Egeria, also known as Etheria or Aetheria made an incredible journey during the fourth century which she later wrote about in detail – making her one of the earliest authors of a travel book.
Far from being a leisure guide, Egeria’s work describes a pilgrimage taken over a number of years from the western reaches of the Roman empire to the heart of the Christian holy land. Scholars believe she may have been a nun.
As the beginning and the end of the Itinerarium Egeriae (‘Travels of Egeria’) are missing, there is no consensus on where she began her journey, though the most likely suggestions are Hispania (modern day Spain) or Gaul (France).
It is likely that Egeria took notes as she travelled before compiling the final text at the end of her pilgrimage. The Iterarium Egeriae is written in the form of a letter to the women in her home town – she refers to them as ‘dear ladies’ and ‘sisters’ – it is not clear whether this means Egeria was a nun writing to the other women in her convent, or whether ‘sister’ is simply meant as a term of endearment.
The surviving text begins with her approach to Mount Sinai in Egypt, then her journey to Constantinople (in Turkey). Egeria spent three years in Jerusalem making various trips outwards to see a number of biblical and religious sites, including the tomb of Job (in Syria), the burial place of Haran (the brother of Abraham) and Saint Thecla’s shrine.
As well as documenting her travels, Egeria took the time to detail religious services and practices during her time in Jerusalem. Her work remains helpful to liturgical scholars as she noted various celebrations and observances first hand, such as the date and celebration of Palm Sunday, Lent and even Christmas prior to its modern date of 25th December.
Egeria’s text also provides useful grammatical context for the development of Vulgar Latin during the 4th century, revealing the origin of the definite article used in modern Latin languages (e.g. Spanish, Italian).
Egeria’s letter home has become a fascinating snapshot of history as she managed to document so much of the changing world around her.
Later publishers of Egeria’s book mistakenly attributed her work to Sylvia of Aquitaine and the empress Galla Placidia.