Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:
Give me my scallop shell of quiet;
My staff of faith to walk upon;
My scrip of joy, immortal diet;
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory (hope’s true gage);
And then I’ll take my pilgrimage.
Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the autonomous region of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located in the most northwest region of Spain in the Province of A Coruña and it was the European City of Culture for the year 2000. I didn’t know this but after Jerusalem and Rome it is the third most holy city in Christendom and the cathedral is the destination today, as it has been throughout history, of the important ninth century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.
Santiago is such an important pilgrimage destination because it is considered the burial site of the apostle, James the Great. Santiago was one of the twelve disciples and a devout follower of Christ but in 44 A.D. he became the first of Apostles to suffer martyrdom when Herod Agrippa I arrested and (according to the story) personally beheaded him (this seems rather unlikely to me) in Jerusalem. According to legend Santiago had preached for a while in Iberia prior to his execution and after his death his own disciples returned his body by boat back to the peninsula.
On the way they were caught in a storm and almost certainly doomed when a ship miraculously appeared, led by an angel, to guide them to land and safety. They buried the saint near Compostela, ‘field of stars,’ where Santiago lay forgotten for nearly eight hundred years.
The tomb was conveniently rediscovered in the ninth century in a time of great need when Christian political and military fortunes in Spain were at their lowest ebb after they had suffered defeat time and again at the hands of the Muslims, until that is God revealed the Saint’s remains, and inspired them with the confidence that he was on their side, fighting in the battlefield with them through the heroic figure of Santiago and the holy saint became a warrior.
People continue to take the Pilgrim trail and can be instantly identified by the pilgrim staff and the symbol of the scallop shell. The shell is the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage because the grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes that pilgrims travelled, all eventually arriving at a single destination. It is also symbolic of the pilgrim because just as the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.