Pilgrimage in Twelver Shi’ism: fieldwork on the Camino de Santiago

Fuchsia Hart discusses her work on pilgrimage within the Shi’a tradition, and her recent trip to Spain to undertake part of the Camino de Santiago.

As my doctoral research is centred on an exploration of shrine visitation in Shiʿism, with a focus on Iran, I decided it would be a good idea to do some practical research on the topic and visit a shrine myself. As a British passport holder, the logistics of visiting a shrine in Iran on the spur of the moment are complex, so I decided to visit a shrine in Spain – before I need a visa to go there, too. Thus, earlier in the Easter vacation, I embarked on a solo pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela on foot, covering the final 115km of the Camino Frances.

Sarria path picture
The path out of Sarria on a sunny morning, with one of the many way-markers by the side of the track.

According to legend, Santiago, or St James, one of the Twelve Apostles, travelled to the Iberian Peninsula during his lifetime and was responsible for converting the region to Christianity. He then returned to the Holy Land where he was killed in 44ad – making him one of the first Christian martyrs. His body is said to have been transferred to Spain, landing in what is now Finisterre. His tomb was rediscovered in the early C9th and the tradition of pilgrimage to the site flourished shortly after, and has continued ever since. Santiago is now the patron saint of Spain and, in an interesting twist, has also taken on the identity of Santiago Matamoros (the Moor-Slayer), built around the myth that he aided the Christians in the fight against the Arabs during the legendary Battle of Clavijo. His relics are now housed in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. A place of worship has stood on the site since the late C9th. The present building, however, dates from the C11th, with many later additions. The cathedral’s Pórtico da Gloria was one of the additions of Master Mateo in the C12th and the impressive main façade, currently obscured by scaffolding, was completed in the C18th.

The Portal of Glory (Pórtico da Gloria).
The Portal of Glory (Pórtico da Gloria). The door is only opened in Holy Years, when the Feast of St James (25th July) falls on a Sunday – the next is 2021.

My research is centred on a rather different shrine which I am using as a vehicle for a holistic investigation of the concept of the Imamzadah. This term refers to both a descendant of one of the Twelver Shiʿi Imams and to the shrine of one of these descendants. Such shrines are sites central to Shiʿi belief, ritual and devotion. Pilgrims beseech the individual buried in the shrine to intercede on their behalf – the belief in intercession being unique to the Shiʿah in the Islamic tradition. The shrines also offer the opportunity for participation in what is often referred to as the cosmic drama of the Battle of Karbala’, which has a fundamental role in the formation of Shiʿism. During the battle, Husayn, the third of the twelve Imams, and many other members of the family of the Prophet were slain by the forces of the ‘Umayyads. The battle is commemorated by the Shiʿah every year during the first ten days of the month of Muharram. The events which took place have been framed in many ways, but are usually used to emphasise the fight against injustice and oppression. Several of the following Imams were also killed, including Imam Reza, the eighth Imam, buried in Mashhad, Iran. His sister, Fatimah Maʿsumah, also died in Iran and was buried in Qom, and it is her shrine on which I focus.

The shrine of Hazrat Fatimah Maʿsumah in Qom, Iran.
The shrine of Hazrat Fatimah Maʿsumah in Qom, Iran. Photo: Maseeh Ganjali.

I hoped that by making the pilgrimage to Santiago and spending time in the cathedral there, I would be able to better understand the concepts, beliefs and aims at the heart of pilgrimage, which is generally considered a universal phenomenon.

A pause in the Galician countryside.
A pause in the Galician countryside.

The easiest way to reach my starting point of Sarria (115km from Santiago) was to, somewhat illogically, fly to Santiago de Compostela airport and travel by bus from there to Sarria. After a very comfortable night spent in a C13th monastery, I set off the next morning on the 115km walk to Santiago. The next few days took me through idyllic Galician countryside, passing through farms and villages, saying ‘buen camino’ to other pilgrims encountered along the way. There were, of course, not-so-scenic stretches, long slogs by the main road running to Santiago, past vast industrial sites. Once on the approach into Santiago, I felt a mixture of relief, that I had made it there in one piece, and disappointment, that the journey was soon to be over. I finally entered the cathedral, only to be quickly ushered out by security, as, apparently, backpacks are not allowed. Once packs have been deposited elsewhere, pilgrims queue up to ‘embrace the saint’ – climbing the stairs behind the high altar to give the figure of St James a grateful hug. The love and respect which pilgrims express for Santiago and the fervour with which they pray before his relics, seeking intercession, was reminiscent of the expressions of devotion which I have seen in many Imamzadahs across Iran.

The church of San Xoán in Portomarin.
The church of San Xoán in Portomarin.

There are a number of other themes which I found to be prominent in both the traditions associated with Santiago and with the Shiʿi Imamzadahs. The first is the key relationship between text and sacred place. Once in Santiago, a visit to the cathedral’s museum is highly recommended. There, one can see, what I slowly realised was a copy of, the Codex Calixtinus. I later learned (thanks to Wikipedia) that it was recently stolen and found in the garage of a former employee of the museum, so I was more understanding as to why it is now kept elsewhere. The work provides the earliest source for the founding myths associated with the site, also providing a guide for prospective pilgrims. Considering the role of this manuscript, highlighted the key role of texts in the creation of many sacred sites. The status of the shrine of Fatimah Maʿsumah is, likewise, largely founded on the numerous hadith and anecdotes associated with the site and Fatimah herself, and as part of my research, I use texts ranging from the 10th-21st centuries, which provide evidence for the holy nature of the site.

A small church a few kilometres before Palas de Rei.
A small church a few kilometres before Palas de Rei.

In both cases, martyrdom has a central role in the narrative associated with the shrine. St James is thought to be the earliest of the Apostles to be martyred, and while the dominant tradition suggests Fatimah died of natural causes, some claim she was poisoned or died of heartbreak after the death of her brother. However, there is, of course, a wider theme of self-sacrifice running through both traditions. Christian pilgrims are often seeking penitence or aiming to partake in the suffering of Christ, while Shiʿi pilgrims are often looking to participate in the Karbala’ paradigm. Pilgrimage in both traditions, especially on foot, offers an opportunity for the pilgrim to suffer for the cause.

The shrine of Fatimah Maʿsumah does not have an associated tradition of approach on foot but there is a parallel tradition within Shi’ism. In 1601, the Safavid ruler, Shah ʿAbbas, performed a pilgrimage on foot from his capital of Isfahan to the shrine of the Imam Reza in Mashhad, covering some 1000km. In more recent times, the commemoration of Arbaʿeen, which takes place forty days after ʿAshura’, marking the death of Imam Husayn, sees thousands of Iranians leave their cars by the border with Iraq and walk to the tomb of Husayn in Karbala.

The Compostela, with illuminations taken from the Codex Calixtinus.
The Compostela, with illuminations taken from the Codex Calixtinus.

Through these examples, and many others, my journey served only to highlight how universal the phenomenon of pilgrimage is. This perhaps goes some way towards explaining the continued popularity of the Camino de Santiago, now seen as a route of pilgrimage by Christians of all denominations, as well as secular pilgrims. In the same vein, it also demonstrated to me the benefit of interdisciplinary methods of research, which I hope to incorporate into my own work.

Fuchsia Hart is a member of ‘Talking Religion’, a research group organised by members of the Empires of Faith project for doctoral students across the Humanities and Social Sciences.


Author: Fuchsia Hart

All images © 2017 Empires of Faith

2 thoughts on “Pilgrimage in Twelver Shi’ism: fieldwork on the Camino de Santiago

  1. Enjoyed your article, very interesting. The comparison is especially so for someone like myself raised in the Catholic Church in early youth but later in life married to a man from a Shi’ite background. My husband told me 20+ years ago that the Shi’ite’ faith is most similar to Catholism. At the time I thought of the saints and churches with all the symbolism. There is so much more. Enjoy your research.

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