Author Archives: Benjamin of Tudela

Benjamin of Tudela

About Benjamin of Tudela

Benjamin of Tudela was a rabbi and world traveler. In 1165/6 he set off on a voyage through the Mediterranean region, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Arabia, Egypt, and other places in Asia Minor and the Near East, before returning to Spain in 1173 and publishing an account of his travels. His Book of Travels has been translated into many languages.

Greetings from Baghdad

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(trans. Marcus Nathan Adler)

Benjamin of Tudela was a rabbi and world traveler. In 1165/6, he set off on a voyage through the Mediterranean region, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Arabia, Egypt, and other parts of Asia Minor and the Near East, returning to Spain in 1173, where he published the famous account of his journeys through the Jewish world. His Book of Travels has been translated into many languages, and is considered one of the most important descriptive works of the twelfth century.

The object of Tudela’s journey is unknown. Scholars speculate that he was a merchant and his voyage was a commercial venture. His Book of Travels contains information on many Jewish communities of the twelfth century, as well as general geographic, demographic, political, economic, and social conditions and descriptions of places which have made the work a classic

The following portrays Jewish self-government in Baghdad during the Abbasid caliphate, c. 1168. Benjamin of Tudela records the structure and function of the political leader of the Jews, the Exilarch (“Head of the Captivity”) and the spiritual and religious leaders of the Jewish community, the geonim, who headed the famous academies.  

Thence [from Hadara], it is two days to Baghdad, the great city and the royal residence of the Caliph Emir al Muminin al Abbasi of the family of Muhammad. He is at the head of the Mohammedan religion, and all the kings of Islam obey him; he occupies a similar position to that held by the Pope over the Christians. He has a palace in Baghdad three miles in extent, wherein a great park with all varieties of trees, fruit bearing and otherwise, and all manner of animals.

 

There the great king, Al Abbasai the Caliph holds his court, and he is kind unto Israel, and many belonging to the people of Israel are his attendants; he knows all languages and is well versed in the law of Israel. He reads and writes the holy language (Hebrew)…

In Baghdad there are about 40,000 Jews and they dwell in security, prosperity and honor under the great Caliph, and amongst them are great sages, the heads of the Academies engaged in the study of the law. [This population figure is greatly exaggerated. Scholars estimate Jewish population in Baghdad at this time was closer to 4000.]

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Greetings from Constantinople

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(trans. Marcus Nathan Adler)

Benjamin of Tudela was a rabbi and world traveler. In 1165/6 he set off on a voyage through the Mediterranean region, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Arabia, Egypt, and other places in Asia Minor and the Near East, before returning to Spain in 1173 and publishing an account of his travels. His Book of Travels has been translated into many languages and is considered one of the most important descriptive works of the twelfth century.

The object of Tudela’s journey remains unknown. Scholars speculate that he was a merchant and his voyage was a commercial venture. His Book of Travels contains information on various Jewish communities of the twelfth century alongside general geographic, demographic, political, economic, and social conditions.

The following selection contains Benjamin of Tudela’s description of Constantinople. He is specifically interested in the lot of the Jews in this mercantile center. His description is in remarkable contrast to his impressions of Baghdad, for example, where Jews had a more favored status under the Muslim caliphate.

After a five days’ journey the great town of Constantinople is reached. It is the capital of the whole land of Javan, which is called Greece. Here is the residence of King Emanuel the Emperor. Twelve ministers are under him, each of whom has a palace in Constantinople and possesses castles and cities; they rule all the land…

The circumference of the city of Constantinople is eighteen miles; half of it is surrounded by the sea, and half by land, and it is situated upon two arms of the sea, one coming from the sea of Russia and one from the sea of Sepahrad [Spain].

All sorts of merchants come here from the land of Babylon, from the land of Shinar, from Persia, Media, and all the sovereignty of the land of Egypt, from the land of Canaan, and the empire of Russia, from Hungary, Patzinakia [country from the Danube to the Dneiper], Khazaria [southern provinces of Russia], and the land of Lombardy and Sepharad. It is a busy city and merchants come to it from every country by sea or land, and there is none like it in the world except Baghdad, the great city of Islam

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