“The voice of Egeria” in Jerusalem | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

“The voice of Egeria” in Jerusalem

The words of the pilgrim Egeria, who arrived in the Holy land at the end of the 4th century, echo once again under the sky of Jerusalem on a warm evening in early summer. The cultural event “The voice of Egeria” was held on Thursday 20 June, in St Helen’s courtyard in the Franciscan complex of St Saviour.  It was a reading of passages selected from Itinerarium Egeriae (Egeria’s diary) with a musical accompaniment.

The initiative

The event is based on an idea and conceived by Silvia Giuliano, a scholar of History and Theology, with theatrical experience and who is currently working in the service of the Custody of the Holy Land. “I got to know better and appreciate the contents of the Diary by taking part in some excursions with the lecturers from the  Studium Biblicum Franciscanum,  who often use it as an instrument of introduction to the Holy Places,” she said.

“I noticed how much this text could lend itself to an interpreted reading: Egeria’s style is very discursive and full of expressive passages.”  This gave her the idea, which was immediately accepted by the Custody of the Holy Land, which offered the space.

Words and music

The selection of the texts follows the structure of the Diary with a first, more adventurous part, linked to the journey, and a second more descriptive part, linked to Egeria’s stay in Jerusalem and her participation in the liturgies which are described very accurately. The passages proposed include those on the daily liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre – well before it became the present-day procession, which did not take shape until the 13th century with the arrival of the Franciscans – the procession of Palm Sunday and the liturgies of the Paschal Triduum.

The part of the musical accompaniment was curated by Lucia D’Anna, who teaches cello at the Magnificat Institute in Jerusalem, the school of music of the Custody of the Holy Land. “The choice of the music was functional to underlining and giving strength to the passages of the text,” she explained. For this reason as well, “there are some very different types of music: from improvisations, to pieces selected from the Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and the Ricercari by Giovanni Battista Degli Antonii. I also included some pieces of famous soundtracks, to give the idea of the great spectacle and wonder that are in Egeria’s descriptions, and the melodies of some Masses, especially in the part of the liturgy.”

In her reading, Silvia Giuliano wanted to emphasize in particular the curiosity that characterized the pilgrim Egeria: “She herself, in her diary, talks of her curiosity and desire to know. She was certainly a very lively personality and at times also ironic… as when she speaks of the long homilies of the priests during the Sunday liturgies, to the extent that the Mass ends in the middle of the night. I wanted to see a tone that was definitely ironic behind this writing.” In reading the diary, “we can sense a great feminine sensitivity and the extraordinary nature of this woman who represents a unique voice that has come all the way down to us.”

Who was Egeria?

Egeria’s pilgrimage is usually situated between 381 and 384. She is famous for her Travel Diary, discovered in 1884 in Arezzo (Italy). It is an incredibly valuable document for scholars, for the information and the meticulous descriptions it contains, both of the Holy Places and of the liturgies. In 2023, fra Enrique Bermejo Cabrera, in service at the Custody of the Holy Land, published a book which goes over the story of her pilgrimage.

In the Diary, the pilgrim addresses her “dominae sorores”, a group of sisters who had stayed in the West. It is probable that more than nuns, they were a circle of noblewomen who shared a religious devotion. It is not clear whether Egeria was consecrated to God; she was definitely of a high rank and wealthy, as is clear from some details in the Diary and the costs of the journey of that type. As for her origin, the most accredited theory is that she came from the Spanish region of Galicia.

A present-day reading

Reading Egeria’s Diary still has a great deal to offer, not only to scholars and to experts in the field, but also to today’s pilgrims, who can find a guide and help to be immerged in history, almost in the origins of the Holy Places. In some cases, they offer the contemporary reader views of profoundly different realities, – in other cases, above all the passages that describe some liturgies - show a reality that has stayed practically unchanged over the centuries.

Marinella Bandini