A Pilgrim’s Progress: How the First-Ever Female Travel Writer Inspired a Modern-Day Journey to Jerusalem
The first-ever female travel writer’s solo pilgrimage to Jerusalem over 1,000 years ago inspires a modern-day journey to the Holy Land.
07 April, 2021
I know it has been a rather long business writing down all these places one after the other, and it makes far too much to remember. But it may help you, loving sisters, the better to picture what happened in these places." So scrawled Egeria, one of the first-ever travel writers and certainly the original female travel writer - and yet few have ever heard of her.
Visiting the Levant area between AD 381 and 384, Egeria wrote a first-person account of her trip addressed to her "sorores" (sisters), which has led scholars to deduce that she was a nun. However, she could just have easily been addressing a group of Christian women or a troop of female siblings waiting back at home, Little Women-style. I chanced upon the Itinerarium Egeriae while researching a book about solo female travellers through history. Although Marco Polo, Captain Cook, Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux are household names, many equally intrepid female explorers have had their adventures overlooked. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of these pioneering women to see how solo female travel has changed across the centuries.
Although only part of Egeria's writing remains - her manuscript was lost for 700 years and only an incomplete version discovered in Italy in the 19th century - we still get an idea of her personality and enthusiasm for exploring. She describes her "boundless curiosity" and goes to great lengths to record the details of what she sees. We know that she was educated, probably comfortably off, and wanted to see the land of Genesis, the Old Testament and the gospels. By her own admission she's "inquisitive", has a taste for adventure and takes hardship in her stride.
Unlike Egeria, who made her way through Constantinople to arrive in Jerusalem, probably by camel, I fly into Tel Aviv, also known as the Miami of the Middle East. Joggers and surfers are out on the sand and a smattering of dishevelled revellers are sitting outside bars smoking. After stopping for a lunch of Israeli salads and masabacha - a warm hummus made with white fava beans - at the fashionable hotel The Norman, I catch the bus to Jerusalem. The Holy City might only be an hour from here, but as every Tel Avivian tells me, it's another world entirely.
Writing in Latin (and I'm indebted to John Wilkinson's excellent translation), Egeria states that she has come "right from the other end of the earth" but doesn't say exactly where home is. However,aseventh-centuryGalicianhermitcalled Valerius wrote a letter praising "the most blessed Egeria and her travels" so she might well have come from the same part of Spain. Scholars think she could have been the daughter of a merchant, which would help explain the contacts she would have needed to organise the tents, camels, mules and local guides necessary for desert travel in Roman times.
When I step off the bus in Jerusalem the first thing I notice is the clothes. Not just the uniforms of the young soldiers (every Israeli does National Service when they leave school, so teenagers in khakis is a common sight), but also the Hasidic Jews in their mink hats and gold robes and a group of nuns in white habits. To further add to the feeling of being in a play, it also happens to be Purim - a Jewish celebration that involves Halloween-style costumes - so I see people dressed as clowns, monks and (best of all) a costume of a man riding a camel, who also happens to be riding a skateboard. I'm pretty sure that's how Egeria would have travelled if she could have.
I head to my hotel, Villa Brown, one of a clutch of boutique hotels that have recently opened to appeal to discerning visitors, not just the busloads of tourists coming for religious pilgrimage. I head straight to the central food market, Machane Yehuda, to get my bearings, and instantly regret having eaten lunch. You can sample food from around the globe at The Shuk, whether Yemeni wraps, sushi or fish and chips. Eventually the smell of freshly baked dough at a Georgian stall forces me to buy a hachapuri, a kind of calzone with cheese.
I nibble it while wandering the streets outside the market and quickly find myself in a very peaceful part of town. The white washing hanging between the houses, a shop selling only black hats and a feeling that I've stepped back in time tells me that this is Mea Shearim, the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood. From here it's not long before the atmosphere gets livelier and the colours brighter. Amid the pretty courtyards of Nachlaot is a vintage clothes shop, a smattering of street art and the Barbur Gallery. It's here that I meet Jenna Romano. She's originally from New York but moved to Jerusalem to study art history. She also runs Contemporary Art in Jerusalem, which takes visitors on tours of the city's contemporary-art scene, including street art and artists' studios.
Jenna points me in the direction of the Jerusalem Artists' House, a gallery where up-and-coming Israeli, Palestinian and Ethiopian artists are showing their work. The castle-like structure was once the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts and nearby Bezalel Street is thronged with coffee shops, galleries and live music venues such as Nocturno, where students from the nearby architecture school hang out. For dinner that night I grab a seat at the bar at Mona. This is the kind of place where the staff pour you shots of ice-cold arak - "we're going to do a little l'chaim" - and the hand-thrown ceramic plates and cups are so beautiful you want to lick them clean and smuggle them home.
Israeli food is renowned for being some of the best in the world and Mona doesn't disappoint. I try shachat - a smoky goat's cheese with a blue centre, served with hazelnut crackers that are so moreish I have to request a second helping - a polpo bruschetta with lemon verbena and chives, and a tangy red-tuna sashimi. You know you're in a good restaurant when even the salad is something to write home about - a teetering pile of chervil, almonds, radishes, grapefruit, mint and snow peas with a mandarin and Earl Grey vinegar dressing.
The next morning I wake up early to meet Mike Smeir at Herod's Gate. Mike grew up in the Muslim Quarter and now runs food tours of the Old City with a company called Urban Adventures. Although it's not yet 8am, behind the walls life is already pulsating. The Old City has four distinct quarters (Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian) and many more subsets within. We enter the Afghani area past the Indian Hospice and find men smoking shisha and playing cards and boys carrying wooden wheelbarrows of ka'ak (a sesame-covered bread). We grab a loaf as we walk down the steep, narrow, cobbled alleyways to Abu Shukri restaurant. According to Mike, it serves the best hummus in the city and judging by how many people are huddled over red bowls on plastic chairs, he might be right. The swirl of hummus plonked in front of us looks as creamy as a Mr Whippy ice cream and tastes zesty and lemony, topped with chickpeas, parsley and paprika.
We dodge groups of religious tourists singing hymns on the Via Dolorosa and join the queue to place our palms on a smooth part of the rock where Jesus is meant to have stumbled and rested his hand. Mike guides me past the shouting hawkers and trundling carts to Little Western Wall, a lesser- known, more sheltered part of the Western Wall where people have crammed folded notes and prayers into the crevices between the stones.
As we stand there two small boys, one in a kippah and one in a keffiyeh, walk up hand in hand and kiss the wall together. It's an almost too-perfect metaphor of hope and friendship amid the ongoing tensions in this part of the world. Armed Israeli soldiers with crackling radios guard the gates to Temple Mount, a holy spot for Muslims, Jews and Christians, and the site of a recent protest.
Egeria wasn’t really travelling alone. Although she’s constantly meeting monks, nuns and bishops, she is also, of course, travelling with God.
Past stalls selling cotton, herbs and antique maps we reach Ja'far Sweets, which is bustling before prayer time at the mosque. Mike wants me to try a traditional Palestinian sweet called knafeh, which is cheese covered in syrup topped with pistachios. It tastes... interesting, and I politely push it around my plate while sipping hot, sludgy Arabic coffee. From here we make our way to the Holy Sepulchre, the main church in Jerusalem where pilgrims are lining up to touch the rock Jesus was crucified on and go inside his ornate tomb. The strong smell of incense, throngs of people visibly overcome with emotion and strings of twinkling oil lamps and baubles make it an intense experience.
Watching this outpouring of devotion it occurs to me that Egeria wasn't really travelling alone. Although she's constantly meeting monks, nuns and bishops, she is also, of course, travelling with God. I think of her again when Mike points out the crumbling Roman arches stretching overhead on certain streets in the Old City, the very arches she would have walked under. We pass an alleyway with a sign saying "The Nun's Ascent" in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The limestone steps are glassy from all the feet that have polished them - maybe Egeria's, too.
I leave Mike and try to navigate the maze-like Arab quarter alone to reach the Mount of Olives, which Egeria notes is actually "a very big hill". I pass the rock where Judas betrayed Jesus, which Egeria also mentions, and the "graceful church" at the bottom, along with the Garden of Gethsemane, now a rather underwhelming patch of olive trees. Egeria stayed in Jerusalem "for three full years", making trips to nearby cities such as Jericho, so I jump on a bus to the lowest and oldest city on earth. On the way down through the hills we pass Bedouin tribes in corrugated-iron shacks and eventually pass under a huge Coca-Cola sign to enter Jericho, known in the Bible as the Promised Land.
Archaeologists from Italy are dusting the fortifications at the palace of Tel Al Sultan, which dates back 10,000 years. I think about hiking to the monastery on the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights, but the dry heat is so intense that instead I break my own fast with a falafel sabich (stuffed pita) with preserved lemons and aubergines and a fresh pomegranate juice in the peaceful main square.
On the way back, ears popping from travelling 250m below sea level, I jump off the bus near the Dead Sea. Although Egeria remarks that it looks "like the ocean" it's actually a salty lake. I've been advised by a friend to swerve the charmless resort towns and enter the water at a hidden spot called Ein Kedem instead. I'm a bit hesitant getting in, imagining that the salty water will thrust me upwards with force, but it's just like you're normally floating in the sea, except with added bounce. "Its water is extremely bitter," notes Egeria. "Fish are nowhere to be found in it and no ships sail there. If anyone goes to swim in it, the water turns them upside down."
Both our journeys have been inspired by writing...she was following in the footsteps of Moses and Jesus, just as I am now stepping into her shoes.
That night, skin still silky soft from the minerals in my mud bath, I take the bus from Jerusalem to Checkpoint 300 to reach Bethlehem. When Egeria visited Jesus's birthplace she entered on foot, as it was then part of Jerusalem. Now it is part of the Palestinian West Bank, behind a 700km dividing wall built by the Israelis in 2002. A few people have expressed surprise that I'm going into Palestine, alone, as a woman. "Just don't do it at night," says a bartender whom I tell of my plans - so naturally it's pitch-black by the time I attempt the journey.
I'm headed to Walled Off, a hotel, museum and Palestinian art gallery right next to the wall which the artist Banksy opened in 2017. Entering the candle-lit, jazz-music playing lobby after dragging my bags through the narrow turnstiles and dark corridors of the checkpoint is such a jarring feeling that I can't help thinking of Casablanca or colonial times. The sign at reception says "Rejection", there's a Grecian bust wreathed in smoke from a tear-gas canister, cherubs in gas masks painted on the wall, a lift jammed open with concrete breeze blocks and a note on my pillow from Banksy saying "Welcome to Bethlehem - a place renowned since Biblical times for its inadequate hostelry facilities - a tradition we're likely to continue here."
I sleep soundly in my wonderfully chintzy pink room, only stirring with the call to prayer. The next morning, after a shakshuka under Banksy's display of mounted CCTV cameras, I meet Marwan Fararjeh for a walking tour of the wall.
There are painted slogans such as "Make Hummus Not Walls" and a picture of Trump snogging a watchtower, and it's not long before we reach Aida Refugee Camp. Palestinians have been living here since 1950, displaced in the wake of the 1947-1949 war which in Hebrew is known as "the war of liberation" and in Arabic "the Nakba", meaning "catastrophe", which just about sums up the differing points of view. Some 6,000 people now live in the camp, among them a woman named Layla who's selling silver jewellery made from the shells of tear-gas canisters and olive-oil soap. There's more street art and a sobering list of children killed painted on a black wall.
Before I leave there's just time to walk down Star Street through Manger Square to reach The Church of Nativity. As I watch pilgrims gather for mass in the spot where Jesus is said to have been born, just as they would have when Egeria was here, I'm reminded that both our journeys have been inspired by writing. The Bible was her roadmap and she was following in the footsteps of Moses and Jesus, just as I am now stepping into her shoes. By documenting her travels Egeria hoped to conjure up her experiences in the minds of her "loving sisters" at home. Maybe this is the power of writing - that it can become a form of telepathy, as well as a way of travelling through time. Hopefully I can do something similar with my own book. Inshallah, as they say around here.
British Airways flies from London to Tel Aviv. To book, call 0344 493 0125 or visit ba.com/telaviv
For more information on the city of Jerusalem, visit itraveljerusalem.com