Author: winterch (Page 2 of 2)

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Jerusalem

In this section of the Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, he passes through the historic and diverse place that is Jerusalem. Upon arriving, our author notes on the many different peoples that he defines as “Mohammedans [Muslims] … Jacobites, Syrians, Greeks, Georgians, and Franks” (p. 34). The mere mention of all these peoples raises a multitude of questions, particularly regarding the Franks given their distance and apparent sizable presence in this far-away city, however he does not seem to be terribly troubled with learning any more about these peoples. Instead, Benjamin of Tudela focuses on the people most akin to him, the Jews.

There is something to be said about knowing no matter where you go, you can always find some of your kin.

The further from Europe he journeys, it appears Jews find themselves in improving conditions. Here, the community is built around the most significant structure in the city, the Tower of David. Not only is there local Jewish heritage with this tower, but it is upkept by the “Mohammedans”, indicating a positive relationship between the Muslims and Jews of Jerusalem (p. 35)

Christians, too also seem well-represented in the city. Upon Mount Zion, a hill just beyond the walled Jerusalem, there is “a place of worship belonging to the Christians,” (p. 37). By this account, the spiritual presence of Christianity also appears to be strong. Once, the church upon Mount Zion had a wall cave in. While under renovation, two workers attempted to access the tombs of the old kings in search of wealth, but when they tried to step in a great wind pushed them out and onto the ground, and “they fell to the ground like dead men, and there they lay until evening,” (p. 39).

Tales like this are likely nothing more than that — just tales. However, it is interesting to note that Benjamin of Tudela cares to entertain such tales. He is clearly entrenched in his faith, as that which relates to his heritage is what he writes most about, but he chooses to acknowledge a miracle that occurred at a Christian church. This is far from pantheism or polytheism, but it does indicate a belief that other religions are not merely tolerated but seen as valid and somewhat true from the perspective from outsiders to the religion. Of course, those buried there were King David and his descendants, and the House of David is significant in Judaism as well, so this may explain some of the willingness to accept this miracle. The point still stands, though, that it occurred at a Christian, not Jewish place of worship.

It is a common thread through the writings of Benjamin of Tudela that he completely ignores the practicalities of travel. The most we get are distances, which are not measured in concrete units but in parasangs, a measure of distance similar to leagues kept by measuring time on foot. This account is hard to justify as being a guide for others, but in some part appears to be an account of the Jews of the world. They are always his greatest focus no matter where he goes, and he often notes their dwelling-places, indicating perhaps that where he would spend his days and nights whil stopped in these cities.

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Constantinople

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.

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