Greetings From Medieval Cairo

An Italian Jew records his impressions of Cairo and its Jews in the late fifteenth century.

Reprinted with permission from The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book by Norman A. Stillman (The Jewish Publication Society of America).

On Wednesday, the 13th of that month (June 1481), we reached Rosetta, a lovely town. We left the donkeys we had ridden outside the city past the main crossroad as is customary, since the Muslims will not issue a permit allowing the donkeys and mules to be lead into the city for anyone. Rather, when you arrive in some place, you must leave them. Some people immediately come and take charge of them, for they are appointed for this purpose.

So we dismounted from our donkeys outside the city, because no Jew or Christian is permitted to ride in any city even on donkeys. [Mamluks could ride horses.] The Jews wear yellow turbans on their heads in all the provinces of the Sultan’s domain.

We arrived in Cairo on Sunday June 17, 1481. I had come to see the Cairenes and their deeds. However, if I were to write about its wealth and its people, all of this book would not be sufficient. I swear that if it were possible to put Rome, Venice, Milan, Padua, Florence, and four more cities together, they would not equal in wealth and population half that of Cairo!

Cairo is more that eighty miles in circumference. If one were to ask, “Did you visit all of Cairo or count all the households and all the people?” I would look like a fool. But I can answer, by God, that the Chief Dragoman of the Sultan, whose name is Taghri Bindi, told me all this himself. He said that every night officials bring him a written report of all the daily births and deaths in the city…

I had gone to see him on the orders of the Nagid because he is of Jewish descent. He is a Spaniard who came to Egypt to convert to Judaism. But his ship ran aground and all aboard were captured. In order to gain his freedom he turned Moor. He speaks seven languages: Hebrew Italian, Turkish, Greek, Arabic, German, and French. All of the sultan’s court speaks Turkish. He gave me many gifts and privileges, so that I did not have to pay any duty on the gems I bought in Cairo, which are normally taxed at 10 percent. He also wrote to the Dragoman in Jerusalem ordering that he should not charge me anything, because there Jews pay three ducats a head.

There are in Cairo approximately 800 Jewish households, 150 Karaite households, and 50 Samaritan. You already know that the Karaites observe the Written Law, while the Samaritans observe some of the Written Law but they worship the things of this world…The Samaritans live by themselves and have their own synagogue…The Karaites too have their own synagogues. The good Jews who keep both the Written and the Oral Laws, as we do, also live by themselves and have six synagogues.

The Sultan has placed over the Jews, Karaites, and Samaritans a Jewish Nagid. He is an honored person, good and learned. His name is R. Solomon b. Joseph. He is very rich and respected. He is a native of these parts, and his father was a Nagid before him, a well as the sultan’s physician. The Nagid’s authority over the Jews extends throughout all the provinces of the Sultan and all his lands, in criminal and civil law. There is no appeal from his decisions. He has under him four judges…He has his own prison which is called Farishala Rushiti (?) [This prison is not mentioned in any other source.]

The noble Nagid sent for me on the second day of my stay in Cairo and treated me with the greatest respect. This was due to a Jew, R. Moses Marin de Villa Reale, a leading dealer in gems. He spoke well of me to him because twenty-two years ago he was at our house in Florence, and my father–may he rest in peace–received him very well at our estate Polveroso. He remembered the kindness my father showed him and told the Nagid about my father and myself, saying that we were rich, worth more than 100,000 ducats in those days. He also praised us highly.

As a result, from that day forth I had to sit between the Nagid and the judge in the synagogue. I also had to eat with him time and time again. And because his Excellency treated me with such respect in front of the entire congregation, they all honored me, and many of the notables called upon me, in particular R. Jacob Rakakh, the richest and most honored man in the community, and his father. They looked upon me as though I were royalty, and invited me to eat and drink with them with the Nagid’s permission. This is because no one would dare serve food or drink to any Jews whom the Nagid had already received as his guest, lest it should seem as if he wanted to be as great as the Nagid.

The Muslims are wicked and sin before God. One cannot place any trust in their word. They would be even worse were it not for fear of the Government. It is forbidden for any Jews or Christian to raise his second finger at a Muslim or be killed. It is also forbidden for them to go up in their mosques.

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