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The Franciscans from 1631 to 1854

(by Teresa Petrozzi - translated by Raphael Bonanno ofm)

In 1632 Roger traced a plan of the existing sacred buildings, the first to come down to us. Roger knew Fakhr ed-Din very well "because he has honored me with his confidence for all the time that I remained in the Holy Land". Fakhr ed-Din was a friend not only of Roger but of the Christians in general.

Roger annotated his sketch with a brief description:"There are three small oratories or chapels with vaulted roofs, each one next to the other, two of which are nine feet in length and three or four in width. The central one where Jesus was transfigured is only seven paces long. These tabernacles or chapels are found on the highest part of the mountain, on the southern side."

The Chronicles of Fr Verniero, written in 1634, refer to the intentions of the Franciscans, then owners of Tabor: "they thought they would bring `our Catholics from Bethlehem to dwell there and cultivate it' and they planned to build `a hotel for the convenience of our pilgrims'. Nevertheless `because they were unsure of the Arabs nearby, they built neither a church nor a hotel'".

Actually the Muslims were hostile. Surius in 1644 reports in detail: "It was very sad for us to see these three tabernacles, which still exist through divine providence, because the Moors had blocked the entrance to impede the devotion of the pilgrims. Even so we took away enough earth so we could enter. We squeezed in through a small door to the north and we arrived in a corridor that was twelve paces long and four wide, where we lit the fire with a piece of iron on which a stone made sparks and,while each one held his candle, we passed through a northern door into the three tabernacles, in a great vaulted chapel which had been painted in the past. The chapel towards the east is seven feet and three fingers wide, that one towards the north is five feet wide and the third towards the west is six and a half feet wide.The central one is built on the spot where our Lord was transfigured". We believe that Surius was the last pilgrim to notice the decorations of the crusader crypt.

Ricoldo of Monte Croce would have wept to see, as Doubdan saw in 1652, "almost everything buried in fill and full of garbage." Doubdan also made a sketch and a description of the sanctuary:"You enter into a small corridor composed of four niches in the form of a cross, each one about four feet wide {...} The whole place now is completely buried and so dark that you must carry a light". Neither the sketch nor the description agree with the preceding information: the three tabernacles "honeycombed together" have become an empty space in the form of a cross.The entrance of the real sanctuary, blocked up, had been lost from view probably due to the vegetation covering it. The unknowing pilgrims, having found another way, followed it and arrived in one of the rooms of the saracen fortress, where pious hands had set up some altars. This place was the goal of their visits until 1876.

Besson knew how to see something important also in the divinely favored chapel: "I had the good fortune to say Mass on the altar of St Elijah, who still lives after so many centuries and who was sanctified before he died. His tabernacle is to the left of the entrance and on the right is that of Moses and in the middle, that of Jesus, as the center to whom all lines converge and the fulfillment of all the laws ".

From year to year the Saracen section also deteriorates more and more. In Nau (1668) we read: "Today there remains only one buried chapel where you enter by three doors that do not close [...]it is no longer than nine or ten feet and seven or eight wide. Three niches have been built where it is believed that our Lord, Moses and Elijah stood [...] According to the placement of the tabernacles our Lord had his face turned to the north, Moses stood on his right and Elijah on his left".

Laffi (1679) and Le Bruyn (1681) called the chapel "a grotto". Le Bruyn, while those with him celebrated Mass, sat in front of the door and sketched the ruins as seen from outside. The witnesses continue but are sad and depressing. In 1710 Cozza saw that the Franciscans used portable altars for their celebrations. Pococke (1737) added an interesting detail to his description of the grotto:"On the other side, there is a monastery of the order of St Basil, where the Greeks have an altar and celebrate their divine liturgy on the feast of the Transfiguration." It is the ancient monastery abandoned by the Greeks in 1187 which as Mariti will tell in 1760 was still called St Elijah.

The Franciscans had become the owners on Tabor 136 years before and had tried in different ways to make their rights prevail. Soon after the concession to the friars, Fr Diego of San Severino ordered Fr Giacomo of Vand˘me, guardian of Nazareth, to build a church on the mountain but the Muslims of the area opposed the project. Four years after the death of Fakhr ed-Din, the Franciscans asked the Sultan for permission to reside on Tabor and obtained it in 1641 through the ambassadors of France and of Venice. In 1656 the friars received authorization to construct on all their properties in the Holy Land. When the matter was referred to the Sultan in 1667 that the religious could not use their authorization on Tabor, the Sultan ordered the pasha of Safed to punish those opposed to it. Six years later, Fr Claudio of Laude Pompeia, Custos of the Holy Land, by means of Fr G.B. of Lagomarsino, Commissary of the Holy Land in Constantinople, asked permission to send two or three friars to live on the mountain. The request was to no avail. In 1763 the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr Paolo of Piacenza, seeing how impossible it was to fulfill the dream of a new construction, decided to repair at least what existed.

The restoration, under the supervision of Fr Giovanni Lorenzo, the guardian at Nazareth, were modest enough. In a pilgrimage of 1771 Giuseppe Antonio of Milan left in writing: "On the upper part [of Tabor], a little towards its western side and almost in the middle, there rises a chapel amidst great ruins. It is five paces long and two wide, its front looks to the south; there ia a poor altar [...] besides, there is to one side a small square passage with three niches, and these recall the words of Peter to his divine Master: "Let us make three tents." Lamartine said nary a word about this chapel. Other writers preferred to talk about the stupendous natural scenery, like De G'eramb, who confessed his sins at the foot of a tree and had the good luck to receive Communion during Mass celebrated under the open sky.

While the hostility of the Muslims against the friars lost some of its ferocity and the friars exercised at least their right to the property with the pilgrimages and celebrations, other difficulties appeared. The Greek Orthodox soon occupied the northern part of the summit, which finally was cut in two by a wall. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem did not show much understanding and denied permission to build. In the first case the Franciscans out of love for peace tolerated the situation; in the second case, the friars appealed to Rome and the Congregation of the Propaganda in due time decided in their favor.

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