Thomas Obicini of Novara 1620
The Custos of the Holy Land, Obicini da Novara, visited the sanctuary of the Annunciation and the fact that it was abandoned and deserted made such an impression on him that he wanted to free it.
His aim led him to the palace of the Emir Fakhr ad-Din II in Beirut who also ruled Nazareth. Due to his opposition to the Ottoman Empire, the Emir was exiled and lived in Italy between 1613 and 1618. This contact with the western world had made him open and well disposed towards Christians and the European powers. Later helped by the French consul Battista Tarquet who accompanied Obicini on his journey to Beirut, he was pardoned and allowed to return to his homeland. After his princeship, Lebanon grew economically and culturally. However, in 1636, in order to placate calls for the country’s independence, the Ottoman Sultan killed Fakhr ad-Din II and all the members of his family.
The Custos Obicini, who managed to obtain the Grotto of the Annunciation and Mount Tabor from the Emir, wrote a report in Latin about his meeting with the eminent figure, translated into Italian by Sabino de Sandoli. This donation on 29th November 1620 officially marked the start of the Franciscan possession of the venerated Grotto of Nazareth.
JOURNEY TO BEIRUT
«After having left, I tried to get to find out from a few Nazarene Moors about what the place was and who was in charge of the town. They replied: "The Prince of Sidon, called Emìr Fakhr ad-Din." As soon as I found out, I do not know what inspired me at that moment, but I immediately began to think about the recovery of this huge sanctuary, saying in my heart "I will go and find this Prince, I will ask for this holy place and, God permitting, bestower of all gifts, I will certainly preserve it."
This in truth, after six months, as I had thought at the time, and as I had intended when the idea came to me, was perfectly carried out; […] I calmly set off from the Holy city of Jerusalem to Sidon, travelling for six days.
A the end, not having found the Prince there, in company of Lord Battista Tarquet, consul of all Palestine in the name of the Christian King, Lord Albert Gardana who was consul in Sidon, Lord Francis Lebar, Prosecutor of the Holy Land, and of Lord Raphael, captain of the San Vittore ship, I left for Beirut, the city of the Phoenicia.
There, the aforementioned Prince was taking care of the new and comfortable arrangement of one of his houses and of a little wood; I was not only extremely well received by him, but also welcomed with every demonstration of kindness to a second banquet in the palace where he usually resided, again with the utmost cordiality. I finally briefly related the reason for my visit and told him of my wish to build the Holy Place in Nazareth.
After having listened to me, the Prince smilingly said: "I will the heavens to grant me this possibility: for Christians, I would do much more than what you expect: since I would give you and your brothers freely and willingly not just that place, but all other places in my domain, if he that now possesses them was cast out. Nonetheless, at present, in order to satisfy your pious and honest wishes, I give you the Holy Place of Nazareth and decree to offer it you again for the future […].
On hearing these words I was delighted and thanked him a thousand times; and the others who were there with me, did the same, full of joy. In this matter there is much to be wondered at, as this Prince, without the slightest delay and with a cheerful and open spirit freely gave us the Holy Place of Nazareth; what’s more, in contrast with the general custom of all the Turks, he spontaneously offered us funds for the restorations and again freely promised to bestow also other and dedicated Holy Places of Galilee; it was a pure wonder, I say, to the end he treated us with expression of courtesy, in the sense that he even wished to effectively recommend us to the former inhabitants of Nazareth!»
TAKING POSSESSION OF THE SANCTUARY
« And so, in the year of our salvation 1620, taking the commending letters of the Prince of Sidon and obtained all the relative documents for this matter from Cadì of Safed, and accompanied by a Chiaus of the Government of Safed and protected on the road by an escort of soldiers, along with the friar John of Vendôme, priest, and the Sicilian friar Francesco Salice, and with the testimonies that I will name below, we arrived safe and well in the Holy Place of Nazareth on 29th November, a Saturday; and you will see hereto the letters of the Princes and those read in front of the testimonies, the decrees of the Cadì, on the very day with our and even common day we ceremoniously took free and legal possession of the above mentioned Sanctuary.
Then, on entering the Holy Place, on the foundations of which once rested the holy house of Loreto, we entered the Holy Grotto where the Most Blessed Virgin Mary was greeted by the Angel; we piously, religiously venerated and devotedly worshipped both the places, as if we had seen the word become flesh with our very eyes. Afterwards, we began to clean a worthy church and a celebrated sanctuary and we blessed the ancient altar of the Annunciation erected by the Christians. We decorated the holy place with lamps. We lit up the Grotto, that was not very bright, with small lights and finally when everything was prepared to practice to divine cult, we solemnly sung the evensongs of Saturday and the last Sunday of Advent. »
DESCRIPTION OF THE GROTTO
«Once evensong and the Last Evening Prayers were finished, a few Moors, Arabs and Christians of Nazareth came and told us a few extraordinary facts that were handed down by their ancestors and are worth recording. Each day they attested unanimously to how God performed miracles in this place in honour of the blessed Mary who was always a Virgin; to tell the truth, we soon believed these stories to be true because they were narrated by non believers in testimony to our faith. In particularly, we believed the facts they told about the two columns located there since the ancient believers.
One of these was located on the same entrance or door of the Grotto, and was placed on the left to indicate the exact place where the archangel Gabriel stopped when he entered the Madonna’s dwelling. The second was placed close to this, but in front, almost two steps inside the Grotto. It conserved the memory of the most holy place in which not only the blessed Virgin Mary soon to be the Mother of God, praying well out of sight, was enunciated by the Angel, but also where the Word of the eternal Father, in the fullness of time and in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, miraculously became flesh, and lived among us. Not long before our arrival, this column was split on the lower part, five feet from the base, by a few superstitious African Moors who believed that it contained a great treasure, while the upper part remained in some way suspended from the ceiling of the Grotto. »
Unofficial translation from: Sabino De Sandoli, Riedizione e traduzione degli opuscoli di P. Tommaso Obicini da Novara sulle processioni nei Luoghi Santi e sull’acquisto dei santuari di Nazaret (1620) and Ain Karem (1621), in “Studia Orientalia Christiana Collectanea”, vol. 22, Jerusalem 1989, pp. 175-466