Post-classical history

Burchard of Mount Zion

A Dominican friar of German origin and author of a work known as Descriptio Terrae Sanctae, based on his travels in the Holy Land.

Crusaders at the gates of Jerusalem, from the thirteenth- century manuscript Descriptio Terrae Sanctae (Of the Holy Land), by Burchard of Mount Zion. (The Art Archive/Biblioteca Capitolare Padua/Dagli Orti)

Crusaders at the gates of Jerusalem, from the thirteenth- century manuscript Descriptio Terrae Sanctae (Of the Holy Land), by Burchard of Mount Zion. (The Art Archive/Biblioteca Capitolare Padua/Dagli Orti) 

No information is available about Burchard’s family or life other than what is known from his travelogue. After joining the Dominican Order, he entered its house at Magdeburg in northern Germany. By 1280 he went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and, while based in Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) during the three years of his travels in the East, became connected with the convent of Mount Zion, hence his epithet.

In 1283 Burchard compiled the Descriptio Terrae Sanctae on the basis of his travel recollections. It is the first systematic description of Cisjordanian Palestine after the Hebrew work of Ashtori Haparhi (c. 1217), which he did not know. The book includes the results of his own observations on Christian holy sites he had visited, as well as remarks on the topography, the fauna and flora, and the ethnopolitical conditions of the country, with particular emphasis on the city of Jerusalem. He was an excellent observer, critical and empirical by nature; he often challenged statements by previous authors, no matter how authoritative, if their accounts were contradicted by his own observations. For example, during his visit to Mount Gelboe, he experienced a heavy rain, despite King David’s curse: “neither let there be rain upon you” (2 Sam. 1:21); accordingly, he challenged the interpretation of the biblical text. Being aware of the historical evolution that had caused the destruction of many ancient Christian sites and monuments, he recommended digging through ruined strata in order to reach the authentic holy places.

Burchard’s description of Palestinian society is important eyewitness evidence about ethnic and social conditions in the Holy Land during the last generations of Frankish rule. Among the Christian population, he praised the Armenians for their piety; by contrast, he vehemently criticized the Latins for their immoral and criminal behavior, foreseeing the loss of the Holy Land due to their sins.

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