Problematizing Women and Holy Land Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity

By Nary-Zak, Mc | Magistra, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Problematizing Women and Holy Land Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity


Nary-Zak, Mc, Magistra


Several Christian women traveled to the Holy Land as pilgrims in the late fourth century. Through their journeys, these pilgrims participated in an established Christian practice and contributed to the stability of this region as a center of Christian devotion.(1)

A reconstruction of this evidence provides information about the nature of Christian pilgrimage in late antiquity. This evidence will confirm Christian pilgrimage as a voluntary practice structured by visits to Jerusalem and to Egypt, and as a participatory practice rooted in expressions of piety in the form of financial contributions, building endeavors, and the distribution of relics.

It will also reveal the presence of two types of women pilgrims: those who returned to their homeland after their journeys in the Holy Land, and those who settled permanently in the region after their journeys. Scholars argue that evidence of women pilgrims should be situated either in the context of the pilgrimage of Helena, the mother of Constantine, or in the context of the intentions of the imperial court of Emperor Theodosius. After reviewing the accuracy of both paradigms, a potential corrective will be suggested.

Evidence of Women Pilgrims

Poemenia and Silvia were women pilgrims who returned to their homeland after their journeys of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Poemenia, who "was very orthodox,"(2) and "famous by her family and fortune,"(3) journeyed to Egypt in order to receive a cure for an ailment from the holy man, John of Lycopolis. She procured several boats and made the journey accompanied by an entourage of bishops, priests, and eunuchs.(4)

After they arrived in Alexandria and docked the boats, they boarded Egyptian boats heading for the Thebaid. Upon their arrival in the Thebaid, Poemenia inquired about John, and was informed that he did not speak to women; respecting this, she sent the accompanying bishops to John in order to disclose her intent. The bishops returned with a vial filled with oil that relieved her ailment.(5)

In addition to providing a cure for her ailment, John advised that Poemenia not return to Alexandria from the Thebaid.(6) This instruction went unheeded, and resulted in a public disturbance with local inhabitants of the city who, it is told:

cut off the finger of a eunuch; another one they killed; not recognizing the saintly bishop, Dionysius, they doused him in the river. After they had wounded all the other servants, they insulted and threatened her.(7)

After departing from Alexandria, Poemenia intended to travel "to the holy city Jerusalem, and to pray at the holy tomb of Christ, as well as Golgotha, the Anastasis."(8) She was responsible for the destruction of an idol at the summit of Mount Gerazim, and the construction of the Church of the Ascension.(9) The dating of the construction of this church suggests that Poemenia satisfied her intentions in Jerusalem between 384-390 C.E.(10)

The pilgrimage of Poemenia was characterized by wealth and piety. This combination also characterized the pilgrimage of Silvia. In 399-400 C.E., Palladius and Melania the Elder escorted Silvia, the virgin, sister-in-law of Flavius Rufinus, from Jerusalem to Egypt.(11)

It so happened that we (Melania and Palladius) traveled together from Aelia to Egypt, escorting the blessed Silvania, the virgin, sister-in-law of Rufinus the ex-prefect. Among the party there was Jovinus also with us, then a deacon, but now a bishop of the church of Ascalon, a devout and learned man.(12)

Silvia promised the gift of relics, the remains of "many martyrs from the East," for the new basilica in Primuliacum.(13)

The pilgrimages of Poemenia and Silvia consisted of visits to Jerusalem and to Egypt conducted in a manner suitable to women of high social status. Poemenia traveled to the Holy Land with several boats and an entourage including bishops, priests, and eunuchs.

Christian pilgrim she may have been, but rather than adopt a mode of travel which might be thought to suit an enterprise of devotion, she conducted her pilgrimage with all the display which characterized the public behavior of members of her class: the maintenance of the right style was paramount. …

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