Egeria's Travels 3rd ed.

By John Wilkinson, translator and commentator
Wiltshire, England : Aris & Phillips (1999). 221 Pages.

Reviewed by
12.1 (Spring 2001) : 125-127

Byzantine travel narratives provide an important corpus of literature concerning the post-biblical geography of the Holy Land. Works such as Eusebius’ Onomasticon have provided scholars with critical toponymical detail. One such travel narrative was written by a woman named Egeria who visited the Holy Land in A.D. 381-384. Though little is known of this pilgrim, Egeria’s narrative provides important geographical detail concerning the Holy Land and ecclesiastical practice in Jerusalem. Recent multi-lingual treatments of Egeria include Italian (Nicoletta Natalucci, Pellegrinaggio in Terra Santa [Bologna: EDB, 1999]), Spanish (Itinerario de la Virgen Egeria (381-384), 2nd ed. [Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1996]), Hebrew (Ora Limor and Milka Rubin, Mas‘ot Erets ha-Kodesh: ‘ole regel Notsrim be-shilhe ha-‘et ha-‘atikah: te’uremasa‘ Latiniyim [Jerusalem: Yad Yitshak ben Tsevi, 1998]), German (Itinerarium Reisebericht [Freiburg: Herder, 1995]), and now Wilkinson’s English offering of Egeria’s Travels.

Largely consigned to the scholarly realm, Egeria’s accessibility has been limited. John Wilkinson recently released an updated translation with supplemental critical commentary. Previous translations (1971, 1981), by the author’s own admission (xiv), contained mistakes that had, heretofore, concerned him. Wilkinson confides, “This third edition will, I hope, interpret Egeria rather better than my previous efforts” (xiv). This is not a simple reprint, but an important reworking of Egeria’s narratives by an honest scholar incorporating new understandings.

John Wilkinson was a canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and the Director of the British School of Archaeology there. He is the author of several books including Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Aris & Phillips, 1977) and Jerusalem as Jesus Knew It: Archaeology As Evidence (Thames & Hudson, 1978). Wilkinson’s knowledge of Jerusalem is an important asset in his treatment of Egeria’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Readers familiar with Wilkinson’s earlier publications on Jerusalem will quickly recognize renderings and diagrams in Egeria’s Travel.

In his introduction, Wilkinson assists the reader in placing Egeria in context. A brief prolegomenon to Egeria, the person, is followed by a treatment of the varying manuscripts that reference her and which are foundational to the translation. Wilkinson then addresses the nature and pattern of early Christian pilgrimages, the geographic structure of Byzantine Jerusalem (Aelia Capitolina), and other literary contributions of Byzantine pilgrims (notably the pilgrim of Bordeaux). Finally, Wilkinson outlines Egeria’s travel route, provides a chronological and contextual time line, an overview of the clergy, ecclesiastical customs, the people encountered by Egeria, and finally, a concluding discussion of local liturgical practice. Wilkinson liberally footnotes his narrative for both citation and digression. The text proper is peppered with diagrams and archaeological renderings.

Following introductory treatments, Wilkinson then offers a translation of Egeria’s travelogue. Because of the fragmentation and loss of significant portions of the manuscript (notably the beginning and the end)—the partial principal manuscript having been “discovered” in 1884—Wilkinson offers a reconstruction of the lost portion of the opening section by utilizing Peter the Deacon’s Book on the Holy Places (ca. A.D. 1137). Peter recognized three primary works in the compilation of his text. One of these was E geria’s travel journals. Wilkinson uses this work to offer the reader a sense of what Egeria may have tried to communicate, albeit through the later work of Peter the Deacon. The author provides clear demarcations to distinguish offered reconstruction from actual translation. The translation ends abruptly and Wilkinson does not attempt to reconstruct the conclusion of Egeria’s travelogue as he did with the lost portion of the beginning.

Wilkinson’s translation of the 1884 text is clear, making Egeria’s Latin accessible to the modern reader. The translation is also liberally noted and includes numerous maps and diagrams to assist the reader in understanding the narrative. Wilkinson utilizes his notes for digressions, clarifications, and corrections, leaving the translation free of scholastic clutter. Egeria’s narratives comprise her detailed discussion of travel experiences, the geography of the Holy Land, as well as an extended discussion of liturgical practice in Jerusalem at the time of her visit.

The final section of the book explores varying and eclectic historical notes that concern the translation or are historically tangential discussions. Egeria’s name, issues of dating the pilgrimage, the “finding of the cross,” the cave of the anastasis, the old Armenian lectionary (an important cross-reference to the liturgical discussion), the duration of Lent, the finding of Job, Edessa’s water system, Christian-Jewish relations in the travelogue, and the “letter to Valerius” round out the text. Discussion of translation-manuscript authenticity and an exploration of external criticism connected with the 1884 manuscript would be a welcome addition to an otherwise detailed piece of scholarly work.

Readers interested in the Byzantine geography of the Holy Land will appreciate Wilkinson’s refining and reworking of his previous treatments of Egeria. Church historians will be interested in the ecclesiastical customs and liturgical practices that were characteristic of Byzantine Jerusalem.