Two thousand years have passed since the death of Christ. His twelve Apostles dispersed around the world to preach his word. Peter went to Rome, Matthew went to Judea, James “the Greater,” who was the son of Zebedee and Salome, brother of John the Evangelist, and who may have been Jesus’ cousin, is the one who came to Hispania. According to tradition, his task will be to preach the gospel in the far land of Finis Terrae, the end of the known world at that time. But when he goes back to Jerusalem, James is captured and beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 41 AD. He then becomes the first Apostle to be martyred.
Legend says that the apostle’s dead body was taken to Galicia by two of his young disciples in a stone boat guided by angels. They sailed across the entire Mediterranean Sea up to the Roman port of Iria Flavia, in the distant province of Gallaecia, and there he was finally buried in a secluded spot on a hill called Liberum Donum.
The body lay undiscovered for some 800 years until a hermit saw a glowing light that indicated the sacred place, where he found the saint’s tomb.
King Alfonso II built a small church in his name, but Alfonso III, in the ninth century, declared Santiago (Spanish for Saint James) the patron saint of his kingdom and built a large church, fit for the event that started to drive thousands of followers all over Europe.
The glowing light of the bright star that pointed out the burial place gave it the name of Campus Stellae, field of stars, or Compostela.
In the twelfth century, Pope Calixtus II declared that pilgrims visiting the Cathedral of Santiago in a Holy year would be free of all their sins, just as those who went to Rome. The Holy year is celebrated whenever the Apostle’s Day (July 25th) falls on a Sunday. This means that the jubilee is celebrated in a recurrent series of 6, 5, 6 and 11 years.
Pilgrims may obtain indulgence in Holy Years from January 1st to December 31st, if they visit the cathedral and the Apostle’s tomb and if they say a prayer, go to confession and receive Holy Communion.
For this reason, thousands of pilgrims started to set out for Santiago. Most were moved by their faith, in search of salvation and wishing to reach the Apostle’s tomb, but some others walked the Way in order to serve penalties; there were even those who did the pilgrimage in somebody’s name in exchange for money. All pilgrims wore the same clothing: a staff, a gourd for water and a scallop shell. This shell became a protective signal, since the person who robbed a pilgrim was accused of a great crime and could be sentenced to death.
In order to assist pilgrims, many monasteries, churches, hospitals, asylums, bridges and roads were created. In those places where pilgrims converged, small urban centres started to develop, turning into villages and cities which today are part of one of the most important routes in the Christian faith.