After three months of living in Milan, I have finally secured my ‘permit to stay’ from the Italian government. During this same time, much of the world headlines have focused upon the crisis in Syria. While the Arab League and other international parties are seeking to ameliorate the escalating crisis before it devolves into civil war, the Siege of Homs has already claimed the lives of thousands, including women, children and three Western journalists.

It’s not the first time that Westerners have been caught up in the city’s troubles.

Syria and the Holy Land fell into the hands of Muslims in the 630s CE, some ninety years before the Anglo-Saxon pilgrim, Willibald of Eichstätt* (d. 787 CE), and his seven companions arrived in Homs, known to Christian travelers at the time as the city of Emesa. Willibald was in need of a visa from the Umayyad (Muslim) regime before travelling on to Jerusalem. What he found was a city of hardships and hospitality — and one of the most intriguing experiences of his Holy Land travels.

Mosaic of Willibald from the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

The complications started soon after his arrival (724 CE) when Willibald and his companions were arrested as spies and put in prison by the governor until further notice. There, they were discovered by a Christian merchant, who, while unsuccessful in ransoming their release, arranged for their daily meals. The merchant’s son took the Western prisoners to the public bath every Wednesday and Saturday, and on Sundays, he took them to church as well as to the city market, where he bought provisions for the imprisoned pilgrims.

Some weeks later, the pilgrims were visited by a Spaniard, whose brother was a chamberlain to the Caliph. Together, the Spaniard, the governor and the ship captain who had brought the pilgrims to Syria from Cyprus accompanied the Anglo-Saxons to the Caliph’s palace. There, they were questioned about the purpose of their travels and the country of their origins. On their behalf, the Caliph was told that the pilgrims came ‘from some western shore, where the sun goes down. We know of no land beyond theirs — nothing but water’. To which the Caliph replied, ‘Why should we punish them? They have committed no crime against us. Give them their permit and let them go!’ So, after spending a number of weeks in an Emesan jail, Willibald and his companions were set free and, furthermore, exempted from paying the requisite tax for their release. The Anglo-Saxon pilgrims quickly made their way to Damascus and on to the Holy Land.

Like my newly-arrived ‘permit to stay’, the pilgrims’ permit was only good for one year, and so Willibald and his fellow travelers returned to Emesa the following year. This time the complication was a plague that had already forced the Caliph to flee the region. In lieu of his absence, the pilgrims succeeded in getting the governor to write them a new letter ‘giving them permission to travel’. The governor divided the eight pilgrims into pairs, giving each pair a permit and asking them not to travel together in a large group in order to obtain food and provisions more easily. Whether or not they followed this stipulation is unclear. In any case, Willibald returned once again to Jerusalem, before leaving the region later that year by another way (see Hugeburc, Vita Willibaldi).

Pray for the peace of Homs.

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* Willibald of Eichstätt spent over thirteen years in Italy, including two and a half years in Rome (720 – 723 CE) and over tens years as a monk at Monte Cassino (729 – 740 CE). Willibald went through Pavia, or within 35 km of Milan, during his journey from England to Rome in 720 CE and again when he left Italy for Germany in 740 CE.  Willibald’s father, who died en route to Rome in 720 CE, is buried in the Basilica di San Frediano in Lucca.

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