Greetings from Constantinople
A Sephardic Jew records his impression of the city and its Jewish inhabitants in the twelfth 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 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
In Constantinople is the church of Saint Sophia, and the seat of the pope of the Greeks, since the Greeks do not obey the pope of Rome. There are also churches according to the number of days of the year. A quantity of wealth beyond telling is brought hither year by year as tribute from the two islands and the castle and villages which are there.
The Greek inhabitants are very rich in gold and precious stones, and they go clothed in garments of silk and with gold embroidery, and they ride horses, and look like princes. Indeed, the land is very rich in all cloth stuffs, and in bread, meat and wine. Wealth like that of Constantinople is not to be found in the whole world. Here also are men learned in all the books of the Greeks, and they eat and drink every man under his vine and fig tree….
No Jews live in the city, for they have been placed behind an inlet of the sea. An arm of the sea of Marmon shuts them in on one side, and they are unable to go out except by way of the sea when they want to do business with the inhabitants. In the Jewish quarter there are about 2000 Rabbinite Jews and about 500 Karaites, and a fence divides them. Amongst the scholars are several wise men, at their head being the chief rabbi Rabbi Abtalion, Rabbi Obadiah, Rabbi Aaton Bechor Shoro, Rabbi Joseph Shir-Guru and Rabbi Eliakim, the warden. And amongst them are artificers in silk and many rich merchants.
No Jew there is allowed to ride on horseback. The one exception is Rabbi Solomon Mahitari, who is the king’s physician, and through whom the Jews employ considerable alleviation of their oppression. For their condition is very low, and there is much hatred against them, which is fostered by the tanners, who throw out their dirty water in the streets before the doors of the Jewish houses and defile the Jews’ quarter.
So the Greeks hate the Jews, good and bad alike, and subject them to great oppression, and beat them in the streets, and in every way treat them with rigour. Yet the Jews are rich and good, kindly and charitable, and bear their lot with cheerfulness. The district inhabited by the Jews in called Pera.
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