The Casale Pilgrimage and Drawings of the Holy City

By Yuet Ho

This illustrated manuscript depicts holy places throughout Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and mainly Palestine.  It is small, 93 x 154mm, and it contains many colorful illustrations along with Hebrew captions.  The manuscript does not give itself an official name, but Cecil Roth, who published an English translation of the book in 1929, called it The Casale Pilgrim and identified it as an illustrated account of the holy places in Palestine.  The original manuscript is housed in the Leeds University Library’s archive, classmarked at MS ROTH/220.[i]

The manuscript’s first few pages of text provide information and hints about this book’s origin.  The Hebrew text on the title page, for example, says that the book was finished in the year 5358 at Casale Monferrato, in Italy.  The year 5358, the traditional Jewish calendar date, translates to the year 1598 C.E., when the author completed this work.  Under the Hebrew writing, there is cursive Italian handwriting, which is a point of interest as the book itself is written fully in Hebrew; all captions in the remainder of the book are written in Hebrew, and this cursive Italian writing is only found on the first few written pages.  This could suggest that the Italian was written after the manuscript’s completion, perhaps by its owner rather than by the person who produced the manuscript.  The Italian on this page reveals that the manuscript belonged to Mr. Leone Vida Piazza.  Interestingly, the following pages also contain some cursive Italian script identifying the book’s owner as a Jew of Florence.  The manuscript was completed in Casale Monferrato, yet its owner records that he lives in Florence, two different locations in Italy, 268 kilometers apart.

Looking at this manuscript’s historical context provides further insight into its origins.  Before and during the 16th century, Europe saw a surge of persecutions and expulsions of Jews.  The Spanish expulsion of Jews meant that some Jews from Spain and its territories, such as Sicily and Sardinia, would have migrated to Northern Italy.[ii]  Northern Italian cities had relatively large Jewish populations, with Casale Monferrato having 600 to 700 Jewish residents and Florence having about 500.[iii]  The Jewish community in Florence would have been culturally diverse because of immigration.  There was already an existing community of Jews in Florence made up of merchants, doctors, and bankers that settled there in the 15th century because the city needed more moneylenders.[iv]  The Medicis showed favor to Jewish refugees, allowing Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal to settle in Florence, along with Jews escaping from the anti-Jewish decrees of the Papal States, policies which Florence did not follow. 

Figure 1: Title page of manuscript, with two different Hebrew writings as well as Italian
Figure 2 (left): Cover of book
Figure 3 (right): Map of Italy, indicating the two locations mentioned on the manuscript’s title page

Perhaps this manuscript traveled from Casale Monferrato to Florence in the inventory of a migrating Jew and then got passed on to Mr. Leone Vida Piazza.  But it is also possible that the manuscript was commissioned by Mr. Leone Vida Piazza for use as a codex during his own pilgrimage or that of a relative.  Its usage as a pilgrimaging guide is supported by the fact that it is quite small for a manuscript.  Being only half a foot in length, it would have easily fit into a travel bag. 

The first inscription in the manuscript describes the text: “These are the journeyings of the children of Israel which they journey, from strength to strength, to prostrate themselves upon the sepulchers of the righteous: until they come with tears and supplication to pray for the welfare of their brethren which are in the diaspora.  May the Lord hasten our deliverance: Amen!”[v]  This introduction makes clear that the travels of Jews to the land and to the graves of righteous ancestors is meant to bestow blessings not only on the travelers but also on those who stayed back home.

By the end of the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire controlled the places that this manuscript illustrates and describes.  Many exiled Jews from Europe settled in the Ottoman Empire, where they found more success and better treatment.[vi]  The relative safety of the Ottoman Empire and the settlement of exiled Jews in its territories led to a significant increase in Jewish pilgrimages to holy sites within the Empire, including to Jerusalem.[vii]  Italian trading cities such as Florence would have had trade routes that connecting to important cities within the Ottoman Empire, and so travel was relatively straightforward.  Figure 4 depicts the village of Gaza, which would have been one of the first towns a pilgrim would visit when traveling from the Holy Land to Egypt.  It is possible that either Mr.  Leone Vida Piazza or the author of the book travelled to Egypt through common trade routes and Gaza could have been considered a welcoming first site for pilgrims traveling the Levant, given how the gates were drawn so wide and golden.  The caption calls it a fair and beautiful place.  Considering the increase in Jewish pilgrimage within the Ottoman Empire, perhaps the author created this book from their time as a pilgrim in order to document their experience and save it for other pilgrims, of which Mr. Leone Vida Piazza could have been one.

Figure 4: Illustration of Gaza, on the way to Egypt from Jerusalem

The vast majority of the sites illustrated in this manuscript are burial places for important religious figures.  Some of the burial sites include Mount Hor where Aaron the Priest was buried, the Hidekel river where Ezekiel lies, Damascus with the cave of Elijah, Babylon where the three Holy Children and Daniel are buried, Basra where Ezra the priest was buried, Edrei where lies Eldad and Medad, Jacuc with the burial site of the Prophet Habbakuk, Arbel where lay the children of Jacob and a cave where Seth (Adam’s Son) was buried.  There are also places such Gibratin, Alyukemeh, Shechem, Bethshean, and Tiberias, where many named rabbis and their families are buried.  These sites were the resting places of figures from the Hebrew Bible, prophets, and notable rabbis.  They would have been sacred places for a pilgrim to visit, as they would be standing in the presence of their ancestors  and reflecting on the significance of those buried there.  In addition to the many burial places, the manuscript also illustrates the holiest sites for Jews: Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, and the Temple Mount.   

In addition to the theological importance of these sites, there was also an element of awe at their marvelousness.  Occasionally, the author points out how beautiful a synagogue or tomb is.  The caption for the image in Figure 5 describes an Aleppo synagogue as “large and beautiful,” to which “none other can be compared.”  The site is enhanced by surrounding trees, vines, and orchards, which are described as places under which to pray.  The illustration and caption provide a sensory experience of the place.  It is interesting that the author calls this synagogue’s beauty unrivaled, yet the illustration of it is not as large nor as detailed as other depictions of synagogues such as the illustration of a synagogue in Cairo, featured in Figure 6.  Perhaps its beauty lies in the surrounding plant life, which is more elaborate than in the other synagogues illustrated.  A pilgrim that visits this place can pray under the peaceful and quiet trees, such lush plant life reminiscent of Eden.

By being a guide to holy places, this manuscript functions like a tour brochure.  It describes the specialness of the places a pilgrim can visit and creates further interest in visiting them.  Figure 7 contains one of the most unique illustrations in the book.  It depicts the burial site of the prophet Daniel in Babylon.  Daniel is buried in a metal coffin, hanging by iron chains onto an elaborately decorated bridge.  There is a sign that reads “Daniel, of blessed memory.”  The caption narrates lore about the site; among the many fishes in the river under the bridge, there is an old fish that existed in Daniel’s time; fishing was banned near this site out of respect for Daniel.  This page offers quite the marvelous site to behold.  Not only is it theologically significant because it is the burial site of a prophet, but it is also physically unique as no other burial site in the book involves hanging a coffin under a bridge.  For a pilgrim reading this page, such a story might have inspired a visit to the site, whether to honor Daniel’s memory, or to view the unique burial site, or the chance to see the old fish that lived during Daniel’s time.

Figure 5: The Aleppo synagogue is described as “large and beautiful,” to which “none other can be compared.” 
Figure 6: A synagogue in Cairo
Figure 7: The burial site of the prophet Daniel in Babylon

The manuscript holds a special place for the city of Jerusalem.  It is one of the first places mentioned in the text, following Jericho, Hebron, Tekoa, Halhul, and Sarata.  One of these early pages, which depicts Tekoa, mentions Jerusalem and adds “may it be rebuilt and established speedily in our days!” in prayer for redemption, a common Jewish sentiment, and this line is repeated each time the name “Jerusalem” appears in the manuscript.  The first discussion of Jerusalem in the manuscript highlight’s Jerusalem’s state of destruction: “Jerusalem… is waste through our sins.  Nothing is left of the old construction save somewhat of the foundation; but now recently they have built the whole wall at the bidding of the King – a laudable and beauteous construction.”[viii]

A particularly interesting page in the manuscript depicts the Temple Mount.  This page is part of a series of pages that depict sites a pilgrim would visit when they arrived at Jerusalem.  The short description calls this the Temple with twelve gates; the text explains that two gates were permanently closed and that from then on they were called the Gates of Mercy.  The building above the Temple Mount is interesting because it has only one gate.  The mention of the Gates of Mercy in the captions makes it possible that the building is supposed to be an illustration of it.  The next page describes the Temple Mount to have two great domes covered in gold and silver; these could correspond with the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the al-Aqsa Mosque.  The gated building is flanked by two great domes which could be the previously mentioned ones.  Given the mention of the Gates of Mercy on this page and the location of the domes, this might be an illustration of the Gates of Mercy.  But there is a fault to this interpretation in the fact that the illustration only depicts one gate when it explicitly mentions that there are two.  Jewish pilgrimage scrolls in the 16th century, such as the Genealogy of the Patriarchs (Yichus ha-Avot), depict two distinctly separate gates.[ix]  The author might have had access to these pilgrimage scrolls as it was common in the 16th century for Jews in Palestine to send emissaries with scrolls abroad to promote pilgrimage to the Holy Land.[x]  It is then interesting that they would only draw one gate.  Perhaps the illustration depicts another gate beside the Gates of Mercy, but it would be strange to mention those gates, and then decide to draw a completely different gate. 

Figure 8: Page depicting the Temple
Figure 9: Mount of Olives with the Tomb of Hulda and other places of burial

The illustrations of sites from Jerusalem represents a fascinating view into the city at the end of the sixteenth city.  The following pages describe the Western Wall, “whence the Presence God has never moved”; the Gate of Benjamin, which the text identifies by its Arabic name as well (Bab-el-Sabin, the Gate of the Tribes); Zion, the place of King David’s palace, where the ark of the covenant was housed before the temple was built; the Tower of David; the city’s three markets, where all kinds of goods are sold; and an ancient synagogue.  After describing Jerusalem proper, the text describes the Mount of Olives, noting the tomb of Hulda the Prophetess and those of many others on the mount itself and all the way to Ramah.

The Casale Pilgrim manuscript was published as a facsimile with an English translation in 1929 by Cecil Roth, who was born in London in March 1899 and became one of the greatest and most prolific Jewish historians of his generation.  Fordham’s Special Collections holds the fourth copy of a total of 38 printed, signed by Roth himself.  Roth went on to publish over 600 of his works; the Cecil Roth Collection at Leeds University is one of the most extensive archives on Jewish History.

Figure 10: Cecil Roth’s signature in Fordham’s copy of The Casale Pilgrimage

Yuet Ho is a senior Computer Science major from New York City. He enjoys programming mini-games and editing images in photoshop.

This blog post was originally written for Prof. Sarit Kattan Gribetz’s “Medieval Jerusalem: Jewish Christian, Muslim Perspectives” course; a facsimile of the Casale Pilgrimage and this essay is featured in an exhibition at Fordham’s Walsh Library, on display August – December 2021. 

Notes:

[i] “Cecil Roth Collection,” University of Leeds.

[ii] Bell, Jews in the Early Modern World, 43.

[iii] Bell, Jews in the Early Modern World, 45.

[iv] “Florence, Italy,” Jewish Virtual Library.

[v] Roth, The Casale Pilgrim.

[vi] Jacobs and Montgomery, “Turkey.”

[vii] Deutsch, Eisenstein, and Franco, “Pilgrimage.”

[viii] Roth, The Casale Pilgim, 41.

[ix] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/688582

[x] Berger, “The Dome of the Rock as the Temple in Pilgrimage Scrolls,” 229.

Bibliography:

“Cecil Roth Collection.” University of Leeds Library: https://explore.library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/114260.

Bell, Dean Phillip. Jews in the Early Modern World. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.     

Deutsch, Gotthard, Judah David Eisenstein, and M. Franco. “Pilgrimage.” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906, accessed online at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12149-pilgrimage. 

“Florence, Italy.” Jewish Virtual Library: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/florence-italy-jewish-history-tour.         

“Genealogy of the Patriarchs (Yichus ha-Avot).” Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Collection, accessed at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/688582. 

Jacobs, Joseph, and Mary W. Montgomery. “Turkey.” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906, accessed online at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14546-turkey. 

Berger, Pamela C. “The Dome of the Rock as the Temple in Pilgrimage Scrolls.” In The Crescent on the Temple: the Dome of the Rock as Image of the Ancient Jewish Sanctuary. Boston: Brill, 2012. 

Bibliography:

“Cecil Roth Collection.” University of Leeds Library: https://explore.library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/114260.

Bell, Dean Phillip. Jews in the Early Modern World. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.     

Deutsch, Gotthard, Judah David Eisenstein, and M. Franco. “Pilgrimage.” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906, accessed online at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12149-pilgrimage. 

“Florence, Italy.” Jewish Virtual Library: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/florence-italy-jewish-history-tour.         

“Genealogy of the Patriarchs (Yichus ha-Avot).” Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Collection, accessed at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/688582. 

Jacobs, Joseph, and Mary W. Montgomery. “Turkey.” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906, accessed online at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14546-turkey. 

Berger, Pamela C. “The Dome of the Rock as the Temple in Pilgrimage Scrolls.” In The Crescent on the Temple: the Dome of the Rock as Image of the Ancient Jewish Sanctuary. Boston: Brill, 2012.