The first royal pilgrim to the Holy Land was Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. Her pilgrimage is dated to 326–28 AD. She visited Syria Palaestina, then the Roman name of the province of Judea, and Jerusalem. In his biographical work on Constantine, the fourth century historian Eusebius of Caesarea, noted that Helena was eighty when she returned from her pilgrimage. Helena was a Greek, born in the town of Drepanum, in Asia Minor. On her death in 330 AD, Constantine named her birthplace Helenopolis.
When Helena arrived in Jerusalem, the city was still recovering from the destruction that Emperor Titus had caused after his siege and capture of the city in 70 AD. There was construction activity going on in all parts of the city. Helena selected a site for excavation, and that led to the discovery of three different crosses. After performing a test, she discovered that one of the three crosses was the fabled True Cross.
Constantine had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built at the site where the True Cross was found. This Church, surprisingly, still stands, despite the fact that this region has been the world’s major battleground ever since—there were numerous wars between the Romans and the Persians, there were the long line of barbarian invasions, and there were the wars between the Arabs and the Byzantines. Then there was the revolution of the crusades and the counterrevolution of the Islamic forces, the Mongol rampage, and after that several other conflicts.
The notion that there was a religious benefit to be attained in certain places of the Levant was first popularized by St. Jerome in the last decades of the fourth century. He preached that praying while standing at the place where the feet of Christ had once stood was an act of piety. He said that those who were capable of undertaking such a journey, must go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He left Rome in 385 AD and spent the rest of his years in the Levant, in places like Antioch, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other holy sites in Galilee and Egypt.
St. Augustine, a contemporary of Saint Jerome, rejected the idea of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. To him all lands were just parcels of land. He refused to grant the privilege of holiness to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other sites in Palestine. He said that a pilgrimage to these places was not only futile but also dangerous. On this issue, the views of St. Jerome prevailed and the notion of praying at the Holy Land took hold of the imagination of the Christians in Europe and the Levant. Though St. Jerome had not preached this, it became accepted in Europe that by praying at the Holy Land a man could obtain God’s absolution for the sins that he had committed.
Empress Eudocia, wife of Emperor Theodosius II, popularized the idea of the Holy Land when she went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 438–439 AD. Her husband, the Emperor, had given her the title of “Augusta” in 423 AD. She was Greek by birth, born in Athens, and proud of her Greek heritage. On her way to Jerusalem, she stopped in Antioch and addressed a congregation of Christian Greeks in Hellenic style. She enthralled her audience by speaking the Homeric line: “Of your proud line and blood I claim to be.” She brought back several holy relics from Jerusalem.
In 443 AD, Eudocia left the palace permanently (possibly due to irreconcilable differences with her husband) and came to Jerusalem, where she lived till the end of her life. In this period, she gained immense religious influence. When she died, she was buried in the church that she had herself built, the Church of Saint Stephen. The modern St. Stephen's Basilica stands at that site.
Since the early saints and martyrs were from the East, the major Holy Places and holy relics of Christianity could be found in the East. But a journey to the East was difficult, costly, and dangerous. The journey took several months, at times more than a year. Only those people in Europe who were blessed with considerable resources, courage, faith, and a sense of adventure could be the pilgrims to the Holy Land. In the tenth century, the situation in the region stabilized, and there was an increase in the number of common Europeans going East on a pilgrimage. Many Normans went on a pilgrimage, but they were hard people with a lot to atone for.