In the desolate Camargue region of southern France -- an untamed coastal plain marked by salt marshes, wild horses and wayside cowboy ranches -- sits a small seaside village with a unique history and a colorful ancient tradition that is still celebrated today. The press call it the “Gypsy Pilgrimage.” This quiet town, known locally as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, comes alive each year in early spring as thousands of Roma from across Europe make the long journey to celebrate the annual festival of their patron saint Sara Kali. For hundreds of years, the village of Saintes-Maries has served as the sacred pilgrimage site for Europe’s Roma peoples.
Few travelers visiting southern France today are familiar with this region’s ancient history nor its many religious customs and their accompanying legends and folklore.
According to Provençal legend, in antiquity, this region of the Camargue was an island consecrated to the Egyptian god Râ, father of the sun. The island town served as a port and lighthouse founded perhaps a thousand years before the arrival of the Greek traders. The current day village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was constructed on the site of the Egyptian god’s temple in the early ninth century.
Hebrew migration to the region around the mouth of the Rhone began with the era of Greek colonization spurred on by Alexander's conquests in the east. The flow increased in the early first century CE under the encouragement of the Roman Emperor Octavius Augustus. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the flow of migration became a torrent, and some of these Hebrew refugees were the first followers of what would later become Christianity.
A second century apocalyptic text tells of the three Marys -- Magdalene, Jacobé, and Salomé -- along with Sara the Egyptian, who, in 33 CE, discovered an empty tomb and rushed to announce the news of Christ’s Resurrection to the Apostles. As the first witnesses of the Resurrection, these four women became Followers of the Way, and along with many other Disciples of Christ were persecuted and exiled from Palestine.
Fleeing Jewish persecution, in 45 CE the Saints Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobé and Mary Salomé, along with Sara, their servant girl of Egyptian origin, escaped in a boat without sails or oars. According to Provençal legend, Providence guided their boat safely to the shores of southern France.