Benjamin (ben Jonah) of Tudela

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BENJAMIN (Ben Jonah) OF TUDELA (second half of 12th century), the greatest medieval Jewish traveler. Nothing whatsoever is known about him except that which emerges from his famous Sefer ha-Massaʿot (Book of Travels). (See Map: Benjamin of Tudela's Travels.) He is frequently called "Rabbi" by non-Jewish writers, but there is no authority for this except that the conventional abbreviation "ר" is prefixed to his name in the Hebrew sources. From internal evidence the beginning of his journeys has been dated either about 1159 or about 1167, and he returned to Spain in 4933 (1172/73). His journeys lasted therefore a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 14 years. Since he spent at least a year on the last lap of his journey, from the time he left Egypt to the time of his return to Spain, the latter conjecture is more probable. In any case, he obviously had leisure to spend some time in the places he describes. The object of his journey is unknown, though it has been suggested that he was a gem-merchant – he more than once shows an interest in the coral trade. His Book of Travels, largely impersonal,

was based on the materials which the author noted down in the course of his travels. From Tudela in northern Spain Benjamin traveled by way of Saragossa and Tarragona to Barcelona, and thence via Gerona into Provence. He gave a fairly full account of the cities and especially the scholars of this region (Narbonne, Beziers, Montpellier, Lunel, Posquières, Arles), paying adequate attention to economic life. From Marseilles he went by sea to Genoa, and thence through Pisa to Rome. Here he must have spent a fairly long time, for he has a detailed description of the antiquities of the city. Many of these he, like other writers of the period, interpreted as being associated with Jewish history. He also writes about the Rome Jewish community and their relations with the much-opposed Pope Alexander iii. It is clear therefore that he was there either shortly after the beginning of Alexander iii's pontificate in September 1159, or in the brief period between November 1165 and July 1167, when this pope was again securely established in the city. From Rome, Benjamin went southward, traveling throughout southern Italy and describing, sometimes at length, conditions in many places in this region such as Salerno, Amalfi, Melfi, Benevento, Brindisi. He embarked at Otranto, sailing by way of Corfu to Arta, and then through Greece, where he noted the Jewish silkweavers in various places, and the agricultural colony at Crissa on Mt. Parnassus. He seems to have spent a particularly long time in Constantinople, where his lively picture, excelled by no other medieval traveler, is of great importance for knowledge of non-Jewish as well as Jewish conditions. Thence by sea through the Aegean archipelago (Mytilene, Chios, Samos, Rhodes) to Cyprus whence he crossed to the mainland, making his way south via Antioch, Sidon, Tyre, and Acre into Ereẓ Israel, at that time under the rule of the Crusaders. He traveled throughout the country, giving a detailed account of the Holy Places (which he calls in many instances by their French names: thus Hebron is St. Abram de Bron). It is a document of primary importance for the Palestinian history of this period. His record of the Samaritans, although highly disapproving, is characteristic. On the whole, his descriptions are far more objective than those of Christian pilgrims of the age, and he shows himself to peculiar advantage in his account of Jerusalem and its monuments. On leaving Tiberias he traveled north to Damascus, and thence through Aleppo and Mosul – it is not easy to trace his precise route – to Baghdad. His account of the Druze is the first in the non-Arabic literature. Of Baghdad he gives a longer account than of any other city on his itinerary. He draws a graphic picture of the court of the caliph and the charitable foundations of the city. He also tells us of the organization of the still-surviving talmudic academies and the glories and functions of the Exilarchate. He seems to have traveled widely about Mesopotamia and into Persia, though his account of conditions here contains much legendary material. A good deal of space is devoted to the story of the pseudo-MessiahDavid *Alroy which was, until recently, almost the sole historical source about his career. It is not probable that he ventured beyond this area, but he speaks with some fantastic detail of China, India, and Ceylon. His personal impressions are obviously resumed in his admirable and detailed account of Egypt in general and its Jewish life in particular, especially in Cairo and Alexandria, which he visited on his return voyage. After this he reembarked for Sicily, his account of Palermo being both accurate and picturesque. From here he probably made his way back to Spain by sea, though the itinerary as we have it ends with an idealized picture of Jewish life in northern France and Germany, presumably based on hearsay. He reentered Spain, as is specifically stated, through Castile, having left it by way of Aragon.

There is no general account of the Mediterranean world or of the Middle East in this period which approaches that of Benjamin of Tudela in importance, whether for Jewish or for general history. Most of his record is concise and clear, presumably only a precis of the ampler material he brought back with him. He indicates the distances between the various towns he visited, tells who stood at the head of the Jewish communities, and who were the most notable scholars. He gives the number of Jews he found in each place, though it is not clear in many instances whether he is speaking of individuals or of householders, and in some cases such as Baghdad, the figures seem to be exaggerated. This may be due to the corrupt state of the text as we now have it. He notes economic conditions, describing the activity of merchants from various lands in Barcelona, Montpellier, and Alexandria, and speaking frequently of the occupations of the Jews – the dyers in Brindisi, the silkweavers in Thebes, the tanners in Constantinople, and the glassworkers in Aleppo and Tyre. He was deeply interested in Jewish scholarship, and his account of intellectual life in Provence and Baghdad is of singular importance, as is his characterization of the organization of synagogal life in Egypt. Sects, too, engage his attention, not only the Samaritans in Palestine, but also the Karaites in Constantinople and a heretical sect in Cyprus which he relates observed the Sabbath from dawn to dawn. His characterizations of non-Jewish life are vivid, and sometimes very important. He speaks of the internecine fighting at Genoa and Pisa, the constant wars between these two republics, the embarkation ports of the Crusaders in south Italy, the palaces and pageants of Constantinople and the wealth and the weaknesses of the Byzantine Empire. His somewhat highly colored account of the Assassins of Lebanon and of the Ghuzz Turks are primary historical sources, and he is said to be the first European of modern times to mention China by the present name. The importance of the work can be gauged from the fact that it has been translated into almost every language of Europe, and is used as a primary source-book by all medieval historians


The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela was first published at Constantinople in 1543 and, according to a much-differing manuscript, at Ferrara in 1556. The standard editions are those edited by A. Asher, with very valuable notes and excursus and much additional material (London, 1840–41; reprinted New York, 1927, includes list of editions); and by M.N. Adler (London, 1907, with critical Heb. text and Eng. tr.; reprinted from jqr, vols. 16–18, 1904–06; reprinted 1964); there is also an edition by L. Gruenhut and M.N. Adler (Jerusalem-Frankfort, 1903–04) and another edition by H. Haddad (Baghdad, 1945). See also E. Carmoly, Notice historique sur Benjamin de Tudèle (1852), followed by J. Lilewel, Examen géographique de ses voyages; R. Luria, in: Vessillo Israelitico, 36 (1888), 56–58; Borchardt, in: jjlg, 16 (1924), 139–62; idem, in: Journal of Roman Studies, 26 (1936), 68–70; C.R. Beazley, Dawn of Modern Geography 2 (1897), 218–64; Andréadès, in: Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 30 (1929–30), 457–62; Reissner, in: Zeitschrift fuer Religions-und Geistesgeschichte, 6 (1954), 151–5; E. García de Herreros, Quatre voyageurs espagnols à Alexandrie d'Egypte (1923). Most works dealing with the history of the Jews in Italy, Palestine, Byzantium, Mesopotamia, and the Middle East in the 12th and 13th centuries use and comment upon Benjamin's material.

[Cecil Roth]

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Benjamin (ben Jonah) of Tudela

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