Antiquity of the central library of the Custody

By Fra Franco VALENTE OFM 

According to the information provided by the compilers of the Jerusalem Public Lending and Reference Libraries, the oldest libraries in Jerusalem are: that of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, founded in 1865; that of the École Biblique of the Dominicans, founded in 1890; that of the Hebrew University, founded in 1892; and that of the American School, founded in 1901. The archives are naturally excluded.
The oldest collections of the present central library of the Custody of the Holy Land are made up of books and manuscripts that were part of the library of the convent of Mount Sion, from which the Franciscans were expelled in 1551. It is therefore clear that the central library of the Custody is far older than all the libraries mentioned above. We can divide its life into two periods: before 1551 and after 1560-61.

The library of Mount Sion

Old book from St. Saviour's library
It is natural to suppose that people who are dedicated to study, prayer and the sacred ministry have a great love for books and procuring them is of great concern to them. This explains the formation of the convents’ libraries from the beginnings of the Franciscan Order in the 13th century.

The parent convent of the Franciscans of the Holy Land, the convent of Mount Sion, built in 1835, was no exception to this rule. The friars living there formed quite a large community: at first, there were twelve of them, but their number soon rose to twenty and more. Coming from all over Europe, they procured important manuscripts and, after the invention of printing, in the mid 15th century, the first books that rolled off the presses.

The convent’s library was thus built up. The Library and the Pharmacy of Mount Sion were well known to the countless pilgrims who enjoyed the Franciscans’ hospitality and were accompanied by them in their visits to the Holy Places.

This very old library of Mount Sion is consequently the most valuable collection of the library of St. Saviour. Naturally, over the centuries many books and manuscripts have been lost, however we think that the main part of it has come down to us and is preserved in the library of St. Saviour.

The manuscripts form the oldest part. Of those that have come down to us, one of the most valuable is a work on medicine by the greatest and most original of all Muslim doctors, Abu Bakr Muhammad IBN ZAKARIA AL RAZI (865-925). It is commonly known as Liber Almansoris, from the name of his patron, Mansur ibn Ishaq al-Samani. It is a large in-folio manuscript, from the end of the 13th century or the early 14th century, with the Latin translation of the Arabic work, decorated with beautiful miniatures in red and blue, and with many glosses. For a long time it was used by our doctors and nurses of Mount Sion.

Another important manuscript is the Mamotrectus or Correctorium of the Bible by the Franciscan Giovanni MARCHESINI of Reggio, in two copies, from the 14th century. The small codex containing a number of treaties by St. Bernardino of Siena is also of value (De contractibus et usuris and De restitutione) and by St. John of Capistrano (De matrimonio), copied around 1518 by Fra Hugo of Aquitaine, a Franciscan from Mount Sion, with two exquisite miniatures portraying the two saints.

However, not all the manuscripts in the library of the Custody come from Mount Sion. The majority were purchased later, with a good number of them through the efforts of Father Agustín ARCE, who was in charge of the library for almost forty years (from 1936).

The other important collection of the Custody’s library is made up of incunabula. They almost all come from the library of Mount Sion and are on all the subjects that formed the cultural background of the cultivated man of the period: the Bible, Law, Theology, Philosophy, Literature, Medicine, Casuistry, Ascetical Theology, History, Preaching, Decretals and Clementine Constitutions and Apologetics. They go from 1472 to 1500, the last date of the incunabula. There are texts and commentaries on the Bible, the Fathers, the Scholastic Theologians, such as Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Nicolaus de Ausmo, etc. The oldest incunabulum in our library is the Opus Quadragesimale by Roberto CARACCIOLO (Venice 1472). Worthy of mention are: the Sermons by St. Ephrem (Brescia 1490), the Fortalicium Fidei by the Franciscan Alfonso d’Espina (Nuremburg 1494), the Historia Ecclesiastica by Eusebius (Mantua 1479) and the De Civitate Dei by St. Augustine (Venice 1475).

The other great speciality of the Mount Sion library were the works on medicine. As there was a famous pharmacy in the convent and an infirmary for the friars and pilgrims, the most important works on medicine and surgery of the period were collected. The reader will find their detailed description in the work by Father ARCE Miscelánea de Tierra Santa volume I, in the chapter Libros antiguos de medicina en la Biblioteca de San Salvador (Jerusalem 1950), pp. 251-317.

Before ending these notes on the library of Mount Sion, it is worth recalling that many pilgrims explicitly mentioned having found many of the books there that they had been looking for: they include, Tucher (1479-80) in his Pilgerfahrt, in the Reyssbuch by Feyrabend, p. 306; Baumgarten (1507) in his Peregrinatio, p. 99, etc.

From Monte Sion to the convent of the Column

The library of Mount Sion was gradually moved in 1560-61 to the new convent, then called of the Column (deir el-’Amud) and now St. Saviour. Located above the small cloister of the original convent, which can still be seen, it remained there until the end of the 19th century, when the new library east to the sacristy was built, and which had previously been the choir and the presbytery of the first church of St. Saviour.

The library remained there until it was necessary to find it new premises to make room for new books and make it accessible to the public. After two years of work, from 1975 to 1977, the new library was ready: a fine room on the ground floor of the convent of St. Saviour, 28.20 metres long and with an average width of about 14 metres.

At the time of its move to the new convent, the library had a few hundred volumes: manuscripts, incunabula and books published in the fifteenth century. Nothing comparable to modern libraries. However, we should not be surprised by such a limited number of books and codices, as we know that the library of the Holy Convent of Assisi, which was the richest in the world after that of the Popes in Avignon, had just over 700 volumes in 1381; and the Vatican library, when NICHOLAS V organized it in 1447, had no more than 350 Latin codices, plus some in Greek and Arabic. This number soon rose to 1160 and to 3500 manuscripts and printed works in 1481 when SIXTUS IV enlarged the library.

The collections of manuscripts and printed works of the library of the Custody has also grown constantly, although not so quickly. A century after its installation in the new premises, it had about 2500 books; in the mid-19th century it held 12,000 books and in 1936 they numbered about 20,000. Today (2007) it has over 40,000 works. It also receives, by subscription or free of charge, many important journals on theology, liturgy, canon law, missionology, Oriental studies, history of the Church, hagiography, Franciscanism etc.

There are several reasons for this significant growth. The main one is the constant concern of those in charge of the library to enrich it. Of these, mention must be made of fra Cipriano da Treviso († 1883), the historian fra Girolamo GOLUBOVICH († 1941), fra Agustín ARCE, already mentioned above, and fra Sabino DE SANDOLI († 2001). The Commissariats of the Holy Land, in particular those of Madrid and Paris, and the fathers who are Delegates of the Holy Land in Rome, have provided many works of great value. Books left by deceased friars and those offered by private individuals and scientific societies have also greatly contributed to increasing and enriching the library.

Main treasures

In addition to the manuscripts and the incunabula we have discussed, the library of St. Saviour also has many rare and precious works from the 16th and 17th centuries; important collections such as the two Patrologies, in Greek and Latin, by MIGNE; the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists, in 70 in-folio volumes, and many other major works; the main encyclopaedias; many of the great dictionaries of theology, liturgy, archaeology, Holy Scripture, spirituality, canon law, ecclesiastical history and geography etc.; and above all the section on PALESTINOLOGY, including a rich collection of Itineraries in the Holy Land. This is its most specific and precious treasure: several hundred travel diaries, from the incunabulum of Breidenbach to the present day.

The library’s sections are : Palestinology, Custody of the Holy Land, the Christian Orient, Jewish and Talmudic studies, Islamic studies, Armenian studies, Arabic studies, History of the Crusades, History of the Middle East, History of the Church, Civil History, Geography, Dogmatic Theology, Moral Theology, Bible studies, Patrology, Christology, Ecclesiology, Councils, Mariology, Pastoral, Predicables, Liturgy, Spirituality, Catechetics, Apologetics, Canon Law, Franciscanism, Hagiography, Biographies, Literature in various languages, Greek and Latin literature, Art, Natural sciences and Medicine, Encyclopaedias, Lexicons and Grammars, Incunabula, Manuscripts and a number of other minor sections.

The St. Saviour library obviously has many sections, however its specialized subjects are particularly on the sanctuaries and the history of the Holy Land.

In all periods, the library has been visited and used by scholars, including, for example, CHATEAUBRIAND, SALZBACHER and the great bibliographers of Palestine TOBLER and RÖHRICHT.


ARCE A., La Biblioteca Central de la Custodia de Tierra Santa, in Tierra Santa, Jerusalem, 38, 411 (1963) 25-30.
Id., The Central Library of the Custody of the Holy Land Jerusalem, in Miscelánea de Tierra Santa III, Jerusalem, 1975, 444-456.
Id., La Bibliothèque Centrale de la Custodie de Terre Sainte, in Miscelánea de Tierra Santa IV, Jerusalem, 1982, 423-432.
Id., Libros antiguos de medicina en la Biblioteca de San Salvador, in Miscelánea de Tierra Santa I, Jerusalem, 1950, 251-317.
 Id., Itinerarios raros y preciosos de Palestina. Extractos, aportaciones y notas criticas, Jerusalem, 1963.
GOSSELIN N., La bibliothèque des Frères de la Corde au Mont Sion, in ACTS, Jerusalem, 30 (1985) II 377-400.
MISTRIH V., Catalogue des manuscrits arabes du couvent de St. Sauveur des Frères Mineurs à Jérusalem, in Studia Orientalia Christiana Collectanea, Cairo - Jerusalem, 33 (2000) 115-226.

By Fra Franco VALENTE OFM 
 former Director of the Library of St. Saviour.