On their travels ancient pilgrims were affirming detachment from home and its economic problems. 'Here we have no continuing city'. The saints 'acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth' (Heb. 13: 14, 11: 13). Pilgrimage is not, of course, a specially Christian activity, and is common to most of the higher religions in the world. Relics and pilgrimages have a role in entirely secular and non-religious travels.
Before Constantine the Great Christian pilgrimage was rare and individual; groups would have attracted a lot of dangerous attention. Before Hadrian banned Jews from Jerusalem in 135, it would have been inevitable for Gentile Christians to think of the holy city as under rabbinic masters, though there had long been a community of believing Jewish Christians there. This community retained an aura of authority. This was not lost after the Bar-Cocheba war and the expulsion of Jews from the city under Hadrian. About 170 Melito of Sardis turned to the church in Jerusalem to learn the precise canon of the Old Testament (Eusebius, HE 4. 26. 14). That was 'where the gospel history had been acted out'. The usages of the church there had authority for others. In the mid-third century Origen at Caesarea travelled round Palestine specifically to visit places where Jesus and his disciples and also the prophets had once been (Comm. on John 6. 40). He identified mount Tabor as the scene of the Transfiguration (in Ps. 88. 13, PG 12. 1548). A Cappadocian bishop Alexander was invited to move to Jerusalem, where he was already well known, and received a vision directing him to accept and evidently justifying him in so doing. During the baptismal controversy between Rome and Carthage, Firmilian of Caesarea wrote to Cyprian to the effect that the Roman church's liturgical tradition was inferior in authority to that of Jerusalem. That was the place to find authenticity. These visits were apparently not motivated by the desire to be nearer God at a sacred site, but they were close to the pilgrimage theme.
Constantine's aspiration, hindered by the Arian controversy, was to receive baptism in the river Jordan. The Holy Land was to be for him a focus of church unity, and numerous Greek bishops attended the synod of 335 at Jerusalem when the dedication of the church of the Anastasis or Resurrection (predecessor of the crusaders' Holy Sepulchre) coincided with