Author: Molly (page 2 of 2)

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Damascus

After Benjamin’s time in Banias, he traveled two days to Damascus, which he described as “the great city.” As with many other cities he visited, Benjamin was concerned with Damascus’ geographic location, landmarks, and terrain. He noted that the city was surrounded by walls, with lots of greenery, about fifteen miles of it on each side. Benjamin mentioned that no other city has fruit as spectacular as Damascus. To continue with his observations about the terrain, Benjamin also talked about the rivers flowing from Mount Hermon, such as Amana and Pharpar. The city is located at the bottom of the mountain and the Amana River flows through the city while the Pharpar flows through the gardens and plantations. As with many other cities, Benjamin talked about its trade and access to other parts of the world. He did not speak extensively about it, he just mentions that they carry on trade with “all countries.”

As is characteristic of Benjamin of Tudela, he noticed architecture in the city. Specifically the architecture of the city’s mosque, the Gami of Damascus. He was never judgmental of other religious in his accounts, he usually just mentioned them matter of factly. He was so  amazed by the Gami of Damascus that he said there was no other building like it in the world, with its “crystal glass of magic workmanship”, gold and class chambers, columns of gold, silver and marble, and a supposed rib of a giant. Benjamin’s descriptions usually seem very matter of fact, as if he has seen everything before, but it is apparent that he is impressed with this building given the amount of detail he supplied.

Then, as was customary for Benjamin in his travels, he mentioned the Jewish population, for that was the purpose of his travels. He learned that there were 3,000 Jews in Damascus and that most of them were “learned and rich men.” Also, the Academy of the land of Israel lived in Damascus and names other members of the Academy.

The last few sentences of Benjamin’s account  of Damascus are interesting because they mention populations of other religions, which he did not normally do with other cities. Benjamin said that 100 Karaites lived in Damascus and 400 Cuthim. It was important to Benjamin that they all lived peacefully but did not intermarry.

What was interesting to me about Benjamin’s account of Damascus was his fascination with buildings and the inner-workings of a city. After reading many of Benjamin’s accounts of various cities, I know that Benjamin paid close attention to terrain and buildings and other structures. The purpose of his journey was to learn more about Jews on his way to Jerusalem, but he was able to see and learn about other things he was interested in as well.

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Bagdad (Baghdad)

Benjamin travels to the city of Bagdad during his journey. It takes him two days to arrive from Okbara, a place with 10,000 Jews. It is hard  to tell how long Benjamin stayed in Baghdad, but he writes extensively about it, especially in comparison to other cities he visited, so it was an important visit to him. The first topic he brings up is not the appearance of the city, but the religion of the people there, which makes sense because throughout his journey, religion is Benjamin’s main focus. He explains the role of the Caliph, likening him to the Christian Pope, bringing in another religion to give context to the position of the Caliph. Then he gets into where the Caliph lives, reporting details about the Caliph’s palace and living conditions as well as the greater landscape. Benjamin focuses mostly on the roles and lifestyles of the Caliphs, so much so that one can tell how fascinated he is with them.

Then, Benjamin brings up Judaism within the context of Bagdad, which is interesting to me as a modern reader learning about this journey that took place so long ago, and wondering what the interactions between Muslims and Jews would be like during this time period. It turns out that Benjamin has nothing but good things to say about the Caliph and the great king. Benjamin writes that the great king is “kind unto Israel” and knows the language and laws of it. The great king is regarded by his people as Mohammed.

Benjamin writes in great detail about the great Caliph’s palace, focusing on the opulence and luxury of his lifestyle. In the same section, he then details the sacrifice of a camel. The very last sentence is “He is a benevolent man.” In the next section Benjamin goes on to explain how the Caliph is able to heal the sick, saying that he is “a righteous man, and all his actions are for good,” which feels almost like propaganda to bring back to Tudela. As if he is trying to appease other Jews for the possibility of being taken over by the Islamic empire.

Then, Benjamin begins to write about the 40,000 Jews who live in Bagdad, with 28 synagogues, paying special attention to note that they live in “security, prosperity and honour” under the great Caliph, again, as if trying to provide comfort under the impending takeover of the Islamic empire. He provides details about successful Jewish people living in Bagdad in addition to details about how Jews and Muslims are able to come together to escort Mohammed to the great Caliph and the Head of Captivity, who is reportedly very kind to the Jewish people in Bagdad and in return receives many gifts from them, again, possibly another way for Benjamin to mollify the Jews of Tudela.

Benjamin seems to be writing this in a fairly matter of fact manner, but his attempt at pacifying the people back home about the Islamic empire is overt.


The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Alexandria

It took Benjamin of Tudela two days to get from Lammanah to Alexandria. In his descriptions of Alexandria, Benjamin of Tudela is focused on the appearance of the city and the legends behind it. He is incredibly intrigued by the legend of Alexander of Macedon, the city’s founder. Benjamin was immediately impressed with Alexandria for its legacy of being strong and beautiful after Alexander of Macedon named it after himself. He notes the immaculate architecture and the importance of the city’s Aristotelian academy where people from all over the world travel to study. He also pays attention to the physicality of the city: the wide and straight streets and its position over a hollow.


From his writing, it is clear that Benjamin is impressed with Alexander and his product of Alexandria. He writes of a story about a lighthouse tower that Alexander built with a mirror on top of it so that the inhabitants of the city could see ships coming from the west and protect Alexandria from attempted attack. The Christians began to arrive at the lighthouse with their ships and eventually captured Crete and Cyprus. Benjamin goes into great detail about the function and legend of the lighthouse and how it has become a symbol for Alexandria, as it is somewhat of a port city, or a “commercial market for all nations,” as he puts it, listing various Christian and Muslim kingdoms who use it as such. At the end of his passage about Alexandria he describes a marble sepulchre by the coast and then quickly mentions that there are about 3,000 Jews who live in the city.


It is unclear as to how long Benjamin of Tudela spent in Alexandria, however it becomes clear what is important to him based on his writings. Benjamin is Jewish, but does not mention anything about the 3,000 Jewish people living in Alexandria. With just the mention of the number of Jews, it seems that it is enough for him to know that at least there are Jews present in the city. He is, however, careful to mention that it was the Christians who captured Crete and Cyprus from the powerful Alexander of Macedon.


The way Benjamin of Tudela writes of Alexandria makes it seem as if he is very familiar with the city via stories he has heard from other travelers. His tone makes it seem as though he is excited to finally see this famed city with his own eyes. He does not make note of anything that is too surprising to him, save for the marble sepulchre with the mystery ancient characters.


As a modern reader, I am not too surprised about any of Benjamin’s observations about Alexandria. I would expect this sort of fascination about the history of the city, however, I expected there to be more wonder in his tone of writing, especially about the people since he described Alexandria to be so busy. But, if he heard stories and descriptions of Alexandria prior to his own journey, he must not be too surprised about the actual appearance of the city.


The writer’s purpose in this journey seems to be to prove that he was there and remember specific details about it. It does not feel like this was written with the intention of an audience. If it was, it would have more fantastical details about the people and the landscape. To him, the importance was see what was actually there and noting how many Jewish people lived in the city.

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