Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Benjamin’s Great Journey

Today, when someone talks about traveling through Europe or Asia, it is hardly surprising. In fact, thousands of young adults do it every year. In the 12th century, however, traveling between cities, let alone countries, was fraught with many dangers. For most, traveling was not even a thought, but for Medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, it became a way of life.

There is no real information about the early years of Benjamin’s life other than that he was born in Tudela in the Kingdom of Navarro (which is now Spain). Nor is it known why he set out on his great journey to most of the regions of the known world. The rest, the details of his travels, Benjamin compiled and published as Sefer Masaot Benjamin MiTudela (The Book of Itineraries of Benjamin of Tudela).

Visiting over 300 cities, Benjamin went from the Iberian Peninsula to Central Europe (France, Italy, Greece) to Constantinople and on to the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) and Mesopotamia (Iraq and Iran) before heading home via Arabia and Egypt. In addition to general travel commentary and location descriptions, Benjamin wrote a great deal about the many Jewish communities that he encountered. He recorded facts such as demographics and took note of the local leadership (both political and religious) and customs. Included in Benjamin’s writing were also comments on life under Muslim rule and Christian rule, observations on Samaritans and Karites, and descriptions of encounters with al-Hashishim (“Assassins”). He is considered one of the first Westerners to mention China by that name, nearly 100 years before Marco Polo.

Benjamin of Tudela traveled and wrote from approximately 1160 until 1172. It is unclear how long he lived after that. His work was translated into Latin and many other languages, and it is still used as a reference by historians today.

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