The Zucker Holy Land Travel Manuscript takes us on a tour through the Holy Land as it was known, geographically, both in Biblical times and at the end of the 17th century.

It describes many sites of Biblical significance, starting with Damascus and ending with the grave of Mary. The author of this German manuscript was equally interested in the Holy Land’s geography and cartography; flora and fauna; history; ethnicities; economy; and languages. In these pages, we can read in detail about the appearance of cedar trees, learn that a physician was “swallowed and devoured” (“eingeschlucket und verschlungen”) by a crocodile in the Jordan River, and hear about an unknown—to the author—animal living in the woods on Mount Tabor—to cite just a few examples.

Bound in near-contemporary vellum and in excellent condition, the manuscript contains over five hundred pages. Approximately one-half are closely written, with substantial marginal glosses, in “Kurrentschrift.” Many of the pages show faint traces of pencilled ruling. The manuscript lacks a title-page, contents, or introduction but does include a carefully-prepared index at the end of the volume, and no text appears to be missing (the text commences, seemingly arbitrarily, with the description of Damascus). Interspersed with the written text are remarkable drawings in brown ink. Some of these drawings illustrate the text figuratively, showing natural products or features; others are maps of sections of the Holy Land (modern Israel, Lebanon, and Syria) or of particular cities within the region. The manuscript also includes seven fold-out maps. Approximately fifty pages were apparently meant to contain drawings but have been left blank. Some drawings are unfinished. Numerous pages in the manuscript also include miniature ink drawings adjacent to the text, in the margins. The care taken in the preparation of the manuscript suggests that it was not meant to be printed, but may have been intended only for private circulation or presentation.

The manuscript’s text as well as parts of the included illustrations are based on Olfert Dapper’s “Asia, oder, Genaue und gründliche Beschreibung des gantzen Syrien und Palestins, oder belobten Landes [...]: aus verschiedenen alten und neuen Scribenten so wol/als dem Berichtwarhafftiger Augeszeugen und Untersucher zusammen getragen (1681),“ a German translation of the 1677 Dutch original. Both the original and the German translation were printed by Jacob von Meursen in Amsterdam. Olfert Dapper (also Oliver Dapper) (1636-1689) was a physician and author of various geographical works; his text is, for its time, a modern book with an extensive collection of relevant facts about the Holy Land, omitting curiosities, quite unlike previous works. The writer of the Zucker manuscript borrowed certain passages literally. Nevertheless, all the maps of the Zucker Holy Land Travel Manuscript as well as some of the illustrations have additional sources. The manuscript-author also added his own notes, comments, and Hebrew spellings of various words to Dapper’s text.

The manuscript was written by a scholar in the late 17th century, between 1690 and 1700. The time span can be deduced from its main source, the 1681 German translation of Dapper’s book, and, more importantly, by the watermarks of the paper used by the manuscript-author. The watermark is an ascending bear—the coat of arms of Bern. This exact watermark was very likely used by the papermakers “Güntisberger Erben” (heirs of Güntisberger) in the “Mühle zum Thal” in Worblaufen near Bern in the years from 1690 to 1700.[1]

The most recent quotation used by the author comes from a book not printed until 1702; as it is added in the margin below the text, which is quite unusual for the manuscript, it could also have been added to the manuscript at a later point.

The manuscript cites—based on Dapper—sixty-five identifiable, named sources, among them authors from the middle of the 17th century whom the manuscript-author refers to as contemporaries.

It is known, that the Dutch author Olfert Dapper, writer of the main source, never travelled to the Holy Land himself. The lack of additional details in the descriptions in the manuscript when compared to Dapper, indicate that the manuscript-author had not visited Palestine and Syria either. He, without comment, repeatedly adopts Dapper’s references to authors who had seen cities and landscapes that he had not. It seems likely that the manuscript-writer only made use of existing sources (literature and maps), as was a common practice in the young scholarly branch of geography in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In addition to the watermarks, there are important clues which suggest that the origin of this beautifully-illustrated book may be in Switzerland, and more precisely in the Canton of Bern. The comparison of the language in the Dapper-book and manuscript reveals the latter as a liberal copy in which an Upper German dialect (spoken in parts of Switzerland and South Germany) is noticeable. The head of an animal is described as “scharpf” (sharp) instead of “scharf” (page 205). The word “kauen” (chewing) in the German translation of the book by Dapper appears in the manuscript as “kewen” (page 14). In addition to that, the author varies, unlike Dapper’s German translation, between two different signs placed above the letter u: he uses “ů” to indicate the uo-sound typical to the Upper German dialects. Moreover, the manuscript-author also compares the Dead Sea with the lake of Geneva at one point.

Next to the paper from Bern, the most convincing piece of evidence that the manuscript was written by a Swiss can be found on page 14: the manuscript-author quotes a passage where Dapper writes that there were no cedar trees in Western Europe. The manuscript-author however objects to that in the margin: “Dennoch hab ich inß H[erre]n Schultheiß von Graferieds matten neben einem weyer darin zween junge gesehen [Zedern], wie auch inß J[unke]r L[an]dtv[ogt] Mäys garten im Sahli.” (“Even though I saw in Mayor von Graffenried’s garden beside a pond two young ones [cedar trees] and also in Mäy’s garden in Sahli.”) The Graffenrieds and the Meys were important noble families in the 17th century, from the Swiss city of Bern. This is the only place in the whole manuscript in which the first person singular, “I,” is used. Since he did not feel the need to add that it was in Bern where he saw those cedar trees, it appears that he was so familiar with the place that it did not bear mentioning. From this we may conclude that the author was most likely from the Bern area himself. 

We may also surmise that the author was probably born sometime in the middle of the 17th century or later, and that he was a well educated man with an academic background in Protestant theology by the date of composition (in the 1690’s). His protestant background can mainly be seen from his choice of Dapper as a main source. He would have been impressed by the beautiful and detailed book by the Dutch author. The manuscript writer adds in the margin quotations from the Old Testament that show his interest and knowledge of theology.

The author makes one important change while copying Dapper: he adds the vocalized Hebrew spelling of certain key words or place names. The manuscript-author also departs from Dapper’s text by omitting the Portuguese spelling Dapper provided for these same terms. This shows the author’s special concern with the Hebrew language.

He was well versed in history, and was trained in drawing—if he made the illustrations himself—and that he did so seems very likely because the text is so closely connected to the intricate ink drawings which often illustrate the sites discussed in the text. Also, the drawings reveal the same handling of sources as the text: fragments from different sources are chosen and arranged in a new picture.    

There seems to be a special focus on these time consuming drawings. The manuscript holds equally as many picture pages as text pages. Again Dapper functions as a repository but not a comprehensive one. In addition, the manuscript holds detailed maps from several other sources.

From what we know about the knowledge and interest of the author, we may even make some additional hypotheses about his background. In his youth he likely attended a Latin school; he may well have become a Protestant pastor and could even have taught as a professor at a “Hohe Schule,” respectively university. He displays a deep knowledge of theology and of Biblical Hebrew. He had personal connections to socially important families in Bern, as we have seen. Furthermore, the almost playful way in which some of the manuscript’s pages are, quite literally, constructed, may hint at some aspects of the writer’s character. We could make the presumption that a (possibly young) scholar made this beautiful book to honour or impress a friend, patron or noble.

Anna Baechtold
Visiting scholar from the University of Bern, Switzerland 


  1. ^ See: Johann Lindt, The paper-mills of Berne and their watermarks, 1465-1859 […], Hilversum, 1964, plate 71 and p. 166.