Category: Benjamin of Tudela

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.

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Rome

It is unclear when exactly Benjamin of Tudela traveled to Rome, and for how long he stayed, however the journey from Lucca to Rome took him six days. From the start of his travel accounts, it is evident that Benjamin was concerned with the subject of religion. In Rome, Benjamin delved into the presence of Judaism in a city that acts as the kingdom of Christendom, as well as the relationship between the Judaism and Christianity since both religions were present in the city. Benjamin began, as he did with most other places he traveled to, by documenting the number of Jews present at the time that he was visiting— in this case, there were 200 Jews in Rome. He noted that they did not need to pay tribute and upheld honorable positions. He went on to describe the Jewish population in greater detail by highlighting those that were officials of Pope Alexander, great scholars, and important Rabbis.

Benjamin then turned his attention towards the physical landscape and edifices of the city. He observed that Rome is split in two by the River Tiber, and that the city itself is 24 miles in circumference. He made note of significant structures, namely the 80 palaces that belonged to the 80 kings that lived there and even described the histories of some of these palaces, particularly those that housed kings who were important to the Jewish religion. He described other important structures such as the sturdily built palace of Vespasianus, as well as the Colosseum and some of its historical background. Furthermore, he described the catacombs of King Tarmal Galsin. He then payed special attention to various structural elements of buildings. Of these, he described the two bronze columns engraved by King Solomon and taken from the Temple that are now in the church of St. John in the Lateran. His interest in these columns was marked by his allusions to their historical significance in Judaism. He also noted that there are of statues of Samson and Absalom in marble in front of St. John in the Lateran, as well as a statue of Constantinus the Great who built Constantinople.

It is clear that religion played a great role in Benjamin’s travels, yet what is most striking was the way he wrote of it. Benjamin was a Jewish traveler and evidently had a substantial interest in the presence and influence of Judaism within the places that he traveled to. With every new place he visited, his first observation was a count of the number of Jews in that area. He thereby associated the number of Jews with how strong the presence of Judaism was despite a place’s history. Yet, he did not write in a tone that was critical of other religions, or that placed Judaism as superior. Instead he wrote in a more matter-of-fact tone and didn’t hesitate to show the ways in which Judaism and Christianity overlapped as the city developed into the Rome it is today. Benjamin also made sure to include the histories and subsequent significance of the people and buildings he mentioned, revealing that he believed all the details he documented to be important enough to preserve and retell. It would seem to me that Benjamin’s purpose in writing his travel narrative was tell of the presence of Judaism around the world and how it was being preserved— despite the number of Jews present. I therefore believe that Benjamin’s travels were written for those that shared and still share his faith and religion, so that they too could see Judaism’s influence throughout the world.

The Travels of Ibn Battutah: Timbuktu (Sample Post)

Here you will write an annotation about the location named in the post’s title, according to the following guidelines:

Guidelines: For each post, you will choose a location featured in your travel narrative. You will then answer two factual questions to the best of your ability (some locations or narratives may not include all of this information):

  • What kinds of things does the author describe there? Is (s)he focused on the buildings, the culture, the people, the environment?
  • What do we learn about the practical or physical aspects of the traveler’s journey (food, lodging, weather, terrain)? When did they arrive, and how long did they stay?

Once you have summarized the factual information about the traveler’s stay, you must also interpret these facts in some way that is interesting to you. Example questions might be:

  • What might we assume about the traveler’s own culture based on the observations noted here?
  • What aspects of this location, or this description of the location, are particularly unusual to you as a modern reader? Which are unusual to the medieval traveler? Are these the same?
  • What do you think is the writer’s purpose in recording this information? To whom is s(he) writing?

You should not attempt to answer all of these questions, and you do not have to choose any of them. The point of this assignment is to move from facts to an interpretation of the facts. What do you find particularly interesting or significant about this stop on the traveler’s journey?