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Tome deuxieme: visiting the Bilad a-Sham with Mgr Valerga

In the second volume of Etudes et Souvenirs de l ’Orient De Wandelbourg continues the description of his excursions to different biblical towns and regions in the Near East. Defending the “positive and inevitable [...] historical truthfulness” and “accuracy”63 of the Holy Texts, the polemical tone of his narrative does not change, nor does his purpose of establishing a relationship between geography and theology. The narrative path proceeds along the same structure of the first volume until chapter twenty-six, where De Wandelbourg begins to perform the role of historian and biographer of the Patriarch, with an account of his visits to Rome, Beirut, Damascus and Transjordan, “l’Arabie desert”, which represented the last pastoral visit of Mgr Valerga before his death.

The landscape, never imagined, is holy, sacralised, bucolic and secure, imbued with biblical perfume64 and the “melancholic and unfamiliar melody” of muezzins.65 Nevertheless, De Wandelbourg tempers this understanding of the Holy Land’s landscape, reminding his readers that he is passing through a land where danger seems to be immanent.

The entrance of the author with Mgr Valerga into the terra incognita of the Holy Land, “l’Arabie desert” - Transjordan - marks the triumph of the picturesque and the “baroque in the desert”,66 manifested and evoked through a succession of reminiscences, mirages, Bedouin war chants and equestrian fantasies to celebrate the passage of the Patriarch,67 “the keystone and the cornerstone” of Catholicism in the Holy Land.68 Accordingly, De Wandelbourg works out a series of tableaux, dignified by the presence of the Patriarch, in which the biblical past coalesces with the history of the Crusades and the Oriental exotic.69 As Mgr Valerga’s pastoral visit progresses, De Wandelbourg gets acquainted with a population that lives “entirely in the traditions of the past [ ... ] that have not changed by the introduction of European customs”.70 The Bedouin women are depositary of a nature “naive and wild”,71 part of a community characterised by “piety and fervour [ ... ] far more zealous in their faith than the inhabitants of Arab towns and villages of the interior of Palestine” that De Wandelbourg describes as “sometimes fickle and lukewarm”.72

The slow pace of De Wandelbourg’s narration in the wake of Mgr Valerga’s pastoral visit seems to re-enact the successful progression of the “revival”. The Patriarch, as Possetto outlines in his work,73 meets Transjordanian tribes and becomes acquainted with local social and cultural climates, sowing the seeds of conversions that the new generation of Catholic missionaries would collect over the years after his death.

Similar to the euphoria that De Wandelbourg feels in witnessing the first celebration of the Corpus Domini through Jerusalem’s streets - heart of the Holy

Land and headquarters of the revived Latin Patriarchate - which is described by the author as the “Catholic victory offsetting in the infidels’ countries the afflictions and persecutions that the Church suffered in Christian countries”,74 the reception of Mgr Valerga in Salt, “wonderful and magical spectacle”,75 marks the triumph of Catholicism and the Latin Patriarchate in the terra incognita. Salt, “the famous Ramoth-Gilead, impregnable capital of Jophte and most formidable stronghold of the kings of Syria”76 and “the great fortress of Bedouins, real eagle’s nest, still repair of thieves”,77 welcomes Mgr Valerga, “the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Church”,78 with ovations. The Patriarch enters the village by “riding side by side with the lieutenant of the Sultan, who comes to respectfully escort him as the Christian kings had escorted popes and their legates when Europe was proudly claiming to be Catholic”.79 The tableau of the reception in Salt ends with Mgr Valerga leaving the town in harmony and peace, heading for Jerusalem after having visited the ruin of Rabbath-Ammon, the contemporary Amman.

The epilogue of Etudes et Souvenirs de l’Orient is dedicated to De Wandelbourg’s return in Europe and to an elegy to Mgr Valerga, who died shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem. The death of the Patriarch, martyr of the Catholic Church who donated his life to bringing the Revelation to the remotest lands of the Holy Land, represents the apex of De Wandelbourg’s narration and the end of his work. The celebration of the “revival” is now performed.

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