Benjamin of Tudela eventually makes his way across the Arabian Desert to the powerful city of Baghdad. In many ways it seems to equate to Rome at the time, for here was seated the Caliph, the successor to Mohammed and the head of the Islamic faith. He immediately draws the obvious comparison relating to the early parts of his travels in saying the Caliph “occupies a similar position to that held by the Pope over the Christians.” (p. 54)

The entry on Baghdad stands out for many reasons, but the most immediate of those is the length. Generally when traveling from one place to another, our author seems to take a headcount of Jews, notes whether they live in oppression or peace, and then leaves. This is not how he treats Baghdad. He discusses the Caliph in great detail as well as the structure of the city. 

I think it’s very likely that Benjamin had consistent direct communication with the Caliph for however long he stayed in the city, for during his discussion of the ruler himself he mentions “In the Caliph’s palace are great riches and towers filled with gold, silken garments and all precious stones” (p. 57), and continues for some time to talk about the riches within the palace, the wider palace grounds “three miles in extent” (p. 54), and those that are housed on palace grounds, even those held against their will. There is a wealth of detail here, and on top of this he speaks extremely well of the Caliph. “he is kind unto Israel[…]He reads and writes the holy language [Hebrew]” (p. 55). This all leads me to believe he was often in the presence of the Caliph, although this isn’t for certain because the Caliph did appear to create an air of mystery around himself, and it’s noted that “The men of Islam see him but once in the year” (p. 55). It is unclear if this scarcity of figure also applied to Benjamin, but the rest of the evidence would seem to indicate otherwise. Jews in Baghdad live extremely well by Benjamin of Tudela’s standards, and there are many of them. He notes 40,000, and again says that their wellbeing is largely due to the Caliph, saying “they dwell in security, prosperity and honour under the great Caliph” (p. 60). 

Benjamin of Tudela does not spend any time in his writings discussing the practicalities of his travels, nor does he mention what he spends his time doing during his stops. However, we learn more about Benjamin himself here than anywhere else in the text. We can somewhat deduce that he spent a lot of time here due to the lavish detail, he clearly was treated with respect and honor himself and was welcomed to the city at the heart of the Islamic world. There isn’t much, but it is something.

Again, our author’s goal is pretty clear: document Jews across the world. There is no way to know whether his estimate of 40,000 Jews in Baghdad is accurate in any sense, but he was clearly impressed with the Jewish population in this area and at their treatment.