There are striking parallels between how some pilgrims went about their pilgrimage in the Middle Ages to how some do it today. Jerusalem was a popular pilgrimage destination. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Europe was usually undertaken by sea, not by land. A long sea voyage was tedius, conditions cramped, and food, where it was supplied, not particularly good. Boredom was a problem, sometimes overcome by the appearance of pirates. Some drank their way, others played dice or chess, and there was communal singing. Yet others kept fit by running up and down the rigging or doing weight lifting. (One can’t help but see the similarities between categories of passengers who engaged in those pastimes with those you might encounter on a modern day cruise ship.)

From about the mid 7th century until its capture by the Ottomans in 1517, Jerusalem was under Arab rule except when it was recaptured by the Crusaders between 1099 and 1187 and for two short periods between 1229 and 1244.A� Most ships carrying pilgrims landed in the port city of Joppa (also known as Joffa, and which is now known as Tel Aviv-Yafo following the merging of Tel Aviv and Joffa around 1910.) Arriving in Joppa under Arab rule had cost implications for pilgrims. After paying a toll per head at Joppa, pilgrims were led by Arab guides to Jerusalem. In addition, at Jerusalem a poll-tax was imposed under Islamic law on non-Muslims wishing to enter the city. Non-payment of this tax resulted in a refusal to enter the city walls. Penniless pilgrims often begged other pilgrims to pay the tax on their behalf.

The Venetian ship-owners, who had high reputations, came up with the answer to many of these problems a�� the all-inclusive package tour. The 13th century Venetian Republic imposed stiff regulations on ship owners so that their standards of safety and commercial morality were without peer. Sailing times to and from Joppa were set in statute, as were maximum passenger numbers. Rights, such as a minimum amount of deck space upon which to sleep, and duties of pilgrims were set out in contracts between the ship owner (usually the master of a vessel) and the pilgrim. Contractual disputes could be taken to a magistrate. The package tour included the fare, food and board throughout the journey as well as in the Holy Land, the payment of polls and taxes, the cost of donkeys and pack horses, guided tours of Jerusalem, and special expeditions to the River Jordan. Ship owners were sometimes left out of pocket when unexpected costs arose.

Even today people still do package pilgrimages. I have witnessed those who stay in hotels or have a private albergue (Spanish for hostel or refuge) pre-booked ahead, have their luggage transported by road to their next destination where there meal is organised at a local restaurant. While walking they can be spotted carrying a simple day pack looking remarkably refreshed from day to day. Their ‘pilgrimages’ are usually for 7 or 14 days. Somethings don’t change.

A�(Sources: Jonathan Sumption, The Age of Pilgrimage, Hidden Springs, 2003, first published as Pilgrimage in 1975 by Faber and Faber, and various internet sites)

John Bettens

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