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The Franciscans after 1854 - exploration

(by Teresa Petrozzi - translated by Raphael Bonanno ofm)

The year 1854 was an important date in the history of Tabor: the studies of the ruins began and a little later,slowly the Franciscans started to build.

The first discoveries were made by Melchior De Vog"u'e, a pioneer of palestinian archaeology. He climbed Tabor precisely in 1854 and with his trained eye noticed among the stones and oak trees the remains of two sacred buildings. One, on the property of the Greek Orthodox was all that remained of a small chapel four meters wide and at the maximim five or six long, with a semi-circular apse to the east. The Roman walls, constructed with great care, were covered on the inside with white stucco on which they painted decorations of red grapevines. The mosaic floor had large white and black tesserae which formed a great circle with some square-shaped decorations. De Vog"u'e saw in the ruins an oratory of the 4th-5th c. and did not hesitate to consider it as one of the most ancient religious buildings in the Holy Land.

The other ruins, on the Franciscan property, belonged to a construction composed of some small underground spaces, with a vaulted roof, to which you climbed on a stone staircase. According to De Vog"u'e it was the ruined crypt of a crusader church which must have had three naves and three chapels. The scholar dated it in the beginning of the 12th c. De Vog"u'e based himself on what he saw; the excavations that followed resulted in a greater, but not absolute, precision and the opinions of the experts were varied.

On August 6, 1858 the Latin community of Nazareth, having climbed Tabor with the friars for the feast of the Transfiguration, decided to construct a chapel and two or three rooms for the religious. The work began the following day in a place that was a stone's throw to the north of the famous oratory. While digging to lay the foundations, the workers discovered three areas, one of which had a divano or reception room according to the arab custom, and another which was larger (9,5 m x 4,75) with a well-preserved roof. They also found a place where five pillars rose up and were surmounted by arches. The work was interrupted by an epidemic but was taken up again the following spring. Fr Angelo Veneziani, the guardian of Nazareth, had discovered an extraordinary helper in Luis Kalil, the interpreter for the friary in Nazareth, who began to restore the three uncovered spaces. Due to other difficulties, the work had to be stopped again

In the meantime financial help arrived. One donation came from Canon Strauss, the president of the Society of the Holy Sepulcher in Cologne, Germany and another arrived from a countess in Vienna. The superiors sent some lay brother workers to build a wall around the Franciscan property and to continue the repairs of the ancient areas. The structures, which belonged to the Benedictine monastery, were demolished in 1921-22 because they obscured the view from afar of the new basilica for the pilgrims.

At the same time the works of excavation had freed at least partially the primitive church of the Transfiguration and all of a crusader chapel. Having obtained the authorization of the Patriarchate to erect a new sanctuary, Fr Barnabas of Appignano, guardian of Nazareth, intended to restore the church. The idea was set aside due to the opinion by Gu'erin, a French priest who was also an explorer and archaeologist. He had counselled the friars "to preserve intact and in full view, when they would execute this project, all those parts that still exist of the ancient church, and above all to maintain the primitive character of the apse as a sign of its antiquity and consequently of the antiquity of the tradition relative to the true place of the Transfiguration". The position of the apse was truly important. The great difficulties that the architects of the primitive church and of the successive churches had to resolve in order to put the large cross exactly in that spot, fabricated from lead and on the eastern side of the mountain, and the fact that the floor followed the difficult contour of the land, showed clearly their intention to place the apse on the venerated spot.

To Gu'erin we are indebted for a good description of the ruins. The Greek Orthodox had discovered a second and larger apse immediately to the north of the ruins noted by De Vog"u'e. Therefore the result was that these ruins did not belong to an independent oratory but were another nave of a three nave church, the ancient church of St Elijah. The Greek Orthodox had built a new sanctuary, 24 m long by 15 wide, but it did not obey the primitive design.

The second construction noticed by De Vog"u'e also had a more complex reality: it was a church with three naves, 36m long and at least 16 wide. Under the central nave there was a crypt, 30m long by 6 wide, to which you descended by 12 steps, partially cut into the rock. In the eastern extremity of the crypt there was an altar half in ruins. The buildings above, according to Gu'erin, had been demolished and rebuilt several times but the crypt, partially carved out of the rock itself and in part constructed with very uniform stones, must have belonged to the sanctuary dedicated to the holy Savior in the first centuries of the Church.In the central apse there were the lower courses of the wall which Gu'erin judged to be Roman-Byzantine; beside the entrance (south side) you could see a chapel with a mosaic floor of multi-colored tesserae and a grave cut into the rock and surmounted by a crusader arch. At the moment of the discovery, the tomb held human remains.

This chapel was later confused by some authors with the ruins which De Vog"u'e had called an oratory. The problem could have been caused by the similar dimensions of the two small edifices, although the mosaic floors were different.

About twenty meters to the west of the entrance there was revealed another small chapel of crusader structure. Both the church and the chapel were found within the area of the large Benedictine monastery.

On the Saracen fortress Gu'erin noted impressive ruins of towers and connecting walls and portals with pointed arches. The stones were either completely smooth or with bosses.


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