El Camino de Santiago Facts

El Camino de Santiago translates to "the Way of St. James," although it is actually a network of trails crossing from as far east as Paris to the Cathedral of Campostela in northwestern Galicia, Spain.

The remains of St. James

According to Christian lore, St. James was murdered in Jerusalem in A.D. 44, his head lopped off by King Herod. Some of his followers wrapped him up and put him on a stone boat to sail for Hispania, where he had previously preached. It appears that they completely missed the easy way to land there, going instead through what we now know as the Straits of Gibraltar then heading even further north until reaching Finisterrae, the end of the world, as far as Rome was concerned.

Other legends have it that a boat was passing very close to shore, and a boy who was fishing went to it to discover that it had no crew. He landed the boat on the coast, and the remains of St. James were brought up the hill to present-day Campostela, where the cathedral was built.

But to confound scholars, James also suffered martyrdom in A.D. 44-according to the tradition of the early Church, he had not yet left Jerusalem at this time. In his Epistle to the Romans, written after A.D. 44, St. Paul expressed his intention to avoid 'building on someone else's foundation," by visiting Hispania, suggesting that he knew of no previous evangelization there.

The tradition at Campostela placed the discovery of the relics of the saint in the time of King Alfonso II of Asturia (791-842) in a tomb located there. A small church was built there to commemorate the apostle, but it was destroyed in the year 997 when the Moorish army of al-Mansur raided the area. It was subsequently rebuilt as a cathedral under the direction of Alfonso IV starting in 1060, being completed in 1211. More sections and exterior features were added between the 16th and 18th centuries.

In 1700, the remains of St. James were hidden from the advancing English and were lost, but they were rediscovered along with two of his disciples in 1879.

The remnants of St. James at Campostela have been verified as being authentic by placing a piece of his skull, which had been kept in a church in Tuscany, onto a hole in St. James' skull. It reputedly was a perfect fit, and subsequent visits by Popes Leo XIII and John Paul II somehow further verified the authenticity.

The pilgrimage

Pilgrims have been walking el Camino de Santiago continuously since the miraculous discovery of the relics, with wanes in traffic during times of war and disease. These days, the pilgrimage is more popular than ever, attracting millions of believers and other seekers and adventurers on their way to find themselves or their salvation. El Camino de Santiago became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

The main path of the network follows an ancient Roman trade route to that far corner of their world on the Atlantic coast of Galicia. Voje Ladee is a fitting nickname for the tracks, given by pilgrims looking up at the Milky Way that seems to map the pathways in the nighttime sky: Campostela itself means "field of stars."

The scallop shells scattered on the shores of Galicia have become a symbol of the pilgrimage, with associated myths and the metaphorical coming together of all of the grooves on the shells representing the idea that all paths lead to Campostela.

Walkers of the Way can earn a certificate of accomplishment if they walk at least 100 kilometers. The town of Sarria is a popular starting point for this reason. Pilgrim passports must be presented with all the proper stamps from locations along the path in order to receive the official compostela. But the deeper experience is about struggling toward a goal.

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