The Travels Of Bishop Arculf In The Holy Land Towards A.D. 700

Arculf, the holy bishop, a native of Gaul, after visiting many remote countries, resided nine months at Jerusalem, and made daily visits to the surrounding districts.

He counted in the circuit of the walls of the holy city eighty-four towers and six gates, the latter being distributed in the following order:—the gate of David on the west of Mount Sion, the gate of the valley of the Fuller, St. Stephen’s gate, Benjamin’s gate, the little gate leading by a flight of steps to the valley of Jehoshaphat, and the gate called Tecuitis; of which, the three most frequented are, one to the west, another to the north, and a third to the east. That part of the wall which, with its towers, extends from the gate of David over the northern brow of Mount Sion, which overlooks the city from the south, to the precipitous brow of the same mountain which looks to the east, has no gates.

The city itself begins from the northern brow of Mount Sion, and declines with a gentle slope towards the walls on the north and east, where it is lower; so that the rain which falls on the city runs in streams through the eastern gates, carrying with it all the filth of the streets into the brook Cedron, in the valley of Jehoshaphat. On the 15th of September, annually, an immense multitude of people of different nations are used to meet in Jerusalem for the purpose of commerce, and the streets are so clogged with the dung of camels, horses, mules, and oxen, that they become almost impassable, and the smell would be a nuisance to the whole town. But, by a miraculous providence, which exhibits God’s peculiar attachment to this place, no sooner has the multitude left Jerusalem than a heavy fall of rain begins on the night following, and ceases only when the city has been perfectly cleansed.

On the spot where the Temple once stood, near the eastern wall, the Saracens have now erected a square house of prayer, in a rough manner, by raising beams and planks upon some remains of old ruins; this is their place of worship, and it is said that it will hold about three thousand men. Arculf also observed many large and handsome houses of stone in all parts of the city, but his attention was more especially attracted by the holy places.

The church of the Holy Sepulchre is very large and round, encompassed with three walls, with a broad space between each, and containing three altars of wonderful workmanship, in the middle wall, at three different points; on the south, the north, and the west. It is supported by twelve stone columns of extraordinary magnitude; and it has eight doors or entrances through the three opposite walls, four fronting the north-east, and four to the south-east. In the middle space of the inner circle is a round grotto cut in the solid rock, the interior of which is large enough to allow nine men to pray, standing, and the roof of which is about a foot and a half higher than a man of ordinary stature. The entrance is from the east side, and the whole of the exterior is covered with choice marble to the very top of the roof, which is adorned with gold, and supports a large golden cross. Within, on the north side, is the tomb of our Lord, hewn out of the same rock, seven feet in length, and rising three palms above the floor. These measurements were taken by Arculf with his own hand. This tomb is broad enough to hold one man lying on his back, and has a raised division in the stone to separate his legs. The entrance is on the south side, and there are twelve lamps burning day and night, according to the number of the twelve apostles; four within at the foot, and the other eight above, on the right-hand side. Internally, the stone of the rock remains in its original state, and still exhibits the marks of the workman’s tools; its colour is not uniform, but appears to be a mixture of white and red. The stone that was laid at the entrance to the monument is now broken in two; the lesser portion standing as a square altar, before the entrance, while the greater forms another square altar in the east part of the same church, covered with linen cloths.

To the right of this round church (which is called the Anastasis, or Resurrection,) adjoins the square church of the Virgin Mary, and to the east of this another large church is built on the spot called in Hebrew Golgotha, from the ceiling of which hangs a brazen wheel with lamps, beneath which a large silver cross is fixed in the very place where stood the wooden cross on which the Saviour of the human race suffered. Under the place of our Lord’s cross, a cave is hewn in the rock, in which sacrifice is offered on an altar for the souls of certain honoured persons deceased, their bodies remaining meanwhile in the way or street between this church and the round church. Adjoining the church of Golgotha, to the east, is the basilica, or church, erected with so much magnificence by the emperor Constantine, and called the Martyrdom, built, it is said, in the place where the cross of our Lord with the other two crosses were found by divine revelation, two hundred and thirty-three years after they had been buried. Between these two last-mentioned churches, is the place where Abraham raised the altar for the sacrifice of his son Isaac, where there is now a small wooden table, on which the alms for the poor are offered. Between the Anastasis, or round church, and the basilica of Constantine, a certain open space extends to the church of Golgotha, in which are lamps burning day and night. In the same space between the Martyrdom and the Golgotha, is a seat, in which is the cup of our Lord, concealed in a little shrine, which Arculf touched and kissed through a hole in the covering. It is made of silver, of the capacity of about a French quart, and has two handles, one on each side. In it also is the sponge which was held up to our Lord’s mouth. The soldier’s lance, with which he pierced our Lord’s side, which has been broken into two pieces, is also kept in the portico of the Martyrdom, inserted in a wooden cross. Arculf saw some other relics, and he observed a lofty column in the holy places to the north, in the middle of the city, which, at mid-day at the summer solstice, casts no shadow, which shows that this is the centre of the earth.

Arculf next visited the holy places in the immediate neighbourhood of Jerusalem. In the valley of Jehoshaphat he saw the round church of St. Mary, divided into two stories by slabs of stone; in the upper part are four altars; on the eastern side below there is another, and to the right of it an empty tomb of stone, in which the Virgin Mary is said to have been buried; but who moved her body, or when this took place, no one can say. On entering this chamber, you see on the right-hand side a stone inserted in the wall, on which Christ knelt when he prayed on the night in which he was betrayed; and the marks of his knees are still seen in the stone, as if it had been as soft as wax. In the same valley, not far from the church of St. Mary, is shown the tower of Jehoshaphat, in which his tomb is seen; adjoining to which little tower, on the right, is a separate chamber cut out of the rock of Mount Olivet, containing two hollow sepulchres, one, that of the aged Simeon the Just, who held the child Jesus in the temple, and prophesied of him; the other of Joseph, the husband of Mary. On the side of Mount Olivet there is a cave, not far from the church of St. Mary, on an eminence looking towards the valley of Jehoshaphat, in which are two very deep pits. One of these extends under the mountain to a vast depth; the other is sunk straight down from the pavement of the cavern, and is said to be of great extent. These pits are always closed above. In this cavern are four stone tables; one, near the entrance, is that of our Lord Jesus, whose seat is attached to it, and who, doubtless, rested himself here while his twelve apostles sat at the other tables. There is a wooden door to the cave, which was often visited by Arculf.

After passing through the gate of David, which is adjacent to Mount Sion, we come to a stone bridge, raised on arches, and pointing straight across the valley to the south; half-way along which, a little to the west of it, is the spot where Judas Iscariot hanged himself; and there is still shown a large fig-tree, from the top of which he is said to have suspended himself, according to the words of the poet Juvencus,—

“Informem rapuit ficus de vertice mortem.”

On Mount Sion, Arculf saw a square church, which included the site of our Lord’s Supper, the place where the Holy Ghost descended upon the apostles, the marble column to which our Lord was bound when he was scourged, and the spot where the Virgin Mary died. Here also is shown the site of the martyrdom of St. Stephen. He saw on the south of Mount Sion a small field (Aceldama) covered with a heap of stones, where the bodies of many pilgrims are carefully buried, while others are left to rot on the surface.

The ground to the north of Jerusalem, as far as the city of Samuel, which is called Ramatha, is at intervals rough and stony. There are open valleys, covered with thorns, extending all the way to the region of Tamnitis; but, on the other side, from Ælia (Jerusalem) and Mount Sion to Cæsarea of Palestine, though some narrow and craggy places are found, yet the principal part of the way is a level plain interspersed with olive-yards. Arculf states that few trees are found on Mount Olivet, except vines and olive trees, but wheat and barley flourish exceedingly; the nature of the soil, which is not adapted to trees, is favourable to grass and flowers. The height of this hill appears to be equal to that of Mount Sion, although it is much more extensive in length and breadth: the two mountains are separated by the valley of Jehoshaphat. On the highest point of Mount Olivet, where our Lord ascended into heaven, is a large round church, having around it three vaulted porticoes. The inner apartment is not vaulted and covered, because of the passage of our Lord’s body; but it has an altar on the east side, covered with a narrow roof. On the ground, in the midst of it, are to be seen the last prints in the dust of our Lord’s feet, and the roof appears open above, where he ascended; and although the earth is daily carried away by believers, yet still it remains as before, and retains the same impression of the feet. Near this is a brazen wheel, as high as a man’s neck, having an entrance towards the west, with a great lamp hanging above it on a pulley, and burning night and day. In the western part of the same church are eight windows; and eight lamps, hanging by cords opposite them, cast their light through the glass as far as Jerusalem; which light, Arculf said, strikes the hearts of the beholders with a mixture of joy and divine fear. Every year, on the day of the Ascension, when mass is ended, a strong blast of wind comes down, and casts to the ground all who are in the church. All that night, lanterns are kept burning there, so that the mountain appears not only lighted up, but actually on fire, and all that side of the city is illuminated by it.

Arculf visited at Bethany a field in the middle of a large grove of olives, where there is a great monastery, and a church built over the cave where our Lord raised Lazarus from the dead. There is also a much frequented church to the north of Bethany, on that part of Mount Olivet where our Lord is said to have preached to his disciples.

From Jerusalem Arculf went to Bethlehem, which is situated on a narrow ridge, surrounded on all sides by valleys. The ridge is about a mile long, from west to east; and a low wall, without towers, surrounds the brow of the hill, and overlooks the valley. The houses of the inhabitants are scattered here and there over the space within the wall. At the extreme eastern angle there is a sort of natural half cave, the outer part of which is said to have been the place of our Lord’s birth; the inside is called our Lord’s Manger. The whole of this cave is covered within with precious marble. Over the place where more especially our Lord is said to have been born, stands the great church of St. Mary. Near the wall is a hollow stone, which received back from the wall the water in which our Lord’s body was washed, and has ever since been full of the purest water, without any diminution. If by any accident or service it has been emptied, it quickly becomes as full as before. In the valley to the north of Bethlehem, Arculf saw the tomb of David, in the middle of a church, covered with a low pyramidal stone, unadorned, with a lamp placed above it. In another church, on the slope of the hill to the south, is the tomb of St. Jerome, equally without ornament. About a mile to the east of Bethlehem, by the tower of Ader, that is, of the Flock, is a church containing monuments of the three Shepherds, to whom, on this spot, the angel announced the birth of our Lord.

There is a highway, according to Arculf, leading southward from Jerusalem to Hebron, to the east of which Bethlehem is situated, six miles from Jerusalem. At the extremity of this road, on the west side, is the tomb of Rachel, rudely built of stones, without any ornament, presenting externally the form of a pyramid. Her name, placed there by her husband Jacob, is still shown upon it.

Hebron, which is also called Mamre, has no walls, and exhibits only the ruins of the ancient city; but there are some ill-built villages and hamlets scattered over the plain, and inhabited by a multitude of people. To the east is a double cave, looking towards Mamre, where are the tombs of the four patriarchs, Abram, Isaac, Jacob, and Adam the first man. Contrary to the usual custom, they are placed with the feet to the south, and the heads to the north; and they are inclosed by a square low wall. Each of the tombs is covered with a single stone, worked somewhat in form of a church, and of a light colour for those of the three patriarchs, which are together. The tomb of Adam, which is of meaner workmanship, lies not far from them, at the furthest extremity to the north. Arculf also saw poorer and smaller monuments of the three women, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah, who were here buried in the earth. The hill of Mamre is a mile to the south-west of these monuments, and is covered with grass and flowers, with a flat plain at the summit; on the north side of which is a church, in which is still seen, rooted in the ground, the stump of the oak of Mamre, called also the oak of Abraham, because under it he received the angels. St. Jerome says that this oak had stood there from the beginning of the world. Passing from Hebron towards the north, a hill of no great size is seen to the left, covered with fir-trees, about three miles from Hebron. Fir-wood, for fuel, is carried hence to Jerusalem on camels, for, as Arculf observed, carriages or waggons are very seldom met with throughout the whole of Judæa.

In another excursion, Arculf proceeded to Jericho, where, although the city had been three times built, and as many times utterly destroyed, yet the walls of the house of Rahab still stand, although without a roof. The whole site of the city is covered with corn-fields and vineyards, without any habitations. Between it and the Jordan are large groves of palm trees, interspersed with open spaces, in which are almost innumerable houses, inhabited by a diminutive sort of men of the race of Canaan. A large church stands on the site of Galgalis, where the children of Israel first encamped after passing the Jordan. It is five miles from Jericho. Within the church are the twelve stones which Joshua ordered to be taken out of the Jordan; six on the south side of the church floor, and six on the north. They are so heavy, that two strong men, at the present day, could hardly lift one of them; one has been accidentally broken in two, but the pieces have been reunited by means of iron.

A wooden cross stands in the Jordan, on the spot where our Lord was baptized, the depth of which, when the water is highest, reaches to the neck of a tall man, and, when lowest, to the breast. The river is here about as broad as a man can throw a stone with a sling. A stone bridge, raised on arches, reaches from the bank of the river to the cross, where people bathe. Arculf swam backwards and forwards in the water. A little church stands at the brink of the water, on the spot where our Lord is said to have laid his clothes when he entered the river. On the higher ground is a large monastery of monks, and a church dedicated to St. John. Arculf found the waters of the Jordan of a yellowish milky colour, and observed that they preserved this colour to a considerable distance, after they flowed into the Dead Sea, where he also witnessed the way in which salt was obtained from the waters of the latter.

In another excursion, Arculf visited the spot at the foot of Mount Libanus where the Jordan has its rise from two fountains, which are named Jor and Dan, the waters of which uniting, take the name of Jordan; and he went round the greater part of the Sea of Galilee, called also the Lake of Gennesareth, and the Sea of Tiberias, which is surrounded by thick woods, and is a hundred and forty stadia in length. The waters are sweet, and fit to drink; for it receives no mud, or other coarse substance, from any marshy pools, but is surrounded on all sides by a sandy shore. Arculf also travelled over the country of Samaria, and visited the town called in Hebrew Sichem, but by the Greeks and Latins Sicima, and now more usually Sichar. Here, without the walls, he saw a cruciform church, in the centre of which is the well of Jacob, where our Saviour met the Samaritan woman. Arculf, who drank of the water, estimated its depth at forty cubits. He also saw in the wilderness a clear fountain, protected with a covering of masonry, at which it is reported John the Baptist used to drink. He likewise saw a very small species of locust, the bodies of which are slender and short, about the size of a finger; and, because they make short leaps like frogs, they are easily caught among the grass. When boiled in oil, they form a poor sort of food. In the same desert he saw trees with broad round leaves of a milky colour, with the savour of honey, which are naturally fragile, and, after being bruised with the hand, are eaten; and this is the wild honey found in the woods. He further saw, on this side of the Sea of Galilee, to the north of the city of Tiberias, the place where our Lord blessed the loaves and fishes, a grassy and level plain, which has never been ploughed since that event, and shows no traces of buildings, except a few columns round the fountain where, as they say, those persons drank after they had eaten their fill.

Those who wish to go from Jerusalem to Capernaum, take the direct way by Tiberias, and from thence, along the Sea of Gennesareth, to the place where the loaves were blessed, from which Capernaum is at no great distance. Arculf saw this place from a neighbouring hill, and observed that it has no walls, but lies on a narrow piece of ground between the mountain and the lake. On the shore, towards the east, it extends a long way, having the mountain on the north and the water on the south. Arculf remained two days and two nights at Nazareth, which is on a hill, and is also without walls, but it has large houses of stone, and two very large churches. One of these is raised upon mounds and arches connecting them, and under it, between the mounds, is a clear fountain, from which all the citizens draw water in vessels, which they raise up into the church by means of pulleys. On this site stood formerly the house in which our Lord was nursed when an infant. The other church was built on the site of the house in which the archangel Gabriel came to the blessed Mary.

Mount Tabor, in Galilee, is three miles from the Lake of Gennesareth, of a remarkably round shape, and covered in an extraordinary manner with grass and flowers. At the top is a pleasant and extensive meadow, surrounded by a thick wood, and in the middle of the meadow a great monastery, with numerous cells of monks. The meadow is about twenty-four stadia in breadth, and the height of the mountain about thirty stadia. There are also three handsome churches on the top, according to the number of tabernacles described by Peter. The monastery and churches are inclosed by a stone wall.

From Mount Tabor, Arculf went to the royal city of Damascus, eight days’ journey, and remained there some days. It is situated in a plain, surrounded by a broad and ample circuit of walls, with numerous towers, and is intersected by four great rivers. On all sides beyond the walls are numerous groves of olives. The king of the Saracens has obtained possession of this city, and reigns in it. It contains a large church of St. John the Baptist, frequented by the Christians. The unbelieving Saracens have built themselves a large mosque here. From hence Arculf repaired to Tyre, and thence (as it appears) he returned to Jerusalem. He went subsequently from Jerusalem to Joppa, and thence sailed, in forty days, to Alexandria in Egypt, a city famous throughout the whole world. It extends to a great length from east to west, so that Arculf, who began to enter the city at nine o’clock in the morning (hora tertia), in the month of October, and proceeding through the whole length of the city, hardly reached the other side before dark. On the south it is bounded by the mouths of the Nile, and on the north by the Lake Mareotis. Its port is difficult of access, and bears some resemblance to the human body; for in its head it is sufficiently ample, but at its entrance it is very narrow, where it admits the tide of the sea, together with such ships as run into the port to take shelter and refit. But when you have passed the narrow neck and mouth of the harbour, the sea, like the human body, stretches out far and wide. On the right hand side is a small port, in which is the Pharos, a large tower, which is every night lighted up with torches, lest mariners might mistake their way in the dark, and be dashed against the rocks in their attempt to find the entrance, particularly as this is much impeded and disturbed by the waves dashing to and fro. The port, however, is always calm, and in magnitude about thirty stadia. The precautions alluded to are necessary for a port which is, in a manner, the emporium of the whole world; for innumerable people from all parts go there for commerce, and the surrounding region is extremely fruitful. Although the country is destitute of rain, the Nile serves both as a cultivator of the land, and as the means of transferring its products from one place to another. Here you see people sowing, there navigating, which are their chief occupations. The Nile is navigable to the place they call the town of Elephants; beyond that the cataracts hinder a ship from proceeding, not from want of water, but because all the waters of the river run in a sort of wild ruin down a steep descent. Towards Egypt, as we enter the city, there is a large church on the right, in which St. Mark the Evangelist is interred. The body is buried in the eastern part of the church, before the altar, with a monument of squared marble over it. Along the Nile, the Egyptians are in the habit of constructing numerous embankments, to prevent the irruption of the water, which, if these mounds were broken down by the neglect of their keepers, would rather inundate and destroy than irrigate the lands below. The Egyptians who inhabit the plains, as Arculf, who frequently passed backward and forward along the Nile, observed, make their houses over canals by laying planks across. Arculf relates further, that the river Nile is haunted by crocodiles, aquatic beasts, not so large as they are ravenous, and so strong, that if one of them see by chance a horse or an ass, or even an ox, feeding near the bank of the river, he suddenly rushes out to attack it, and seizing it perhaps by the foot, drags it under the water, and devours the whole.

On his return from Alexandria, Arculf went to Constantinople, which is bounded on all sides, except the north, by the sea. The circuit of the walls, which are angular, according to the line of the sea, is about twelve miles. Constantine was at first disposed to build it in Cilicia, near the sea which separates Europe and Asia; but on a certain night all the iron tools were carried away, and when men were sent to seek them, they were found on the European side; for there it was God’s will that the city should be built. In this city is a church of wonderful workmanship, called the Church of St. Sophia, built circular from its foundation, domed in, and surrounded by three walls. It is supported to a great height on columns and arches, and has, in its inmost part, on the north side, a large and beautiful closet, wherein is a wooden chest with a wooden lid, containing three pieces of our Lord’s cross; that is to say, the long timber cut in two, and the transverse part of the same holy cross. These pieces are exhibited for the adoration of the people three times only in the year; namely, on the day of our Lord’s Supper, the day of the Preparation, and on Holy Saturday. On the first of these, the chest, which is two cubits long and one broad, is set out on a golden altar, with the holy cross exposed to view: the Emperor first approaches, and, after him, all the different ranks of laymen in order kiss and worship it; on the following day, the Empress and all the married women and virgins do the same; on the third day, the bishops and different orders of the clergy observe the same ceremonies; and then the chest is shut, and carried back to the closet before mentioned.

Arculf saw other sacred relics in Constantinople, and then sailed for his own country. About twelve miles from Sicily he saw the isle of Vulcano, whence constantly issued smoke by day and fire by night, with a noise like thunder, but with more intensity on Fridays and Saturdays. The noise is heard in Sicily, where Arculf made a short stay; and afterwards, on his way home, he was carried by contrary winds to the shores of Britain, and at length came to me, Adamnan, who by diligent inquiry obtained from him the above particulars, which I have carefully committed to writing.


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