Friar Felix Fabri’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land over 500 years ago translated

A new translation from Latin, of one of Friar Felix Fabri famous 15th century pilgrimages to the Holy Land, includes humorous descriptions of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Solomon’s Stables, and the Tomb of Absalom.


“The pilgrims should avoid wrapping white tarbushes, cloths or turbans, about their heads, since only the Muslims have the right to do so,” the Dominican theologian and medieval traveler Friar Felix Fabri (c. 1441-1502) recommended to his fellow pilgrims, either sincerely or ironically; it is not certain which.

Photo: Ariel

In a sheet that he wrote as a guide for pilgrims to the Holy Land, which he appended to his account of his travels, Fabri also warned visitors “to be sure not to laugh as they walk together to visit the holy places.” He cautioned them “to take care to avoid passing by the tombs of Muslims,” since “the Muslims become very angry on seeing pilgrims near their tombs … and throw stones at anyone who passes by there, believing that this disturbs the rest of the deceased.”

A preacher and pilgrim of Swiss descent, Fabri visited Israel in 1480 and 1483 during the late Mamluk period, roughly 35 years before the Turks conquered the country, and wrote Latin accounts of his travels. His writings show that he was a colorful, sharp-tongued cynic blessed with a sense of humor, unlike the sober seriousness of the writings of many other pilgrims who traveled to the Land of Israel.

Although Fabri visited all the sites that were visited by other well-known pilgrims of his time — such as Rabbi Meshullam of Volterra, the German pilgrim Bernhard von Breidenbach, and Rabbi Obadia ben Avraham Bartenura — his works differed from theirs in spirit. He took a much freer tone and was less restrained by convention, and was not afraid to poke fun at his co-religionists and lash out at the Muslims and a little at the Jews as well, all in lighthearted language.

His writing also stands out for its down-to-earth angle. He tells not only stories of saints and holy places, but also provides pilgrims with practical information such as lodging, prices and the order of prayer, a bit like the information that is printed in popular travel guides of our own day.

His Latin writings run for a thousand pages, and have since translated into English and French. Now, thanks to a project undertaken by Ariel, the oldest journal of Land of Israel studies, selected portions of Fabri’s work are being published in Hebrew for the first time.

Brief excerpts of Fabri’s work were previously translated into Hebrew by Michael Ish Shalom in his book, “Christian Travels in the Holy Land.” The translators of the current project, who worked on a volunteer basis, are several Ariel readers. The publication is edited by Eli Schiller and Gabi Barkai, both well-known contemporary scholars of the Land of Israel and of Jerusalem.

Fabri visited Israel during the same decade as Bartenura, a renowned commentator on the Mishnah. Both men visited the same places on several occasions, and anyone who compares their descriptions will certainly learn a great deal not only about the sites in the Land of Israel more than 500 years ago, but also about the different ways in which these travelers — one a Jewish rabbi and the other a Christian friar — portrayed the situation there.

In the hands of the Muslims

“When I arrived in the Land of Israel,” Fabri writes, “the passengers, with encouragement from the captain, broke out in hymns, and their singing combined into one sweet sound, full of enthusiasm, the like of which I had never heard before.”

Two sites mistakenly linked to King Solomon were extensively described by Fabri and are especially relevant today: Solomon’s Stables on the Temple Mount — which the Muslims transformed into the Al-Marwani mosque about 15 years ago, to the detriment of the antiquities on the mount — and Solomon’s Pools south of Bethlehem, which were constructed to provide water to Jerusalem during the Second Temple era. Today the pools are located in Area A, under the Palestinian Authority’s control, and a special permit is required to visit them.

Fabri describes the curves of Solomon’s Stables as a large trash dump into which “the Muslims throw all the trash in the Temple and in the courtyard.” Like contemporary scholars, he dismisses the mistaken assumption that the underground chambers were the stables where King Solomon’s horses were kept, and offers an explanation of his own: that they were used to prepare medicines and perfumes.

In his letters, Bartenura describes a building whose structure is reminiscent of Solomon’s Stables, saying that it is “full of dust that was cast from the ruin of the Temple,” and that “in every single column is an aperture for inserting a rope, and it is said that the rams and bulls for the sacrifices were tied there.”

Many sections of the ancient aqueduct that brought water from Solomon’s Pools to Jerusalem were discovered in our own time, and the aqueduct is considered a tourist and archaeological attraction of the first degree. Fabri, who witnessed the reconstruction of that aqueduct by workers of the Mamluk sultan Qaitbay (1468-1496), gives the following description: “Above those pools, opposite the mountains, we saw more than six hundred non-believers digging and working to bring pure water to Jerusalem.”

Fabri continues: “Since water was found among the hills of the desert, not far from Hebron, a great distance from those pools, the sultan is trying to bring their water to Jerusalem at great expense and labor, by wise work and sophisticated methods … by hewing boulders and in stone shafts, at a distance of eight German miles, on the slope that is being created according to calculations in a suitable plan.

“Everyone wonders what the sultan is thinking about doing to Jerusalem, that he is wasting so much money and doing so much work to bring water there. The Muslims believe that he intends to move the seat of government from Babylonia to Jerusalem. The Jews hope that once Jerusalem is rebuilt, he will restore it to them. But the Christians wonder whether he intends to return to Christianity, from which he turned away, and restore the city of Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to them.”

Of the Muslims’ behavior during those years, Fabri says: “They do not permit anyone who is not of the faith of Muhammad to enter the shrine, and they force anyone who is caught there, be he Jew or Christian, to convert; otherwise, he will pay with his life.” Bartenura (during those same years) describes a similar situation, and also describes the Golden Gate in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount as “two closed iron gates … that are not seen above the earth’s surface; half of them are outside and half of them submerged in the earth, and it is said that the Ishmaelites tried several times to remove them and were unable to do so.”

Fabri also lingers in his description of the Golden Gate, through which, according to Christian tradition, Jesus entered Jerusalem. He provides a description that is both entertaining and serious about the behavior of the Christians near the gate, which “the Arabs do not allow them to approach.”

“The gate is made of wooden boards with stripes of copper,” he writes. “The Arabs cut pieces from it and remove nails from it and sell them to the Christians … and good Christians risk their lives to approach the gate at night and take pieces from it. … Anyone who carries a piece of this gate is protected from epilepsy and plague.”

Fabri also visited the Tomb of Absalom and described how “all the children who pass by that monument, be they Jewish or Muslim or Christian children, pick up stones from the ground and hurl them toward the monument, and while they throw the stones, they curse Absalom and mock him and his evil end because he disobeyed his father. This is the most effective method of atonement for the children in Jerusalem.”

Highwaymen in the Holy Land

A well-known medieval traveler who devoted many pages to a historical description of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem and of the Mamluk sultanate in his time also made a sketch of the Christian pilgrims “lying powerless on the ground [on Mount Zion].”

The sights are reminiscent of the phenomenon known as Jerusalem Syndrome: “Their strength abandoned them, as if they no longer felt their suffering, since their feelings of devotion overcame them. Others moved hither and thither, striking their breasts as if driven by an evil spirit. Some knelt upon their bare knees and prayed tearfully … the bodies of others trembled with bitter, uncontrollable weeping. … Some lay without moving for so long that it seemed that they were no longer among the living. … Some of them, from an excess of devotion … made odd and childish movements or grimaces.”

Fabri does not regard these images as indications of illness or deficiency, as we would. On the contrary.

“It was pleasant to see the great sincerity and different behavior of the pilgrims,” he wrote.

Qaitbay, then the reigning Mamluk sultan, was considered the greatest of the Mamluk rulers. He oversaw the enormous construction project from his seat in Cairo. Bridges, caravanserais and guardposts were built and preserved throughout the length and breadth of the Land of Israel. He also invested in luxurious buildings and madrasas, Muslim religious academies, in the Old City of Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. The architectural gems that he built are regarded as tourist attractions to this day.

Although Qaitbay also reduced the fees that the pilgrims had to pay to visit the holy sites, he could not subdue the gangs of highwaymen who roamed the roads of country, doing whatever they wished. Fabri himself fell victim to them. He devotes many pages to the culture of bribery and road tolls that Muslim robbers collected from the Christian pilgrims as a condition for visiting various sites and for passage on the roads that led to them. Fabri’s first encounter with this phenomenon took place in the caves known at Saint Peter’s Cellars near the Jaffa port. He experienced it again south of Jerusalem when a group of Arabs from Bethlehem approached his group. He describes the fear that gripped the members of the group and the negotiations that were held with the Arabs, “who wished only to extort money from us.”

The worst Muslim robbers of that time were the members of the Taamra tribe, who built a cemetery around Rachel’s Tomb and were known for their terrible violence. Fabri visited Rachel’s Tomb and describes the complex as a building resembling a chapel, built entirely of stone, with no wood, unlike its structure today or at the beginning of the 20th century. Fabri also describes a rahat, or sebil, a water fountain that the Muslims built to provide water to visitors. The fountain, which can be seen on postcards of the area from the early 20th century, no longer exists.

Fabri also toured the Valley of Jehoshaphat, which lies between the Mount of Olives and the City of David. The valley has special significance in Christian tradition, which states that all people will stand there together on Judgment Day. But Fabri has his doubts.

“The pilgrims pile up stones for themselves in the valley to make a place for themselves where they will be able to sit on the Day of Judgment,” he writes. “When asked about the size of the valley, in all honesty you must admit that it is not of spacious dimensions and that it can hardly contain a single nation within it. … But on the Day of Judgment the shape of the valley will be different. … In addition, the narrow places shall be made broad and the rough places shall become a plain” [alluding to Isaiah 40:4].

‘Unhappy Jerusalem’

At a certain point, Fabri and his group arrived at the Jordan River, “where Saint John baptized Jesus.” He recalls that there, “the children of Israel passed through the river on their way to the Holy Land, after they had left Egypt and crossed the desert. God performed many miracles for them. When they arrived at the river, the water stood still on either side and they passed through it on dry land. … Let the pilgrims honor the place with sobriety and devotion, and refrain from light-minded swimming.”

Fabri and his group also looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah. “Those cities were destroyed by heavenly fire because of countless sins. Thus was created the deep Dead Sea, and to this day smoke and vapor from the furnaces of hell rise from it,” wrote Fabri. After immersing in the Dead Sea, he wrote, “We touched and tasted the accursed waters and felt in them revealed signs of divine wrath.”

Fabri met the German pilgrim Bernhard von Breidenbach, another well-known traveler to the Land of Israel, on the ship over. Both Fabri and von Breidenbach visited Hebron, but the entrance to the Cave of the Patriarchs was barred to them, as it was to the thousands of pilgrims who visited the country during that time. This infuriated Fabri.

“We were told that we must not ask that [to enter the cave] because they could not grant our request for all the world’s wealth; to them, the mosque [in the cave] was a great deal more sacred than the mosques in Jerusalem. Still, they allowed us to pray near the steps going up to the mosque,” he wrote.

Another account that has significance for our own time is that of how the Jews tried in vain to purchase the building on Mount Zion where the tomb of King David is located, and how the Muslims destroyed the images and pictures that the Christians had placed there.

“Unhappy Jerusalem has known, and will know in the future, siege, ruin, terror, humiliation and torments more than any other city in the world,” he wrote.

Fabri died in 1502, nine years after returning to Germany. The detailed Latin version of his writings appeared only centuries afterward, in 1843 and in 1849. The portions about the Land of Israel were translated into English and were published by the Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, a publication society that specialized in publishing editions and translations of medieval texts relevant to the history of pilgrimage to the Land of Israel. And now, selected portions of the work have been published in Hebrew by Ariel.


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