Category: Benjamin of Tudela (page 1 of 3)

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Germany (Alamannia)

Benjamin arrives in Germany from Lucca after 20 days of travel. He actually arrives in Verdun, which he says is “the commencement of Alamannia.” As is usual for Benjamin, he begins with describing the landscape of the place, which would  be very convenient for people following this guide, as the geographical aspects would be their first impression. Germany, he says, is full of mountains and hills.

It seems that he already knows there will be many Jews in Germany because after his geographical description, he speaks of the many congregations that exist there, specifically on the river Rhine from Cologne to Ashkenaz, both situated on either end of the river spanning about a 15 day journey. He also mentions a full list of cities which have Jewish congregations including Metz, Treves, Coblenz,  Andernach, Bonn, Cologne, Bingen, Munster, and Worms.

After this, there is a quotation that says that “Israel is dispersed in every land and he who does not further the gathering of Israel will not meet with Jews and I will gather them.” This appears to be one of the major purposes of Benjamin’s travels. He wants to be able to reunite the Jews. Benjamin writes highly of these congregations saying that they contain scholars and caring communities of people. At the end of his account  of Germany, he mentions other German cities where Jews live, and writes of them in high regard as well.

This portion of writing on Germany brings about some new ideas and styles of writing for Benjamin. We get more of an idea of his purpose in his travels through the quote about bringing the Jews together, which also explains why his travel narrative is more of a guide. He clearly wants Jewish people to follow it in order to find larger Jewish communities.

The quotations that Benjamin includes are different from his usual style of writing and it is interesting that he hasn’t used quotations until this point in his writing. Not only does it reveal more of the purpose in his travels, but it also shows his passion for his religion. Up until this point, we know he is Jewish and we know he must be dedicated to his faith because of his travels, but these quotations show his knowledge and passion for Judaism and Jewish people.

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Shushan

Benjamin’s travels to the Khuzistan province, otherwise known as the ancient civilization of Elam in Iran, seem to have been documented because of an important lesson he learned there. Benjamin began by explaining the layout of the land. When he visited Elam, the province was not fully inhabited and consisted of much waste and ruins. He traveled towards the center of the province however, which was where one could find the capital and palace of King Ahasuerus: Shushan. In Shushan there were 7,000 Jews and 14 synagogues. The most significant of these synagogues had the Sepulcher of Daniel. 

Shushan is divided in half by the Tigris River, yet the two halves of the city are connected by a single bridge. Where the Sepulcher of Daniel was located was the side where all the Jews lived. This side also had all of the market places which served as the main sources of income for the population on that side of the city. The other side of the city was very poor without any merchants or marketplaces. All that could be found on this side were gardens and plantations. That said, Benjamin described that the poor side of the city became jealous of the other side. This eventually led to a war erupting between both sides. A compromise was reached after a few days had passed, in which one side would take Daniel’s coffin for a year and then it would be brought to the other side the following year. This allowed for both sides of Shushan to gain wealth and prosperity. Then, the mighty Sultan-Al-Fars-Al-Khabir, whose empire extended as far as a four month journey, came to visit. He stepped in and made the executive decision that Daniel’s coffin should be suspended underneath the middle of the bridge, equidistant from both sides of the city.

By including this story, as well as the physical layout of the city, Benjamin was able to capture what the culture, people and environment of Shushan was like. From the disparity of wealth that the city originally started out with, one can deduce that money was brought in by travelers who came to see the Sepulcher of Daniel and merchants who would travel to the various market places there. It is also clear that the people of Shushan and their culture altogether highly value the Sepulcher of David, for both religious and practical reasons (to commemorate and to bring in travelers/merchants). In having the coffin be the comprising factor of the war that erupted on both sides, one could posit that the people of both sides of Shushan were more similar to each other than they’d have liked to admit. 

Furthermore, it seems that there was an important moral to the story that Benjamin tells of the bridge separating both sides of the city. I interpreted this story to show that sharing the coffin, and sharing in general, was one way that peace could be guaranteed. Perhaps Benjamin felt the need to document his travels to Shushan for the simple reason that there was hope for peace to be achieved in the world, especially for Jews, and this instance in Shushan helps to prove so. 

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Tiberias

Benjamin travels to Tiberias from St. George. He has to travel five parasangs to arrive in Tiberias. He notes that the city is located on the Jordan River, which is locally called the Sea of Chinnereth and flows between two mountains filling a lake, which is actually similar to a sea. This then flows into the Sea of Sodom, also known as the Salt Sea. Benjamin is very interested in the waterways in Tiberias, and he has been interested in the ways in which water connects various cities throughout his travel guide. Even though we do not know his occupation, perhaps it has something to do with building or transportation. Or he is just interested so that he can build a comprehensive travel guide for Jewish people who wish to complete similar travels. He is interested in how cities operate and how they connect to other cities through waterways specifically.

As with every city he visits, Benjamin’s main priority is counting the number of Jews, although he rarely mentions this first. He usually talks about the appearance of the city, and then mentions the Jewish population. In Tiberias, there are about 50 Jews, some of which he mentions by name. The head, R. Abraham is actually an astronomer, which I was surprised to read. I have never heard of astronomy being Jewish tradition, but I am assuming that it was popular for all different religious and ethnic groups in the 12th century.

After quickly mentioning the Jews of Tiberias, Benjamin brings up hot, bubbling waters (maybe geysers?) aptly named the Hot Waters of Tiberias. Near these hot waters, there is the Synagogue of Caleb ben Jephunneh, which could be the only synagogue in Tiberias because it is the only one mentioned. Benjamin names two Jews who are buried in Tiberias, who may be of interest to other Jews of Tudela who will read this guide.

When describing Tiberias, Benjamin does not stray from his usual formula of  describing his travels. He mentions everything worth mentioning to Jews who would want to escape from Tudela–how hard or easy it is to get to Tiberias, the landscape, and how many Jews there are. I am still surprised at how Benjamin is able to remove his own opinions from this narrative, or guide.

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Damascus

Benjamin of Tudela traveled from the ancient city of Dan, Israel, to Damascus, Syria. It is unknown how long he stayed there for, however it is clear that his stay in Damascus made an impression on him. Benjamin described that the city of Damascus marked the start of the empire Nur-ed-din, and was home to the king of the Togarmim (aka the Turks). Damascus is a large city, surrounded by walls and with many gardens and plantations. At the time, it extended over 15 miles from one side of the city to the other. Benjamin claimed that there was no other place richer than Damascus in fruit. He then went on to describe more about the geography of the city. He explained that the city itself is situated at the food of Mount Hermon from which the rivers Amana and Pharpar flow. The Amana River flows through the city and water was brought to the houses of the great people, market-places and streets through aqueducts. Alternatively, the Pharpar River flows through the gardens and plantations of Damascus.

Damascus is a city that was known for carrying out trade with the rest of the world. Furthermore, Benjamin noted that there was an Arab Mosque of Damascus called Gami and was said to be the palace of Ben Hadad. Within the mosque there was a wall of crystal glass made of what he termed ‘magic’ workmanship. This glass allowed the time of day to be told according to the apertures that shined through it. The chambers in the palace were built of gold and glass, the columns were overlaid with gold, silver and marbles of all colors. The court in the mosque had a large head of gold and silver in the center. There was also a large bowl made of gold and silver rims. Benjamin described that it was as large as a cask, allowing up to three men to enter it and bathe at the same time. Suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the palace was the rib of one of the giants, that was said to have belonged to King Anak of the olden day giants. The rib was nine cubits long and two cubits wide. Benjamin then asserted that three thousands Jews lived in Damascus at the time, most of which were learned and wealthy men. Additionally, one hundred Karaïtes dwelled there, as well as four hundred Cuthim. He stated that there was peace between them however they did not intermarry.

I found this account to be much briefer than others. However, unlike many of Benjamin’s other accounts, Damascus seemed to have caught Benjamin’s eye geographically. It would appear that he was impressed by the gardens and plantations, as well as the fact that the city lies at the base of a mountain. I also find it interesting that the two rivers that flow through Damascus were used for very different purposes and would be curious to know if there was a specific reason why. Perhaps the quality of the water might be a reason. The enthusiasm with which he writes of the landscape/geography of the city also seems to suggest that Tudela was much different.

Although Benjamin might have been interested in the city’s geography, he certainly did not focus on history as much as he has in his past accounts. That said, most of his account on Damascus is dedicated towards explaining the layout of the Arab Mosque. I found Benjamin to be very respectful while describing the mosque and it would seem that his interest in the mosque laid in how different it is from temples he’d seen or even other structures that he’d visited. His detailed description of the manner in which time was told through the crystal glass could suggest that he was interested in documenting down this technique, perhaps to bring back home and inform others of. I also find it unusual that he did not further explain or question the thought that the rib belonged to a giant. Were giants commonly believed in at this time? Furthermore, I was surprised that he didn’t speak more about Ben Hadid if the mosque had been his palace.

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.

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