She is not a ‘proper’ Saint, Sarah the Black. Tradition says that a “dark-skinned” woman, perhaps an Egyptian maidservant or a slave from India, arrived by sea on a drifted boat from Palestine with Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome (the mother of the Apostles John and James), Mary Jacobe. A boat arrived on the coasts of Provence (on the Rhone delta) and more precisely in a village called Oppidum-Ra, after the resurrection of Jesus and carrying the three Marys (along with Lazarus, Martha, sister of Lazarus, St. Maximin, and St. Sidonius). In a village originally called Notre-Dame-de-Ratis that became Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in 1838, our story begins. Here in fact the two Mary: Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe with the faithful Sarah, had settled and it’s here that they began the evangelization of the region.
Although the first written documents that testify the gipsies’ pilgrimage in the village to venerate the Black Santa at Notre Dame-de-la-Mer are dated back to late ‘400, according to ancient beliefs among the gipsy community, it seems that a dark-skinned goddess (the Black Virgin) was worshiped in the Rhône delta in Camargue in ancient times, long before the three Maries arrived.
Perhaps the worship descends from the Egyptian cult of the goddess Isis or perhaps the black goddess belongs to the Hindu pantheon of gods: goddess Kali (therefore the name Sara-la-Kali). In time, the mysterious insertion of the Egyptian maidservant on the drifting boat that carried the Maries, was the expedient to charm the local populations – including gypsies – and to convert them from pagan rituals to Christianity. Still, Roman Catholic Church had never yet canonized Sarah.
Whatever the story, Sarah the Black is now venerated as a saint by the Christian gypsy community from across Europe, which, in spite of the laborious process of beatification and canonization, had elected Her their chosen patron saint and for more than 6 centuries gathers in the village of Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer every May 24th to take part to a heartfelt procession.
The procession begins after Mass in the little church of Sante-Marie (10.30 to 12) transmitted with megaphone for the faithful who are waiting for the procession to the Place des Gitans.
In the square a dozen white stallions – typical of this region, gather, ridden by “Guardians” (guardians of herds), a key figure in the Camargue tradition, similar to the Cowboys of the Wild West or the Maremma cowherds (Butteri). The Guardians hold their traditional work tool: the trident, which, together with the heart (Charity), the anchor (Hope) and the cross (faith), featured in the region cross: the cross of Camargue.
The saints statue of Mary Salome, Mary Jacobe followed by Sarah, are brought out of the church on shoulders and the procession, preceded by the Guardians, walks through the streets of the town to the waterfront, across the sandy beach to end up in the sea.
Although Marie have a large following among the local French, today witnessed by the brotherhood of “ladies” dressed in traditional clothes of the Provencal countryside of ‘800 and accompanied by the “gentlemen” in black velvet jacket, Sarah is the most-watched and praised statue of the entire procession.
After the “bath”, the Saints and the decorated banners are carried back to the church where they are exposed to the faithful veneration till the following day, when the procession is repeated.
In the afternoon and well into the evening, the streets of the town are filled with music and laughter. Gypsies sing, dance and party in large groups, members of Romani families meet and greet. At the temporary market set up outside the downtown, vendors sell everything for gypsy campers, clothes and accessories “in vogue” among the Roma community.
After the 48-hour-long gypsy festival, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer looks like Bethel after the Woodstock Festival. In the streets only litter is left; seagulls rummage through the garbage, few shopkeepers clean their windows. Thus, the two Marie rest in their tabernacles, the white stallions return in the paddocks preparing for the riding tours of the impending summer. Caravans of Romani people in their super-equipped campers leave. And with them disappear the guitars, the loud laugh, the Catalans songs, the solid-gold rings and their secular traditions.
Meanwhile Sarah, put away in the underground chapel of the church, is already dreaming of the next swim in the sea, just like in September the pupils in class.
ALL THE PHOTOS: SARA THE BLACK