We know about Egeria through a rather mutilated manuscript called the Pilgrimage of Egeria (also known as Etheria). We really only have the middle part of the text, since the beginning and end sections have been lost. You can find the whole surviving text online here. We do get some supplementary bits in a 7th century letter in praise of Egeria by the monk Valerius.
So, what do these sources tell us about Egeria?
Egeria appears to have been a nun, likely from the Rhone Valley or Spain, who went on a four year (that we know of) pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the East. She likely went in the early 380s, at the tail end of the episcopate of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who is mentioned indirectly in the text (having received applause by his catechumens for his lectures). She appears to have gone to Jerusalem twice in those years as well as Egypt (in the tracks of Moses), Arabia, Mesopotamia (in search of St. Thomas and King Absgar), Asia Minor and, finally, Constantinople. Along the way, she seems to visit any and every site connected with a biblical or apostolic figure. Included in this number are sites associated with Moses, Job, Melchizedek, Elijah, St. Thomas , King Absgar, Abraham and St. Thecla.
Given the nature of her writing (which is something of a travelogue style) It reminded me stylistically of a Periplus, a kind of handbook describing an itinerary of ports which a merchant might follow like the Periplus Maris Erythriae. She was, however, very detailed oriented, given excellent descriptions not only of her voyages, but, for the last half of our surviving manuscript, the ordinary and festal liturgies of the Church of Jerusalem. She shows familiarity with Jerusalem itself and a good understanding of liturgy and of the Bible.
She is writing at a time when the practice of a pilgrimage in the Holy Land was just taking off. Among our earliest mention of pilgrimage in the Holy Land are Constantine's and his mother, Helena's, joint pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 327/8 AD. Before this, we have no evidence of pilgrimages to the Holy Land. This makes sense considering not only that Christians would have found it difficult to organize such expedition considering the Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire until Constantine's time, but also because the Romans were particularly sensitive about the site of Jerusalem after the three severe revolts between AD 66 and 135 in and around the Holy Land. Knowledge of the holy sites was likely preserved in the church of Jerusalem (or Aelia Capitolina as it was known by the Romans after the horrific sack of AD 70 and Hadrian's re founding on the site in the 130s). Knowledge of Jewish sites was also likely preserved by the surviving Jews in the region.
So, what do we learn about the pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 380s. We can see that many of these sites were well-developed, with, at least, a few hermits (holy men) on the site, but often a monastery or a full-blown pilgrimage church on the site. The monks or clergy on the site were well-informed about the site and conducted regular tours/prayers for pilgrims. The Jerusalem (for Jesus' life) area and Egypt (for the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt) appear to have been particularly frequented, so the impression we get is of a well-organized and funded pilgrimage route, including the provision of stations on the Jerusalem route and military escort in the bandit-infested areas around the Sinai. Less frequented pilgrimage routes like Mesopotamia (for St. Thomas) were rather less developed, but had the advantage of personal attention, sometimes even by a city's bishop himself as happened to Egeria in Edessa.
The procedure at almost every site seems the same. A significant part of Scripture or extra-biblical material was read out. Offering were given (what these were are left unmentioned) and prayers offered. Often a Eucharist was performed, especially on the Sabbath. Here is a sample of one of the most spectacular of Egeria's stops, Mt. Sinai (taken from the kind people at CCEL:
We reached the mountain late on the sabbath, and arriving at a certain monastery, the monks who dwelt there received us very kindly, showing us every kindness; there is also a church and a priest there. We stayed there that night, and early on the Lord's Day, together with the priest and the monks who dwelt there, we began the ascent of the mountains one by one. These mountains are ascended with infinite toil, for you cannot go up gently by a spiral track, as we say snail-shell wise, but you climb straight up the whole way, as if up a wall, and you must come straight down each mountain until you reach the very foot of the middle one, which is specially called Sinai. By this way, then, at the bidding of Christ our God, and helped by the prayers of the holy men who accompanied us, we arrived at the fourth hour, at the summit of Sinai, the holy mountain of God, where the law was given, that is, at the place where the Glory of the Lord descended on the day when the mountain smoked.1 Thus the toil was great, for I had to go up on foot, the ascent being impossible in the saddle, and yet I did not feel the toil, on the side of the ascent, I say, the toil, because I realized that the desire which I had was being fulfilled at God's bidding. In that place there is now a church, not great in size, for the place itself, that is the summit of the mountain, is not very great; nevertheless, the church itself is great in grace. When, therefore, at God's bidding, we had arrived at the summit, and had reached the door of the church, lo, the priest who was appointed to the church came from his cell and met us, a hale old man, a monk from early life, and an ascetic as they say here, in short one worthy to be in that place; the other priests also met us, together with all the monks who dwelt on the mountain, that is, not hindered by age or infirmity. No one, however, dwells on the very summit of the central mountain; there is nothing there excepting only the church and the cave where holy Moses was. When the whole passage from the book of Moses had been read in that place, and when the oblation had been duly made, at which we communicated, and as we were coming out of the church, the priests of the place gave us eulogiae, that is, of fruits which grow on the mountain. For although the holy mountain Sinai is rocky throughout, so that it has not even a shrub on it, yet down below, near the foot of the mountains, around either the central height or those which encircle it, there is a little plot of ground where the holy monks diligently plant little trees and orchards, and set up oratories with cells near to them, so that they may gather fruits which they have evidently cultivated with their own hands from the soil of the very mountain itself. So, after we had communicated, and the holy men had given us eulogiae, and we had come out of the door of the church, I began to ask them to show us the several sites. Thereupon the holy men immediately deigned to show us the various places. They showed us the cave where holy Moses was when he had gone up again into the mount of God, that he might receive the second tables after he had broken the former ones when the people sinned; they also deigned to show us the other sites which we desired to see, and those which they themselves well knew. But I would have you to know, ladies, reverend sisters, that from the place where we were standing, round outside the walls of the church, that is from the summit of the central mountain, those mountains, which we could scarcely climb at first, seemed to be so much below us when compared with the central one on which we were standing, that they appeared to be little hills, although they were so very great that I thought that I had never seen higher, except that this central one excelled them by far.
From thence we saw Egypt and Palestine, and the Red Sea and the Parthenian Sea, which leads to Alexandria and the boundless territories of the Saracens, all so much below us as to be scarcely credible, but the holy men pointed out each one of them to us.
Monks were particularly important for the pilgrimage. Indeed, the presence was almost constant in the desert regions around the pilgrimage sites mentioned by Egeria. Their assistance was critical for the running of these sites, since one or two could supervise a site quite readily. I suspect that, much of the time, all but the most popular pilgrimage routes would be fairly deserted, so the monks would get the solitude they craved for prayers, but that these visitors gave them the chance to practice hospitality. Egeria, certainly, seemed grateful for the hospitality and the care given to her by the monks. She notes
although I ought always to give thanks to God in all things, not to speak of these so great favours which He has deigned to confer on me, unworthy as I am, that I should journey through all these places, although I deserved it not, yet I cannot sufficiently thank even all those holy men who deigned with willing mind to receive my littleness in their cells and to guide me surely through all the places which I was always seeking, according to the holy Scriptures.
The presence of a military escort is similarly striking. We often associate the monks of the desert with a desire to escape the hustle and bustle of normal life, but we forget how dangerous the desert actually. The peace and quiet of the desert had to be shared by marginal figures such as thieves and brigands for whom the desert offered a plethora of hiding places and lairs. We have all sorts of stories of robberies and attacks on monks by these people. A band of pilgrims would be a fat and juicy target, so some kind of guard was necessary. Egeria notes about the soldiers who escorted her:
From this place we sent back the soldiers who according to Roman discipline had given us the help of their escort as long as we had walked through suspected places. Now, however, as the public road--which passed by the city of Arabia and leads from the Thebaid to Pelusium--ran through Egypt, there was no need to trouble the soldiers further.Egeria's comments suggest a degree of official governmental support for the pilgrimages, since these soldiers appear to have been regular troops (probably auxiliaries or border-troops assigned to the desert forts along the Arabian desert).
There is no mention of the kind of pilgrim trinkets we would expect on the site available for purchase. That doesn't mean there weren't any, but Egeria does mention them. Nor are we well-informed by Egeria about how these pilgrimage sites managed the upkeep of their churches and what not. It is possible that voluntary offerings were made to assist with this, but I suspect that this wasn't significant. The expectation in the ancient world about public sites is that rich benefactors would, from time to time, infuse money into the site. Helena, for instance, did many benefactions in the Holy Land. Likely, many of these sites had received the recent attention of rich Christian benefactors and were, more or less, able to support any clergy associated with the site. Given that monks or clergy drawn from monks tended to dominate on these sites, I suspect the overhead was low.
Egeria's pilgrimage is a brief glimpse into the experience of being a pilgrim in the patristic era. Her insights and her observations give us a vivid image of this experience as well as to the life of the Church of Jerusalem in the 380s AD. We don't know if Egeria ever reached home. The lst we hear from her is when she talks about her future plans, just before starting her description of liturgy in the Church of Jerusalem. I think it only too fitting that we leave Egeria with these final words to her sisters back at the nunnery:
On the next day, crossing the sea, I arrived at Constantinople, giving thanks to Christ our God who deigned to give me such grace, unworthy and undeserving as I am, for He had deigned to give me not only the will to go, but also the power of walking through the places that I desired, and of returning at last to Constantinople. When I had arrived there, I went through all the churches--that of the Apostles and all the martyr-memorials, of which there are very many--and I ceased not to give thanks to Jesus our God, Who had thus deigned to bestow His mercy upon me. From which place, ladies, light of my eyes, while I send these (letters) to your affection, I have already purposed, in the Name of Christ our God, to go to Ephesus in Asia, for the sake of prayer, because of the memorial of the holy and blessed Apostle John. And if after this I am yet in the body, and am able to see any other places, I will either tell it to your affection in person, if God deigns to permit me this, or in anywise, if I have another project in mind, I will send you news of it in a letter. But do you, ladies, light of my eyes, deign to remember me, whether I am in the body or out of the body.