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The Emergence of Sacred Travel: 
Experience, Economy, and Connectivity in Ancient Mediterranean Pilgrimage

The Emergence of Sacred Travel (EST) aims to build an internationally recognized environment for the study of ancient pilgrimage, an emerging topic that is currently reshaping our understanding of the interconnections between the religious traditions of the Mediterranean Basin, from Greek and Roman religions to Christianity and Islam.


Tracing the emergence of sacred travel

Bridging traditional chronological and disciplinary divisions, EST seeks to explore the extent to which Greece and Rome constituted the cultural and religious background to the development of early Christian and Islamic pilgrimage. By tracing the emergence of sacred travel within this cultural sphere, we get a clearer picture of the phenomenon’s later historical trajectory, including Islamic Hajj, Medieval travel to the Holy Land and contemporary traditions of pilgrimage. One reason that sacred travel has had such cultural endurance was the success of pagan sanctuaries and early Christian churches in establishing an ‘experience economy’ that attracted worshippers from afar and which supported local economies that were tied to religious activities. The particular practices relating to this economy shows a distinct cultural continuity from the Orientalizing Greek period (7th century BC) to Late Antiquity (4th-7th century AD) and beyond.


Opening up for new insights

The project focuses on theoria (Greek, literally “to see the gods”, referring to state pilgrimage in the Classical and Hellenistic periods) and other forms of sacred travel in Greece and Rome as well as its late antique incarnations when Christian pilgrimage was developing. While the term pilgrim (from the Latin for foreigner, peregrinus) is a later invention, several of the practices and ideologies that came to define Christian and Islamic sacred travel originate in Greek and Roman contexts.
The project pulls together a number of interlinked studies in order to closely trace the emergence of pilgrimage from its formative stage and through a wide chronological continuum. This approach opens up for new insights into a major aspect of religious experience which previously has been seen almost exclusively from the perspectives of Christianity and Islam, and usually only through the singular lens of the textual sources.
In contrast, this project focuses on the material and visual dimensions of sacred travel, two areas which are often overlooked in other scholarship. Such evidence is predominantly published in a highly specialized archaeological format that does not provide the finds with a proper social and religious context. Individual subprojects will therefore seek to place the material evidence within such broader frameworks and work together to build a strong narrative history of sacred travel in the ancient Mediterranean world. In order to break such new ground, the development of common methods suitable for the study of the material and visual sources for pre-Christian sacred travel will be a central objective.


Exploring the concept of connectivity

To visit deities in faraway sanctuaries was one of the main reasons to undertake travel in the ancient world. This travel activity led to the establishment of several important loci of economic and cultural exchange, such as Olympia (site of the Olympic Games, a major religious festival), the sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace (a mystery cult in the northern Aegean which was visited by both Greek- and Latin-speaking pilgrims), and Ayatekla, an early Christian pilgrimage site in Turkey dedicated to Thecla that was visited by the pilgrim Egeria on her way to Jerusalem in the 4th century. These religious hubs connected cultures and peoples from across the Mediterranean, beginning in some cases already in the Bronze Age.
The intercultural dynamics of these sanctuaries can be explored through the concept of connectivity that seeks to understand the interaction between different regions and the construction of routes to connect them. Such routes were frequently constructed not for economic gain alone but with a view to religion as well. Roads and seaways facilitated not only the exchange of goods, but also religious ideas and ideologies of sacred travel. Pilgrimage and the practices of sacred travel were thus major contributing factors in tying the ancient Mediterranean cultures together. The wide-ranging implications of this observation have only been sparsely studied in previous research.