G.M. Gelmi

Caravan of Russian pilgrims in the nineteenth century

Il Pellegrino in Terra Santa (1870)

Periodical of the Italian Committee for Caravans [Travelers] in Palestine
The year 1870 saw the birth of the Italian Committee for Caravans in Palestine, based in Florence, a very early form of travel agency for pilgrims. The aim of the Committee was to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land easier and less costly. In that same year the Committee began publishing a periodical entitled “Il pellegrino in Terra Santa” (The Pilgrim in the Holy Land). Subscribers were able to find a wide range of information, starting with the places to be visited, recounted through reports from journeys already carried out by the “Caravans”, as well as a detailed list of instructions for the journey, from expenses that could arise to suitable clothing, and even regarding arms to be carried for self-defense. There was also information about the latest archaeological discoveries in Palestine.

The first excursion of the Caravan began on 14 February 1870 and lasted until 18 April, two months and four days of travel, according to the report provided by G. M. Gelmini published in the periodical. The caravan was composed of six Italians, both religious and lay, coming from Bergamo, Verona and Milan. The Holy Land visit followed the classic itinerary which involved passing through Alexandria in Egypt and then on to the port of Jaffa in Palestine. After docking in the Holy Land they went to Jerusalem via Ramla, where the Franciscan hospice was located. They visited Jerusalem and went to Bethlehem, then on to Nazareth via Samaria. From Nazareth they descended to the Sea of Galilee and then went back up directly to Mount Carmel and Haifa. Traveling along the coast they headed north towards Acre, Tyre and Sidon, and took the road leading to Beirut, the final destination of their pilgrimage.

The 4th of March was dedicated to a visit to the Mount of Olives. The places they visited are in large part the same as those visited by pilgrims today, but offer nonetheless a clear illustration of how the memories of events from the Gospel have altered over time. From the destruction of the Crusader church at Gethsemane until the construction of the modern one, Jesus’ agony was commemorated in the Grotto. However, with the construction of the Church of the Agony [also known as the “Church of All Nations”] and the resulting decrease in importance accorded to the columns located in the Garden of Olives, the commemoration of Judas’ betrayal has come to be situated, correctly, in the Grotto of Gethsemane.

4 Marzo 1870:

4 March 1870: "We got up early in the morning, and after Mass and a coffee we set out on route. The order we followed in our excursions is the same as the one published by Fra Lavino in his Guide. As today we wanted to cover part of the Valley of Jehoshaphat and go up the Mount of Olives, we left through St. Stephen’s Gate, which the Israelites call “Sheep Gate”. In front of us to the east was the Mount of the Ascension crowned by a group of houses, and beneath us the Valley of Jehoshaphat […].

The torrent Kidron runs through the valley of Jehoshaphat and is about a hundred meters wide, on average, and three kilometers long. Scattered along its right bank are tombs of Muslims [...]. On the left, in contrast, are graves of Jews, who each year come from countries far away to seek repose in the land of their fathers. Shortly before reaching the torrent one can see the stone on which St. Stephen was stoned.

Having passed over the Kidron on the stone bridge, we went on to visit the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is an underground church to which one descends via a wide staircase having 48 steps. At the 21st step on the right is a small chapel with two altars, one in front of the other, which are on the site of the tombs of St. Anne and St. Joachim. Almost directly opposite to these, on the other side of the staircase, is the tomb of the glorious patriarch St. Joseph. At the bottom of the stairs is the church, constructed in the form of a cross, that contains the tomb of the Most Holy Virgin, and where the glorious Immaculate Mother of God rose in spirit and body to heaven. So many treasures in such a short space of time! And these are also in the hands of the non-Uniate Greeks, who make use of them arbitrarily even though a firman (decree) of the Sultan recognized the legitimate owners to be the Franciscans.

After climbing back up we entered, through an iron door, the neighboring Grotto of the Agony where our divine Savior, on the eve of his death, sweated blood and where the angel appeared to comfort him. There is an altar where a religious Father of the Holy Land each day celebrates the Holy Sacrifice, above which is a painting offering a moving portrayal of the touching scene.

Near the Grotto is the Garden of Gethsemane, enclosed by a wall, where eight of the olive trees that were witnesses to the prayers, sighs and, outbursts of love sent by the Son of God to the Eternal Parent for our salvation are still venerated. The grove is planted with flowers which each day are used to provide fresh ones to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
A stone’s throw away from the Garden can be seen the stone on which the Apostles Peter, James and John rested, and where they slept while their divine Master was making his prayer; and lastly, a fragment of a column marks the place where Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss."

Il Pellegrino in Terra Santa, Periodical of the Italian Committee for Caravans in Palestine, Year I, no. 2, pp. 61-64, Florence 1870.