Category: Benjamin of Tudela (page 1 of 5)

Benjamin of Tudela Map Comparison

Unsurprisingly, plotting the journey of Benjamin of Tudela on both a modern and medieval map shines a light on many differences in the way that we view the world as opposed to Benjamin of Tudela.

The first glaring fact when it comes to the visualization on the medieval map is the scope. When looking on a modern map, his travels are impressive, even if one removes the places that he likely did not get to. The Tabula Rogeriana, on the other hand, makes his reported journey stretch from one end of the world to the other (not literally, for it was common knowledge for hundreds and hundreds of years that the world was round). From “Tutila” to “al-Sin”, the particular distortions of this map make it seem that Benjamin of Tudela had passed through a majority of the world’s lands. This is in addition to the fact that the points that are plotted in this map are not representative of his entire itinerary, so there are even more lands that he wrote he had passed through.

There are three major distortions that seem to cause the scope of Benjamin of Tudela’s journey to grow. The first is that Europe is enlarged, and Asia and Africa are diminished, making the lands that he wrote about in more detail (because he actually went to these places) appear more significant than the lands that he spent less time in. The second is the absence of the Americas for obvious reasons. The third is the many distortions made to the southern hemisphere. There is land in these areas, but the shape of almost anything south of Arabia is entirely unrecognizable and seemingly much less dense in terms of geographical features and settlements. This creates the impression that that there isn’t much of import to explore in that part of the world, and the viewer values more the lands that Benjamin’s journeys were meant to have taken place.

While the broad scope of his journey appears more impressive, some of the distances between particular locations seem more reasonable on the medieval map than on the modern. The locations marked in red on the modern map indicate places that Benjamin of Tudela likely did not travel to, and the decision of whether or not it was likely he went to a particular location was made mostly based off the fact that the routes that he would have had to take were highly erratic and nonsensical.

There are two main reasons why this is not quite the case on the medieval map. First off, some of the locations that he wrote about were not featured on the Tabula Rogeriana, particularly Rudbar and Amedia. These locations’ absence make it plausible that contemporaries could have believed that Rudbar and Amedia were on the route from Susa to Hamadan, making Benjamin of Tudela believe he could pass off actually going through those locations. This theory would further exemplify that Benjamin of Tudela did not really travel to these places, and that common knowledge was that Rudbar and Amedia were inland towns betwen Susa and Hamadan.

The second reason is that land distortions make routes that are actually irrational appear more reasonable. A significant example of this is the distance between Hamadan and Samarkand. On the Tabula Rogeriana, it visually appears to be about the same distance as that between Hamadan and Aleppo (Haleb). In reality, the direct distance between Hamadan and Aleppo is roughly 650 km, while the distance from Hamadan to Samarkand is over 1000 km. At this point, Benjamin of Tudela had traveled well over 1000 km, but in his itinerary there is shockingly little information about the lands between these two places. In the text, it appears as if the journey between Hamadan and Samarkand is no big deal, while in reality it makes absolutely no sense how he could have gotten that far east given the textual evidence to work off of.

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: ‘Bagdad’ (Baghdad)

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.

Benjamin of Tudela Modern Map

Yellow: Europe

Green: The Levant and Surrounding Sites

Blue: Along the Tigris and Euphrates

Red: Likely false account


Noted Locations:

Rome, Constantinople (Istanbul), Antioch (Antakya), Beirut, Jerusalem, Damascus, Emesa (Homs), Aleppo, Mosul, Bagdad (Baghdad), Babylon (Hillah), Susa (Shushan, Shush) Rudbar, Amedia, Hamadan, Samarkand, Kish, Quilon, China (Nikpo?), Aden

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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