History of the archive of the Custody

Vocations “come and follow me”

History of the Archive of the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem


The history of an archive is a little bit of the story of the institution of which it makes a part and of which it is an outgrowth.

The Historical Archive of the Custody of the Holy Land has a history of more than seven centuries and is able to vaunt of the honor of being visited by Pius X and by Chateaubriand, and then being mentioned in their writings. It is held to be the oldest catholic archive existing in the Holy Land, and documents not only the vicissitudes of the nearby religious institution, but also that of the catholic presence in very many regions of the Near East.

Because of its difficult history, the archive has changed its name in the course of the centuries and only in 1975 did it take its current name of “Historical Archive of the Custody of the Holy Land”. In the spring of that year, in fact, the work of renovating and adapting the places destined for its exclusive use was finished in the Monastery of the Holy Savior, where today it continues to be.

During the first centuries since its birth, the archive was found in the Monastery of Mount Sion, a place which the franciscans obtained at the beginning of their presence in the Holy Land. From that period written testimonials which refer to the archive with the name of capsa privilegiorum, conserved in the room of the Fr. Custodian. When in 1551 the franciscans had to leave the Cenaculum and establish themselves in the Monastery of the Holy Savior, the archive was transferred with them and began to be enriched, nonstop, by the archivists who succeeded them.
The position of the archivist, as an office well defined and distinct from the others, is found for the first time in 1868 and in 1882 and it was only officially established in 1918. This discontinuity, together with other factors, like lack of care, destruction, and natural deterioration, has caused the lacunas in the archive. Such shortcomings however permit researchers to reconstruct history all the same, not only departing from the material present, but from fragmentary and even missing documents.

The type of documentation which over the centuries was archived, just as that which was thrown out, tells us much about the life of the Custody and of the evolution of the problems confronted in the Holy Land. The material of the archive is able to be divided into two historic periods, corresponding to the seats in which it found itself: the period of Mount Sion, from the XIV to the XVI century, and the period of the Monastery of the Holy Savior, from the XVII to today.

From the first period are preserved above all documents of a legal character and a provenance external to the Order. It holds pontifical bulls and public and private documents in arab, regarding authorizations, official awards, court verdicts, bills of sale, titles of ownership and of civil and ecclesiastical rights. From the type of material preserved it is deduced that the brothers in the first two centuries were principally preoccupied with legal facts because this is what permitted them to live and remain in the Holy Land.
In the second period, departing from the XVII century, the Custody evolved, adjoining organisms to its interior, as, for example, the Commissariats of the Holy Land, which in that century were receiving their full juridical expression. The archive, as a result, has recorded these developments: the exigencies of such new institutions, in fact, have made necessary a more precise and vigilant cataloging of documents.

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P.O.B. 186 9100101 Jerusalem - tel: +972 (02) 6266 561 - email: custodia@custodia.org