According to Christian tradition, after Jesus’ death the apostles divided the world into missionary zones, with James drawing the Iberian Peninsula. Medieval lore indicates that after James’ missionary work in Spain, he returned to Jerusalem, where he was martyred. Thereafter, his body was placed on a boat that, with the help of angelic guidance, landed off the coast of northern Spain. Queen Lupa then interred the body in a tomb that, due to Roman persecutions, eventually became lost to Christian memory.
The vision of a ninth-century hermit, however, lead to the “discovery” of the tomb. After Teodomir, a local bishop, proclaimed the relics authentic, King Alfonso II of Asturias had a small church built at the site. Christians from the region, beleaguered by over a century of Muslim advances, flocked to the church to venerate the relics and were subsequently emboldened to undertake the “Reconquista,” a campaign to win back Spain for Christianity (a program that would not be complete until 1492). In the centuries that followed, Santiago de Compostela’s fortunes rose and fell with historical events (e.g., the Crusades, Muslim attacks, and the Protestant Reformation), but in recent decades it has become a popular pilgrimage destination, receiving over one hundred thousand visitors annually. Many of these pilgrims walk in the footsteps of their medieval forerunners by traveling on the path known as “El Camino” (The Way).
In the following interview, NPR’s Jacki Lyden discusses author David Downie’s recent pilgrimage on The Way, an experience he has documented in his book Paris to the Pyrenees.