According to ancient legend, the Iberian Peninsula formed part of the lands where the Apostle Saint James preached Christianity. After he was beheaded in 44 AD, tradition says that his disciples took the body of the saint by boat to Galicia, one of the Spanish lands he preached in.
The difficult times during the early years of Christianity and the fact that most of the northern part of the peninsula was sparsely populated would have meant that the exact location of the burial site would have fallen into oblivion. However, around the year 820 remains were found which were attributed by the ecclesiastic and civil authorities to be those of Saint James the Greater. This event, which took place in remote Galician woodland, would give rise to the founding of the present day city of Santiago de Compostela.
Santiago became the attractive goal of a pilgrimage that would, over the centuries, lead pilgrims from all walks of life and via the most diverse itineraries, to the tomb of the only apostle of Jesus, along with Saint Peter in Rome, who is buried on European soil.
The tradition whereby the apostle St James the Great preached the gospel in Spain dates from the early 7th century, in the Latin Breviary of the Apostles. St Jerome held that apostles were buried where they preached, and so it was assumed that the body of St James had been moved from Jerusalem, where according to the Acts of the Apostles, he was martyred on the order of Herod Agrippa, to a final resting place in Spain.
It was not until the 9th century that the apostle's tomb was identified at Compostela. The late 8th century saw the consolidation of the Christian kingdom of Galicia and Asturias in northern Spain, with the support of Charlemagne. It was to provide the base for the reconquest of the peninsula from Muslim domination, a process that was not to be completed until 1492. The apostle had been adopted as its patron saint by the Christian kingdom, and in the early years of the 9th century, during the reign of Alfonso II, his tomb was "discovered" in a small shrine by the hermit Pelayo and Todemiro, Bishop of the most westerly diocese in the kingdom.
The fame of the tomb of St James, protector of Christendom against the menace of Islam, quickly spread across western Europe and it became a place of pilgrimage, comparable with Jerusalem and Rome. By the beginning of the 10th century pilgrims were coming to Spain on the French routes from Tours, Limoges, and Le Puy, and facilities for their bodily and spiritual welfare began to be endowed along what gradually became recognized as the formal pilgrimage route, whilst in Compostela itself a magnificent new basilica was built to house the relics of the apostle, along with other installations - churches, chapels, hospices, and hospitals. The 12th century saw the Route achieve its greatest influence, used by thousands of pilgrims from all over Western Europe. In 1139 the first "guidebook" to the Route appeared, in the form of Book V of the Calixtine Codex (attributed to Pope Calixtus II but most probably the work of the pilgrim Ayrneric Picaud), describing its precise alignment from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela and listing the facilities available to pilgrims. These structures, ranging from humble chapels and hospices to magnificent cathedrals, represent every aspect of artistic and architectural evolution from Romanesque to Baroque and beyond, demonstrating the intimate linkages between faith and culture in the Middle Ages. The establishment of the pilgrimage route inevitably led to its adoption as a commercial route, resulting in economic prosperity for several of the towns along its length.
The tradition of pilgrimage to Santiago has not ceased since that time, though its popularity waned in recent centuries. Since it was declared to be the first European Cultural Itinerary by the Council of Europe in 1987, however, it has resumed the spiritual role that it played in the Middle Ages, and every year sees many thousands of pilgrims following it on foot or bicycle.
Source: Advisory Body Evaluation / UNESCO/CLT/WHC