Medieval Jewish traveler extraordinaire
1. Benjamin de Tudela visited Europe, Asia and Africa in the 12th century, writing vivid descriptions everywhere – including his account of western Asia a hundred years before Marco Polo.
2. He was from the Navarrese town of Tudela in what is now Spain, where a street in the former Jewish quarter is named for him. Little is known of his early life, but it is clear that he gained a broad proficiency in languages.
3. His Travels of Tudela, also known as the Book of Travels, describes the Jewish communities of his day. It is considered a reliable source of information about the geography and ethnography of his time and is consulted for information about daily life.
4. His work, written in Hebrew, was translated into Latin and then other European languages. From the Renaissance to the present, it has been a key primary source for scholars of medieval history.
5. He started his travels sometime between 1159 and 1165 and ended around 1172 or ’73. Starting from the Iberian Peninsula, he went to France, Italy, Greece, Constantinople, Syria, Lebanon, the Land of Israel, northern Mesopotamia, Persia (Iraq and Iran), Arabia, Egypt and Northern Africa. Wherever he visited, he gave the demographic count of Jews, the names of their community leaders, their occupations and the activity of their merchants. Want to know about the intellectual life of Jewish Provence or the organization of synagogues in Egypt? Tudela is your man.
6. In all he visited over 300 cities, describing their landmarks, buildings, marketplaces and the customs of their citizens, both Jewish and gentile. He gives one of the earliest accurate accounts of the ancient site of Nineveh – near modern Mosul.
7. His style was concise and easy. Want to read it for yourself? You can do so online at Project Gutenberg. His work is still available in many languages: it’s a gold mine of information for Jewish and general history.
8. The 19th century writer Mendele Mocher Sforim wrote a kind of Jewish Don Quixote with a title inspired by Benjamin de Tudela – The Travels [or Wanderings] of Benjamin III.
Author’s note: OOPS! My brain was on summer vacation last week – post written, but not properly scheduled. My apologies.