ONE of Europe’s oldest pilgrimage centres should be a place of rejoicing at this time of year, especially for the travellers who have trudged hundreds of miles to reach Santiago de Compostela in time for the annual feast day of Saint James, whose earthly remains have been a focus of veneration for many centuries. Instead the Spanish town has been plunged into mourning by the horrific train crash which occurred on its outskirts on Wednesday, the eve of the saint’s day. Some of the people who have walked to the town will find themselves not celebrating but offering succour to victims and their families.
Only a few weeks ago, thousands of people, many of them tourists or Hindu pilgrims, are thought to have lost their lives in floods which afflicted the north Indian state of Uttarakhand and led to one of the largest-ever air rescue operations.
Across the world, at least 200m people go on pilgrimage every year, according to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a British-based organisation which is currently holding a meeting in Norway to consolidate the work of the Green Pilgrimage Network. That is an association of pilgrim cities and sacred sites which want to make religious travel more friendly to the environment. At the current session, Santiago de Compostela is one of 15 locations (along with Iona and Canterbury in Britain and the Indian city of Varanasi, formerly Benares), which are in the process of signing up to the project. The founding members included India’s Amritsar, Italy’s Assisi and Jerusalem. Participants in the Norwegian meeting lit candles in memory of the people who died in Spain and Uttarakhand.
Has the advent of affordable high-speed transport made pilgrimage an even more hazardous business (for both the travellers themselves, and others) than ever? Perhaps certain dangers are growing more acute, such as the risk of epidemics spreading not only among pilgrims but in their home countries when they return. The annual Muslim pilgrimage or haj to Mecca attracts up to 3m people. In recent years there have been outbreaks of meningitis among the pilgrims, and last year there was a surge of worry after a Saudi national died from the shadowy coronavirus which can cause deadly pneumonia. That is not a new problem; in 1865 there was a cholera epidemic in Mecca which spread to other countries. But air travel obviously increases the danger of a global pandemic. Last year the Saudi authorities felt obliged to offer an assurance that all necessary preventive measures were being taken.
Still, the fact is that religious journeys have always been risky. As historian Andrew Holt writes in the Encyclopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage, pious people on the move “were often poorly equipped to deal with the hazards of brigands, thieves, hunger, thirst, sickness and the various physical sicknesses that often resulted from their travels.”
And many people making journeys with a spiritual purpose have been well prepared for the possibility that they are making their last earthly journey. One of the classic accounts of religious travel was penned by the Britisih writer Stephen Graham who went to the Holy Land with a boatload of Russian peasants in 1912, and joined the thousands of subjects of the Tsar who thronged Jerusalem every Easter. Their purpose in travelling, he noted, was to prepare for a blessed death. They would plunge into the river Jordan wearing the white shrouds in which they ultimately expected to be buried. “They hope to die in the Holy Land, preferably near the Dead Sea where the final judgement will take place…[and if] they return to their native villages in Russia, it will be to put their affairs in order and await death.”
It has been said that every parting between friends is a foretaste of death. Perhaps that is especially true when a traveller bids farewell to a native land in the hope of finding a resting-place for the soul.