Elite female pilgrims are some of the most celebrated and well-studied women of Late Antiquity. The narratives surrounding the travels of women such as Egeria or Paula constitute a large proportion of our knowledge about pilgrimage practice in general and have formed the focus for the study of gender and pilgrimage in particular. This bias towards famous literary sources and elite experience, however, obscures our understanding of the “normal” women who made up the majority of female pilgrims. This article seeks to redress this imbalance by integrating material and textual sources from three sites of early Christian pilgrimage in order to better understand the interconnected relationship women had with these shrines. Evidence from the shrines of Saint Menas at Abu Mina, Saint Simeon the Stylite the Elder at Qal'at Sem'an, and Saint Thecla at Seleucia show how gender could shape pilgrimage experience and how sites recognised women as a specific visitor demographic and catered to their needs. This was achieved through the provision of narratives related to the dangers of pilgrimage, segregated spaces, and products aimed at women to purchase. In a wider sense, it argues that many women in Late Antiquity had greater freedom to travel and move in public spaces than is often recognised and that this freedom was not necessarily dependent on marital or sexual status.
“How dare you make such a journey? Do you not realise you are a woman, and cannot go just anywhere?”2
This was the reaction of Arsenius, an anchorite living in Egypt in the fifth century, when a nameless virgin from Rome threw herself at his feet. The pilgrim had travelled to Alexandria and had asked the local archbishop Theophilus to help her organize a meeting with the holy man. Arsenius refused her request, but she ordered her entourage to pack up her belongings anyway and made her way into the desert. When she arrived, Arsenius challenged her audacity and expressed his concern that news of her visit back in Rome would inspire hordes of women to cross the sea and disturb him.3 While this account undoubtedly serves to illustrate Arsenius' strict asceticism, it also offers a glimpse into the interaction between gender and pilgrimage. In the course of the narrative both the archbishop and the hermit ask the nameless pilgrim if she realizes she is a woman—the implication being that this should limit her ability to travel and express her piety through pilgrimage. This reveals a difference of opinion, as the virgin appears to have little conception of the restrictions that the men consider inseparable from her sex. Whether this woman actually existed is not important, as the tenacious female pilgrim was a credible figure for late antique readers.4 Arsenius' fears were based in fact: both in his imagination and in reality, women were traversing pilgrim routes across the Mediterranean and beyond.
The practice of female pilgrimage in Late Antiquity is little understood and largely focused on a small number of famous literary sources.5 Texts such as the travel diary of Egeria, or the letters of Jerome that detail Paula's travels in the Holy Land are valuable, but they limit our understanding to a small group of elite women. These women made long-distance journeys and were wealthy or important enough to write about their own travels, or to be written about. The experiences that these women had were shaped by their elite identity and were thus quite different from women of other social classes; they had access to substantial amounts of money and influential people, and travelled with the relative protection of a large retinue.6 For most pilgrims, both female and male, this sort of undertaking would have been beyond their reach in terms of both time and money. The majority of pilgrimages were therefore relatively short-distance journeys made by “ordinary” people.7 Modern secondary analyses of accounts concerning female pilgrims, however, often express surprise that even these elite women could have such freedom and autonomy or could endure the physical hardships of pilgrimage. Women like Egeria are held up as exceptional for their fortitude, bravery, and piety.8 The very frequency with which these comments are considered to be appropriate indicates that we should in fact not be surprised by such journeys, but instead reassess what we consider to be normal or acceptable for women in Late Antiquity.9 The dominant gender ideologies of the period were developed by elite men (both past and present), and we should not assume that they accurately represent a full diversity of practice even among elite women, let alone the middle- and lower-class women who made up the majority of pilgrims.10
This article seeks to redress the imbalance created by this focus on a small number of elite individuals through an approach that integrates material and textual evidence to build a more nuanced understanding that can encompass the experience of a wider range of female pilgrims. While the contribution of archaeology to discussions of gender and pilgrimage has long been acknowledged, archaeological studies of pilgrimage sites often remain focused on the architectural remains of ritual centers and the chronology of church structures.11 The role of archaeology in reconstructing pilgrim experiences has been highlighted in the recent volume Excavating Pilgrimage (2017), and moving forward it is clear that it is only through the integration of material and literary evidence that our understanding of pilgrimage can reach its full potential.12
The evidence presented in this article comes mainly from three early Christian pilgrimage sites that were selected for analysis because of their wealth of archaeological remains and literary sources. First is the site at Abu Mina in Egypt, the location of the shrine of the third-century soldier martyr Saint Menas (Figure 1). Excavations at Abu Mina have been extensive and are well published, as are the literary narratives surrounding his cult. Second is the shrine of Saint Simeon the Stylite the Elder at Qal'at Sem'an in Syria, which boasts incredible standing remains and a well-preserved literary tradition concerning the fifth-century holy man (Figure 2). Third is the shrine of Saint Thecla at Seleucia in Turkey, which has only seen a single season of excavation, but is the subject of an impressive corpus of textual sources.13 Instead of analyzing these sites as case studies, this article will draw together evidence from all three in order to better evaluate how women may have experienced different stages and aspects of pilgrimage. To begin, I will examine the journey to the shrine itself, including the dangers involved and how far pilgrims were travelling. I shall then look at what was available in terms of accommodation and local amenities once pilgrims arrived. After these practicalities, I will turn to how women accessed the sacred and if they had the same opportunities to do so as men. Last of all, I will consider the products that were aimed at women for them to purchase. Analysis of this evidence can offer a reading of the relationship between these pilgrimage sites and their female visitors that challenges the assumption that “good” Christian women typically remained confined to the home. These sites will instead show that women were recognised as an important visitor demographic and that the shrines actively provided facilities, products, and narratives that catered to their needs.
THE PILGRIMAGE JOURNEY
Making a pilgrimage was a difficult undertaking, and the act of getting from one's home to a shrine could place the traveller in danger of robbery, assault, or worse.14 Personal safety would have been a significant preoccupation of pilgrims. It is perhaps unsurprising that the literary sources that surrounded pilgrimage sites appear to have been aware of this problem and sought to combat the anxieties of potential visitors by addressing it in their narratives. The miracles of Saint Menas are particularly concerned with the specific dangers facing female pilgrims as they crossed the desert. Three miracles preserved in the Greek and Coptic collections involve the saint stepping in to rescue a female pilgrim on her way to the shrine who is attacked on the road.15 One of these miracles is unfortunately too fragmentary to elucidate a proper narrative, but the other two are more or less complete. The first concerns a lone pilgrim on her way to Abu Mina from Philoxenité (her hometown on the shores of lake Mareotis), less than a day's travel from the site. She was travelling to Abu Mina to dedicate all her worldly possessions to the saint, when she was attacked by a soldier meant to be guarding the road.16 Before the soldier could sexually assault her, however, she was saved by the appearance of Menas himself. This miracle records not only the saint's power, but also anxieties about women travelling, especially by themselves. The woman had noble intentions, but her lack of accompaniment made her vulnerable and this was exploited by a figure who should have been there for her protection.
The other miracle follows a Samaritan woman from Alexandria who joins a group of Christian women on their pilgrimage to Menas.17 They take a boat across lake Mareotis and stay overnight at a rest-house in Philoxenité. While the rest of the women sleep together outside the building, the Samaritan woman is lured inside, warned that her beauty might put her in danger of assault. Once she is “safely” in a private room, the innkeeper uses this opportunity to attack her and once again Menas' intervention must save the day.18
While these texts certainly function to glorify the power of Saint Menas and perhaps to depict him as a protector of women, this repeated motif surely contains a kernel of truth. The threat of assault—in particular sexual assault—was a danger faced by female travellers and was especially relevant when they found themselves isolated and alone. The miracle of the Samaritan woman highlights that there was never a decision that rendered a woman completely safe.19 What we should be sure to note is that for these miracles to be effective, they needed to represent recognisable situations that the reader could relate to. While it is easy to view them as entirely fictional, we should consider that some miracle accounts could have been inspired by real events.20 Women were not always in a situation where they could travel with male protection and many pilgrimages, especially short-distance ones, may have been made alone or in the company of other women.21 Texts like these could therefore function to assuage worry on the part of a potential pilgrim; there were dangers on the road but none were a match for Menas.22 Anxieties about the dangers of travel were not just limited to pilgrimage but were also a fact of daily life. One late third-century C.E. letter written by a husband to his wife is particularly evocative. He warns her that when she makes the journey to join him she should, if she can, travel with “good men,” and that she should make sure not to wear her gold jewellery on the boat.23
Another trend that we can glean from miracle accounts is that when we are given information about where women were travelling from, it was usually a relatively short distance from the shrine they were visiting. In the miracles we just considered, the women came from Alexandria, the nearest large city to Abu Mina, and Philoxenité, a nearby settlement. This pattern is reinforced in the material remains, as souvenirs from the site that were directly targeted at women have been found in Alexandria, a phenomenon which I will return to later. Local pilgrimage was also the norm at the shrines of Thecla and Simeon. In the miracles of Thecla, female pilgrims are recorded as coming from Claudiopolis, Seleucia, Tarsus, Ketis, and Olba (all located in modern Mersin province), approximately representing a maximum journey time of around four days.24 We have less-detailed information from the miracles of Simeon, but we are told, for example, that a paralysed young girl who was healed by the saint lived in a village only three miles from his sanctuary.25 This supports the assumption that the majority of pilgrims journeyed to relatively local shrines, as for most people long-distance pilgrimage was not viable. We should not, however, underplay these journeys and the social and financial commitment they entailed. Including travel and time spent at the shrine, it seems probable that making even a local pilgrimage could have meant spending around a week (or more) away from home. This local travel also meant that pilgrimage did not have to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but one that could be frequently repeated. A miracle of Thecla records a woman who made multiple trips to her shrine in search of help, while the wife of a man punished by Menas was inspired to make annual visits to the site in atonement for her husband's actions.26
ACCOMMODATION AND AMENITIES
Once travellers arrived at a pilgrimage site, they would need to organize a place to stay for the duration of their visit. Accommodation was available for a range of budgets, but many pilgrims may have chosen to stay in non-permanent structures that often leave little trace in the archaeological record.27 To date, the shrine of Thecla has revealed no material remains of accommodation facilities, but literary sources reveal details about some of the arrangements for lodging female pilgrims. We are told in the Acts of Paul and Thecla that there was a permanent female community at Thecla's site that originated during her own lifetime.28 By the time of Egeria's visit at the end of the fourth century this had grown considerably and she stayed for two days, “visiting all the holy monks and apotactites, the men as well as the women.”29 While she was there she saw Marthana, a woman whom she had met earlier in her travels in Jerusalem, and who was a deaconess and the superior of some of the virgins who lived permanently with Thecla.30 Little is known from the scant archaeological remains about how these women lived, but it does appear that at least one group of women lived full-time in the main church compound. One miracle describes a door that led to where they lived: “this interior door leads into the church proper, to the sacred area and the area of the virgins.”31 It was not just dedicated virgins, however, who were staying in the church compound, since several miracles refer to female pilgrims and travellers who were accommodated among them.32 These include a heavily pregnant noblewoman called Bassiane, another Bassiane who was a poor woman who sought shelter after falling out with her family, and a certain Dionysia, who was contemplating leaving her family and joining the religious life.33
The proximity with which lay-women were accommodated alongside the ascetic community is highlighted by details from the miracles. The poor Bassiane, for example, had her possessions stolen by one of the virgins. Thecla exposed the thief and had her items returned, but it is clear that the virgin had easy access to Bassiane and her belongings.34 Dionysia's story provides the best example of how this shared space might have been realized. In this tale, Thecla appeared to the reflective Dionysia and spent the night embracing her. This was understandably unsettling, however, for Dionysia's “bedfellow” Sosanna, who was apparently sharing a bed with Dionysia and woke to discover the saint in between them.35 While more substantial accommodation was perhaps available elsewhere at the site, or in Seleucia, there was also space for female visitors in the beds of the virgins themselves.36
The well-excavated site of Abu Mina, by contrast, preserves the archaeological remains of a large hostel that has been interpreted by the excavators as having separate wings for women and men (Figure 3). The sixth-century “peristyle complex” was located just off the western side of the main processional street and consisted of two peristyle buildings with very broad porticoes and a small number of rooms around their outsides.37 Peter Grossmann has noted that the broad porticoes should be understood as the main features of the building and suggested that they sheltered poorer people who could not pay for a private or semi-private room. He took this further by also suggesting that the two peristyles placed next to one another could have separated the sexes, on the basis that the separation of the two peristyles was arranged in a manner that prevented any direct communication between the two spaces and there was an inner latrine connected exclusively to the eastern peristyle.38 In a recent article, Grossmann has provided further evidence for segregation, noting that the outer entrances to the peristyles were located on different sides of the building and confirming that each of the peristyles was provided with its own communal latrine.39 This concept of communal accommodation in an outdoor space is familiar from the miracle of the Samaritan woman discussed above, and if these facilities were segregated by gender, then this may be in response to anxieties about assault that we clearly see articulated in such literary sources. This manner of accommodating female pilgrims in segregated areas where poorer women sleep under the cover of porticoes is still seen today, such as at the Sufi pilgrimage site of Ghamkol Sharif in Pakistan.40
Further evidence of facilities at Abu Mina that catered to both sexes are found to the south of the main church complex at the southern hemicycle, a semi-circular courtyard bounded by a curved colonnade to the south and the walls of the baptistery complex and crypt to the north (Figure 4). From this courtyard, a two-storey building was entered through a series of rooms. The exact function of this building is uncertain, but it probably accommodated pilgrims in some way, either as an up-market hotel or as an incubation centre.41 The building is constituted of a series of what must have been private or semi-private rooms that people could sleep in. While there is no evidence of segregation in terms of where people slept, the building did provide two sets of toilets located side-by-side. On the most detailed plan of the hemicycle the larger of the two latrines is identified as the one for women, which the author asserts on the basis that it had greater provision for seats.42 Regardless of the attribution of the individual latrines, they clearly catered to women and men accommodated in the building. This archaeological evidence suggests that Abu Mina provided accommodation in the form of communal, segregated sleeping alongside more expensive establishments with private or semi-private rooms that could be used by both sexes. This arrangement is indicative not only of the recognition of a mixed-sex pilgrim population, but also of groups from different economic backgrounds.
Pilgrimage sites were not just concerned with the spiritual comfort of their visitors, but also catered to their bodily needs. The provision of bathing facilities was an important facet of this, for the maintenance of hygiene and for the comfort of weary travellers. Some baths were also used for cleansing before baptism.43 All three sites offered baths for their visitors, but only two provide us with relevant evidence.44 The double baths at Abu Mina began as a single set of baths during the fifth century, but were later expanded to create two complete, yet strictly-separate suites which were completed in the sixth century (Figure 5).45 While segregated bathing could be achieved through assigning the sexes specific time slots, the construction of spatially separate facilities for women and men speaks to the growth and success of Abu Mina.46 It not only highlights the large crowds who were visiting but also the fact that their demographic makeup contained a substantial number of women. If the site was not attracting a significant number of pilgrims of both sexes, it would surely not have been economically feasible to expand the baths in this way.
The baths at the shrine of Saint Simeon were located in the small village now called Der Sem'an at the bottom of the hill that funnelled visitors up to the main sanctuary itself. For many years it was assumed that baths were simply absent from the site, but recently they were discovered less than 100 metres below and to the west of the main entrance of the sanctuary. They were accessed by a path running north to south from the village, slightly lower than the primary street.47 Excavations uncovered four large cisterns and a bathing complex formed from two neighboring but distinct buildings. Sadly, the south building is completely collapsed and covered in vegetation, but investigations of the north building revealed a rectangular plan, consisting of three colonnades opening to a room or central courtyard, a series of vaulted cold rooms to the south, and heated rooms behind these (Figure 6). The baths were constructed around the same time as the martyrium in the fifth century and remained in use into the end of the seventh or the beginning of the eighth century.48 While the excavators do not believe that the two buildings constituted a double bath, the north building was equipped with two sets of latrines, evidence once again of practical provision for both sexes.49
Once the practicalities of accommodation and hygiene had been taken care of, pilgrims were free to enjoy the spiritual offerings of the site. Did women, however, have the same opportunities that men did when it came to accessing the divine? The clearest evidence of the impact of gender on religious experience comes from the shrine of Simeon, whose literary sources describe the rules that governed female visitors. In his translation of the various vitae of Saint Simeon, Robert Doran asserts in the Introduction that “only men could gather round the saint's pillar. Women were clearly excluded.”50 He swiftly moves on as if this is well-known, yet its implications have not been considered by other scholars.51 Doran bases his claim on the visit of Simeon's mother recorded in the vita by Antonius and references to segregation in Evagrius Scholasticus. In fact, all three extant lives of Simeon record instances of female exclusion and can help us to understand how gender-segregated spaces were formed and controlled.
In all the accounts of miracles enacted by Simeon after he climbed on top of his column, none was given directly to a woman. While women received miraculous healings and blessings, they were all transferred through a male intermediary. Theodoret of Cyrrhus tells us that an Ishmaelite queen travelled to give thanks to Simeon after she miraculously gave birth to a son, but had to send the baby in with an attendant:
When she obtained her request and gave birth as she had wished, [she] took the prince she had borne and hastened to the godly old man. Since women are not allowed access, she sent the baby to him.52
She was not alone: all women seeking miracles had to wait outside while others asked Simeon for his assistance.53 It appears that this was the case only from the beginning of Simeon's tenure as a stylite, as earlier episodes in his life involve his interaction with women.54 These restrictions do not seem to have been in place at the shrine of Saint Simeon the Younger at the Wondrous Mountain (another stylite saint near Antioch), or that of Daniel the Stylite, both of whose miracle collections record them interacting with women.55 Simeon the Younger's mother Martha played an important role in his life and cult and even received her own vita detailing her life, death and posthumous miracles.56 In later periods there are even attestations of female stylites.57 It appears that gender segregation was not relevant to all stylite saints, but instead connected specifically to the cult of Simeon the Elder.
Some women, however, sought to transgress the rules of the shrine, and it is through their stories that we get more information about the enforcement of segregation. When Simeon's mother came to visit him she was so distressed at not being allowed to see him that she tried to “climb the wall of the enclosure,” but was thrown to the ground.58 Despite her continued persistence, she only gained access to her son after she died. She was found dead by the “door-keepers” at the shrine and Simeon commanded that she be brought inside and buried at the foot of his column.59 Another account describes how a woman dressed as a man to try and fool the guards, as she “greatly desired to see the face of holy Simeon.”60 In disguise she joined a group of soldiers and offered to wait outside the shrine with the animals while they entered the sanctuary first. While they were inside, however, Simeon asked why they had left one of their number outside. The soldiers replied that he was tending the animals and Simeon told them “When you go out, say to him: do not trouble yourself, for you have been heard and been blessed by the Lord.”61 The soldiers were impressed, but when they reported this back to the woman she felt so guilty that she confessed her deceit. These episodes indicate that the practice of excluding women would have been well known to the reader, and thus did not need to be fully explained. It also shows that there were physical barriers preventing women from accessing certain parts of the site, which were patrolled by guards. When the guards failed, however, Simeon's powers could be relied upon to maintain the site's traditions.
How should we imagine that this segregation was expressed spatially at the site? We know from the story of Simeon's mother that there was a walled enclosure around the saint during his lifetime, and Antonius' Life describes the building of two enclosures, the inner of which was accessed through a door.62 In perhaps the strangest of Simeon's miracles, this is elucidated further. Two snakes travelled to Simeon to seek a healing for the female snake, who suffered from a growth. It was her “husband” snake, however, who approached Simeon's column:
When they arrived at his pillar, they separated from one another, for the female did not dare to be seen by the righteous man, but went to the women's section.63
Their arrival was somewhat distressing for the assembled pilgrims, but the saint told them not to be afraid and explained that the snake had come to seek a miracle for his partner, who had “gone to the women's section.”64 Simeon instructed the snake to use some clay from the ground to heal his wife and when the crowds followed him as he did this “they saw the female standing upright outside the barrier.”65 It is clear that women and men could move freely in an outer enclosure at the site, but that there was another walled structure inside this one that was controlled by guards who did not permit women to enter.
The sixth-century account of Evagrius Scholasticus allows us to piece together quite accurately how segregation was organized after Simeon's death and the construction of the famous cruciform martyrium. It describes Evagrius' own experiences visiting the site and witnessing an enormous star that apparently occurred at commemorations of the saint. His account of segregation at the site is worth quoting in its entirety:
Thus, on coming to the place, men gain entry without restriction and they repeatedly go around the column with their beasts of burden, but for whatever reason I cannot say there is a most strict watch that no woman should visit the interior of the sanctuary. The women stand outside near the doorway and admire the wonder, for one of the doors is situated opposite the gleaming star.66
This presumably means that women were not allowed into the main church complex and that access was still strictly controlled. Women could stand outside, however, and view the miraculous star down the length of the south basilica, through which entrance was granted to men.67 It is interesting to note that even by the time of Evagrius the origin and justification for excluding women appears to have been forgotten. This is not unusual, as it has been noted in several studies of segregated religious spaces that long after the original purpose has been forgotten or become irrelevant, the practice remains an important force in the collective memory.68 While we can but speculate, the practice may have been linked to the extreme avoidance of women by some male ascetics in Late Antiquity, advocated as part of renouncing earthly pleasures and later spatialized in strict codes of exclusion adopted by male monastic communities.69 We should however note that the exclusion of women continued after Simeon had died and his body had been removed to be venerated elsewhere. In essence, this meant that women were then segregated from a holy relic in the form of the column. Segregation from an inanimate object might seem illogical, but the practice testifies to the strength of the traditions at the site.70
Another key component of pilgrimage sites in Late Antiquity was the provision of facilities for the baptism of pilgrims. Baptisteries were normally attached to the main sacred complex, so that after baptism the new Christian could emerge into the most holy area of the shrine. At Qal'at Sem'an, however, this was not the case. The plan of the site shows that the large octagonal baptistery was located near the entrance gate, about 200 metres south of the martyrium. It was originally constructed at the same time as the main complex in the late fifth century and refurbished in the sixth century. Originally it stood on its own, but it appears that shortly after it was built a church was constructed to the south, probably at the beginning of the sixth century.71 The baptistery is large, with an inner octagonal plan like other pilgrim baptisteries built under imperial patronage in the fifth and sixth centuries, such as those at the churches of Saint John at Ephesus and Saint Menas at Abu Mina.72 Those baptisteries, however, are attached to the main church complexes. Why, then, is the baptistery at Qal'at Sem'an, which conforms in size and shape with other imperially-funded structures and was likely subject to the same centralised planning, built so far away?73
It is conceivable that the position of the baptistery was connected to hydraulics or aesthetic concerns: that it was easier to get enough water there, or that they did not want to disrupt the cruciform plan of the basilica. Both these arguments, however, find opposition. The region in which Qal'at Sem'an is located is devoid of a surface water network, so it was necessary to collect rainwater in cisterns, of which so far thirteen have been identified.74 Several were located near the martyrium itself, and it seems entirely possible that the baptistery could have been constructed near the martyrium, but was built far away and provided with its own cistern, instead. Other cruciform churches, such as the martyrium of Saint Babylas in Antioch, had their baptisteries built against one of the cross-arms, indicating that this was not an aesthetic concern.75 It may be, however, that the positioning of the baptistery was linked to the restriction of women from the main church.76 If the baptistery were attached to the martyrium, then women would not be able to enter and receive baptism. By constructing the baptistery away from the segregated zone, in an area open to both sexes, it could cater to the needs of female pilgrims without disturbing traditionally established gender segregation. The addition of the church to the baptistery complex would also have provided a place for women to worship, suggesting that those organising these constructions were aware that the site's traditions limited the opportunities open to female pilgrims and sought to address this issue.
It is clear from literary sources that women and men were routinely baptized separately and that ideally other women were needed to maintain the appropriate boundaries between the minister baptizing and the catechumen.77 The Traditio apostolica explicitly states that children should be baptised first, followed by men, and lastly women, clearly demonstrating that segregated baptism was commonly practiced through temporal spacing.78 This is taken further in the third-century Didascalia apostolorum, which directs that women should also take an active role by anointing female catechumen, as it is “not right that a woman should be seen by a man.” Some stages of baptism involved near or total nudity, and the presence of other women was ideal to make sure that baptism was “kept intact in chastity and holiness.”79
While we can speak with confidence about the existence of segregated baptism in Late Antiquity, references to separate spaces for baptism are rare. In Augustine's City of God, a woman afflicted with breast cancer is told to seek a blessing from a recently baptised woman:
She was told in a dream to watch for the first person to come out of the women's part of the baptistery after being baptised, and to ask her to make the sign of Christ over the site of her cancer.80
This passage suggests that physically separated spaces for baptism existed, even if they were not widespread. An example of this practice may come from the baptisteries of Abu Mina and the surrounding area. The baptistery attached to the main church complex underwent several periods of growth and alteration, but by far the most significant was in the sixth century, when the font was moved and enlarged.81 Around the main octagonal room were a series of other rooms, probably used in the preparations for baptism. At some unknown point later in the sixth century a second font was constructed in the antechamber to the west (Figure 7). Grossmann first suggested that this second font may have been used for segregated baptism in 1986, however, he rejected his own theory a few years later and proposed that the larger font was only used at times of year when there were lots of pilgrims to baptize. Money and water were therefore saved through using the smaller font during the rest of the year.82 He stated that the theory of segregated baptism should be rejected because the room in which the smaller font stands would have been needed as the room in which the apotaxis from Satan and syntaxis to Christ took place, and that both fonts could not be in use concurrently.83 He also questioned the use of separated spaces for baptism and suggested that the cost of using the large font was only justified at special events where there were many baptisms.84
As we have seen above, segregated baptism was plainly practiced in Late Antiquity, while the idea that the baptistery was essentially being downsized does not fit well with the chronology of the site. During the sixth century, Abu Mina went through a period of architectural growth and development: the expansion of the double baths was completed, the peristyle complex was constructed, and so was the transverse street separating the two. We also see the construction of other new facilities around the site, including another bath building at the northern edge of the settlement, and a complex in the west which had its own chapel and baptistery.85 Outside the walls, two new churches were constructed in the sixth century and both had their own baptisteries.86 This was a time of expansion and growth, with the building of new pilgrim accommodation, a major revision of the street plan, and the provision of greater gender segregated facilities. If other parts of Abu Mina could afford to improve their services and greatly increase their running and maintenance costs, it does not seem coherent that the main church would need to construct a second font to save money due to a shortage of pilgrims visiting. We can also consider literary sources which take pride in the fact that Christian shrines (as opposed to pagan ones) were busy throughout the year, not just on specific feast days. While we should not take these accounts entirely at face value, they support the idea that sites like Abu Mina could have received a steady flow of visitors.87
There are also other sites nearby which have two baptismal fonts that may have functioned simultaneously. The western complex mentioned above was constructed near the western gate in the sixth century and contained domestic and industrial areas, in addition to a church and baptistery. Originally it only had a simple font, but shortly after its construction a second larger baptistery was added.88 Ristow has suggested this facilitated segregated baptism, but it remains unclear whether they were in use simultaneously.89 A nearby church of uncertain date at Mahūra al-Qibli also had two fonts, both covered by their own ciborium.90 Multiple instances of sites with two full-size baptismal fonts are unusual and suggest that spatially segregated baptism may have been particularly popular in this region.91 This does not prove that the double baptistery at the pilgrim church in Abu Mina functioned in this way, but it does indicate that the idea should not be dismissed.
GENDER AND SPACE
Before we move on to look at how pilgrims could spend their money, we should pause for a moment to consider how gender and space were configured. The discussion so far has largely been framed around an analysis of gender segregation: all three sites contained spaces that controlled access by gender. It is important, however, to be critical about how we think about and understand segregated space. A perspective based on modern Western ideals often interprets gender segregation as indicating and enforcing a low status for women in society, part of a simple agenda of patriarchal oppression. Through this system women are rendered invisible and kept subordinate to men. While it may be true that such practices can often be linked to misogynistic principles, it is simply unhelpful to view them from a purely negative perspective. We should instead ask how access to space could impact a woman's experience and situate segregated spaces within the wider context of pilgrimage.
The case of Qal'at Sem'an offers the most explicit example of gender segregation impacting women's religious experience. Through restriction from the cruciform martyrium (or in earlier times the presence of Simeon), women could not have direct access to Simeon's power in the same way that men could. However even this site recognized that female pilgrims represented an important group. Simeon's miracles make it clear that although women were banned from his presence, they were by no means banned from seeking and receiving his help: female supplicants were always blessed, even if they tried to subvert the rules of the site. We must also be aware that although this tradition meant that women could not enter the focal point of the shrine, they would certainly have been visible in most other spaces. In fact, their reported gathering by the south entrance, or in the “women's area” alluded to in the sources would have made their presence even more conspicuous. It is also possible that the site catered to women by placing the baptistery within an accessible space and providing a secondary church where women could pray. It appears that the spatial restrictions that applied to women impacted their experience as little as possible; while the traditions might need to be maintained, it would ultimately not be practical or financially sensible to alienate so many potential pilgrims. Many women were able to maintain a spiritual devotion to Simeon despite the restrictions.92 It is also clear from a comparison between the practices at Qal'at Sem'an and our other sites that attitudes towards gender and sacred space were particular to individual shrines, and that specific rules in force at some do not necessarily reflect wider Christian attitudes to female piety.
The provision of segregated accommodation and bathing facilities should also be viewed within the context of pilgrimage as a whole. Sites offered women their own dedicated spaces for sleeping and bathing, but this was probably little different to their experiences in their hometowns. The construction of structurally segregated facilities highlights the large number of women who were going on pilgrimage: for permanent segregated buildings to be financially feasible there must have been a steady stream of women in need of such services. What we should note is the context of these spaces within the very public act of pilgrimage, as women were mingling with men on the road and in most public areas at the shrines.93 It was a common complaint among churchmen that visits to shrines could turn into an excuse for revelry and debauchery where both sexes indulged in drunkenness and dancing. In a sermon given at Easter, Basil of Caesarea specifically condemned women who took part in this immoral behavior, highlighting religious sites as locations where women and men could meet and socialize.94 We should also consider that the provision of these facilities probably made it logistically easier and safer for women to travel, as women-only spaces reduced the threat of assault and the potential for malicious gossip. In the context of pilgrimage, it seems that the creation of limited segregated spaces increased the ability of women to travel rather than limiting it, and that the realities of pilgrimage meant extensive segregation was undesirable and in any case difficult to enforce.95
PRODUCTS AND SOUVENIRS
The economic nature of pilgrimage sites is highlighted by the large number of shops that have been discovered at both Abu Mina and Qal'at Sem'an, while all three sites seem to have produced products that were specifically aimed at women. A speciality of Saint Menas appears to have been healing sterility: he himself was born following a fertility miracle which is then reflected in his own abilities.96 One event recorded in the Coptic collection tells of how he healed an infertile female camel after receiving supplication from a man who had heard of his powers.97 A Nubian account also preserves a miracle that features Menas giving the gift of fertility to an entire household in which even the livestock were infertile.98 The discovery of hundreds of small terracotta female statuettes of women shown pregnant or holding children makes it clear that women visited Menas who had anxieties about their reproductive health (Figure 8).
The statuettes were made at the site from local clay, both in moulds and by hand.99 To date, a large number of examples have been found (some 50 heads and 400 bodies and fragments from the excavations of Kaufmann alone), with the majority being 15–20 cm tall.100 The local clay they were made from has a distinctive pale yellow fabric, which has aided the identification of examples of these statuettes excavated at Kom el-Dikka in Alexandria,101 and examples that have made their way onto the art market or into museums.102 There is significant variety within the figures: they are shown both standing and sitting, some are shown holding a child or in the orans position, but the most common formulation shows a woman with one or both hands on a distinctive pregnant abdomen. This emphasis on pregnancy and childbirth allows us to conclude that they were linked to fertility.103 How these statuettes functioned, however, is still debated. Kaufmann and Török considered them to have been votives, while Grossmann has asserted they were also used as souvenirs.104 Grossmann suggested that they may have been suspended from nails discovered on the plaster dome of the crypt, however there is no direct evidence to support this theory.105 Engemann meanwhile also proposed that they functioned as souvenirs, as nothing like a votive deposit has yet been found and other figurines from the site (such as the rider figures) are accepted as functioning as souvenirs.106 The most recent detailed consideration of these figurines and others like them by Frankfurter sees no problems with them functioning in all kinds of contexts either at home or at the shrine depending on the needs of the people concerned.107 When we consider that the female statuettes have been found in Alexandria, their function as souvenirs is assured. It is probable that they also functioned as votives, but this has yet to be positively proven.
We should be careful, however, with how we understand the term “souvenir.” These were not keepsakes in the sense of the modern holiday souvenir but a physical representation of the wishes of the supplicant. The figurine may have partly functioned as a memento of a visit to the shrine, but also provided portable access to divine power.108 The figurines were made and sold at the site and it is possible that they were then taken to be blessed in the main church. As they were made of local clay, they may have been thought to already possess divine power through their fabric's physical proximity to Menas' remains, much like the clay tokens of Saint Simeon the Elder and the Younger that were made from “holy dust” near their columns.109 This would be similar to the apples that Egeria received as eulogia from the orchard of Saint John, which had sacred power because they were grown in soil with a direct connection to a holy figure.110 The process of conception, pregnancy, and childbirth is a lengthy one, so by purchasing a statuette a woman could have access to Menas' fertility power long after she had left the shrine.111
It was not only items of a spiritual nature that were for sale at pilgrimage sites. In addition to eulogia specific to the shrine, the shops excavated in connection with Qal'at Sem'an have shown that they also sold a wide range of jewellery and other items. Included in the finds from a shop that was destroyed by fire about 620 C.E. was an ornate gold earring, comparable with examples from the early seventh-century Lampedousa treasure from Cyprus.112 As earrings like this were only worn by women, this must have been marketed towards female pilgrims. It is also conceivable that the earring was lost by a woman passing through the shop or by someone working there, but in the context of the rest of the finds, this seems less likely.
The literary sources from Thecla's shrine reveal that products were aimed at and sold to women there, too. One miracle preserves the story of Kalliste, a woman who visited Thecla to seek healing, as her beautiful face had been disfigured when she was poisoned by a prostitute who wanted to steal her husband.113 Kalliste's disfigurement caused her husband to leave her, so she wished to recover her beauty and, by extension, her spouse. Thecla tells Kalliste to take the soap “that is sold in front of my church,” soak it in wine, and then use it to wash her face. She tells her that this will “immediately cleanse away the shameful disfigurement.”114 Kalliste's beauty is thus restored and she secures her husband's affections once more, saving him from the prostitute. In a literal sense, this represents another healing miracle: Thecla provides a cure for a woman who has been poisoned. However, we might also read a more metaphorical meaning. Kalliste's name means “very beautiful,” and both the woman and her beauty could be seen as a representation of virtue. In the Miracles, Thecla herself appears as a beautiful young girl, and traditionally beauty had been linked to moral goodness.115 The prostitute is the antithesis of Kalliste and represents the sin that is constantly seeking to undermine good Christian virtue. The sinful prostitute tries to destroy the virtuous wife using poison and successfully causes Kalliste a “shameful” disfigurement. The power of the chaste virgin Thecla, however, can wash away the poison of sin and return the victim to a state of virtuousness. Thecla has the power to save women from sin and corruption, helping them to retain the love of their husbands. The return of Kalliste's virtue (her beauty) also results in the deliverance of her husband from sin (the prostitute), thus emphasising a wife's role in maintaining the virtue and piety of the whole family.
This reading can help us to understand the significance of the soap that was sold outside Thecla's shrine. There is no reason to doubt that this refers to a real practice and although no archaeological evidence for this has been uncovered, we know that pilgrimage sites engaged in commercial activity. Soaps like this are still easily available today: a brief internet search reveals soaps available to bring luck in love, employment, and even gambling, and to protect against the envy of others.116 Thecla's soap provided a vehicle for her healing powers to be contained and distributed through a physical product, much like the holy water or oil that was available at other sites. The association in this miracle with female beauty and virtue suggests that it was marketed to women. Female pilgrims could purchase soap that functioned not only as a beauty product, but also to wash away the shameful poison of sin and perhaps provided them with extended access to Thecla's power after their pilgrimage had finished.
WIVES, WIDOWS, AND VIRGINS: WHO WERE THE FEMALE PILGRIMS?
While the evidence clearly shows that female pilgrims were present at these sites—probably in large numbers—it is more difficult to deduce what sort of women were coming and what impacted their decision to make a pilgrimage. In seeking answers to questions about the demographic make-up of female pilgrims, it is helpful to consider that modern pilgrimage studies have shown that looking for a unified picture of female pilgrimage is a flawed concept, as regional and social contexts can significantly affect a woman's likelihood of undertaking a pilgrimage and her experience during the journey.117 Contemporary restrictions on female pilgrims during the Hajj also remind us that we should not understand “women” as a single homogenous group. The conservative Wahhabism practiced by the modern Saudi state enforces strict regulations that require women to be accompanied by a mahram (guardian) to attempt a pilgrimage to Mecca. Women over the age of 45, however, are permitted to travel without one if they are part of a group and carry a letter of consent from their husband.118 This shows how different societal expectations and restrictions can function during different stages in a woman's life and highlight that even strict religious customs and ideologies do not perceive of and treat “women” as a single group.
It is often assumed that the ideal Christian woman in Late Antiquity was subject to enforced domesticity.119 Greater freedoms are traditionally understood to have been accorded to virgins and widows: virgins achieved this by “transcending” their femininity, while widows had (in theory) completed their societal duties as virtuous wives and mothers.120 Widows might also have greater financial resources at their disposal, and it seems no coincidence that many of the well-known women who historically formed the basis for our understanding of female pilgrimage only began their travels after their children had grown up and their husbands had died.121 It is here, however, that we ought to tread carefully. Several of those aristocratic women sought not only pilgrimage, but also permanent asceticism and, in some cases, the dispersal of their vast wealth. It was surely this aspect of their religious desires that was easier to achieve as a widow, rather than just the ability to travel.122 Setting aside women with special religious or familial status, we are left with vast numbers of women largely understood to be tied to their duties in the domus. The simplistic concept of female domestic life frequently touted in both ancient and modern literary sources is challenged by the evidence from pilgrimage, however, and begs a more nuanced understanding of what women could and could not do outside of the home.
Determining the age and marital status of women who visited the sites examined in this article is difficult. The most explicit evidence has been found at Abu Mina, which clearly shows that large numbers of women came because they had anxiety about bearing children. This means that these women were neither virgins nor widows, but most likely married women of childbearing age. Successfully giving birth to healthy children was important because it secured a woman's place in the family hierarchy and could provide some measure of security when she grew older.123 While this does not include young women awaiting marriage, it suggests that broad swathes of the female population took part in pilgrimage, not just those with the relative freedom of virginity or widowhood. The literary sources concerning pilgrimage to Simeon and Thecla also support this conclusion. We have seen that Thecla's shrine played host to the heavily pregnant Bassiane and as it seems unlikely that she fell pregnant while living amongst the virgins, she probably made the journey while already with child. In Theodoret's story of the Ishmaelite Queen, the woman brought her miraculous son to Simeon when he was just a baby. These events might be considered surprising since, in many societies, the time surrounding pregnancy and childbirth was understood as a dangerous liminal period in which women were often confined.124 Here it shows, however, that women's lives and opportunities were more complicated than is often assumed. Evidence from Egyptian papyri shows that women travelling while pregnant or with small children should not surprise us at all: women travelled to give birth, and to assist others in childbirth.125 Indeed, travel plans are a common topic in surviving women's letters, and while reasons for travel often remain frustratingly obscure, it is clear that such occasions arose with relative frequency.126 In addition to childbirth, other family-related matters were particularly common, such as attending weddings and simply visiting loved ones.127 Women also travelled for work, such as wet nursing, domestic service, apprenticeships, and entertainment, and to manage property.128 In difficult circumstances, some even travelled to borrow money.129 Women are also found closely linked to the functioning of monasteries, performing tasks such as organizing and making deliveries, running errands, delivering letters, and assisting with business transactions.130 In an interesting turn of events, it appears in situations like this that laywomen could have more freedom to move and travel than some religious men. Other reasons for movement remain more ambiguous, such as records pertaining to women who left their husbands, sometimes taking their children with them.131
Travel for religious purposes is therefore unsurprising, but evidence for pilgrimage is difficult to isolate in these sources, whether concerned with women or men.132 This difficulty is perhaps to be expected, however, as there was no contemporary term for “pilgrim” or “pilgrimage.”133 When we do glimpse pilgrimage in such sources it often raises more questions than it answers. In one fourth-century letter, for example, a woman called Valeria wrote to a monk asking for him to pray for her to be healed, as she was suffering from a disease that affected her breathing.134 She apologized for not coming to him in person, presumably because her illness prevented it. We cannot know, however, if such journeys were a common feature of Valeria's life when she was in better health. Indeed, if she had been well enough to make the trip to the monastery, such a letter would probably not have been necessary and all record of it lost. What this rich material does make clear, however, is the distance between literary ideals of female domesticity and the realities of everyday life. While travel certainly had the potential to be dangerous or expensive, the papyrological evidence suggests that local travel still played a significant role in the lives of even the relatively poor.135 This complements the evidence from pilgrimage sites, which could not have relied solely on occasional visits from wealthy long-distance travellers, but on a steady stream of more modest local visitors. Within the social context of the papyri, pilgrimage would form just one of many valid reasons for women to travel, and could perhaps have been combined with business trips or family visits. This supports the contention of this article that travel in general, and pilgrimage in particular, was an option open to a large proportion of women in Late Antiquity, and not tied primarily to sexual or marital status. We might even go so far as to say that in some regions undertaking a pilgrimage was socially acceptable for the majority of women and was more dependent on their individual circumstance than on inherent societal opposition to women travelling.
In October 614 C.E. the Holy Lance that pierced the side of Christ was brought to Constantinople from Jerusalem after the holy city fell to the Persians. Its arrival was proclaimed at Hagia Sophia and it was announced that it would be exhibited on Tuesday and Wednesday of the following week to be venerated by men, and on Thursday and Friday for women.136 The importance of veneration transcended gender, so this arrangement ensured that equal opportunities to see the relic were offered to both sexes. Since women and men were usually segregated within the church, they were assigned different days so that social decorum could be maintained while allowing both groups maximum access to the holy object. Although this proclamation enforced gender segregation, female piety was not subordinated to male piety; by providing two days dedicated to female veneration of the relic, women were encouraged to leave their homes and travel to Hagia Sophia. For many Constantinopolitan women this would not have necessitated travelling a great distance, but the symbolism of this arrangement is important: an official proclamation actively provided women with the necessary facilities to leave the domus and travel in public spaces to worship a relic in a way that was socially acceptable. The people who decided on this arrangement clearly expected that there would be many women who would want to access the lance and then accommodated their needs.
This kind of awareness of the needs of female pilgrims and the willingness to respond to such needs correlates to what we have seen at all three of the sites examined in this article. Pilgrimage sites were aware of their appeal to female travellers and provided facilities, souvenirs, and literary narratives that catered to their needs as a specific visitor demographic. The sites under examination here were cognizant of the importance of female piety and the impact it could have on local economies. For the shrines of Menas and Thecla it is even possible that women were a prime demographic target.137 This directly contrasts with the view of late antique femininity and domesticity prevalent in both contemporary literary sources and modern secondary literature. It is all too often assumed that female virtue was inextricably tied to domestic modesty and that to move freely in public women would forfeit their honorable social status and render it akin to barmaids and prostitutes.138
Examination of pilgrimage, however, emphasizes the need for a far more nuanced understanding of female virtue and women's lives outside the home. For a large proportion of the female population leaving the domus for an extended period, being publicly visible on the road and at the shrine and expressing piety in this public manner was clearly compatible with being a virtuous woman. This conclusion also highlights the problem of viewing female action as simply eliciting a binary “high/low” reaction in males that in turn constructs social status.139 We are instead dealing with a spectrum of action and reaction in which acceptable behavior and construction of status was conditional on additional factors as well such as age, class, ethnicity, and local traditions. While pilgrimage would only constitute a small facet of women's religious lives, this article suggests that we need to reorient our understanding of femininity and piety in Late Antiquity away from elite literary ideals (both ancient and modern), and frame it instead around critical methodologies of gender that incorporate a wide range of evidence.
Religious travel could offer a vehicle for female expression in public spaces that was not only acceptable but often encouraged and applauded. The importance of spiritual cultivation was not gender-specific, but societal attitudes meant that women negotiated these spaces differently from men. Women formed a substantial share of the pilgrim population, which both necessitated and encouraged the creation of gendered spaces and products that could facilitate and alter their experiences of travel. The constraints of this article mean that only three case studies have been considered, however the results indicate that there is a wealth of evidence still to be examined. Women were present at pilgrimage sites, but in most cases we are simply not looking for them. Moving forward, it is important that we are willing to utilize as wide a range of evidence as possible: elite women like Egeria and Paula were the exception, not the norm, and it is therefore unwise to continue to base our understanding of female pilgrimage on such examples alone. We should also be more critical of the ideals constructed by elite men in antiquity and the uncritical acceptance of these sources as indicators of general practice in much modern scholarship. While the religious experiences of women were undoubtedly shaped by the patriarchal culture in which they lived, it is clear that we need to work with more nuanced and flexible conceptions of femininity if we are to understand more about women's lives in Late Antiquity.
Modern archaeological fieldwork also offers opportunities for women to access public spaces in societies where sex-segregation is still common. In Kaufmann's account of excavations at Abu Mina in the early twentieth century, he discusses at length the part that female workers played during the excavations at the shrine of Saint Menas. He mentions by name Sad, his Lebensretterin, and paints vivid pictures of two older women called Raiata and Darhanne. Although his description of the women is orientalizing, it is an important reminder of the role local women played in uncovering the site as well as patronizing it.140