Month: February 2018 (page 2 of 4)

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Constantinople

As was the case with each of his other journey’s, it is unclear how long Benjamin of Tudela stayed at the locations that he visited. Not long after his travels to Rome however, he made his way to Constantinople, with several stops along the way. From Abydos, Egypt it took him five days to arrive to Constantinople. He noted that the circumference of the city was 18 miles, half of which was surrounded by sea with the other half was surrounded by land. Constantinople was said by Benjamin to be situated upon two arms of the sea, one from Russia (the Black Sea) and one from the ‘sea of Sepharad’ (the Aegean Sea). Unfortunately we do not learn more about the practical or physical aspects of Benjamin’s journey. Yet given the substantial amount of detail in which he described the city’s cultural, societal and religious significance it can be assumed that Benjamin felt it more important to document his experiences throughout his trips rather than his physical journey.

In Constantinople, Benjamin paid great attention to the importance of the city. At the time, Constantinople served as the capital of Javan (otherwise known as Greece). He proceeded to describe the residence of King Emanuel the Emperor, as well as the ministers that served under him, and the hierarchy of the rest of the state of Javan. In general, Constantinople was a very busy city with all sorts of merchants coming from all over the world either by land or sea. Benjamin even compared it to Baghdad in terms of being a city of trade. Extreme wealth was brought to the city as a result of the two islands, several castles and villages that surrounded Constantinople. Benjamin then described the church of Santa Sophia and explained that Constantinople acted as the seat of the pope of Greece, since Greece did not follow the pope of Rome. He made note of all the traditions practiced and celebrated within the churches and the surrounding culture of the city, such as performances that the king and queen would host. Additionally, Benjamin told of the palace that King Emanuel built for the seat of his government, and paid especial attention to the extravagant use of jewels, silver and gold that went into the structure of this palace. He further explained the wealth of Greece and the fact that tributes are brought to all of the important edifices in Constantinople. Each year these tributes amounted to about 20,000 pieces of gold from shops, markets and/or merchants. Greeks were also very rich in gold and precious stones, in addition to being clothed in garments of silk and gold embroidery. Benjamin even went so far as to say that the Greeks looked like princes when they rode their horses. He concluded his account of Constantinople by claiming that the land was rich in clothing materials, bread, meat and wine. He didn’t believe that wealth of this kind could be found anywhere else.

Before moving on to the next location on his itinerary however, Benjamin added a final thought pertaining to religion. He stated that no Jews lived in Constantinople. Rather they lived in a Jewish quarter called Pera located behind an inlet of sea. The population of this Jewish quarter was made of 2000 Rabbinate Jews and 500 Karaïtes with a fence that divided the two groups. He then added that the Greeks hated the Jews and subjected them to oppression, even going so far as to beat them in the streets. The Jews in response were rich, good, kindly and charitable beings. This final account strikes as very interesting given that earlier Benjamin had almost glorified the Greeks for their wealth and their swagger when riding horses.

It seems that in this account, Benjamin was much more concerned with the culture of Constantinople, rather than its geography or the edifices of the city. However, he was still very much concerned with religion and the breakdown of Judaism within the city. Despite the fact that Jews were excluded from living directly in Constantinople and the way the Greeks oppressed them, Benjamin doesn’t seem to write with much distaste, anger or even bias, making his account seem all the more trustworthy.

The Travels of Marco Polo: Lesser Armenia

The first description Polo gives his audience is that of Lesser Armenia, and the town of Ayas. Despite the passage’s size, Polo provides the image of a bustling, geographic and economic epicenter that acts as the beginning of many long journeys. He simultaneously highlights the importance of this region for trade and gives modern readers insight into the knowledge and attitude of Italians in the 13th century in relation to the Middle East.

In describing the actual city of Ayas, Polo calls it “a busy emporium” with large amounts of spice and silk trade (Polo, 46). It is the starting point for a majority of journeys east due to its central location along the Mediterranean. Polo notes a large number of merchants from Venice and Genoa, two Italian city-states on the opposite coasts of the Italian peninsula. Modern readers are given insight to the wealth of Venice and Genoa, as well as the merchant culture that must have existed in the two cities.

Outside of the city, Polo takes great interest in the geopolitical location of the entirety of Lesser Armenia. He describes it as “bounded on the south by the Promised Land, now in the hands of the Saracens; on the north by the western district of Turkey, known as Karaman; on the north-east and east by eastern Turkey, with the towns of Kaisarieh and Sivas and many others, all subjects to the Tartars; and on the west by the sea that is crossed by ships sailing to Christendom” (Polo, 46). This description of Lesser Armenia’s surrounding area demonstrates an intricate understanding of the geography and settlements of the Middle East. Polo had access to information on geological features and directions, town names, and groups of people. His position as a merchant would have given him access to this information, as his father and uncle would have been able to relay it to him, and interactions with the locals would have allowed him access to information other Italians would not have had. However the way that Polo introduces each new region, with a name and only one qualifying characteristic, indicates that the average Italian noble who would have read this book, understands where Turkey’s regions and who the Tartars are.

In his explanation of regions surrounding Lesser Armenia, Polo generalizes European nations as “Christendom.” By labeling this region by its shared religion, as opposed to racial or political features, Polo demonstrates the importance of religious identity to the Medieval traveler. Religion in this time would therefore act the way that race does in the modern era to unify regions and create discord amongst different groups of people. In describing the Turks later on, Polo writes that “the Turkomans, who worship Mahomet and keep his law, are a primitive people, speaking a barbarous language” (Polo, 46). For Polo, religion is important enough to be listed as a reason for one groups barbarism.

The opening and closing scenes in any text are places of privilege. By beginning this account with the physical beginning to his, and many other merchant’s, journey Polo highlights this importance of Aya and Lesser Armenia. It is the start. By recording important details of the geopolitical situation in the region, Polo also demonstrates the knowledge of geography and culture that Italian travelers possessed as early as the 13th century.

The Book of John Mandeville: Babylon

The section of “The Book of John Mandeville” about Babylon focuses on a variety of different aspects of the travel narrative. The author describes the important aspects of doing the physical act of traveling to the area. He describes how travelers need permission from the Sultan to actually travel to Babylon. He also describes where others need to travel to get to Babylon. He lists routes from various places and includes information about the people who live there. The author also describes some of the interesting physical aspects of the locations. He describes buildings many of which are included because of their religious history, most of which he includes as well.  The author spends a great deal of time describing the Sultan, who lives in Babylon. How this Sultan lives, the areas over which he rules, how he commands his military force, his marriages and his sexual habits are all described in detail. The history of the Sultans is also included, which seems to be made up of each new Sultan killing off the old one, or occasionally being elected by the people, along with royal etiquette and how visitors are expected to act towards the Sultan. The author also includes some information about the surrounding area’s geography and weather, as well as the history of the old Babylon.

The section of the book describing Babylon is interesting when thinking about questions of purpose. While the author does refer to himself and his experiences in the narration, it is relatively low-key. This section is written as more a form of guide than a account depicting the author’s travel experiences. He speaks directly to the reader, giving suggestions and directions, as well as general information. While all of this information is supposedly coming from the author’s own travels to the place, he does not include much directly about his own experiences. From this, I see the purpose of the book itself meant as either a direct guidebook for other travelers, or simply as a form of entertainment for those not planning to travel at all. The book has pieces that are important for a guidebook. The author includes different routes to travel to Babylon and things that travelers should know before attempting to journey there, like the fact that they need permission from the Sultan first. He also includes information about the landscape and people, and even more information about the Sultan himself and how visitors are supposed to act in his presence. However, I’m inclined to believe that this book is meant more as home entertainment than an actual guidebook. Much of the history and cultural information included about Babylon is very general. The author includes short anecdotes of the historical context of things or religious stories, and describes some of the places in more of a entertainingly visual way than a practical, useful way. This book was meant to entertain people reading in their home, who did not plan to actually go anywhere, but could use the narrative as their own escape.

Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: Jayḥūn

When he enters Jayhun, Ibn Fadlan talks mostly about the overall environment and how cold it is, as well as the people and some of their customs. First, he mentions the river freezing over for 3 months, and how because of this it was difficult to cross because all the cargo animals kept slipping and sliding over it. He goes on to say that him and the other men he was traveling with “saw land which made [them] think a gate to the cold of hell had opened up before [them],” (8) which evidently expresses just how cold it is to them.

In reference to the people who live there, he talks a lot about their social gestures and customs. For instance, he mentions that in the country they’re in, a friendly gesture would include something along the lines of , “ ‘Come to my house where we can talk, for there is a good fire there,’” (8) which in turn shows their generosity and kindness. Also, a beggar is not supposed to wait outside at the door, but should instead come inside to warm up by the fire. He then goes back to talking about how cold it is, and how the camels even died from the intenseness of the weather. He also mentions that “the roads and markets were so empty that one could wander through most of them without seeing a soul or coming face to face with another living being,” (9). Even walking from the bathouse to the main house, Fadlan mentions that his beard was a “block of ice” (9), and that he had to actually thaw it out in the fire. By the middle of February, Fadlan states that the ice began to melt, but it was still cold enough for them to have to layer more clothing—which they were encouraged to do by the locals.

I thought it was interesting the way the narrator described how cold it was; it made the contrast of where he was from seem that much more obvious. I also think that goes into who might be his intended audience. For him to focus so much on the harshness of the weather, and how despite being dressed in so many layers from their home, they still suffered from the cold—I think it says something about who he is writing to. It seems as though parts of his travel narrative serves as a sort of warning for the people back home in Baghdad, who might be reading about the places he’s been to. It is as if he is recording all these terrible things because of how much of a culture shock it is, but also because he wants his people to be aware of just how bad it would be for someone like them.

Both Fadlan and his people’s customs and environment are very different from that of the place he is in, and his travel narrative shows just how different it is. However, it seems to go beyond just showing the difference, and instead resembles a sort of cautionary guide for Muslims.

The Book of Marvels and Travels John Mandeville: Jerusalem

John Mandeville begins and ends by giving a physical description of the land and its geography, as well as its position in relation to other cities of note. He does not seemed concerned with the people of Jerusalem; the only time he references them is when he makes comments on the pilgrims. Instead, the majority of his account is concerned with telling the stories of the religious landmarks and monuments in the city and giving detailed descriptions, especially of churches and chapels with great architecture. He is incredibly specific with his details, even going so far as to count out stairs, steps, and other measurements.

John Mandeville does not give many specifics when speaking of his journey to Jerusalem. He informs the reader of how long it might take one to travel as he did and advices on the the best route for a person to take, but he doesn’t tell the reader about his own personal journey.

John Mandeville is a deeply religious man. The majority of his account of Jerusalem has nothing to do with the city itself, but rather involves Mandeville listing the religious sites he sees, recounting their histories, and explaining their importance to the reader. He often references religious figures who have passed through Jerusalem themselves; he tells the stories of Lot, Abraham, Mary Magdalene, King Herod, and more. When he does describe the landscape of the city, many of his descriptions still stem from a religious context. For example, he describes the trees as “bearing prettily colored fruit which appear to be ripe, but when one splits them or cuts them open one finds nothing but cinders and ashes; this is a token of God’s vengeance through which these cities were burned with hellfire.” (pg. 51)

The Book of Marvels and Travels does not appear to have been written with the intent of giving a detailed, useful, or even accurate account of the city of Jerusalem. Almost the entire section written on Jerusalem is an informative religious narrative. It is written directly to the reader, and the phrases “you need to know”, “you should be aware”, etc are used on almost every page. John Mandeville does not seem concerned with informing the reader about his journey to the city of Jerusalem or his experiences there; rather, he is educating the reader on Jerusalem’s religious history and importance. He briefly describes the city and its surroundings, but he is mostly concerned with the religious landmarks and their accounts. He gives no description of the people or culture within the city, other than when mentioning the actions of the pilgrims (and once the Saracens) in holy places and around religious monuments. This makes sense, given the context that The Book of Marvels and Travels was not really written by a traveller. The main purpose of writing the book is to inform those who cannot visit Jerusalem themselves an idea of what it might be like, and the author clearly wants to take the opportunity of a curious audience to spread the Christian faith.

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