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Benjamin of Tudela

(? - 1173)

We know nothing about the personal history of Benjamin MiTudelo, better known as Benjamin of Tudela. He left Tudela, Spain between 1159 and 1163, and he returned in 1172. The two things we do know are that he traveled extensively for more than ten years (some historians believe fourteen years) visiting Jewish and non-Jewish communities around the world, and he wrote about his experiences. His travel diary, the Book of Travels, has been a god-send for historians.

There is no general account of the Mediterranean world or of the Middle East in the mid-twelfth century which approaches that of Benjamin of Tudela in importance, whether for Jewish or for general history.

He indicates the distances between the various towns he visited, tells who stood at the head of the Jewish communities, and who were the most notable scholars. He gives the number of Jews he found in each place, though it is not clear in many instances whether he is speaking of individuals or of householders, and in some cases such as Baghdad, the figures seem to be exaggerated. He notes economic conditions, describing the activity of merchants from various lands in Barcelona, Montpellier, and Alexandria, and speaking frequently of the occupations of the Jews: the dyers in Brindisi, the silk-weavers in Thebes, the tanners in Constantinople, and the glass-workers in Aleppo and Tyre.

He was deeply interested in Jewish scholarship, and his accounts of intellectual life in Provence and Baghdad are especially important, as is his characterization of the organization of synagogue life in Egypt.

Sects, too, engaged his attention, not only the Samaritans in Palestine, but also the Karaites in Constantinople and a heretical sect in Cyprus which he relates observed the Sabbath from dawn to dawn. His characterizations of non-Jewish life are vivid.

His somewhat highly- colored account of the Assassins of Lebanon and of the Ghuzz Turks are primary historical sources, and he is said to be the first European of modern times to mention China by the present name. The importance of his work can be gauged from the fact that it has been translated into almost every language of Europe, and is used as a primary source-book by all medieval historians

His travel itinerary was as follows:

From Tudela in northern Spain Benjamin traveled to Barcelona. From there he headed into Provence. He gave a fairly full account of the cities and the scholars of the region, and also described in detail the economic life.

From Marseilles he went by sea to Genoa. He traveled through Pisa to Rome. He must have spent a fairly long time in Rome for he wrote a detailed description of the antiquities of the city. Not being a historian, he interpreted many of these as being associated with Jewish history. He also wrote about the Jewish community and their relations with the much-opposed Pope Alexander III.

Benjamin then headed south describing, sometimes at length, the conditions in Salerno, Amalfi, Melfi, Benevento, and Brindisi. He sailed by way of Corfu to Arta, and then through Greece, where he noted the Jewish silk-weavers in various places, and the agricultural colony at Crissa on Mt. Parnassus.

He seems to have spent a particularly long time in Constantinople. His description of both Jewish and non-Jewish conditions there is better than any other from that century.

Benjamin sailed through the Aegean archipelago to Cyprus and then crossed to the mainland. He headed south via Antioch, Sidon, Tyre, and Akko into the Land of Israel, which was still under the rule of the Crusaders.

He traveled throughout the country, giving a detailed account of the Holy Places (which he called in many instances by their French names: thus Hebron is St. Abram de Bron). On the whole, his descriptions were far more objective than those of Christian pilgrims of the age, and he provided us with added insight by focusing on Jerusalem and its Jewish community.

From Tiberias Benjamin traveled north to Damascus and then around to Baghdad. His account of the Druze was the first in the non-Arabic literature.

His account of Baghdad was more extensive than any other. He drew a graphic picture of the court of the caliph and the charitable foundations of the city. He also told of the organization of the still-surviving talmudic academies and the glories and functions of the Exilarch.

After Baghdad, Benjamin's accounts become historically suspect. Although he may have traveled to Persia, his descriptions of conditions there contain much legendary material. He wrote with some fantastic detail about China, Cochin, and Ceylon, and there's no way to know whether any of his descriptions were accurate.

His personal impressions became again realistic in his admirable and detailed account of Egypt in general and its Jewish life in particular, especially in Cairo and Alexandria, which he visited on his return voyage.

Benjamin then headed back to Sicily, his account of Palermo being both accurate and picturesque. From there he probably returned to Spain by sea, though the itinerary as we have it ends with an idealized picture of Jewish life in northern France and Germany, presumably based on hearsay. He reentered Spain, as is specifically stated, through Castile, having left it by way of Aragon.

Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage