Benjamin of Tudela

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Benjamin of Tudela

c. 1127
Tudela, Spain

Castile, Spain

Rabbi, traveler, and writer

Middle Ages">

"The city of Bagdad [Baghdad] is...situated in a land of palms, gardens and plantations, the like of which is not to be found in Shinar....Wise men live there, philosophers who know all manner of wisdom, and magicians expert in all manner of witchcraft."

—Benjamin of Tudela, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Travels in the Middle Ages.

Benjamin of Tudela (pronounced to-DAY-la) is the author of one of the most famous early travel books, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. A rabbi (religious scholar and leader) originally from Spain, Benjamin set out on a world journey around 1159. During the next fourteen years he traveled to more than three hundred cities, including areas in Greece, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Arabia. He is also believed to be the first European to approach the borders of China. The book he wrote to describe these travels, Massoath Schel Rabbi Benjamin (first translated in the 1840s), provides scholars with one of the first eyewitness accounts of life in the Middle Ages throughout parts of southern Europe and the Middle East. Benjamin also gave good descriptions of the physical conditions under which Jewish people lived in these regions. Other topics he reported on include politics, commerce (trade), and geography.

A Son of Navarre

Born around 1127 in the city of Tudela, located in the northern Spanish province of Navarre, Benjamin came of age in a time of relative religious tolerance in Spain. Members of the Sephardic community (Sefarad is the Hebrew word for Spain), Benjamin's ancestors were part of the diaspora, or migration, of Jews who had come to the Iberian, or Spanish, Peninsula with the Roman legions, though some historians date their arrival to as early as the sixth century b.c.e. In any case, by the twelfth century c.e. the Sephardim (Spanish Jews) made up 90 percent of the world's Jews. In Spain, unlike other regions of Europe, Jews could be found in cities, towns, and villages and were active in all walks of life.

Part of the Spanish mix was also its Moorish history. Since the early eighth century c.e., the Muslims of northwestern Africa of both Arab and native Berber descent had become the rulers of much of the Iberian Peninsula. These Moors, as they were called, formed an Islamic outreach in mainland Europe. The Moorish rulers created a tolerant as well as a multicultural climate, emphasizing science, art, and philosophy. In the Spain, or al-Andalus, in which Benjamin grew up, Muslims, Christians, and Jews all lived in harmony. A golden age of learning and the arts transformed Spanish society. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (see entry) and the Arab philosopher Averroës (see entry) were both products of this cosmopolitan, or worldly, atmosphere.

Tudela, a town close to the French border, received its first Jewish families in the eleventh century, when it was still under Moorish control. In 1119—about a decade before the birth of Benjamin—the city and its surrounding kingdom were conquered by Alfonso I, the Christian king of Pamplona and Aragon. As a result of this power shift, the Arab population was forced to relocate to a new quarter beyond the city walls, while the Jewish residents maintained a legal footing almost equal to that of Christians, who were now in control. An atmosphere of tolerance reigned in Tudela, if not in other parts of Spain, where repression and intolerance toward Jew and Muslim alike was becoming the order of the day.

Benjamin studied to be a rabbi, specializing in the halachah, or Jewish religious law. Little else is known about his private life until about 1159 (or even later), when he set out on the travels that would take him through much of the known world. Marcus Nathan Adler, translator and editor of Benjamin's travel journal, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, has suggested possible reasons for the rabbi's journey. Noting that Jews in the Middle Ages were "much given to travel," Adler describes Benjamin as "the wandering Jew, who kept up communications between one country and another. He had a natural aptitude [ability] for trade and travel. His people were scattered to the four corners of the earth." In fact, looking at Benjamin's impressive travel plan, there is hardly a place mentioned that did not have a Jewish population. With fellow Jews so numerous and widespread, it made traveling in these days before organized transportation much easier; at the very least there would be a friendly face awaiting Benjamin at the end of his daily journey.

Adler also observes that during the Crusades—the two centuries of conflict between the Christian West and the Muslim Middle East over control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land—tolerance for different religions was breaking down. Jews as well as Muslims were discriminated against throughout Europe, especially along the Crusader routes through Europe to Palestine. Adler concludes:

It is not unlikely, therefore, that Benjamin may have undertaken his journey with the object of finding out where his expatriated [exiled] brethren [brothers] might find an asylum [safe place]. It will be noted that Benjamin seems to use every effort to trace and to afford particulars [give details] of independent communities of Jews, who had chiefs of their own, and owed no allegiance [loyalty] to the foreigner.

Adler also mentions trade and business interests as another possible motive for making this very difficult journey.

On the Road

At the time Benjamin set out on his journey, the Second Crusade (1147–49) was ten years in the past. Benjamin's goal may not have been to give an account of this struggle between Christians and Muslims, but during the course of his travels he did visit flash points, or tense areas, in the ongoing combat between Crusades. Beginning his travels with the Spanish city of Saragossa as his first destination, he took two days to reach the ancient town of Taragona, some of whose buildings dated to the time of ancient Greece. From there he traveled to Barcelona, where, Benjamin wrote (in the Adler edition of the Itinerary), "there is a holy congregation, including sages, wise and illustrious men," and listed some of the prominent Jews of the city. Benjamin also described the city in terms of geography and commerce: "This is a small city and beautiful, lying upon the seacoast. Merchants come thither [here] from all quarters with their wares, from Greece, from Pisa, Genoa, Sicily, Alexandria in Egypt, Palestine, Africa and all its coasts."

This is the basic formula Benjamin followed throughout his travels: he noted the presence or absence of a Jewish community in all the places he visited, observing who were the most famous scholars or men of commerce or science. He also commented on the economic conditions in such places and about what sorts of businesses and commercial activities were taking place. Often he included notes of a more "touristy" nature, such as descriptions of famous buildings and, in particular, beautiful scenery.

From Spain Benjamin crossed into France at Montpellier and Marseilles. There he commented on the beginnings of what became known as the Albigensian Crusade, the suppression of a sect, or group, of religious reformers in the south of France who were considered heretics, or persons who hold religious beliefs contrary to traditional church doctrine. From Marseilles he boarded a ship bound for the Italian peninsula, landing in Genoa and also visiting Pisa and Luca on his way to Rome. Benjamin found few Jews in northern Italy. In Rome he estimated that there were about two hundred in all, many of them well known; some even worked for the pope, the leader of the western Christian church. Benjamin also commented on the historical sites of the city, including the ruins of ancient Rome. From there he proceeded south through Naples to the eastern coast of Italy and on to Brindisi and Otranto, where he caught a ship for Corfu, an island near Greece.

Out of Europe

In Thebes, located north of Athens, Benjamin was surprised to find a very healthy Jewish community of two thousand, with rabbis who showed a high degree of learning. Passing through the northern Greek city of Salonika, he traveled on to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, in Turkey), the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Christian, eastern half of the old Roman Empire. He reached this city in December 1161. Although he was impressed with the magnificent mosque, or Muslim place of worship, of Saint Sophia and was present to document the marriage of Emperor Manuel Comnenus (1143–1180), he was disappointed by the way the Jewish community was being treated in this otherwise great city. The Jews were forced to live in a ghetto, a zone where only Jews resided; were denied such basic rights as riding a horse; and were generally singled out for bad treatment by the rest of the population.

His lengthy stay in Constantinople allowed Benjamin to record some of his most detailed observations. His comments about the military spirit of the city are interesting:

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 his fig tree. They hire from amongst all nations warriors called Loazim (Barbarians) to fight with the Sultan Masud, King of the Togarmim (Seljuks), who are called Turks; for the natives are not warlike, but are as women who have no strength to fight.

From Constantinople, Benjamin sailed past the islands of the Aegean Sea on his way to the island of Cyprus, where he found a Jewish sect that did not observe the holy day of the Sabbath. From there he crossed to the mainland at Antioch, near present-day Syria, entering lands still held by the Crusaders, those Christian soldiers and knights who had first entered the region in 1096 as part of the First Crusade (1095–99) and had maintained their kingdoms in the Holy Land ever since. Traveling south, he recorded observations about the Ismaili religious sect (subgroup of Islam) known as the Assassins, located near Lebanon. The followers of this sect believed in eliminating their opponents by killing them, thus giving rise to the English word "assassin."

Moving farther south, Benjamin praised the harbor of Tyre as being one of the finest in the world. He next passed through Acre and into the Holy Land and Jerusalem, which he described as "a small city, fortified by three walls. It is full of people whom the Muhammadans call Jacobites, Syrians, Greeks, Georgians and Franks, and of people of all tongues," including a Jewish community of about two hundred. He visited many other locations in the Holy Land, such as Hebron and Bethlehem—he was given free access to these places by the Crusaders—before again traveling north to Damascus, a city that, as he noted, was the seat of the powerful sultan Nur al-Din (1118–1174), who was also the patron of the up-and-coming military leader Saladin (see entry). There he found a community of three thousand Jews, among whom "are learned and rich men."

From northern Syria he crossed into Mesopotamia (part of present-day Iraq), visiting Baghdad, which was considered the largest city in the world at the time and was the seat of the caliphs, or Muslim leaders, who controlled the entire Islamic region. As Benjamin explained it, Baghdad was

the great city and the royal residence of the Caliph Emir al Muminin al Abbasi of the family of Muhammad [the founder of the religion of Islam]. He is at the head of the Muhammadan religion, and all the kings of Islam obey him; he occupies a similar position to that held by the Pope over the Christian.

Benjamin noted that he found forty thousand Jews dwelling in "security, prosperity and honour under the great Caliph." Although later observers have questioned this high figure, it is clear that Jews formed a significant part of the population of this city. Some of Benjamin's best descriptions come from his stay in Baghdad. He painted a colorful picture of the court life of the city and also wrote of the schools for the study of Jewish religious and civic law.

From Persia to Egypt

Scholars have noted that Benjamin's descriptions and comments between leaving Baghdad (c. 1164) and arriving in Egypt (c. 1171) seem somewhat far-fetched. It is not known how much of this was the result of his imagination and how much was based on observation. As the writer C. Raymond Beazley noted in The Dawn of Modern Geography, Benjamin's Itinerary at this point "is no longer, for the most part, a record of personal travel; it is rather an attempt to supplement [add to] the first part 'of things seen,' by a second 'of things heard.'" According to his Itinerary, for the next seven years Benjamin traveled through Arabia and then north to Persia, visiting Isfahan, and on to Samarkand in Central Asia, Tibet, parts of India, and western China. However, Adler has noted that

it is unlikely that [Benjamin] went far into Persia, which at that time was in a chaotic [unsettled] state, and where the Jews were much oppressed. From Basra, at the mouth of the Tigris, he probably visited the island of Kish in the Persian Gulf, which in the Middle Ages was a great emporium [center] of commerce, and thence [from there] proceeded to Egypt by way of Aden and Assuan.

Adler makes no mention of what would have occupied the missing years in Benjamin's travels, but any estimate of the length of his journey is based on a combination of fact and educated guesswork.

It nonetheless is fairly certain that Benjamin reached Egypt in 1171. His descriptions of Alexandria and the Sinai as well as Cairo, the main city of Egypt, are filled with such richness of detail that they appear to be the result of firsthand observation. He makes mention of the Fatimids, a rival dynasty in Cairo belonging to the Shiite group of Islam, who believe that true successors to the prophet Muhammad ended with the death of his son-in-law, as opposed to the caliphs in Baghdad, members of the Sunni sect of Islam, who believe that the Koran, or holy book of the Moslems, provides guidance to the faithful. When Benjamin arrived, these Fatimids were rulers in name only. Saladin, their former military servant, had assumed real power and was in the process of using Egypt to reunite the Islamic forces and fight the Crusaders.

Benjamin sailed back to Europe in 1173, first reaching Sicily. There he provided a good description of Palermo, after which his Itinerary enters into the realm of fantasy, with more hearsay about northern Europe, including Germany, France, and Russia. Scholars believe it is far more likely that Benjamin returned to his native Spain from Sicily, there to write up his observations. Down through the centuries Benjamin's Itinerary has gained increasing importance due to its eyewitness accounts. After separating those parts of the book that rely on his own observations from those that were clearly invented or borrowed from other sources, readers are left with a detailed and colorful account of the twelfth-century world, particularly the Middle East at the time of the Crusades.

Benjamin traveled in the region during a time of relative peace—between the Second and Third Crusade (1149–1189) —thereby providing inside information on the daily life of the time. More specifically, his travel book is a valuable source of information about the number and status of Jews in the Middle Ages. "Whatever his intentions may have been," Adler concludes, "we owe Benjamin no small debt of gratitude for handing to posterity [future generations] records that form a unique contribution to our knowledge of geography and ethnology [the study of cultural characteristics of different races] in the Middle Ages."

For More Information


Adler, Elkan Nathan, ed. Jewish Travellers: A Treasury of Travelogues fromNine Centuries. 2nd ed. New York: Hermon Press, 1966.

Beazley, C. Raymond. The Dawn of Modern Geography. 3 vols. New York: Peter Smith, 1949.

Benjamin of Tudela. The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Critical Text,Translation, and Commentary. Translated and edited by Marcus Nathan Adler. New York: Philipp Feldheim, 1907.

Benjamin of Tudela. The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Travels in the Middle Ages. Malibu, CA: Joseph Simon, 1983.

Komroff, Manuel, ed. Contemporaries of Marco Polo. New York: Dorset, 1989.

Web Sites

"Benjamin of Tudela." Jewish Virtual Library. (accessed on July 22, 2004).

"The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Critical Text, Translation, and Commentary." Traveling to Jerusalem. (accessed on July 22, 2004).

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