Descriptions of Jerusalem and the Holy Land

Written by Мая Петрова-Танева

The stories of travels to the Holy Land of clergy or laity (pilgrims, diplomats, ambassadors, merchants) are texts in the centre of which is the description of the sacred places and relics related to the Holy Scriptures and Christian saints, that they have visited and seen. These stories were used mostly as religiously instructive readings, often with the idea their reading to replace the journey itself.


It is believed that St Helena, who visited the Holy Land at the end of her life, had set the beginning of Christian worship in Jerusalem and Palestine in the 4th century AD. In the following centuries, pilgrimage grew significantly, and the list of obligatory and recommended holy places to visit expanded quite a lot. As a result, pilgrimage literature specific in character and content was born, the samples of which in the East and the West usually followed similar models and most often represented compilations or retellings of already existing older works.

The tradition of Byzantine descriptions of Jerusalem and Palestine (Külzer 1994; Kuelzer 2002; ППС 1903; ODB 1676–1677) is represented by two main types of works:

1) Travelogues – stories or diaries of travellers, reflecting their personal experiences and own observations. Their authors were mostly clergymen. The Byzantine works of this type that have come down to us are few. The earliest one is the work of Epiphanius Hagiopolitus (AD 638). They were copied until the second half of the 16th century.

2) Guidebooks – proskynetaria (‘tourist guides’ of reference nature), which contained short lists of the main sacred places, and their sequence reflected the routes followed by the pilgrims. The term proskynetaria is of a later age (it appeared after the 16th century), although in the scientific literature it also refers to older monuments and corresponds to the Slavic word ‘worship’ (ODB: 1739; Zeemann 1976: 38–41). The proskynetaria did not include personal information and until the 14th century their composition and content did not follow general principles. In them, the ‘stops’ along the route of the pilgrims were either only mentioned or were described in a very concise way, and their meaning was explained by laconic references to the related biblical and evangelical persons and events or to oral traditions. They were popular in the period from the mid-13th until the 18th century.

Slavic medieval literature generally followed the models set by the Byzantine tradition. Regardless of the genre features of the descriptions, in the manuscript tradition they were most often referred to with ambiguous terms of an abstract meaning such as slovo [sermon], povest [lond or short story], skazanie [legend], hozhdenie [pilgrimage].

The practice of pilgrimage was especially widespread in Kievan Rus' and later in the Moscow Principality (Seemann 1976; Малето 2000; Малето 2005), although not all travellers left their notes. The earliest surviving description is the work of Father Superior Daniel, who visited the Holy Land in 1104–1106 (published by Норов 1864; Прохоров 1997, et al.). His Житье и хожение Данила, Русьскыя земли игумена [Life and Wandering of Daniel, Russian Father Superior’s Lands] is preserved in over 150 copies from the 15th–19th centuries, the oldest is from 1475. It is known in two independent editions, that have formed no later than the 15th century – main one and abbreviated/menaion one (named after Makariev’s reading menaion where it was found). The text describes Jerusalem and its surroundings in detail, paying special attention to the existing churches and monasteries, as well as the places associated with biblical characters and episodes. The information Father Daniel gathered had come from a variety of sources, including legendary ones, and its source had often been local guides accompanying him from the St Sava Lavra, where Daniel had spent 16 months. Thanks to the personal patronage of King Baldwin I of Jerusalem and his crusaders, the Russian Father Superior was able to visit remote and inaccessible areas, such as the sources of the Jordan River, Tiberias, Tabor, Nazareth, Cana of Galilee, etc., and on Good Friday he was admitted to place a chandeliers ‘from the whole Rus land’ on the Tomb of the Lord. It is assumed that the notes he had kept during these travels were formed as a detailed account only after his return to his homeland (see Турилов ПЭ et al).

In the following centuries, the example of Father Superior Daniel was followed by a number of Russian travellers who left their descriptions of the Holy Land, including Archimandrite Agrefenius (1370), Hieromonk Zosima, who visited Jerusalem twice in 1414 and then in 1419–1420, priest-monk Varsonofy (1456 and 1461–1462), who was the first of the Russian pilgrims who described Sinai, along with Jerusalem. The Сказание Епифания мниха о пути о пути в святой град Иерусалим [Legend about Epiphanius the Monk on the Way to the Holy City of Jerusalem] also dates from the 15th century. Epiphanius the Wise (died 1420) is usually cited as its author. The legend contains a list of cities on the road from Veliky Novgorod to Jerusalem, with indications of the distances between them, but without a detailed description, which is why its attribution to the pilgrimage literature is controversial (Малето 2000; Малето 2003).

In the second half of the 16th and 17th centuries, the descriptions of the Holy Land experienced a new upsurge, largely due to the mass travel to the East and the development of trade and diplomatic relations with the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region. They took the form of three main genre varieties (Решетова 2006): proskynetaria – Поклоненье святого града Иерусалима [Worship of the Holy City of Jerusalem] and Повесть о святых и богопроходных местах [Tale of the Holy and God-Passing Places] by Gabriel of Nazareth; pilgrimages – Vasily Pozdnyakov, Trifon Korobeynikov, Vasily Gagara, Jona Malenky, etc.; fictional stories in the form of pilgrimage descriptions – Слово о некоем старце [Homily about an Old Man].

The Travels of Moscow Merchant Trifon Korobeynikov, who travelled to Constantinople and Jerusalem in 1593–1594, became extremely popular. The record is preserved in over 200 copies, has about 40 editions (published by Trifon Korobeynikov) and is often included in Russian chronographs. It has been established that his text is a literary produce based on an older text written in 1558 by another merchant, Vasily Pozdnyakov from Smolensk. The author of the proskynetaria, compiled around 1651 and preserved in two author’s editions – full and concise one, was Arseniy Sukhanov (1600–1668), renown Russian church figure, diplomat and writer, hieromonk from the Trinity Lavra of St Sergius. The second chapter of his work is devoted to the sacred places and the most important shrines in Palestine and is entitled ‘Collected from the writings about the city of Jerusalem and its name, and where to get such a nickname, and Mount Golgotha, and the tomb of Christ, and resurrection, and about the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, and about their measures, and known writings about other holy places’ (publ. by Ивановский 1870–1871; Ивановский 1889).

In general, Russian descriptions of the holy places in Jerusalem and Palestine enjoyed great interest and wide reader recognition. In contrast, such readings in the South Slavic medieval literatures were few and not widely spread, and most often they are preserved in single copies.
Chronologically, the earliest work is Словото за Светите места в Йерусалим [Homily about the Holy Places in Jerusalem]. It is included in the Bdin Collection, commissioned in 1359–1360 by Queen Anna, wife of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Sratsimir from Vidin (1356–1396) (published by Bdinski Zbornik 1973: 235–241). The homily (with an unknown Greek prototype) is an anonymous directory of the most important Palestinian Christian landmarks, close in content and structure to the Greek and Slavic proskynetaria. Based on a comparison with Byzantine and Latin pilgrimage texts, S. Gyurova suggested that the work is most likely a compilation that had originated in the 12th century As she maintained, in the form in which the work is preserved, it contains obvious inaccuracies in the reproduction of topographic realities (Гюрова 1990; Гюрова 1996: 162–195). M. Gardzaniti also noted that the routes described therein are of an unusual sequence in some cases. He underlined the certain originality in the selection of the presented places and events (Гардзанити 2016). Various hypotheses have been made about the reasons why the Homily was included in the Bdin Collection, which contains only the vitas of women saints: it was probably considered as evidence that the owner of the manuscript or its compiler had planned a trip to the Holy Land, or it might have been a sign of the name of the monastery that owned it (Voordeckers 1973: 36); or it was as a natural continuation of the theme of female holiness, as it mentions many places associated with the Blessed Virgin, with female characters and women-saints in the Old Testament and the New Testament (Petrova, Angusheva 1993–1994); or it might have been an expression of the rivalry of the Vidin ruling dynasty against the cult and worship of the relics of the patron saints of Tarnovo, drawing attention to the most important holy places of Early Christianity (Гардзанити 2016).

Another Greek proskynetaria about Palestine, known only in the Slavic version, was translated by Konstantin of Kostenets. It lists the most important places related to the Old and New Testaments and the distances between them, most often measured in steps. It is believed that Konstantin of Kostents had made the translation (supplemented by his own comments) during his stay in Jerusalem in 1415–1420. An interesting feature of the text is the comparison of the topography of the Holy Lands with that of Southwestern Bulgaria. The only complete transcript of the description was found in a manuscript from 1556 (publ. Petrova 1998; Петрова 2014). There, the text is preceded by a roughly hand-drawn map, but it may have been added later, as the landmarks marked on it and those mentioned in the description do not match. The end of the text, preserved as a fragment in the so-called Lovech Miscellany from the 16th century (today with an unknown location) has been published many times in its original version and in Modern Bulgarian translation (СтБЛ 5: 162, 434–436 and cited lit.).

A description of Palestinian shrines is also left by Arseniy of Thessalonica (publ. Адрианова 1913). Very few is known about its author: a deacon from Thessalonica, who lived in Jerusalem for 17 years; he was either Greek, Bulgarian or Serbian; the time when he lived (between the 13th and the mid-15th century) is still disputed. His ‘personal’ eyewitness account, in which legends and wonders are intertwined, was very popular in Russia. It may have been brought there directly from Palestine. In Russian miscellanies of mixed content from the 16th–17t centuries it is presented in three editions. The earliest transcript from the 16th century is in Middle Bulgarian orthography. The work contains some unique records that are not known from other sources (Адрианова 1913; Гюрова 1996: 199–211; Башлыкова, Турилов ПЭ).

Повест за йерусалимските църкви и места в пустините по Ефрат и Йордан [A Tale of the Jerusalem Churches and Places in the Deserts on the Euphrates and the Jordan] (publ. Трифуновић 1972: 305–307) is included in the famous Gorica Miscellany (1441–1442) of the ruler of the Principality of Zeta Elena Balsic. The author was her spiritual mentor Nikon of Jerusalem, a Serb or Greek from the Monastery of St Archangels in Jerusalem, with whom she corresponded (see Никон Jерусалимац 2004). The story is added to Nikon’s Epistle Three to Elena – it is unclear whether it was done on his initiative or at her request. The priest tells firsthand about the things he has ‘heard and seen’ in the Holy Land. Characteristic of the work is the closeness with the style of rhetorical works and a certain rhythmicization of the text, as well as the presence of a large number of untranslated Greek terms (Богдановић 1970; Трифуновић 1972). As V. Velinova maintained, the tale is of a compilation character, and it reflects the condition of the Christian shrines before the Crusades and even before the Arab conquest (Велинова 2008).

The topic of Jerusalem became especially relevant in Serbian literature in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the number of pilgrimage works and records composed during this period increased. Most of them belong to the genre of proskynetaria and are fragmentarily preserved, e.g. the descriptions of the Hilendar monk Lavrentius (in a transcript by Jerotej Racanin from 1698), of the ‘sinful priest Toma’ from 1642–1643, of Jovan Damjanovic from Budim from 1766, to mention but a few. Some of these works are lavishly decorated, like the travelogue of Gavrilo Tadic, who visited the Holy Places in 1661, containing 34 colour miniatures depicting the most important temples (cf. Jовановић 2007; Трифуновић 1990).

Extremely popular among Bulgarians, Serbs and Russians has been the Church Slavonic translation of one of the late Greek proskynetaria, made in the mid-18th century by the Bulgarian monk Visarion from Razlog. It was published in Vienna in 1748 by Hristofor Zefarovic, who added 70 engravings by various artists to the text. The book was copied and reprinted many times. In 1749, it was also published in Modern Greek language (Гюрова 1996: 211–222; Jовановић 2007; Jовановић 2018).


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SESDiva ERA.Net RUS Plus Call 2017 – S&T

SESDiva. Project № 156

SESDiva aims at creating a virtual museum of written culture in relation to the social, religious, cultural, and ideological environment and relations between the South and East Slavs throughout the centuries from the 11th to the beginning of the 20th century.

Duration: 2018-2020
Program: ERA.Net RUS Plus Call 2017 ‐ S&T Projects