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Thursday, 12 April 2007

The Gypsy Pilgrimage of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Written by Anna M. Mays
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dunesIn 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.people

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.festival

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.

crossWhile Mary Magdalene continued on her journey to evangelize distant regions of this new land, the elderly Marys Jacobé and Salomé, with Sara, remained in the seaside village where they had landed (which would later take their name), and preached the Gospel to the farmers and fishermen. Legend recounts that these three women had such a pious influence over the local people that barely a generation later French Provençe was almost entirely converted to Christianity.

Among the groups most influenced in this region were the Roma: a nomadic, nation-less group of people who lived on the outskirts of French society. The Roma or Gypsies (a misnomer that has at its origin the identifier “Egyptian”) felt a certain affinity with Sara the Egyptian, the humble servant girl of dark skin who would wander the plains by the sea, collecting firewood and begging for alms to take back to the Marys. To the Roma, this young saint became known as “Sara Kali,” a Rom word meaning both “Black” and “Gypsy.”


priestsWhen Sara and the Marys died, they were buried in a small oratory in the center of the village. In the early ninth century, the present-day Saintes-Maries church was built over the oratory and the graves. In 1448, the Count of Provence, King René, excavated the old church looking for the Holy Grail and found the sacred relics of the two Maries and Sara. These holy relics were put into richly ornamented challises and stored in the high chapel, where they reside to this day.

After the 1448 discovery of the Saint Marys and Sara’s remains, the pilgrimage gained the following and popularity it enjoys today.people

Thus from Provençal history and legend emerges the tapestry of events which illustrate how the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer became the pilgrimage site of European Roma.

Though its participants have changed with the advancing eras, the structure and traditions of this pilgrimage have remained relatively unchanged since its inception centuries ago.

musicEach year, during the fourth weekend in May, thousands of Roma from different groups -- Roms, Manouches, Tziganes and gens de voyage -- arrive by caravan, trailer, motorbike, and on foot to pay homage to Saint Sara. During the Saturday Mass, all crowd into the ancient church and sing praises to Sara while the casket with her remains is slowly lowered from the church ceiling. Her statue is then brought up from the crypt and the congregation processes with the statue on a bed of rose petals down to the sea. The evening follows with much music, dancing, and celebration. The pilgrimage is not only a time to celebrate the patron Saint Sara. This event has also become an important moment of gathering for disparate groups and Roma families to come together at a given time each year. Many baptisms, marriage proposals, and reunifications of families occur at this time.

Is there an ironic paradox in the concept of a pilgrimage undertaken by a nomadic people for whom travel is a part of daily existence? Perhaps for the Roma, eternal pilgrims on life’s many paths and for whom the road has not always been easy or welcoming, a pilgrimage in community towards a rooted saint takes on a deeper meaning. This meaning may be incomprehensible to sedentary populations for whom travel is a choice and homeland is a constant.

musicPerhaps the answer can be found in the parting prayer the Roma sing to their patron saint as they leave Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer each year.

“Saint Sara, guide us on the right path, give us good faith and give us good health. And whoever may think badly of us, change his heart so he may think kindly.”

The Camargue region and town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer are easily accessible from the near-by cities of Arles, Montpellier and Marseille. Respectful visitors interested in attending the May pilgrimage can find lodging at the village campground, “Camping Le Clos du Rhone” or through the Office du Tourisme des Saintes Maries de la Mer.


© Anna M. Mays

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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