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Danylo, the Ukrainian 12th-century pilgrim


Serhiy POPOVYCH, a historian, takes the readers almost a thousand years back, to the twelfth century, and tells a story of a Ukrainian pilgrim who journeyed to the Holy Land and then described the pilgrimage in a book which has come down to us in its entirety.


Daniel of Kyiv. Flourished 110.

also called Daniel The Pilgrim, earliest known Russian travel writer, whose account of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land is the earliest surviving record in Russian of such a trip. Abbot of a Russian monastery, he visited Palestine probably during 1106–07. His narrative begins at Constantinople; from there he travelled along the west and south coasts of Asia Minor to Cyprus and the Holy Land. Despite his credulity and errors in topography and measurement, his description of Jerusalem, where he lived for more than a year, is detailed and accurate. His account of Easter services there sheds light on the liturgy and ritual of the time. Daniel made three excursions, to the Dead Sea, to Hebron, and to Damascus, where he claims to have accompanied Baldwin I, the Latin king of Jerusalem.There are 76 manuscripts extant of his account, only five of which are dated earlier than 1500. The work, in an English translation, annotated by C.W. Wilson, is in the Library of the Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, vol. 4 (1895).

Encyclopaedia Britannica


When Danylo, a twelfth-century Ukrainian, was taking his monastic vows, he, no doubt, could hardly imagine that instead of a quiet life within the walls of a monastic community, he would spend years in travels in foreign lands.


One of the first

Danylo the Pilgrim is not a household name in the present-day Ukraine. Which is more the pity since he is surely an important figure in the history of Ukraine and of its culture. He was a contemporary of such major figures of Ukraine’s history as the Grand Duke Volodymyr Monomakh (1052–1125) and Nestor the Chronicler (date of birth is not known; died circa 1111; a monk and author of several works of hagiography and an important historical chronicle; a tradition ascribes to him the authorship of the Povest Vremennykh Let — “Tale of Bygone Years”, The Primary Chronicle). He was one of the first European travellers of the early mediaeval times to travel long distances on foot and write an account of his travels.

Having said “one of the first,” I have to shift emphasis and draw your attention to the fact that he was not one of the first to travel long distances from Kyiv, but one of the first to describe his travels in his “travelogues.” There had been warriors, merchants and pilgrims who had travelled from the lands ruled by Kyiv to Byzantium, Western Europe, Scandinavia, Central Asia and Middle East before Danylo set forth on his long-distance pilgrimage, but they had not left any descriptions of their travels, or, if they did, these descriptions did not come down to us.

Some historians are of the opinion that it was Danylo the Pilgrim who also authored a chronicle about a military campaign of the Rus princes against the Polovtsi nomads that took place in 1111. Others propose, proceeding from certain available evidence, that upon his return from Palestine, Danylo was promoted to bishop by Grand Duke Volodymyr Monomakh in the bishopric of Yuryev (present-day Bila Tserkva).

The number of pilgrims travelling from the lands of Kyivan Rus to the Holy Land to worship at the Holly Sepulchre kept growing from the time of Kyiv’s conversion to Christianity in the end of the tenth century up to the times of internal strife and troubles and the devastating Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. The pilgrims were not deterred by extreme dangers both on their way to the holy places and in the Holy Land itself, particularly after it was inundated with the Crusaders who were in a never-ending conflict with the local Muslim population.

Danylo, of whose early life we know very little, is believed to have been a landed warrior before taking monastic vows at the Lavra Monastery in Kyiv. He rose through the monastic ranks to become hegumen-abbot of one of the monasteries in the Land of Chernihivshchyna.


Routes of pilgrimage

It is not known when Danylo set out on his journey to the Holy Land. Historians are of the opinion that he could have begun his journey in the early 1100s and could have reached Constantinople at about 1104–1106 whence he proceeded to Palestine via Greece and the Greek Islands. It is not known by which route he got to Constantinople, but it is likely he took the ancient route “from the Varengians (Vikings) to the Greeks” — down the Dnipro River and then across the Black Sea. In Danylo’s book, Zhytiye I khodinnya Danyla, Ruskoyi zemli ihumena — Life and Pilgrimage [or Journeying] of Danylo, Hegumen from the Land of the Rus, the narrative begins at Constantinople with no mention of the way he got there (the early medieval state of Kyivan Rus, as it is usually referred to in modern historiography, contained the lands of the present-day Ukraine, Belarus and a large portion of eastern Russia, with the centre in Kyiv — tr.).

From Constantinople Danylo went on to Khios, Samos, Kos, Rhodes and other Greek Islands. He visited several places at the Lykian coast, such as Ephesus. From there he moved further on to Cyprus and finally to Palestine. In his Life and Pilgrimage… we find short descriptions of almost all the places he visited. He says, for example, that the Island of Khios had “good wines and all kinds of vegetables,” and Ephesus which “stands four verstas (one versta — about 3,500 feet) inland from the sea is rich in everything.” In Cyprus he must have stayed for a longer period of time because he writes that “I walked the length and breadth of that island and visited many places.”

Danylo provides information about the distances between the islands and between the different places he visited and even according to modern standards his information is pretty accurate. He also mentions which route is better, safer or more difficult to travel.

He travelled by sea from Cyprus to Yaffa and from there he proceeded straight to Jerusalem not to far from which he found a place to stay — the monastery of St Sabbas the Sanctified (the Great Laura Mar Saba, in the desert near Jordan, was founded in 484 and dedicated to St Sabbas — tr.). Danylo stayed for 16 months in the monastery, taking regular trips to various places in Palestine.

Of the Holy City of Jerusalem Danylo the Pilgrim says that it is “square in plan with a hill at the foot of which riders get off their horses and go down on their knees and make bows… It is a great joy for every Christian to see the Holy City of Jerusalem. Nobody can help crying beholding the holy places and the land of their dreams… Everyone rejoices at the sight of the city of Jerusalem.”


Dangers and difficulties

The great dangers and difficulties the pilgrims of those times faced may seem forbidding or insuperable for most of us today — no systems of communications; no public transport; no security; no insurance; no travel agencies; no medical aid; no schedules at sea ports for ships to sail or come to port. The list of dangers is hardly any shorter — bandits and all kinds of outlaws could easily rob you of not only what little you had with you or on you, but of your life as well; you could find yourself caught between some warring parties; you could be taken for a spy and arrested; you could catch a deadly disease (in fact, even an insignificant injury in the absence of medical aid could easily turn into a disaster); rivers had to be crossed and you would have to find something or someone to help you with the crossing… And yet, there were always a number of individuals who would not be intimidated by all these dangers and obstacles and would set forth on pilgrimages and travels. Many died on the way but some did get to their destinations and even came back to tell the story. Only very few could read and write and Danylo was doubly fortunate — not only did he come back safely from his travels, he could put down his story in writing!

There was one other thing — which is often overlooked in the accounts of travels and pilgrimages in the ancient times — the language barriers. Travelling to distant lands necessarily involves coming into contact with people of various ethnic backgrounds speaking various languages. And what do you do if you are equipped only with one language — your own? Some monks and priests had some knowledge of Greek (or it would be Latin for those who came from the west). Danylo also faced this problem. He writes, “It is impossible to come to know all the holy places without guides and interpreters.”

However, Danylo had some knowledge of both Greek and Latin, and during his travels and his stay at the St Sabbas Monastery he must have greatly improved his fluency in Greek. When Arseny, the abbot of St Sabbas Monastery, gave him “a Greek book as a present,” Danylo translated it “into my own Ruska tongue”. But travels in Palestine required knowledge of Arabic, Aramaic, Latin and other languages, and Danylo mentions “a holy man of great learning, well advanced in years” who accompanied him in his trips to various parts of Palestine. The wise polymath had lived in Galilee for thirty years and in the monastery for twenty, and “he showed me all the holy places in great detail; he took me to Jerusalem and other places and showed me everything there was to see, and he did all that not for money but for love, without sparing himself…” Evidently, there arose situations in which Danylo was obliged to hire other guides and interpreters: “I gave whatever little I had to those who could show me places I wanted to see and explain what I wanted to know.” The phrase “whatever little I had” may be somewhat misleading since Danylo seemed to have had enough to last him all throughout his journey — he did not beg, nor did he suffer from hunger or from lack of other basic wants.

In his book, Danylo mentions about 60 places, monasteries included, that he visited during his stay in Palestine. In his travels he must have always had some company in addition to guides and interpreters because he always says “we” and never “I”, and writes about “druzhyna” (a group, team, troop, or brotherhood who are united by the same purpose or sharing the same ideas and ideals — tr.) who were with him on many occasions. Describing “the descent of the blessed fire upon the Lord’s Sepulchre” he says that among the witnesses of this miracle were “all of my druzhyna, sons of Rus who were together with me on that day, good men from Novgorod and Kyiv — Izdeslav Ivankovych, Horodyslav Mykhaylovych, Kashkychi and many others…” It is quite reasonable to suppose that the people mentioned by name were Danylo’s close companions who were with him on many other occasions, or maybe accompanied him on his pilgrimage from the outset.


Danylo and the King

Some historians are of the opinion that Danylo’s pilgrimage was motivated not only be religious fervour, but by other considerations as well. The establishment of a contact with the then king of the Crusader State of Jerusalem, Baldwin I (c. 1058–1118), Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri (Defender of the Holly Sepulchre) is cited as one of the possible tasks Danylo was to take upon himself. Grand Duke of Kyiv Svyatopolk Izyaslavych could have entrusted Danylo with a diplomatic mission. Danylo was evidently able to do things that other pilgrims could not, particularly in a country like Palestine where war was conducted with hardly any interruptions. The fact that he was granted an audience with the king of Jerusalem suggests that he was hardly an ordinary pilgrim of whom there were thousands at that time in Palestine.

Danylo mentions two meetings with Baldwin. At their first meeting Danylo asked for help and protection during his visit to Galilee and Tiberias “the way to which was very difficult and very dangerous.” Danylo knew of the king’s intention to go on a march to the city of Damascus and he pleaded with the king to take him along as it would offer the pilgrim an opportunity to get to the places he wanted to see under protection of the king’s army. The king granted Danylo’s request and the pilgrim passed through “the places particularly dangerous with the king’s troops without any fear or mishap.”

The second meeting took place when Danylo addressed himself to the king with a request to let him “put a lampion at the Holly Sepulchre.” “When he [the king] saw me, he called out to me and asked to come closer. ‘What is it that you want this time, Hegumen from Rus?’ He knew me [from the previous meeting] and was fond of me; he is a man full of God’s grace, and extremely modest, and not at all haughty.” The king once again granted “the Rus pilgrim” his request and “told his most faithful servant” to accompany Danylo “to the oeconomus (steward or manager) of the Church of the Holy Resurrection and to the ecclesiarch (or sacristan) of the Holly Sepulchre.” It was a special privilege limited only to few, to have an icon lamp hung at the Sepulchre.

Danylo obtained some other privileges too. He was allowed to go into the citadel of Jerusalem, “The Pillar of David, which can be seen by many from the outside but which is open to no one to see it from the inside.” In another instance of trust shown Danylo the Pilgrim, “the ecclesiarch of the Holly Sepulchre” led Danylo to the Holly Sepulchre and allowed him to take measurements of the Sepulchre, and then, evidently moved by the religious zeal of the Rus pilgrim, “he gave me a little piece of the blessed rock which he broke off from a place at the head of the Sepulchre, and giving it to me, he admonished me not to tell anyone in Jerusalem about it.” Danylo admits that he “thanked the oeconomus with a little something.”

Danylo also reports that King Baldwin “invited me to sit by his side” in the church during the Great Vigil “so that I could easily see what was going on in the church.”


Danylo’s descriptions of the Holy places

Danylo’s descriptions of the Holy places were more detailed and articulate than similar descriptions that came down to us from such western European and Byzantine authors as Arculf, Willibald, Bernard de Sage, Epiphanius, Euxippa, Zeewolf, Benjamin de Tudel and Phocas. Many of the churches and other buildings that Danylo mentions in his writings have not been preserved and we know that they ever existed only thanks to Danylo’s Life and Pilgrimage… Thanks to the wealth of historical material that Danylo’s book contains, in more recent times it was translated into several languages, French, German, English and Greek among them.

Danylo’s book was the first known work of its kind in the Ukrainian literature, and its expressive language and emotional charge make it a worthy piece of literature in addition to being an extremely valuable historical source. Danylo himself was of a low opinion of his abilities as an author, “Forgive me, brothers and sisters [for my style]… and do not blame me for writing in a simple way rather than in an intricate prose.” Danylo wants to emphasize that he described things as he saw them, without inventing anything; he described the holy places as they actually were, in contrast to “many people who come to these places but have no possibility to see them in every detail…, but later they tell lies and prate about things they know little about.”

Danylo’s descriptions of Palestine reveal his interest in the land cultivation and suggest that he may have indeed been a landowner who once worked on land, “Verily, that Land has been blessed by God with a boon to produce everything — grain, wine, oil and all kinds of vegetables in abundance; also, there is a lot of all kinds of livestock to be found in this Land. Sheep and kine produce offspring in the summer; and great swarms of bees can be seen on slopes of the mountains... And at the foot of the mountains there are many vineyards, and an enormous number of fruit trees grow in the plains and produce olives, figs, apples, cherries and many other fruit, and these fruits are the biggest to be found anywhere.” Danylo does not forget to mention that these fruit grow only in those places where there is enough water provided by irrigation.


Those historians who claim that Danylo had been a warrior before he took the monastic vows support their claim by pointing out to those parts of his book where he describes defensive works, fortifications, materiel and weapons. Describing the Citadel of Jerusalem, he makes remarks concerning the width of the walls, the number of doors and gates, the availability of fresh water and stores of food, and comes to the conclusion that it could withstand a long siege and would be “very difficult to storm.”

Danylo’s physical stamina is quite impressive too. From the stories he tells we learn that he could ride horses, that he climbed mountains, descended into deep caves and swam in the River Jordan and in the Sea of Tiberias. Danylo says that he dove “to reach the bottom at the depth of four sazhen (about eight meters or twenty four feet), and then goes on to say that “I fathomed the depth myself.”

Danylo must have been a big-sized man. It can be glimpsed from his description of the way he measured the Holly Sepulchre and from the figures he cites — he says that he measured the Holly Sepulchre with “my own sazhen”; sazhen was the distance between the left palm and the right shoulder, and the calculations show that his sazhen must have been longer than the average one of 108 centimetres by at least three centimetres.


The pilgrim, the Saracens and his native land

Danylo writes that he saw the ravages of war in many towns and monasteries in Palestine — they were either completely ruined or badly damaged. Some of the routes that pilgrims took were particularly dangerous — “no water to be found, high mountains to be crossed, bandits to be feared…” But Danylo himself was never subjected to the indignity of being robbed.

He shows considerable tolerance in his attitude towards the Muslims whom he calls “Saracens” and “pagans” but there is no hostility or religious fanaticism in his views. In this respect, Danylo’s more enlightened attitude to the Muslims is different from that of western European authors such as Zeewolf or Fulcerius of Chartre (who was Baldwin I’s chaplain) who, in their writings about Palestine, show Arabs as predators and brigands that hate Christians and are reciprocally hated.

In Danylo’s descriptions we read about wise and skilful Arab peasants and gallant and freedom-loving warriors who refuse to be subjugated by the crusaders, who are hospitable hosts and who are creators of impregnable fortresses, magnificent palaces and “amazingly beautiful temples of worship.” He writes with warmth about the kindly and friendly way he and his companions were treated by the inhabitants of an Arab village situated high in the mountains — the Arabs showed the Christians as much hospitality as they would to their own co-religionists. “In the morning when we were to set forth on our journey, the Saracen elder, arming himself with weapons, said he would accompany us and he did, seeing us off safely all the way to Bethlehem.”

Danylo seems to be patriotically minded and it is particularly evident when he reiterates his being a representative of Rus rather than of a particular monastery or province. At the end of narrative, he says, “May God be a witness of … me never forgetting to mention the names of the Rus princes, and of their children, of the Rus bishops, and of the hegumens, and of the boyars (members of the aristocratic orders — tr.), and of my spiritual children, and of all the good Christians [during the liturgy services] I recited at the holy places.” In the Holy Land he celebrated 90 liturgies — 50 for the living and 40 for the dead — of his compatriots.


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