth of detail. It describes the route taken in 333 by an anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux, who used both options depending on the circumstances. Thus on the outward journey, the French palmer set off from his city of origin, followed the Via Domitia from Toulouse to Arles, crossed the Alps near Moncenisio and travelled through northern Italy from Turin to Aquileia. From here he took the valley of the Danube and then turned South, following the Via Diagonalis, which led diagonally towards Constantinople through the inland settlements of Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia (Belgrade), Bulgaria (Sofia) and modern Turkey (Edirne, the ancient Adrianople). From the Roman capital of the Orient, having crossed the Bosphorus, he continued by land along the inland Roman road network, across Anatolia – where he passed through important towns such as Iznik (the ancient Nicaea), Ankara, Tyana and Tarsus – and Syria, finally reaching Palestine.

For the return journey the pilgrim followed the same Middle Eastern roads as the outward journey, but once he had reached Constantinople, he took the Via Egnatia, travelling through Thrace, Macedonia and Epirus, finally arriving in Vlorë (Aulon or Valona on the Adriatic coast of Albania).

From Valona he crossed the straits by ship to Otranto. From this port on the Salento peninsula he travelled up the whole of the Italian peninsula along a “Frankish” route, following, in chronological order, the Via Traiana, passing through Brindisi and Bari up to Benevento, the Via Appia from Benevento to Rome, the Via Flaminia to Rimini and lastly the Via Emilia to Milan, where his “Itinerarium” came to an end.

The Balkan itineraries in the era of the crusades (late 11th to late 12th centuries)

In the early Middle Ages the occupation of the Balkans by the warlike Hungarians induced the pilgrims to abandon the Via Diagonalis. The situation changed again at the beginning of the 11th century, when the conversion of the Hungarians to Christianity imposed by King Stephen reactivated the flows to the Holy Land along the ancient Balkan road. Over the next two centuries (late 11th to late 12th centuries), pilgrims and crusaders from central and northern Europe gathered in Vienna or Budapest, set off for Belgrade and from here followed the diagonal highway to Constantinople.

In the meantime the road had been named the “Way of Charlemagne” in consideration of the Carolingian king’s legendary pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Among the crusaders who took this route was the famous commander of the first expedition, Godfrey of Bouillon, who travelled with his troops from Lorraine in August 1096. Given his support for the Holy Roman Empire, Godfrey preferred to steer clear of Pope Urban II, and rather than travel down through Italy with his men chose to cross the Hungarian lands and take the Way of Charlemagne to Belgrade, at that time controlled by Byzantium, and travel from there to Constantinople.


Half a century later, the same route was taken by the emperor Conrad III and Louis VII of France, on their way to the second crusade (1147). They both set off from Metz, travelling first to Regensburg, then to Vienna along the Danube and then to Belgrade. From this city, today the capital of Serbia, they followed the Via Diagonalis to Constantinople. From the Byzantine capital, first Godfrey, then Conrad III and Louis VII, continued to the Holy Land mostly following – except for a more southerly route between Iznik (Nicea) and Tyana – the internal roads of Anatolia and the coastal roads of Syria that had already been used centuries earlier by the anonymous pilgrim of Bordeaux.

An alternative route across the Balkans to the Via Diagonalis was the so-called Via Danubia.

This was a longer route that ran from Belgrade parallel to the Danube until its mouth, passing through all the Roman cities and fortified outposts along its banks. From the mouth of the Danube it was possible to continue by land or by sea following the Black Sea coast to Constantinople, and from there following the above-mentioned roads of Anatolia or maritime routes.

The Via Danubia was used above all by Romanian pilgrims. The mouth of the Danube was also a staging post for many palmers coming from Russia. The most famous of these was the Russian – or more likely Ukrainian – Hegumen Daniel, who set off for Jerusalem in about 1107, in the aftermath of the crusaders’ conquest. His travel diary begins after his arrival in Constantinople. However there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the monk’s journey began in Kiev – or perhaps from Chernigov further north – and that he travelled by road to Odessa on the northern shore of the Black Sea. Daniel and his travel companions embarked and sailed along the coasts of Romania and Bulgaria until Constantinople, where they were received with honours by the Byzantine authorities.

From Constantinople the group continued towards Jerusalem via a mainly maritime route, through the Dardanelles Strait and stopping at various Aegean islands and Anatolian ports, including Tenedos, Mytilene, Chios, Ephesus, Samos, Karil, Patmos, Kos, Nisera, Halki and Rhodes. From here they passed through a series of coastal towns associated with St Nicholas: Makri (today Fethiye), Patara and Myra. From Chelidonia they sailed to Cyprus and then to the port of Jaffa on the coast of Palestine.

The maritime itineraries of Arculf (670 ca.) and St Willibald (723-726)

In the course of their journeys the early-medieval pilgrims also made use of commercial maritime routes, which often alternated with land routes. Worthy of mention in this regard are the accounts of the journeys by the Gaulish bishop Arculf, who travelled in 670 (or perhaps between 679 and 682) and St Willibald, who travelled half a century later, between 723 and 726, since the ships that carried them followed consolidated Mediterranean and Aegean routes to Constantinople.

Arculf’s biographer Adamnan of Iona gives a brief description of the Bishop’s return journey: embarking in one of the ports of the Holy Land, he sailed for 40 days along the coast to Alexandria in Egypt. From here his ship sailed to Crete, and then to Constantinople along the coast of Anatolia. From Constantinople the group decided not to take the Via Egnatia as the anonymous pilgrim of Bordeaux had done three centuries earlier, perhaps because it was by then unsafe due to the Slavic invasions. Thus they proceeded by ship, following the Greek coast of Attica and then the Peloponnese. They then sailed across the Ionian Sea to Messina and Vulcano and sailed up the west coast of Italy to Naples and the ports of Rome, where they disembarked.

The route taken by St Willibald, on both the outward and return journeys, is somewhat clearer. The famous Anglo-Saxon bishop decided to set off for the Holy Land once his pilgrimage from Germany to Rome was concluded. Travelling on foot through southern Italy, he crossed the Strait of Messina and took ship from Messina to the Orient. His ship called at the islands of Chios and Samos, followed the coast of Anatolia to the cities of Ephesus (near Selçuk), Hierapolis (Comana) and Miletus (Milet), and then headed to Cyprus and Tripoli in Lebanon, where he disembarked.

On the return journey from Jerusalem he embarked once more in Tripoli, but this time his ship sailed for Constantinople following the coast of Anatolia up to the Bosporus. From here he followed the same route as Arculf, sailing to Sicily, stopping at Catania and Vulcano, and then following the west coast of Italy to Naples, where he disembarked and continued by road to Cassino.

From the Adriatic to the Holy Land with the pilgrims of the Middle Ages

In the central centuries of the Middle Ages, the ports of Puglia were a key embarkation point for pilgrims headed to the Holy Land, the lands of the Outremer. This is attested by abundant and eloquent sources. Speaking of the preparations for the departure of Bohemond I of Antioch for the crusades, Robert the Monk recalled that the Franks arriving in Puglia embarked from Bari, Brindisi and Otranto.

A few years later (1101-1103), the Anglo-Saxon merchant Saewulf, who was headed for Jerusalem, mentions the ports of Bari, Barletta, Trani, Siponto and Otranto, the latter considered to be the last port on the Italian coast suitable for crossing the Adriatic. He himself embarked from Monopoli but after setting off a storm forced the travellers to seek shelter in the port of Brindisi, from where they set off again after a few necessary repairs to the vessel. From the coast of Puglia they headed for Corinth and then crossed the Aegean to reach the coast of Asia Minor. From there sailed to Cyprus and then to Jaffa.

An anonymous pilgrim recalled embarking in Brindisi for the Holy Land in the late 12th-early 13th centuries, and the city features among the ports used by the crusaders accompanying Richard the Lionheart. In the Crónica Catalana by Ramon Muntaner, Brindisi is described as the best port in the world, situated in a fertile and productive region not far from Rome. From the Adriatic city goods and pilgrims were carried to Acre, above all on vessels run by Knights Templar and Hospitaller.

In the middle of the 12th century the monk Nikulas Bergsson undertook an extraordinary journey from his native Iceland to Brindisi, from where the future abbot of Munkathvera embarked for Acre, which he reached after a voyage of 14 days.

From the 14th century onwards, Venice’s monopoly over commercial routes and pilgrimage journeys ensured that the northern Adriatic, by then practically a Venetian lake, was opened up to traffic heading for the Holy Land. The monk Francesco Suriano, a missionary and pilgrim in the Holy land in the 1480s, claimed that there was no better place in Christendom for starting the journey to Jerusalem than Venice. The Most Serene Republic ran regular scheduled pilgrimage journeys through the year, with precise dates and prices that included the payment of numerous tolls in the Orient and above all ensured a certain safety from pirate attacks.

The mude, i.e. the maritime convoys that periodically set off for Venice, travelled to Syria (stopping in Crete, Cyprus and Beirut), Alexandria in Egypt (from where the pilgrims could travel through Sinai and then to Jerusalem or continue by sea to the coasts of the Levant) and Constantinople and the Black Sea, crossing the Aegean and its islands. There were vessels specifically for use by pilgrims, the “Jaffa galleys”, which typically carried 60 to 100 people if not more .
In the eastern Mediterranean there was no large port or trading station where the Venetians did not have at least a warehouse or mission. The Venetian Stato da Mar, which comprised all of the Republic’s maritime colonies, became the new space in which maritime pilgrimage was conducted for at least two centuries.

The ports of Dalmatia, together with those of Puglia, which had been places of transit for pilgrims in the era of the crusades, became essential staging posts on this long journey, which almost always included a stop in Corfu, the western Peloponnese, which the Venetians called Morea (Methoni, Coroni), Candia (Heraklion) on the island of Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus and finally Jaffa and Jerusalem. Numerous European travellers (Flemings, French, Italians, Germans, English) followed this itinerary on either the outward or the return journeys or both, many writing accounts of their travels. Worthy of mention among these is the Frenchman Bertrandon de la Broquière, a notable in the court of Philip the Good of Burgundy, who set off for Jerusalem from Ghent in 1432. After visiting Rome, he went to Venice, where he joined a convoy of two galleys on the 8th of May that year. His vessel followed the Eastern Adriatic coast, stopping at Parenzo, Pola, Zara, and Corfu before following the usual route.

Similar itineraries are described by Mariano da Siena in 1431, Santo Brasca in 1480 (Venice, Ragusa, Corfu, Zakynthos, Methoni, Candia, Paphos, Jaffa, Jerusalem), William Wey in 1458 and many others. The English traveller Wey set off in a convoy composed of two galleys carrying more than 190 pilgrims from north of the Alps. The vessels’ itinerary included stops in Ragusa, Durazzo, Corfu, Paphos, Cyprus and finally Jaffa, from where the pilgrims continued to Jerusalem, anxious to sell indulgences at the holy sites.
Almost a century earlier (1344-1345), a small group of English pilgrims seeking to reach the Holy Land from France had had a very different experience.

The company reached Venice, but not wishing to remain idle while waiting to be embarked, they decided to go to Rome. After visiting the city they headed to Puglia, gens cuius est umanissima. They embarked in Otranto and from there travelled by the usual route via Corfu, the ports of the Peloponnese (also known as Magna Achaja), Rhodes (described in great detail), Cyprus (where they visited Limassol and Famagusta) and finally the Holy Land, where they disembarked in Jaffa, a few kilometres from modern-day Tel-Aviv.

The itinerary of the two Flemish notables John and Anselm Adorno, who set off for the Holy Land from Bruges in 1470 for essentially political reasons, is characterised by its complexity and the interesting descriptions the travellers provide of the places visited. Anselm’s fascinating account
paints a vivid picture of the Mediterranean places they visited on the way, including the ports of Puglia, the Aegean islands and Jerusalem. These images were also evoked in their place of origin, Bruges, where there is one of the most famous replicas of the Holy Sepulchre ever built.

Many other travellers set off from Venice on coastal routes in ships loaded with pilgrims and goods that stopped in the main maritime and commercial cities of the Adriatic: Zara, Spalato, Ragusa, Durazzo etc., until the Strait of Otranto. In the 14th and 15th centuries, pilgrims, goods and ideas spread towards the Orient from the “Venetian Gulf”, i.e. the late medieval Adriatic, which acted as an extraordinary crucible of cultural models, propagating common artistic and formative styles.

The pilgrims’ accounts, like those of the notable Florentine authors who wrote important works of late-medieval travel literature and the Travels of sir John Mandeville, an attempt to summarise all the geographical knowledge of the 14th century, provide us with a kaleidoscopic vision of these Mediterranean regions, generally characterised by happy – though at times difficult – cultural and religious coexistence and the whims of the sea (and men). They portray the peoples who inhabit the coasts of the Adriatic, the Greek islands and the Holy Land, almost always highlighting the classic elements that prompt people to travel: the search for spiritual fulfilment and the thirst for knowledge.

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