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The Pilgrimage of Abbot Daniel


The word pilgrimage (khozhdenie) in Old Russian literature was used for works describing pilgrimages to the holy places in the Near East and Byzantium. The earliest specimen of this genre is The Pilgrimage of Abbot Daniel.102

Very little is known about Daniel himself. He was the abbot of a Russian monastery which, it is believed, was situated in the Chernigov lands. Daniel made his pilgrimage at the beginning of the twelfth century. From certain historical facts mentioned by him we can assume that he visited the holy places in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that existed on territory taken from the Arabs by the Crusaders in 1106-1108.

On the way Daniel visited Constantinople, Ephesus and Cyprus. He spent sixteen months in the holy places. He lived in the monastery of St Sabas near Jerusalem, journeying to different parts of the kingdom, the towns of Jericho and Bethlehem, and the Sea of Galilee. He was accompanied by a monk “old in years and most well-read”. As a pilgrim Daniel was naturally interested most of all in the holy places and monuments which ecclesiastical tradition linked with the name of Jesus or characters from the Bible. He describes the pool where Christ healed the cripple, the mount of the Crucifixion, the cave in which Christ’s body was lain after the Crucifixion, etc. Daniel not only lists the things he has seen, but gives a short account of the Old and New Testament stories linked with them, showing his knowledge not only of the canonical books of the Bible, but also of apocryphal tales.

In his descriptions Daniel tries to be accurate, writing a kind of guide for future pilgrims. He indicates the direction which one should take to reach a certain spot and gives some highly graphic information about distances: “And from that rock as far as a good archer can shot”, or “And the distance from the town wall is as far as a person can throw a small piece of rock.” He describes architectural buildings and their decor in detail. “That church,” he writes of the Church of the Resurrection, “is circular … in form; inside it has twelve round solid columns and six square ones; it is beautifully paved with marble; it has six doors; and there are sixteen columns in the choir gallery”; and there are many similar descriptions.

The Kiev Crypt Patericon. Isaac Dancing to Music Played by Devils. Illumination from The Radziwill Chronicle. 15th century. Academy of Sciences Library, Leningrad

The Kiev Crypt Patericon. Isaac Dancing to Music Played by Devils. Illumination from The Radziwill Chronicle. 15th century. Academy of Sciences Library, Leningrad

However, while reverently viewing “that longed-for land and the holy places” where Christ “suffered for us, sinners”, Daniel does not remain indifferent to the countryside. He admires the fertility of the soil which yields rich harvests of barley and wheat and describes the groves of figs and olives. There is an interesting description of the River Jordan which Daniel compares with the River Snov in his native Chernigov land: one bank of the Jordan is steep, the other gently sloping, the current is fast and the water turbid, but pleasant to the taste; “in all things the Jordan is like unto the River Snov: in width, and depth and its winding course and swift-flowing current it is like unto the River Snov”.

Daniel’s descriptions of his life and the daily life of the Kingdom of Jerusalem are scant. He merely mentions in passing the mountain paths on which travellers are beset by Saracen robbers and notes that he only managed to reach the town of Tiberias by attaching himself to a band of warriors belonging to King Baldwin I. Only one episode is described in any detail. During a church service the king honours Daniel by leading him through the crowd of pilgrims (“the people were pushed back by force to make way for us … and thanks to this we could pass through the crowd”). Daniel ascribes this honour not to himself, but to respect for Russia which he represented. Daniel stresses that when he was abroad he felt himself to be the envoy of the whole Russian land and expresses his concern for it, in the traditional way for the pilgrim, of course, by lighting an, icon-lamp for it in the churches and “in all the holy places” and asking for prayers to be said “for the Russian princes and princesses, and their children, for the bishops and the abbots, the boyars, their spiritual children, and for all the Christians of Russia.”

Valentin Yanin has drawn attention to the following fact. In mentioning memorial services for Russian princes, princesses and boyars—he held ninety such services for them in all—Daniel names only a few princes. Yanin has reconstructed the original form of this list of princes and established that the actual choice of names and even the order in which they were put was of a special significance for Daniel. He names the nine princes who formed “the supreme coalition which decided national affairs and guided the political development of the state”. “Daniel,” Yanin concludes, “was a Russian abbot in the highest meaning of the word and, remembering the princes, held liturgies for the system of relationships that had been drawn up at the princely conferences in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, seeing this as a means of preventing internecine strife, the destruction of the Russian land and fratricidal wars.” 103

Nevertheless it is still unclear under what circumstances Daniel’s pilgrimage took place: the reference to the many people accompanying him, his liberal means and, finally, the indisputable marks of respect shown to him by King Baldwin, all suggest that Daniel was to some degree or other an official representative of the Russian land and was visiting the holy places with some diplomatic or ecclesiastical credentials, or, at least, was not an ordinary pilgrim.104

Abbot Daniel’s Pilgrimage was extremely popular in Old Russian literature, as can be seen from the fact that about a hundred manuscripts of the work have survived.