Rejected in love, the Italian nobleman Pietro della Valle (1586–1652) set sail from Venice in 1614 hoping that a pilgrimage to Jerusalem would heal his broken heart. What began as a rather ordinary excursion, however, was destined to turn into an extraordinary 11-year sojourn that took della Valle through Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, Persia and India. With the financial means to follow his wide-ranging intellectual interests wherever they led him, he studied Turkish and Arabic in Constantinople, visited exotic locations unknown to most Renaissance Europeans and collected unusual artifacts throughout the Near East. Among the souvenirs he brought back from his travels were several drawings he had made of cuneiform texts in Persepolis. He also returned to Italy with a small cargo of Persian cats, a breed he is thought to have introduced into Europe.

But it was his diligence as a collector of rare manuscripts in foreign tongues that ultimately had an impact on biblical scholarship. For among the manuscripts della Valle purchased on his journey was a copy of the Samaritan Pentateuch (a page from a different copy is shown above)—the version of the Five Books of Moses that Samaritans hold sacred. He came upon the manuscript while visiting Damascus, then home to a small Samaritan community, which della Valle describes in one of the many letters he wrote during the course of his travels. Full of local color and keen observations (in his youth della Valle had been an orator and poet), the letters were addressed to a learned friend in Naples, who kept them in good order until they were eventually collected, edited and published in three volumes under the title Viaggi (Travels).

In the letter that contains his description of the Samaritan Pentateuch, della Valle also registers his first impression of Damascus—a city he observes with a distinctly European eye:

I reckon the city of Damascus to be as large as Naples, and in many things similar to Naples, as in its abundance of people, great, crowded suburbs, extensive gardens, abundance of silk and so on: and yet it lacks that beauty of buildings and streets, and that civilised style of living and splendour, that is the Italian fashion.1

Although his visit to Damascus took a brief turn for the worse when one of his servants, Tommaso, fell ill, della Valle went on to relate how, after an exhausting search for a doctor, he cheered himself up by undertaking a much more enjoyable search for Samaritan manuscripts:

For all my woes over Tommaso’s illness, I was consoled in just one morning, when I was taken by Father Michael and a Jewish friend of mine, an interpreter, to see…a few houses where there are some Samaritan Jews: for as well as the delight I took in seeing the gardens and the houses…I was in heaven over their richly illuminated Samaritan manuscripts and also their synagogue. I was also made very happy to see in the house of one of their…wise men, four books of the Sefer ha-Thorah [four Torah scrolls] of the Samaritan manuscripts I had been hunting for so diligently. These were all very ancient books, all written in Samaritan on large sheets of vellum, and three were purely in Hebrew, while one had the addition of some glosses in Arabic, as in Damascus these Semri or Samaritans presently speak the Arabic language…

To conclude, I was so successful with a little money and through the diligence of my Jewish interpreter, that two of the Sefer ha-Thorah manuscripts stayed in my hands: one of those, the best of the three on vellum, purely in Hebrew; and another, belonging to a woman, written on paper, but also very ancient, and very correct…

I took two of these books because one, namely that on vellum, which was in the Hebrew language using Samaritan writing, I wished to give to my friend Signore de Sancy, French Ambassador in Constantinople, who wanted this version and to whom I’ve already sent it.

After it passed into the hands of della Valle’s acquaintance in Constantinople, the Samaritan Pentateuch was included in the ten-volume Paris Polyglot Bible of 1645. A useful tool for scholars studying textual variations among different versions of the Bible, polyglot editions provide parallel columns that show the biblical text as it appears in key manuscripts written in various languages (e.g., Hebrew, Greek, Syriac and Latin). So the inclusion of the Samaritan Pentateuch in the Paris Polyglot Bible gave 17th-century scholars yet another important manuscript to compare with more familiar versions of the Hebrew Bible. As Ronald Hendel points out, the comparison yielded some unexpected results and gave della Valle’s discovery a prominent place in the history of biblical criticism.