Greetings from Baghdad

A Sephardic Jew records his impressions of the city and its Jewish leadership in the 12th century.

Print this page Print this page

These are the ten batlanim [lit. “men of leisure;” here batlanim are men who had the leisure to devote themselves to community service] and they do not engage in any other work than communal administration; and all the days of the week they judge their countrymen, except on the second day of the week, when they appear before the chief Rabbi Samuel, the Gaon, who in conjunction with the other batlanim judges all those that appear before him.

And at the head of them all is Daniel the son of Hisdai, who is styled “Our Lord the Head of Captivity of All of Israel.”  He possesses a book of pedigrees going back as far as David, King of Israel. The Jews call him “Our Lord, Head of Captivity,” [or the Head of the Exile, the “Exilarch”] and the Mohammedans call him “Saidna beg Daoud,” [noble descendant of David], and he has been invested with authority over all the congregations of Israel at the hands of Emir al Muminin, the Lord of Islam [the caliph at Baghdad].

For thus Mohammed commanded concerning him and his descendents; and he granted him a seal of office over all the congregations that dwell under his rule, and ordered that every one, whether Mohammedan or Jew, or belonging to any other nation in his dominion, should rise up before him (the Exilarch) and salute him, and that any one who should refuse to rise up should receive one hundred stripes. And on every fifth day when he goes to pay a visit to the great Caliph, horsemen, Gentiles as well as Jews, escort him and heralds proclaim in advance, “Make way before our Lord, the son of David, as is due unto him…”

He is mounted on a horse and is attired in robes of silk and embroidery with a large turban on his head, and from the turban is suspended a long white cloth adorned with a chain upon which the cipher of Muhammad is engraved…

The authority of the Head of Captivity extends over all the communities of Shinar, Persia, Khurasan and Sheba which is El-Yemen, and Diyar Kalach (Bekr) and the land of Aram Naharaim (Mesopatamia), and over the dwellers in the mountains of Ararat and the land of the Alans [in the Caucasus]…His authority extends over Siberia and the communities in the land of the Turks …Further it extends to the gates of Samarkand and the land of Tibet and the land of India.

In respect of all these countries, the Head of the Captivity gives the communities power to appoint Rabbis and Ministers who come to him to be consecrated and to receive his authority. They bring him offerings and gifts from the ends of the earth. He owns hospices, gardens and plantations in Babylon, and much inherited from his fathers, and no one can take his possessions from him by force. He has a fixed weekly revenue arising from the hospices of the Jews, the markets and the merchants, apart from that which is brought to him from far off lands. The man is very rich and wise in the Scriptures as well as in the Talmud. And many Israelites dine at his table very day.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.