Walking the Camino: A brief history

The Camino de Santiago leads to Santiago de Compostela, the final resting place of the remains of James, the Apostle. It has been a significant Christian pilgrimage site since the 12th C, at times surpassing the popularity of Jerusalem and Rome. Legend has it that after Christ’s crucifixion St. James sailed to Padron in north-west Spain to preach Christianity to the people of Galicia. But his ministry met with little success. In 42 A.D. he returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred. His body was later returned to Santiago by his followers.

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela

By 300 A.D. his burial site was forgotten. But in the 9th C a shepherd re-discovered it when he followed a bright star that shone over a field. This area was named Santiago de Compostela or St James of the field of stars. A Chapel was built on this spot and later, a church. The first record of pilgrims traveling on the Camino soon followed. In 997 this early church was destroyed by renegade Arab mercenaries. The church bells were taken to Cordoba in southern Spain, which at that time was the seat of the Islamic caliphate. Construction of the present Cathedral of Santiago began in 1075. A papal decree in the 11th C helped raise the Camino’s profile by stating that the sins of pilgrims who travelled to Santiago would be forgiven. This pilgrimage was made, not only by soldiers and peasant farmers, but by nobles and bishops also. It is said that St Francis of Assisi made this journey and there are historic links to the Knights Templar, the so-called protectors of ‘The Way’.

A little statue of St James hiding in a wall along the Camino Portuguese

A little statue of St James hiding in a wall along the Camino Portuguese

When they arrived, the ‘Moors’ (as they were disparagingly called by the local population) found a society that was ‘unstable, religiously and ethnically fragmented (and) culturally debilitated’. Over the next 600 years they developed a more politically viable and economically and socially advanced community. They built on the richness of the indigenous culture and created a society that tolerated religious difference. Historical records indicate that during this era, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in harmony. The magnificence of their artistic and architectural capability can still be observed in most regions of Spain and in some parts of Portugal to this day.

St James along the Camino Portuguese

St James with stones placed by pilgrims along the Camino Portuguese

But while Islamic rule dominated the Peninsula for many centuries, it lasted only a few decades in Galicia. The discovery of St James tomb strengthened Christian resolve to win back their territory and to push the invaders further south. In 1492, the Reconquista, spear-headed by the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel I and Fernando V finally liberated Granada, the last Islamic strong-hold. Muslims and Jews were expelled from the Peninsula; Isabel and Fernando rebuilt their empire; the Cathedral bells were returned to Santiago; and St. James became the Patron Saint of Spain.

Another image of St James showing us the way along the Camino Portuguese

Another image of St James showing us the way along the Camino Portuguese

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