Two Saint Marys, Sarah, and the Deep Blue Sea

12th Century church in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

On a week-long trip to southern France a few years ago, we  ended up in the city “Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer“, that is, Saint Marys of the Sea.  The legend is that two Marys – the sister of the Virgin Mary (inexplicably also named Mary), and Mary, the mother of St. James and St. John, along with their black Egyptian servant Sarah, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, and other biblical peoples, were shoved into boats shortly after the Crucifixion and put to sea without sails or oars. They ended up here. According to legend. Ahem.

(With so many women named Mary in one place, it must have been confusing. “Mary, it’s your turn to draw water. ” “No, Mary, it’s Mary’s turn.” ” I did it yesterday.” “Well, if Mary had not run off to Ephesus, it would have been her turn.”)

A church was built in this city in the 5th century, and was a fortress as well as a place of santuary. The present structure dates from around 1100 CE. In 1448, the spaces beneath the church were excavated and the bones of the two Marys, along with Sarah, were ‘discovered’ and were displayed here. The bones were stolen from the church during the French Revolution, and burned, but the faithful citizens managed to gather up the correct ashes, which are now preserved on the altar.

Saintes Marys de la Mer

Symbol of the City

Sarah is the patron saint of the Romani (Gypsies), and the crypt below the altar is dedicated to her. Roma pilgrims flock here every May 24 and 25 (we missed it by days) to worship the saint and venerate the bones. The crypt has a large statue of Sarah, dressed in multiple layers of dresses.  She is also known as Sainte Sarah la Kali, reflecting the Romana origins from India and their earlier worship of Hindu deities. One tradition is that women will make dresses for the statue, as an offering for prayers. When the layers get too much, the dresses are removed, and the layering starts over. During our visit, there were quite a few men and women at the altar, lighting candles and praying to (with? for?)

On the day of the procession, the Roma men take the boat with statues of Mary down to the sea. The annual pilgrimage gets smaller and smaller each year, as the older generations die off. As the town’s main attraction and income is from these pilgrimages, and from tourism related to the shrine, there is concern that the town is slowly dying.

From Wiki: Shrine in basement of church

It was all very strange but fascinating to my Protestant, albeit cultural only, sensibilities. The church was also used as a fortress against attacks by Saracens, Arabs, and pirates. We didn’t get to climb the parapet, as the French lunchtime from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. was in progress. The inside of the church was interesting, but I normally do not take photos inside unless I see others doing so, so these ‘inside’ pictures are from public sources.

From Wikipedia: The shrine to Sarah, patron saint of the Roma, in the church

Leaving Ephesus (

Categories: History, Travel

Tags: , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. I really enjoy these histories and legends.

  2. I really reading and seeing pictures of all your travels. I get to travel through you. Thanks


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