During the long travels of Benjamin of Tudela, he found himself at a center of the medieval world and the point between Europe and Asia: Constantinople. At this time, the city was under the rule of the Greeks and served as the capital of the Greek Empire, which is today understood to be the Byzantine Empire.¬† Due to the city’s position between Europe and Asia, it was a multicultural hub between the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish worlds.

If there is one thing that Benjamin of Tudela notices, it is the incredible wealth of Constantinople. There are countless churches across the 18-mile circumference of the city (pp. 20-21), and these churches are lavishly decorated. At one site in particular, he recounts that “there are pillars of gold and silver, and lamps of silver and gold more than a man can count,” (p. 21).

Among members of the ruling class, whose names he charmingly appears to find strange (p. 19-20), there are even more impressive displays of wealth and power. At the court of the King Emanuel, “men from all the races of the world […] introduce lions, leopards, bears, and wild asses, and they engage them in combat with one another,” (p. 21). Such a show was unlike anything else in the world at the time, and the ability of one man with enough influence to establish such a strange event was clearly something that impressed our author.

Second to wealth and influence, Benjamin of Tudela was also concerned with the plight of Jews in Byzantium. It would not be accurate to say the Jews of Constantinople, “for they have been placed behind an inlet of the sea,” (p. 23), effectively banished from life in the city. Benjamin of Tudela was himself a Jewish rabbi, and therefore sees the Jewish situation in Constantinople plainly as oppression, and he uses that word repeatedly to describe all aspects of the treatment of Jews (p. 23-24).

Despite all of this, he still takes time to appreciate the charitability and cheerfulness of these people. Our author does not often remark on the characteristics of the people he meets, and therefore one must imagine that he spent some good time with these banished people. He also does not discuss much of his personal experience, accounting for a lack of information about the practicalities of traveling through the city itself but being Jewish himself and spending time with the oppressed Jews, it is quite possible that Benjamin himself experienced this oppression firsthand, despite the fact that it is not mentioned.

Benjamin of Tudela seems to be consistently concerned with how Jews are living in the areas that he passes through, but also allows his eye to be caught by the flashiest parts of the city, primarily its wealth and public displays of power. There are also minor details that surprise, such as his descriptions of the Sea of Russia and the Sea of Sepharad, which seem to describe the bodies today known as the Black Sea and the Mediterranean or Marmara Sea respectively. His account also reflects the fact the way he viewed the “Greek Empire” (p. 19) is vastly different than the modern understanding of the Byzantine Empire. Nowhere is there a mention of Romans or Byzantium, and it seems that the majority of the city’s inhabitants were culturally Greek.

This particular account documents some moments in intense detail, and other facets of his travel such as the practicalities of living in the city are not mentioned at all. It’s difficult to discern who this may have been written for, but it seems like it would be best in helping Jews heading to the area know what to expect. Perhaps specifically Jewish merchants, since so much of his writing is concerned with how money is handled in Constantinople.