Pilgrims to the Holy Land

In the century before the First Crusade, a number of regions had adopted Christianity: Norway, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Bulgaria. During this same time, an abbey of Benedictine monks at Cluny, in Aquitaine, encouraged many people to go on pilgrimages. The newly-converted should go; the guilty should go. Some judges even sentenced aristocrats to go on pilgrimage to atone for murder. The first Christian king of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason, went to Jerusalem as a pilgrim.

In the 11th century, pilgrim travel was at first easier, because they could travel safely in Hungary and Byzantine Anatolia. The first Christian king of Hungary established a hostel for pilgrims in Jerusalem and moved his administrative capital to be near one of the chief pilgrim roads. This gave him a great deal of contact with other Europeans, important since the Huns had been invading barbarians, themselves, and Stephen wanted to rebrand.

Anatolia had established pilgrim hostels, guides and shrines. It had been solidly Roman and Christian for a long time; some of its cities are cited in the Bible. When the Seljuk Turks took over Baghdad in 1055, next they invaded the Armenian mountain kingdom. By 1080, there was an Armenian refugee kingdom in Anatolia, along the coast.But Armenians had been among the earliest converts to Christianity, so they were friendly to pilgrims. It wasn’t so bad at the border with Syria, either. Although the crazy Caliph al-Hakim had torn down Constantine’s basilica in Jerusalem, the Fatimids generally favored pilgrim travel.

The other route to the Holy Land was by sea. In Roman times, it was easy to get a ship from Rome to Alexandria or Jaffa. For a long time, Constantinople’s warships kept piracy at bay, but after the Muslim invasion it was harder. By the 11th century, the eastern Mediterranean was also served by Venice, which was nominally under Constantinople. For pilgrims, Venetian ships were the only option. Venice provided some armed protection and charged high fees.

During the late 11th century, both eastern Anatolia and all of Syria/Palestine fell into anarchy and civil war. Pilgrims who made it back to Hungary left warnings for others. With the overland route becoming impossible, only the sea route was left, so its expenses skyrocketed.

This entry ends up being rather frustrating to write, because every source assures me that there were wild rumors and horror stories about dangers to pilgrims, but none cite any actual stories. When the Seljuks took over Jerusalem and realized that rich foreigners had this odd idea that it was their right to cross Turkish lands and visit a Turkish-ruled city, they saw it first as an unwelcome spy op or invasion. Some pilgrims were turned away; others were harassed by robbers and could not get any help from soldier outposts. At other times, the Seljuk governors of Jerusalem permitted pilgrims but made them pay outrageous fees to enter. The Seljuk governors of Jerusalem were often at war with the chiefs of other nearby cities like Aleppo and Damascus.

Some of the horror stories came from Anatolia’s new status as a war frontier.  As the Seljuks and their allies, the Pechenegs, pressed against the Muslim-Byzantine border, Anatolia was no longer peaceful. With armies and battles come plunder, fires, robberies and outlaw bands. Monasteries and churches in Anatolia were burnt and  plundered. Travelers were robbed.

That’s the most detail I’ve been able to muster. If you know any specific claims of pilgrim persecution, please post as comments.

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