Celebrating Sara: The legend of Les Saintes Maries

The long migration of the Roma people (Gypsies), whose language is related to Punjabi, a northern Indian dialect, has a complex and often challenged history reaching back over 1,000 years to their origins in northern India with a further migration in medieval times. The Roma, numbering about 5-6 million worldwide, are made up of different ethnic groups stretching across Europe from Spain and France through Austria and Italy as far as Palestine and Egypt and across to America.

Celebrating Sara The legend of Les Saintes Maries

Photo © Bénédiction des Saintes à la Mer G. Vlassis.
In the same procession, the statues of Mary Salome and Mary Clopas are carried down to the sea as a re-enactment of their arrival on French soil.



Each ethnic group has its own particular narrative and religion and while some have kept the faith of their original homeland, Hinduism, others have adopted the religion of their host country, especially in the event of a formal ceremony such as baptism or burial. Despite such adoption processe the Roma have a common single language, Rromanës, and a unique faith which is difficult to define. Put in simple terms, it is something you can touch. If you can’t touch it, if you can’t feel it, it does not exist.


Every year, between 18th and 25th May, thousands of Roma make a pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries- de-la-Mer, the capital of the Camargue, and situated on the Rhône river delta, to celebrate the festival of their patron saint, St Sara, represented by a dark skinned statue whose shrine is housed in the local church, for a week-long festival of dance, music, baptisms and processions. On the 24th, Sara’s iconic figure, with her dark features and dressed in layers of coloured lace, is carried high on a platform from the church to the sea accompanied by about two dozen Roma to be symbolically cleansed before being returned to the crypt which houses her. Leading the procession are 16 mounted Camarguais gardiens, dressed in provençal shirts, traditional flat black hats and sporting old fashioned bull prods, accompanied by a number of clergy in long white robes chanting ‘Vive Sainte Sara’ to the accompaniment of music and refrains from the crowd which, over the years, has increased in popular numbers to the benefit of the region and the Roma alike.


Although this pilgrimage was well established by the middle of the 19th century it was Baron Folco de Baroncelli, a French writer and cattle farmer, who first introduced the procession in the 1930s as part of an effort to promote the Camargue region and its culture. For the Romany people, St Sara protects them through times of need and misfortune, and her likeness is believed to have such strong healing properties that it is frequently touched and embraced by her followers. Visitors to the region are attracted to this festival by the authentic Roma lifestyle and traditions, while drawn at the same time to the culture, history, traditions and art of Provence with its magnificent Roman legacy of monuments in Arles and Orange, and nearby Nîmes in the Gard.


A number of interpretations of St Sara’s origins have been suggested, from the Roma’s own belief that Sara le Kali (Sarah the Black) was a local gypsy chieftain and one of the first to be converted to Christianity, to that of Sara the serving girl who accompanied the three Mary’s — Mary Salome, Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalene — on their flight from Egypt following Christ’s crucifixion and the subsequent persecution of Christians. Sailing in the legendary ‘Boat of Bethany’, they were cast adrift in a violent storm coming to rest on the edge of the Camargue where, it is believed, the first Christian church in the Mediterranean was built.


In addition, Sara has come to be associated with "new age" and feminist interpretations of Christianity, thanks to Dan Brown’s enormously popular novel The Da Vinci Code in which he introduces the theory that Sara was the child of Christ and Mary Magdalene.


In this version, the pregnant Mary set sail from Palestine for Gaul after Christ’s crucifixion, a secret kept for centuries by the Catholic Church for political and social reasons. As a result, large numbers of visitors, inspired by this best- selling novel, have been attracted to the festival.


Whatever the spectator’s motive for visiting the festival, whether as participant or observer, it is clear that what binds these travellers together is the common heritage of a shared past with a long history of exclusion, sometimes of persecution, reinforcing the identity of a unique inherited culture. The site of the Camp de Saliers, of which no vestiges remain other than some concrete footings, opposite St Gilles on the bank of the petit Rhône not far from Les Saintes Maries and where 700 Roma were interned in pitiful conditions from 1940 until the end of the war, may be as potent to these travellers as the statue of Saint Sara herself; a grim reminder of a dark period in their history in which tens of thousands of Roma perished.


While many of these travellers have settled on the outskirts of European cities and lead a more sedentary life than their forefathers, the Roma still remain the largest and most disadvantaged ethnic minority in Europe today. Yet for one week in May, under a cerulean sky, with the gentle Mediterranean lapping at its shores, Les Saintes- Maries-de-la-Mer comes to life. Welcomed by the Commune for bringing prosperity to the region, this is an annual pilgrimage... language, continue to entertain, charm and fascinate visitors and local inhabitants alike.