Greetings from Baghdad
A Sephardic Jew records his impressions of the city and its Jewish leadership in the 12th century.
(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.]
In this city there are ten academies. At the head of the great academy is the chief rabbi, Rabbi Samuel, the son of Ali. He is the “Head of the Academy Which is the Excellency of Jacob” [the “Gaon”]. He is a Levite, and traces his pedigree back to Moses our teacher. His bother Rabbi Hananiah, a warden of the Levites, is head of the second academy. Rabbi Daniel is the head of the third academy. Rabbi Elazar the scholar is head of the fourth academy. Rabbi Elazar the son of Zemach is the head of the order, and his pedigree reaches to Samuel the prophet. He and his brethren know how to chant the melodies as did the singers at the time when the Temple was standing. He is the head of the fifth academy. Rabbi Hasday, the “glory of the scholars,” is head of the sixth academy. Rabbi Haggai the Nasi is head of the seventh academy. Rabbi Ezra is the head of the eighth academy. Rabbi Abraham, who is called Abu Tahir, is head of the ninth academy. Rabbi Zakkai, the son of Bostanai the Nasi, is head of the Sium [last academy].