The Camino de Santiago (Saint James’ Way), origins of the tradition and its worldwide fame

Although in the modern day the Camino de Santiago is quite fashionable and enjoys high popularity, even among those who aren’t in the least religious, at first it was necessary to overcome the ostracism and abandonment it had suffered in the era that followed its beginnings, which were marked by splendour and devotion.

The dawn of this custom is rather uncertain, but it seems to have been at about the year 800 CE when a rumour went around that the Apostle James was buried somewhere in Galicia, where he’d once spent some time envangelising. The Apostle’s alleged tomb was discovered by a local bishop and a hermit – who said that he’d seen a star over the cemetery. Following the visit of Asturian King Alphonse II, considered the first pilgrim in history, word spread and the tradition of the pilgrimage was conceived.

Soon Christians from around Europe began to travel to this place, which they dubbed Campus Stellae (“Star Land” in Latin). This eventually morphed into the modern name, Compostela. Many years later, in the 10th century, as European isolation was on the wane the number of pilgrims increased significantly and Iberian stjameswaymonarchs ordered the construction of bridges and paths to encourage them. During the 12th century, the Camino de Santiago experienced a surge and it seemed that it would soon be consecrated as the definitive act of faith. In the 14th and 15th centuries, however, with the many miseries and wars faced by Europe and attention now monopolised by the south of the Iberian Peninsula due to the Reconquest, the tradition of the Camino de Santiago began to diminish and seem more and more obsolete.

stjameswayMany centuries had to pass before Galician authorities decided to promote it once again, this time as a tourist attraction, with the collaboration of other regional governments whose territories were part of the route. These measures, adopted at the end of the millennium, involved an improvement of lodging infrastructure on the path, sign placement or the issuing of official credentials recognising completion of the whole trajectory. In addition, all the paraphernalia related to the Xacobea route reemerged, such as the scallop shell or the pilgrim’s walking stick, as well as the legends surrounding the many miracles said to have occurred on the Camino centuries ago. Today, there are numerous routes branching out from many cities throughout Spain, Portugal, France or Germany, among other nations, all of which terminate at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the end of all the paths. There, you can find the sculpture of the Apostle himself, which the most devout pilgrims embrace while they imploringly tell him their wishes. Some also go on to practise another old tradition: that of travelling to the confines of the Roman world, the town of Finisterre (from the Latin finis terrae, the end of the world), where purification rites were performed before beginning the trek home.

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