A pilgrim’s pre-Ottoman progress

The Levantine adventures of an Italian small-town lawyer

By Roger Williams | January 17, 2019


Author John Mole set the clock back to the times of Chaucer in his Anglo-Turkish Society/Royal Anthropological Institute lecture in Bloomsbury last night as he described a pilgrimage to the Monastery of St Catherine in Egypt and the holy sites of Jerusalem undertaken by an Italian lawyer. So short in stature that he nearly drowned when going ashore, and so short-sighted that he could not appreciate distant mountains, Nicola Martoni seemed unfit for a journey that should have taken a couple of months, but took a year. John Mole had come across a copy of Martoni’s own account of his 1394 journey from the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris and translated the Latin text that was peppered with local Neapolitan words. Martoni was a middle-aged professional man from the small town of Carinola in Campania, from where he and his party sailed to Alexandria, before crossing the Sinai desert in mid-summer and heading up to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, returning by way of Greece.

As well as describing the hardships of the journey – the Aegean tempests, sickness, hunger, pirates, brigands and a scorching desert – during which five companions died, Martoni highlights the diversity of states and peoples of the time. Here, Mole explained, was a kaleidoscope of empires, kingdoms, dukedoms, islands, city states, robber bands and pirate gangs, competing and warring with each other. There were Latin-speaking Catholic Christians, Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, and Arabic or Turkish-speaking Muslims, as well as Jews, Albanians and Armenians. In his lecture, titled ‘Martoni’s Pilgrimage: the Levant before the Pax Ottomana’, he said that the arrival of the Ottomans brought a welcome stability to the mêlée.

John Mole's previous books include The Sultan’s Organ: The Diary of Thomas Dallan 1599, and It’s All Greek To Me! about life in the village where he has lived in Greece. He has been to many of the places that were visited and described by Martoni. “The one place I haven’t been to is Martoni’s home town of Carinola,” he says. “But I sent them a copy of the book.”

Martoni’s Pilgrimage 1394 by John Mole is published by Fortune at £7.99. There is also an edition with the original, parallel Latin text. To order through Amazon visit the author's website.

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