The acquisition of the site of Capernaum

fra Giuseppe Baldi

The principal credit for acquiring the ruins of Capernaum on behalf of the Custody of the Holy Land belongs to fra Giuseppe Baldi. The Custos at that time, Aurelio Briante, expressed his intentions in the following manner in an 1886 letter: “For these things, that is, the purchase of Capernaum, there is no one other than fra Giuseppe of Naples and the Dragoman to turn to, in order to avoid being swindled.”

The purchase was a long and complicated affair. 
From the very beginning, a growing number of people presented themselves as owners of the land.
The Samakieh Bedouin tribe, who owned a large part of that side of the lake, saw an opportunity to make a large profit by selling for a considerable sum a piece of land that up to that point had been worthless. Moreover, other potential purchasers appeared, some of them backed by considerable economic resources: one offered 1,500 napoleons and the Jews, for their part, went as high as 2,000. A third interested buyer said that he wanted to purchase not only the ruins of Capernaum but also those of Corazin. Then there were the Greek Orthodox, a European Catholic company, and still others who tried by all means possible to acquire the property.

The situation of the Custody at that point did not appear very promising: it lacked the funds for the purchase and the Ottoman government had shown itself to be hostile. Nevertheless, fra Giuseppe Baldi continued to conduct the negotiations with the Bedouins in a prudent manner in order to arrive at the desired objective. All eyes were turned towards the friars.

On 17 August 1890, when the affair was on the point of being concluded, a telegram suddenly arrived from the land registry office in Beirut ordering the suspension of the negotiations. They wanted to know the first and last names of the seller and a description of the property, more specifically what sort of “precious antiquity” was lying on it. This telegram turned out to be more helpful than might at first be thought. It in fact had the advantage of making the whole operation of acquiring the land more transparent, placing the Custody in a much clearer position vis-à-vis the Ottoman government. Fra Giuseppe Baldi intensified his efforts with regard to both the sellers and the authorities in Safed, Acre and Beirut.

The numerous letters exchanged between fra Giuseppe and the Custody illustrate the enthusiasm of these days, and on the first of October 1890 fra Giuseppe wrote to tell the Father Custos that on 27 September he had received from Tiberias the 206 documents for the property and that everything was in order. The Custody had become the owner of Capernaum! But this was not to be the last word.
The Bedouins, hoping to obtain even more money for the sale, had tried to hide away a small piece of the land prior to the conclusion of the transactions.
To foil this attempt, the Franciscans immediately erected a wall surrounding the property and built a hospice for protecting the ruins that, in the meantime, had continued to be looted.

But the story was still not finished. Despite the legal sales agreement with the Samakieh Bedouins that had been worked out between their authorized representative, whose name was Barbur, and Signore Bauab on behalf of the Custody, the claims of other “sellers” continued to be pressed, in each case strongly opposed by Fra Giuseppe.

During the second half of December a very inopportune development occurred: the Governor of Safed, who had been favorable to the Custody, was replaced by Musa Effendi, son of the head of the city of Jerusalem. He encouraged the agent of the Bedouins to accuse Signore Bauab of defrauding the government, on the grounds that the acquisition had been carried out through unofficial channels in order to circumvent the prohibition under Ottoman law of property sales to foreigners.
A difficult period then ensued: several individuals who had been well paid by the Custody to help out with the transaction wound up complicating the situation, by openly revealing that the land and the ruins had been purchased by the Custody. At this point a priest from the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem entered the scene who, through his friendship with the Secretary of the Pasha of Acre, interceded on behalf of Fra Giuseppe Baldi.
The Jews, seeing that the property had been acquired by the Custody, also sought, though without success, to advance their cause with the government.

During the month of July an order arrived from Beirut to stop all works on the hospice, and the whole complicated affair, with all its expenses and headaches, started all over again. The Custody made various attempts to resolve the situation through intermediaries, initially through the Secretary of the Pasha, then via the Apostolic Delegate to Syria, Msgr. Gaudenzio Bonfigli.
Just when these efforts seemed to be on the point of bearing fruit, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople lodged a claim for the land at Capernaum, declaring that the property in question had belonged to the Greeks, that there had also been a church there and that the land had been stolen by a Dervish Aga. The resulting tumult only died down when, after a scrupulous examination of the case, the Pasha of Acre declared that the lands in question had never belonged to the Greeks. 

The frequent reshuffling of government posts among various officials between 1892 and 1894 meant that the issue of Capernaum, which passed through the hands of various people who tried to resolve the problem by means of intrigues, was left hanging. Fra Giuseppe Baldi, after having put in so much work on the matter, departed the scene.

Finally, after eight years of negotiations and innumerable obstacles, on 19 September 1894 the “Capernaum affair” finally ended, and all titles to the land, which at time was known as “Cushan”, passed into the name of the Custody of the Holy Land.