Matilde Serao

Nel paese di Gesù. Ricordi di un viaggio in Palestina, Naples, 1907

Matilde Serao (Patrasso, 1856 – Naples, 1927), an Italian journalist who allied her narrative abilities with a love for reporting, visited Palestine in the spring of 1893. She subsequently published her account of the voyage in the book “In the Country of Jesus”, in which she brought together her impressions and memories, defining herself as a “sentimental voyager” “who wanted to see the heartbeat of the soul of the countries through which she passed”.
In the selected passage, Serao describes Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century, with its multitude of races and religious figures coming to the Tomb.

“Then follows a crowd of Turks, Arabs, Egyptians, Europeans, in turbans, fez, caps, hats, rich, poor, even beggars, the latter sometimes so horrible and misshapen as to inspire both pity and disgust.
They bend over the Sepulchre, genuflect and depart. And now come members of the various religious orders; brown-cloaked Franciscans, white-robed Dominicans, Greek priests in high black hats, Armenian priests with great black silk hoods under which glitter their flashing eyes and waving black beards, the Latin missionaries, nuns of St. Joseph, European women who live in Jerusalem and lead a sort of monastic life, dressed in dark habits, throng in to venerate the Tomb of their Lord.
Mingled with these good people is a crowd of children, boys and girls, big and little, belonging to all nationalities, who approach and kiss the Sepulchre.
They are especially numerous during the hours when the schools are closed, and it is a touching sight to watch these little creatures come in silently, and push their way on tiptoe through the throng of grown-up people, in their childish endeavour to kiss the sacred Stone on which they laid Him who bade little children come unto Him.
I remember one day seeing a tiny brown mite in a yellow and red tunic tied round the waist by a ribbon, wearing no stockings, and laughing as he tried in vain, being too short, to reach up and kiss the Tomb.
Twice he attempted to jump up and touch it with his lips, and twice fell back. At last I raised him in my arms, and he, all joyously, kissed the marble with a number of little resounding kisses. Yalla ! yalla ! (Go away ! go away !) cried sharply the Armenian priest who was on watch; though I noticed he smiled all the same. And as the child with his little bare feet ran quietly away the priest sprinkled him with rose-scented holy water.” 

(From the translation In the Country of Jesus, London, 1905, pp. 55-56)