Tome premier: frames and memories of De Wandelbourg’s journey in the Holy Land

The narrative structure of the first volume of Etudes et Souvenirs de l ’Orient conforms with the bulk of historical-geographical literature about the Holy Land.41 Shaped along the lines of this common model, it is composed of two sections, in fifteen chapters. De Wandelbourg organises his work geographically and historically in both of the two sections depicting the East,42 “l’Orient”, “in its respect for the memories of the past [ ... ] custodian of all things, mores and customs, names of places and ancient monuments”.43

The first section, made up of the first six chapters - “necessary framework of the tableau”44 - serves to introduce readers to the physiognomy, mores and customs of the East,45 which sometimes turns out to be Syria and Palestine, with no distinction or contradiction from the author’s standpoint. In these six chapters De Wandelbourg deals with the individuality of the East46 and its correlation with the interpretation of the Holy Texts. The East is considered as a whole historical-geographical unit and this allows De Wandelbourg to embrace an extensive period of time that runs from the biblical period through the immanent time of the Oriental culture to the contemporary age of the revival of the Latin Patriarchate. Ottoman Palestine is analysed only according to the condition of the Catholic Church within the Empire and its interests on the ground.47 Accordingly, readers became familiar with the historical development of the Holy Land, shown to be closely tied to its physical-geographical structure48 and thereby a solid interrelation between the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture was established.49 Moreover, in the third chapter, De Wandelbourg outlines a tableau of the “different races, religions, social classes of Palestine and Syria” under the Ottoman government.50 The author does not fail to introduce his readers to the obstacles that Catholicism and the Latin Patriarch had to face in the Holy Land. Echoing the competition between different missionary activities in the Near East, he stigmatises Protestant and Greek Orthodox oppositions, upholding the vitality and superiority of the Latin rite over the Oriental because of clerical celibacy.51 Accordingly, he introduces another element to the ontological distinction between the West and the East, lowering it into the Catholic dimension.52 This section ends with an attack on the European powers - responsible because of their inexperience and arrogance for most of the troubles that Catholics have to face - in which they are contrasted with “the civilizing influence of the Church” embodied by the wisdom of Mgr Valerga.53

The second section, made up of nine chapters, contains a detailed description of the regions,54 localities and towns that De Wandelbourg visited during his travels, from his departure from Marseille until his arrival in Jerusalem and its environs, to which he dedicates five chapters.55 This section conforms to the polemical scriptural-geographical narrative, in which the author sought to limit science’s role in the explanation of places and biblical traditions.56 De Wandelbourg’s narrative and imaginative understanding proceed along a precise structure, as Aiken describes in analysing Josias Leslie Porter.57 During his visits, De Wandelbourg sketches a series of tableaux in which the landscape is a stage where past events can be played out, a religio loci.58 His work, however, is distinctive from other forms of scriptural geography because the Holy Land of the present is not only subservient to the holy landscape’s biblical past,59 but is also the place where the “revival” is achieving success. This aspect modifies the perception of the territory as unchanging and timeless, in favour of a circular dimension of time.

Scientific fieldwork only proved what the Bible had already said, as Aiken points out.60 Accordingly, his experience of the Holy Land as archaeologist, theologian and traveller results in what De Wandelbourg regularly recalls as the verification of “how this Biblical phrase is strictly accurate [ ... ] as photographed on the situation and the outskirts”61 of the places visited, as testified to by the passage on Sodom or the statue of Lot, where he sought to re-establish a proper understanding on the basis of his inspection and knowledge of the scriptural and historical accounts.62

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