Celebrating with Saint Sarah
Conflict in Palestine and the persecution of minorities are topical themes today, But this Overgrown Path takes us back 2000 years to when, following the crucifixion of Christ, Christians were persecuted in Palestine and sent into exile by the Jews. Boats containing religious refugees were regularly sent to far flung destinations in the Mediterranean, and one of these boats contained the biblical figures of Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome and the resurrected Lazarus. At the last moment their black Egyptian servant, Sarah, was allowed to join the refugees, and their boat made landfall on the Camargue in the very far south of France. The exiles built an oratory at the point where they landed, and today this has grown into Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, one of Provence’s most holy places and famous as a centre of pilgrimage for Romas and many others.
We made the pilgrimage by car from East Anglia to the Rhone Delta, a distance of just over 1000 miles. Today Saintes-Maries is best known for the pilgrimage of Mary Jacobe in May, this attracts thousands of gypsies from all over the world as they have canonized her servant Sarah as their patron saint. The relics of Saint Sarah are in the 12th century church. The Camargue was a vulnerable frontier in medieval times, and subject to raids by the Saracens. As a result the church (right) is one of the most impressive fortified churches in Provence. Its crenallated exterior has loop-holes for windows, and inside there are wells in the nave to supply the church-fortress when it was under siege. My header photograph shows the crypt where the relics and statue of St Sarah in her seven robes are kept. The importance of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer as a pilgrimage destination means that the statue of Sarah has been kissed so many times that the black paint has been worn away in places.
Now playing - Song of Sara by Manitas de Plata. The Camargue is famous for its gypsy music, and Manitas de Plata (below) is regarded as one of the greatest exponents of flamenco. He was born in a Gitano Gypsy caravan in Sète on the western fringe of the Camargue. For a full biography and sound files follow this link. He is related to the Calé musicians, the Gypsy Kings, who took flamenco into the mainstream. Song for Sara is playing on the CD Guitarra Flamenca de la Camargue recorded by Los Gitanos, which also contains Gypsy King and traditional tracks. This Overgrown Path started with a pilgrimage from East Anglia to the Camargue, and this CD of gypsy music from the Camargue brings the journey full circle as it was recorded here in East Anglia in the south transept of Ely Cathedral by the enterprising Lantern Productions. The sound is excellent, and the music making is wonderful. You can only buy it from the Lantern website or Ely Cathedral shop, but it is well worth seeking out.
• Provence is a veritable bouillabaisse of races, religions and legends. My version above is the commonly accepted version of the legend of St Sarah. But there are several alternatives. One claims that Sarah was a native of Provence born into a noble race and queen of her tribe, who welcomed the Marys and was converted to Christianity by them. Another legend claims that Sarah was Egyptian and abbess of a large convent in Libya, while a third says that she was a Persian martyr.
• Bill Clinton, Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth and Shayne Ward all claim to be descended from gypsies, but the the Romas still remain the forgotten diaspora of Europe. At the time of the discovery of the relics of the Marys in the 1440s there was a convergence of Romas in Provence with groups coming from as far afield as North Africa, Spain, Greece and the Balkans. Now read about Roma - the forgotten Holocaust victims
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