I shall attempt to give you a brief account of my journey in Palestine, where I have been for about a fortnight. You were not physically here to accompany me in the Holy Places; but I was always with you in spirit, so much so that I did not take a single step without imagining that I was with you in this, my religious pilgrimage. As you know, I left Alexandria on the 29th, crossing the sea which separates Asia from Africa north of Egypt, and touching Caesarea, we happily reached Jaffa, which is an important Asian port, and the first step in Palestine, for which there is a plenary indulgence.
Having thanked the Lord, singing the Te Deum in the Church of St Peter, we sixteen religious entered the Franciscan Convent, where they gave us their charitable hospitality. This hospitality is granted indiscriminately to all Europeans, whether Catholic or of other creeds, and to all Eastern Orthodox faithful of whatever rite: so that these convents are a meeting place for princes and paupers, seculars and regulars, since there are no real hotels or safe places for travellers to stay in the Holy Land: all this is the fruit of the offerings of the Catholics of Europe collected during Holy Week.
While the Franciscan Fathers were busy finding us a means of transport to reach the Holy City I was meditating to myself on the events which account for the fame of this city, which is the ancient Joppa of the Scriptures, since this was where Solomon had the cedars of Lebanon unloaded from the ships to use them in the building of the temple: where the prophet Jonah set sail for Tarsus instead of going to Nineveh to preach penance; where St Peter had his famous vision of the sheet; where he raised the charitable Tabitha from the dead; where he received Cornelius’ ambassadors, the ambassadors who were inviting him to Caesarea to baptise him and his whole family: here Our Lady and St John embarked when they sailed to Ephesus after the death of J.C.; here St Louis, King of France, stayed for some time: here so many thousands of saints landed as they went to venerate the Holy Places.
After lunch, having bid farewell to the Missionaries who were staying in Jaffa and to a Polish prince, whom we had met on the ship, we, in the company of a Missionary to China, another from the East Indies, two Missionaries of the Society of Jesus and Monsieur Ratisbonne who, having been converted from Judaism to our faith by the Supreme Pontiff in Rome is going to Jerusalem to found a free school for Christian education, set off at two o’clock for Ramle with the idea of reaching Jerusalem on horseback by the evening of the following day. I was amazed at the fact that the first time that I travelled on horseback, it was to ride over the hills of Judea; I was in fact so out of practice at riding that I asked for the oldest and slowest horse, and this was immediately granted me.
Leaving Jaffa the road is one minute lined by thick hedges of Barbary figs which enclose thickets of orange trees, lemon trees, pomegranate trees, banana, apricot and other fruit trees, the next minute by countryside with no vegetation at all, then it rises over hills with the odd olive tree, half burnt by the sun, all this under a sky which, during the day, bakes the poor wayfarer with its heat. After crossing these places we found ourselves before the boundless plains of the Philistines, from which we were easily able to observe the hills of Judea which converge with those of Samaria, looking quite melancholy to anyone who thought he was travelling in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.
Before nightfall in the middle of the plains, we were overtaken by two Bedouins on horseback armed with spears and pistols: but as soon as they saw they were outnumbered, they did us no harm. When we questioned them about their intentions, they replied that they were patrolling the road under orders from the Turkish government so as to ensure the safe passage of pilgrims.
M. Ratisbonne, in terror, softened them with a generous baksheesh (tip) of 20 piastres. Deep in the night we reached Ramle. According to St Jerome, this was the Arimathea of the Gospel, home of Joseph of Arimathea, the decurion
who begged for the crucified corpse of J.C. from Pilate and buried it in a tomb newly excavated in the rock, which he had prepared for himself in an orchard he owned on Mount Golgotha. This was the first city to be conquered by the Crusaders in Palestine; it was heavily fortified: today all that remain are crumbling towers and vestiges of antiquity. The most important of these are the tower of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste and the house of Nicodemus, in which I hope to celebrate Mass on my return from Jerusalem.
Having received generous hospitality, we left Rama the next morning at about 4.30 and, crossing the most beautiful and fertile plain of Sharon, we reached the foothills of the mountains of Judea, which it took us all day to cross under a baking sun. This trip is particularly arduous, for one thing because in these steep and rugged mountains which are barren, the sun scorches relentlessly without one being able to shelter in the shade of any tree and also because the road is very bad, cluttered at every step with potholes and strewn with rocks.
But the thought that it led to Jerusalem lent wings to my feet and to my heart, and did not allow me to feel the fatigue of the journey. Along the way one encounters the castle of the Good Thief, the one who earned his place in heaven by showing compassion to J.C. on the cross; the desert of Abu-Gosh, of the murderer who assassinated so many victims and was finally killed; the Church of Jeremy; the top of the valley of Terebinth; the city of Colonia; and the ruins of many of Scripture’s famous places. Finally, as evening approached after crossing five mountain ranges, we came within view of Jerusalem. At this point, M. Ratisbonne made us all dismount and, prostrate on the ground, we worshipped the Lord and venerated these holy places where J.C. had so frequently walked and, leaving the horses in the care of the Miior, or guides, we descended into the Holy City.
Oh, how greatly impressed I was by Jerusalem! To think that every inch of this sacred territory holds a mystery made my feet stumble and aroused in me these feelings; J.C. might have been here; here the Virgin Mary; this was where the Apostles passed, etc. After we had paid our respects to the Bishop of the Holy Land, to the French and Austrian Consuls, we retired to the friary where we got some rest. To tell the truth we were all dead from the journey. I was amazed at the other Missionaries who were accustomed to exhaustion: as for me, I expected it, since I had never been riding; and for my first horseback journey I had to ride for a day and a half non-stop across the Philistine plains and over the mountains of Judea.
The following morning, the 3rd, I commenced my visit of the Holy Places; the first of which was the great church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church, built by St Helena, the mother of Constantine, is the world’s foremost shrine, because it contains both the Holy Sepulchre of J.C. and Mount Calvary, on which he died: filled with such religious ideas, I was astonished when I saw that the atrium of this church was filled with Turks using it as a market, the gate and the first quadrangle is guarded by the Turks who smoke, eat and squabble among themselves, schismatic Greeks and schismatic Armenians who shout, quarrel and fight and generally behave thoroughly irreverently.
The church of the Holy Sepulchre contains: 1. the Holy Sepulchre. 2. The pillar of the flagellation, which was brought here from Pilate’s house. 3. The chapel of St Helena. 4. The chapel of the Finding of the Cross, or in other words, where the Cross was found and distinguished from those of the two thieves crucified with J.C. by means of the miracle of the resurrection of a dead man. 5. The Anointment slab on which the body of J.C. was anointed and embalmed by Joseph and Nicodemus before being placed in the Holy Sepulchre. 6. The chapel where J.C. was crucified. 7. The place where the cross was erected, in which there is still the hole to receive the Holy Cross, the kissing of which, like all these places made into chapels, brings a plenary indulgence. 8. The place, or chapel, where the Virgin Mary stood while J.C. was on the cross, and received her dead divine son into her arms. 9. The chapel where the Virgin Mary was while J.C. was being nailed to the Cross; 10. the prison in which J.C. spent the night before his death. 11. The chapel of the sharing of the clothes. 12. The column of the insults, where J.C. was spat upon and beaten, etc. before he was condemned to death, which was originally in the palace of Caiaphas and was brought here later. 13. The chapel of St Mary Magdalen. 14. The chapel where tradition has it that J.C. appeared to the Virgin Mary after his resurrection, as St Jerome says. In these places there is a plenary indulgence for each visit.
This magnificent church covers the whole of Mount Calvary, alongside which is the tomb of Nicodemus, which he had excavated after giving up his own to J.C. I cannot find words to express the great impression, the feelings all these precious shrines that recall the Passion and death of J.C. aroused in me. The Holy Sepulchre left me ecstatic and I said to myself: so this is where Jesus Christ remained for 40 hours? so this is the sacred tomb that had the good fortune to contain the creator of heaven and earth, the redeemer of the world? this the very tomb kissed by so many saints, before which so many kings, so many princes and bishops have prostrated themselves in all ages since the death of J.C.?
I kissed and kissed again that sacred tomb many times, I lay prostrate several times in adoration before it, and on that tomb I prayed, unworthily indeed, for you, and for our beloved relatives and friends and I was granted the consolation of celebrating two Masses there, one for me, for you, and for my Mission; the other for you two, my beloved parents.
After this visit, which was short the first time, because I was chased out by a schismatic Greek, I ascended to Mount Calvary, 30 paces above the Holy Sepulchre: I kissed this ground on which the cross was laid and upon which J.C. was stretched out and nailed: I recalled that painful moment, marked in this place by a slab of marble with mosaics, when J.C.’s arms were pulled open and dislocated so that his hands could reach the place for them to be pierced by nails, and I was touched to the heart by a multitude of feelings of compassion and affection, etc.
One and a half paces away from the site of the crucifixion to the left is the place where the Virgin Mary stood while J.C. was suffering on the Cross: this too greatly impressed me: then when just two paces away from this place I stood over the spot where the Cross was planted, and the Superior of the Franciscans of the Holy Sepulchre told me that this is the very hole in which the Cross was inserted, I burst into floods of tears, and for a moment I stood aside: then, after the others had kissed it, I too approached, and I kissed it, that blessed hole; and these thoughts awakened in me: This then is Calvary?
Ah here is the Mount of Myrrh, here the altar of the Cross, where the great sacrifice was consumed. I am on the top of Golgotha in the very place where the Only Son of God was crucified: the ransom of humanity was accomplished right here; here death was conquered; hell was vanquished here; here is where I was redeemed. This mount, this place reddened with the blood of J.C.: these slopes heard his last words: this atmosphere received his last breath: when he died the graves opened, mountains broke apart: and just a few steps away from the spot where the Cross was planted one is shown an enormous crack of incalculable depth, which tradition claims appeared at the death of J.C.
I also venerated the pillar of the flagellation; the Anointment Slab; the Prison of J.C.; the Column of the Insults; the chapel of the Finding of the Cross, etc. And to tell you something of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is in the hands of the Turks, the schismatic Greeks, the schismatic Armenians and the Observant Franciscan Fathers.
The Turks have the keys to the temple, which they open at the request of the European dragoman at the service of the Catholics and schismatics twice a day, from 6 in the morning until 11, and at 3 to remain open until 6; and to have it opened each time one must pay its Turkish porter, by order of the Turkish government, two piastres, the equivalent of 60 centimes. The Turk has no other duty than to guard and keep the keys to the temple. The Holy Sepulchre is in the hands of the schismatic Greeks and the schismatic Armenians; the Catholics can say no more than three Masses, one of which is sung, and only between 4 and 6. If the sung Mass is not over by 6, the Greeks enter the Sepulchre and chase the celebrant out with fists and sticks, whether the Mass is finished or not. This is why so many Catholic priests have been injured or even killed on the Holy Sepulchre.
On Calvary, the chapel on the site where the Cross was erected is exclusively in the hands of the schismatic Greeks, and no Catholics may celebrate Mass there, under pain of death. The place where the Virgin Mary stood, which is two paces to the left of the hole, and place of the Crucifixion which is one and a half steps from the Lady Chapel, itself three and a half paces from the Holy hole, are in the hands of the Catholics and I celebrated two Masses there; the 1st, on the spot where Our Lady agonised for three hours, I celebrated for you, dearest mama; and the 2nd, on the site of the Crucifixion, I celebrated for you, dearest papa.
In the chapel where Mary stood as J.C. was stretched out and nailed to the Cross, which is 5 paces away from the hole of the cross, I celebrated Mass for Eustachio, Uncle Giuseppe, Cesare, Pietro and all his family, especially for Eugenio, that Mary Most Holy may protect him in his dangerous education. All the other places are in the hands of Catholics. However, these are all open for veneration by both Greeks and Catholics; that is why the Franciscan Fathers organise a procession every evening at 4, reciting public prayers and incensing the Holy Sepulchre, on Calvary and in all the above-mentioned places, and as a priest I also took part and was given the candle of the Holy Sepulchre, which I am sending you divided into three parts, as I will explain later.
To celebrate Mass in the Holy Sepulchre I stayed inside the temple for two whole nights, to be ready to start Mass at 4. During these two nights I was most happy, because I was able to venerate all the shrines in this Holy temple, and to offer prayers, quite unworthy ones, but fervent, for my mission, for you and for all those who in some way are close to me.
It is true that we are the object of a few insults, especially on the part of the Greeks, who are more hostile to us than the Turks; but what is a mere insult in this place where J.C. received so many and was crucified? But I must say that the Holy Sepulchre, which is the world’s supreme shrine, is the most profaned church in the world; each year there are woundings and killings; everyday there are shouts, arguments and blows; and the Greeks, whose priests are married, even consummate their marriage near the Sepulchre and Calvary, committing the most enormous irreverences, of which I shall say nothing in modesty, and which I cannot express in words, for no one can have an idea without seeing it with their own eyes. Enough of that.
After I had visited the Holy Sepulchre and Calvary, my first thought was to follow and visit the Via Dolorosa which starts at Pilate’s Praetorium and finishes at Calvary: this is the way trodden by J.C. after he was condemned to death and carried his Cross to Golgotha. Here I made the Via Crucis, stopping to say each station, such as the one beginning with the word Crucifigatur in the very spots where the 14 mysteries took place, and which may be contemplated in the Via Crucis: it is 820 paces long. Pilate’s Praetorium, which stands on Mount Acra, was first converted into a church and then into barracks as it remains today; by giving a tip to the guard, it may be visited: in this Praetorium, I saw the place where J.C. was condemned to death; the place where J.C. was scourged; and here I celebrated Mass for my Mission, for me, for you and for our relatives, which are the intentions for which I applied all the other Masses I celebrated in the Holy Land.
I saw the Lithostrotos, and all those places in the palace where J.C. suffered. It is now divided in two parts: 1. the place where J.C. was sentenced to death. 2. the Hall of Insults, in which J.C. was accused of being a blasphemer, a coward, a rebel against Caesar, a usurper of the Name of God; what accusations, ignominies, calumnies, humiliations, vituperations, insults and tortures J.C. received in this place! His face was smeared with spittle, he was stripped of his own garments, clothed in a threadbare purple rag; it was here that he was condemned to vicious flagellation, crowned with the spikiest thorns, made to hold a marsh reed instead of a real sceptre, hailed as King in jest and counted as less than Barabbas. 3. Pilate’s palace includes the Church of the Flagellation, the place where the Lord was tied to a pillar and was cruelly scourged. 4. The Lithostrotos, or the loggia, from which Pilate presented Jesus to the people, crowned with the sharpest thorns, and covered by a purple threadbare rag, with the words: Ecce homo: this loggia now crosses the via dolorosa like a bridge, and has been turned into soldiers’ quarters. It is from this palace that I began the via Crucis: one goes down into the street and says the 2nd station, the one where J.C. receives the Cross on his back: the steps leading from Pilate’s Praetorium down to the street were transported to Rome.
Proceeding along the Via Dolorosa one reaches the place of the 1st fall, which is marked by two pillars lying on the ground: two paces further on there is the Church of Suffering, which is built on the spot where the B.V. met her Divine Son bearing the Cross on his shoulders. The Turks have turned it into a hammam. Up to this point the road is flat: it begins to rise steeply on the spot where J.C. was helped by the Cyrenean to carry the Cross.
Veronica’s house is indicated by a door, which leads to a stable. It is said to be the place of her house, but the more critical writers maintain that it is the place where Veronica wiped J.C.’s face: proceeding a little further one reaches the judgement gate leading to Calvary, which in Christ’s times was 400 paces outside Jerusalem, whereas now it is inside. J.C. passed through this gate when he was going to die for us; and it is called judgement gate precisely because all those who were sentenced to death passed through it; it was on this very gate that his death sentence pronounced by Pilate was posted: it has been destroyed several times; nothing more remains than one column, kept standing at two arms’ length from the gate, on which tradition has it the iniquitous sentence was posted.
The place of the 2nd fall is not precisely known: so one says this station of the Via Crucis between the judgement gate and the place where he met the women of Jerusalem, which is 100 paces from the judgement gate; the 3rd fall occurred 10 paces from the place of the Crucifixion, and is marked by a piece of the rock of Calvary, which is spat upon by the Muslims to spite the Christians. The other stations are said within the church on Calvary, as you can imagine from what I have told you of Calvary. This Via Crucis, I was told in Jerusalem by the Franciscan Fathers, was done by Archduke Maximilian, Governor of the Kingdom of Lombardy and Venice; and he did it on his knees weeping tears of emotion to the edification of the whole of Jerusalem.
After the visit to the Via Dolorosa we went to visit mount Zion, on which there is the Holy Cenacle. How sublime is Mount Zion! Sublime due to its excellent location; sublime due to its profound mysteries: it rises to the southwest of Jerusalem, and dominates the valley of Gehenna, Hakeldama and the valley of the Giants. It was to Mount Zion that David brought the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obededon: David himself was buried there. Here J.C. celebrated his last Passover, washed the feet of his Apostles, and instituted theMost Holy sacrament of the Eucharist; it was here that he ordained the first priests and the first bishops of his Church.
It was on this mount that the palace of Caiaphas stood, where Jesus was taken on the night of his capture; here, Peter disowned his divine Master three times, repented at the cock’s crow and wept bitterly at his sin; here, the Lord spent his last night in the depths of a prison; here, he was accused of bearing false witness, named a blasphemer, had his face spat upon and slapped and was sentenced to death; and after he was crucified, this was where he appeared for the first time after his Resurrection to the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room, and conferred upon them the power of absolving sins, thus instituting the Sacrament of Penance; here, he appeared to them again behind closed doors after eight days and bade the unbelieving Thomas touch his wounds; this was where he made his last appearance on earth before rising into heaven on the day of the Ascension.
It was on Mount Zion that the disciples returned after they had accompanied him on that glorious journey to the top of the Mount of Olives; there, they persevered together in prayer for ten full days, preparing to be worthy to receive the Divine Paraclete, the Holy Spirit; it was in this place that Matthias was received into the apostolic college to take the place of Judas the traitor; this was where after the days of Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended upon them as tongues of fire; the first seven deacons were chosen here; it was here that the first Council of the Church was held, presided over by St Peter; this was where St James the Less was appointed Bishop of Jerusalem; here, the Apostles divided among themselves the world that they were to evangelise; here, according to the most reliable sources, was where Our Lady passed from this life to the next; here is the place where the bones of the Protomartyr St Stephen remained for a long time; here, finally, is where so many Christians from Jerusalem are resting in the sleep of death, and so many martyrs of the Church, who in this place testified with their blood to the divinity of our Religion.
I visited nearly all the remarkable sites to be seen on Mount Zion, and the first among them is the Most Holy Cenacle, where J.C. instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist: this is near the tomb of David, the summit of which communicates with the Cenacle or Upper Room; this sublime shrine has now been under Muslim control for three centuries, being used as a dormitory for soldiers. One cannot go inside, but with good manners and a generous baksheesh, we entered in the company of a Missionary of the Holy Land; and I was able to worship this sacred remnant of antiquity, without however being able to go beneath to see David’s tomb, because those who enter are punished by death: nor was I able to celebrate Mass there, in order not to risk receiving the charming kiss of a little Muslim pistol-shot, though I would have been most grateful for it. There is a plenary indulgence for visiting the Upper Room.
Other indulgences are obtained in different parts of the Cenacle and outside it; for instance where the Easter lamb was prepared for the Lord’s supper; where J.C. washed the feet of the Apostles; where the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles; the top of David’s tomb which communicates with the Upper Room; the place where Matthias was chosen; where St James the Apostle was elected bishop of Jerusalem; where the Apostles divided up to preach the Gospel throughout the world. All this may be acquired in the Cenacle.
I also visited the palace of Caiaphas, almost ruined in fact and restored by the Turks; and here there are four indulgences, that is to say: in the place where the Lord spent his last night in prison, where Peter disowned him, where this same Apostle heard the cock’s crow and where Our Lady waited, after she heard of the capture of her divine Son. Oh the insults and ignominies J.C. must have had to bear in this palace! As well as being disowned by Peter, spat upon, blindfolded, etc.; and those who had struck him taunted him to guess who had struck him, etc., etc. From the palace of Caiaphas one goes to the place where the body of St Stephen was transferred, to the place where St John the Evangelist is said to have celebrated the sacrifice of the Mass in the presence of the Virgin, to the place where Our Lady lived for some time after the Ascension of J.C. to heaven, there is a plenary indulgence, and where, when she returned from Ephesus with St John, she died. A few paces further on is the house of Annas, where J.C. received that terrible slap from an iron-clad hand.
The feelings aroused in me on seeing those sacred places, now so profaned, God alone and those who visit Jerusalem can understand. In Jerusalem there is also the Church of the Holy Saviour where the Franciscan Fathers live and which contains three very ancient panels that were saved from the Upper Room before it became a Turkish barracks.
The palace of Herod is on Mount Abisad; although it is almost completely destroyed I was pleased to see it because it recalls the Lord’s Passion. Apart from these places in Jerusalem I visited the prison where St Paul was kept, when he appealed to Caesar; the Church of St James, which is one of the most magnificent in Jerusalem: it is in the hands of the schismatic Armenians, and inside I was shown the place where the Apostle was decapitated at the order of King Agrippa. There is also the house of Mary the mother of John Mark, controlled by the schismatic Syrians, which is famous because inside one venerates the place where St Peter sought refuge when he was liberated from prison by the Angel.
I also entered the prison where St Peter was held by order of king Agrippa; and this was precisely where, in the deep silence of the night, he was set free by the Angel. The Christians of the early centuries had turned it into a church. Now substantial remains can be seen, which are being used as a workshop by some tanners and stinks so much that only the spirit of religion can bring one to enter. The house of the Pharisee stands on Mount Abisad: it consists in the walls of a church dedicated to St Mary Magdalen, who was converted in this house: it is now controlled by the Turks.
The church of the Presentation of Our Lady was erected in memory of this mystery in the place where Solomon had built the palace of the forests of Lebanon: it has now been reduced to a mosque. But what can I say of the church of the Lord? It was built on the same spot as the temple of Solomon, and not even the smallest stone remains: the very site where it stood is pointed out and there is a plenary indulgence. On top of it a magnificent temple was built by the Caliph Omar, the second successor of Mohammed, after the conquest of Jerusalem. In the 11th century the Crusaders converted it into a church; but Saladdin declared it again a Mosque (a temple of Mohammed); which is what it still is today. It is the most majestic building to be seen in Jerusalem, built in the Moorish style. Entering it is punishable by death, because apart from being the temple of Mohammed, it still contains the harem of the concubines of the Pasha of Jerusalem.
Nevertheless I was able to go through the whole of the atrium in the company of two Missionary Fathers of the Society of Jesus; but we fled as soon as we saw the armed soldiers, despite the powerful Muslim who was at our side. Below the site of Solomon’s temple is the Probatic pool which is one of the most ancient ruins in Jerusalem; dating from the time of Solomon himself: it is in rather bad condition, but its name alone is enough to remind one of the prodigious cure of the Paralytic, who had lain on his stretcher for 38 years and who was healed by the Redeemer.
In ancient times it was used for the washing of victims to be offered as sacrifice in the temple. Now it is full of Barbary figs and other shrubs. It communicates with the temple of the Presentation of Our Lady which I mentioned above; in the side of which there are some exceptionally large stones that, according to erudite writers on the Holy Land, were certainly used for the walls of Jerusalem. Around these stones the Jews go and weep each Friday around sunset; this is a sight worth seeing. These are the remarkable places that I visited in Jerusalem, there are many others. Some extra-devout reverend gentlemen would like to give celebrity to some of those, but as I do not believe in it, because I am not aware of sufficient grounds, so I shall pass over them in silence: all my faith is vested in the ones I have described and shall describe, because these are confirmed by the most ancient tradition recognised by the greatest writers and by the voice of the Church, which grants a plenary indulgence each time they are visited.
Now we leave Jerusalem for you to contemplate with me places that are worthy of a Christian’s consideration. But first, as one goes through St Stephen’s Gate, 40 paces to the right one passes the Golden Gate, which is walled up. It is called the Golden Gate to honour it in memory of the solemn entry into Jerusalem J.C. made on the day of the Palms.
Heraclius also, after vanquishing Cosroes, King of Persia, entered through this gate with the wood of the Cross he had won. Architecturally it is the most beautiful in Jerusalem; nor have I ever seen a better one: but the Turks closed it and walled it up, because there is an ancient belief of theirs that the Franks (that is what they call Europeans in the East) would conquer Jerusalem and enter triumphantly through this gate. Then descending into the valley (of Jehoshaphat) down the slope of Mount Moriah, before reaching the bottom of the slope, there is a quite shapeless rock where St Stephen was stoned to death: thirteen places higher up is the place where Saul (later to become the Apostle Paul) stood guarding the clothes of those who were stoning him; and to the left one is shown the place where the Empress Eudocia had a church built dedicated to the glorious Protomartyr. Reaching the bottom of the valley, one crosses the stream of Kidron to leave the valley of Jehoshaphat and enter Gethsemane.
I took a look at this valley, going up and down in length and breadth several times; so is this – I said to myself – where I am to be judged by our eternal Judge? Where all the peoples of the earth will congregate on the last day? Where the sentence without appeal to eternal life, or eternal death will be pronounced on all those who were, are and ever will be! Is it here then that the earth will split open its entrails to swallow up hell’s reprobates, and from here that the elect will fly up to heaven?
Oh valley! Most terrible valley! It runs between the Mount of Olives and Mount Moriah and walking its whole length takes no more than a quarter of an hour. It starts at the tomb of Our Lady and finishes at the tomb of Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, which has been preserved intact because it is carved out of the rock face. The valley of Jehoshaphat is intersected by the now dried-up stream, Kidron, and is full of the ruins of Jerusalem. At its widest point it measures approximately the range of a shotgun.
To the north of this valley there is the tomb of Our Lady which forms a part of Gethsemane. This tomb is an almost entirely subterranean temple, to which one descends by a majestic set of 47 steps. The Virgin Mary lay three days inside this tomb before she was bodily assumed into heaven: you know the episode of the Apostles and Thomas, who did not have the grace of seeing Mary after her death. This tomb is similar to J.C.’s, more or less, and is in the hands of the schismatic Greeks who hold long services in it every day. This underground church also contains the tombs of St Joseph, St Anne and St Joachim, to which partial indulgences are attached for those who kiss them, whereas at Our Lady’s a plenary indulgence is granted.
Beyond this point, and penetrating inside Gethsemane, one finds the Cave of the Agony, as it is called, because this was where the Lord withdrew to pray to his Eternal Father the night before he died, and feeling mortally oppressed, he was overcome by anguish and sweated blood. A stone’s throw away from this cave is the Garden of Gethsemane proper: the Cave of the Agony and the Tomb of Our Lady, as well as other places I shall mention, are all Gethsemane, but the friars have enclosed a part of Gethsemane with a wall, calling it the Garden of Gethsemane, to protect 8 ancient olive trees whose trunks are said to have existed in J.C.’s lifetime. I do not know whether this is true: they certainly have a girth at their base many [ … ] times that of our olive trees.
The place where the Lord bade farewell to his Apostles is indicated outside the enclosure of Gethsemane itself, and so also, seven paces away is the place where Judas betrayed J.C. with a kiss. Returning to the valley, almost at the bottom of it, and walking along the banks of the dried up Kidron there is a knee-print in a hard rock in the middle of the stream bed. This is said to have been made by J.C. on the night he was captured. When he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and pushed by the soldiers, he fell on this spot: a plenary indulgence is granted to those who kiss this knee-print; just as it is in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Cave of the Agony, where I celebrated Mass on the true spot where J.C. sweated Blood, which has a beautiful altar, and is in Catholic hands.
A few steps away from the Knee-print of Jesus Christ is the vast hollow where St James the Apostle withdrew after the death of his divine master with the firm intention of not eating or drinking until he saw that he had risen. Before one reaches this hollow there is the tomb of Jehoshaphat which is all in one piece, and is like the church of St Rocco in Limone: likewise, there is the monument of the rebel Absalom who built it in his lifetime, in the hope of entering it after his death; he was wrong. It is a marvel: I went right to the middle of it: then there is Zacharias’ urn and a thousand tombstones, enclosing the ashes of those who came from all over the world to end their days in Jerusalem, so that their bones might rest in the shade of that temple which no longer exists, and never will again, except in the imagination.
All these things are in the valley of Jehoshaphat, which is on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Oh what a dear mountain, the Mount of Olives! What an unclouded view that exalted point affords! How consoling are mysteries where
everything is marked! This mount was the Lord’s oratory, the seat of his divine teachings, the witness of his oracles about Jerusalem; and it became his ladder to heaven. Now I shall take you almost by the hand to contemplate in your imagination that which is worthy of contemplation for a fervent Christian.
The Mount of Olives rises to the east of Jerusalem, facing Mount Moriah, from which it is separated by the valley of Jehoshaphat. Thus having crossed the rivulet of Kidron near the tomb of the Virgin Mary and skirting the Garden of Gethsemane to the north, at the beginning of the slope one finds a very hard rock which recalls the place where, thoughtful and sad, the inconsolable Thomas was seated when the divine mother, already assumed into heaven, lowered her belt to him, as we are told by, among others, Nicephorus and Bishop Juvenal of Jerusalem. Half way up the mount and turning right the distance of a gunshot one reaches the place where J.C. wept for Jerusalem. This is marked by a ruined tower which was once the bell-tower of a great church built here in memory of the tears J.C. shed here for this prevaricating city. One sees the whole of Jerusalem from this point: I looked over it; oh how desolate and melancholy this city seemed to me, once the most famous in the world! Oh how this daughter of Zion had lost its beauty! She had found such desolation as to move the hardest of hearts to tears, at the thought of what she had been at the time of the Redemption.
A little further up there is a cavern cut in the rock to the entrails of the Mount of Olives, serving as an entrance to a series of underground tombs known as the tombs of the prophets. Over these tombs is the place where J.C. predicted to his disciples the many tribulations, the bloody wars, the persecutions of every kind, the abomination and desolation that were to precede the last day of the Universal Judgment. I stopped here for a moment and, at the sight of the valley of Jehoshaphat below, I imagined the imposing spectacle that will be offered by the whole of mankind gathered in this valley to receive the final sentence. About fifty paces before one reaches the top is the place to which the Apostles withdrew to compose the Credo before scattering all over the world: this place is marked by a cistern within which 12 niches have been carved, in memory of the 12 Apostles.
Not far from here is the place where J.C. taught the Pater Noster to the 12 Apostles, where there was once a church. Here I am at last on the summit of the Mount of Olives: but where is the spot J.C. ascended into heaven? There are many humble houses here, clustered around a rather well preserved holy place. The site of the Ascension is in the centre of this sanctuary. With a generous tip we persuaded a wise old Turk to open up the door of a courtyard in the midst of which there is a church without doors. On the pavement I saw a small square made of stone which enclosed a hard slab on which there is the left footprint of a man facing west: this footprint was made by J.C. when he ascended to heaven. I kissed and kissed reverently this last vestige imprinted on the earth by our divine Redeemer, so as to gain the plenary indulgence attached to it. Seventy paces from this spot, walking along the top of the Mount of Olives, I visited the place known as Viri Galilei, which marks the spot where the Apostles, on their way back from the Mount, had halted and were gazing ecstatically into the sky, when an Angel appeared to them.
On the other side to the right, there is Bethpage, a ruined village which stands on the place from which the Lord sent his disciple to fetch the ass that was tied up close to a nearby castle to make his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the day of the Palms. From here, one can gaze upon the mountain where J.C. fasted for 40 days, the vast plain of Galgala, the river Jordan, the Dead Sea, where Pentapolis once stood, Mount Frank, the heights of Ramatzaim Sophim (Jericho), and many other famous places of Scripture, which I visited closely later.
I wanted to send you a bottle of Jordan water with the rosaries, but as these will not arrive until a month after Easter, as I will explain further, it would go bad so I gave up and instead I am taking it to Alexandria, to someone who asked me for a small bottle. Now following the path to Jehoshaphat’s Tomb to the south of Jerusalem one reaches the Pool of Siloam, famous because in it J.C. healed the man who was blind from birth; I drank some of this water and was fascinated by its constant flow without knowing why. Not far from the Pool of Siloam I climbed into the branches of a very old mulberry in the middle of the road. It indicates the place where the prophet Isaiah was sawn in half with a wooden saw on the orders of King Manasseh.
Twenty paces down from there is Nehemiah’s well, which is over 300 feet deep and contains very cold water. On this matter, it is said that Nehemiah, after the slavery in Babylon, had thick dark water drawn from this well, with which he sprinkled the logs and the victims for the Sacrifice, which flared up prodigiously as soon as the sun rose; so say the Scriptures.
It is in this well that the Priests hid the sacred fire when the Sacred City was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. This is where the Valley of Siloam joins the Valley of Hinnom, which is the Gehenna of the Gospel: it is so dark, deep, remote, sad, melancholy and frightening that Jesus Christ made it the symbol of Hell. I went all the way down it and saw where that brazen idol Moloch had stood, with a hole at the top where live children were thrown to burn in honour of Moloch. In this valley there are cells excavated in the rock where the Apostles hid when their divine Master was made prisoner in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Higher up, I went into Hakeldama, which is the field that was bought for the price of the blood of J.C. It is only large enough for two olive trees. As one leaves through the Gate of Ephraim, one finds Jeremiah’s cave, where the grieving Prophet sought refuge after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar to weep over the glowing ashes of his beloved city, and as he wept he composed those moving sequences and Prophecies that are read in Holy Week.
Below, there is Jeremiah’s actual prison, which is a cistern where, tradition has it, the Prophet was flung at the orders of King Zedekiah as a punishment for having spoken freely to the people of Israel on God’s behalf. Turning westward I climbed Mount Gihon, memorable because upon it King Solomon was anointed and consecrated. Proceeding down behind the walls of Jerusalem one sees a very large pool, 240 paces long, 105 wide and 50 deep, entirely carved out of the rock: this is still known as the Pool of Beersheba because Solomon had it built for her use and in her honour.
I could tell you many other things about Jerusalem and its surroundings, but enough, because I am tired of writing. I have quoted you only a few religious memories, authenticated and confirmed by the Church, which grants in all those I have described the most ample indulgences. Jerusalem now is barely twice the size of Brescia; the streets are narrow, steep, dirty and pitiful; it is the see of many Schismatic Bishops, a Turkish Pasha and the Patriarch, who welcomed us most kindly; it is more fortified than Verona, and gives a great idea of what it once was.
There are 80 Catholic Missionaries, and altogether more than 100 schismatic Greek and Armenian ones. Russian Protestants and Jews have now come in, indeed the former have a bishop. In the midst of this confusion of beliefs, nothing can be done about conversion, because for the Turks anyone who tries to convert is punishable by death; and the other heretics, with a profusion of money, prevent their followers from becoming Catholic. It so happens, therefore, that certain miserable Catholics, when they cannot have from the Missionaries the money or maintenance they want, try to become Protestants, as has occurred this year. All the Catholics in Palestine are poor; and the majority are maintained by the Franciscan Convent. I will tell you later of several other places I have visited in Palestine that merit your attention and consideration.
(Fr Daniel Comboni)